Sunday, December 25, 2016

On a Mission - Week 68 - switchel, christmas, and the perfectly imperfect

I love the music of Christmas and though I sing with more enthusiasm than skill, was looking forward to singing in the church choir this morning. But I went to bed Christmas Eve as a soprano and awoke a basso profundo. And so Christmas morning I sat in the back near the exit so we could slip out without passing germs along with handshakes and hugs.

The service was beautiful - beautiful heartfelt words, beautiful heart-filling music. I spoke my James Earl Jones narration to all the congregational carols and then closed my eyes, closed my mouth and sang along in my heart with the choir - filled with gratitude and a deep happiness though I had no throat to give it voice.

And so another imperfect Christmas to honor His most perfect gift -- a celebration flawed but happy, as they almost always are, as I am myself.

The house still has boxes (and the garage has more) but we've made the best of it, brought out the familiar decorations, hung up lights to brighten the darkness.

I still don't know what I'm doing here.  Though it's lovely here and everyone has been lovely.

I had put aside this past week to bake the boys' favorites (and mine), namely Limey Lambs, Nutmeg Bears, Cocoa Crackles, Almond Crescents. But a nasty cold bug saw that window and jumped right through to grab me by the throat.

If it weren't for our darling neighbors here who have provided a generous parade of cookies and homemade candies and other holiday treats, I'd worry about my boys feeling deprived. Instead, in a last bid for health and vigor enough to inflict (and not infect) ourselves upon my parents, I made switchel Christmas night :

8 cups water
1 lemon, zested and juiced
4 Tbs real apple cider vinegar
6 Tbs local raw honey
4 inches ginger, peeled and grated
a couple of cinnamon sticks
You can buy this natural ginger ale in small bottles already made up in the health food section where it costs a pretty penny, but it's only about a dime and as many minutes to mix up a large jar and leave overnight in the fridge.

I'm believing with a vengeance all the folklore/ science about unfiltered raw apple cider vinegar  tonight and believing even more that once I get through this rough spot, this cold, this dark, I'll be whole and hale with useful work to fill my hands and light my heart.

Until then, this perfectly imperfect Christmas, with its good that outbalances any bad, is like a postcard from that warm, well-lighted place that I'm going to trust is waiting just ahead.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

On a Mission - Week 67 - living in a Dickens novel

The news is full of characters straight out of Dickens.  Any grace on the national stage drowned out by sounding brass. The winning suit for our new house of cards held in tiny fists and we, I can't help but fear, my friends,  We the People were the high stakes lost in that backroom  poker game.  All we're left with is gold-plated tin and tribal triumphalism while the brass band brays both loud and long its uncertain, unsettling sound. Trumped-up. Trumpery. It's such a pity so few of us read Websters Unabridged anymore.  The label warnings are clear.

What could Dickens have made of this?  This brass-faced American burglar who could have been a model for Mr. Honeythunder --
" . . . Is he a large man, Ma?" 
"I should call him a large man, my dear," the old lady replied after some hesitation, "but that his voice is so much larger."
Nicholas Nickleby, since you've already schooled the horrid Wackford Squeers, maybe you can tell us how to extricate ourselves from the clutches of our thieftain's whacked out right-hand man, baneful abandoned banner-carrier for alternative-truth (which used to be known by a shorter name: starts with L, ends with E; you'll have to ask yourself if you are the I who has gotten caught in the middle of it).  And humble-hypocrite Uriah Heep, have you come to life to be our penny-weight Veep? Meanwhile, and I quote from newsroom of the House Outside the Pale, "Jessica Ditto, a spokeswoman" for our new Triumphant,  and meanwhile,  I note,  in the kitchen of spin, we have a Spicer to season facts for public consumption.  Ditto and Spicer, isn't that a little too contrived a change from "Joshua Earnest," the outgoing press secretary of a more aspirational, or at least euphemistic, administration?  We are calling a spade a dig-stick with a vengeance these days.

Needing to get out of my head, we drove down into the city.  Caught a movie, The Arrival.  It's slow and murky, but never loses my attention.  I emerge from the story only with the closing credits, feeling cleansed and energized.  The action of hope working on me, I guess.  Fritz says, "I can see your antennae twitching. There's something there for you, isn't there?"

We had found an old-time cheap-ticket movie theatre and for $2 I think I'd like to see the movie again, right then.  But there's no late show for Arrival and instead we go see some profane shoot-em-up slug-fest.  It feels like a violation -- the gentleness and stubborn thought broken and trampled by brainless violence and shallow noise.  Whatever light I'd caught is lost.

On the screens at home: Aleppo

Aleppo is one of those towns that always showed up in the books I read. The crossroads of the Silk Road, the world's first consular city -- which means that in Aleppo, diplomats from Venice, France and England were allowed to look after their nationals in the region rather than just live at court to represent their king.

The name Aleppo is from the Italian Aleppo, from French Alep, from Ottoman Turkish حلب ‎(halep), from Arabic حَلَب ‎(ḥalab), of uncertain origin -- as so much of everything these days is.

Folk-etymology of this ancient city's name explains that it is from Arabic حَلَبَ ‎(ḥalaba, “gave out milk”), reflecting the even-more-ancient tradition of Abraham giving milk to travelers, the man of hospitality so renowned that even angels came to visit.

Aleppo was famous for its souks -- its rich and intriguing bazaars--for its large Christian population, for Baron's hotel, a required stop on the Grand Tour, British headquarters during WWI, where T.E. Lawrence stayed and the Lindberghs and the Roosevelts, archaeologists, royalty. In the books I read of wandering archaeologists, round-the-world cyclists, and others of their ilk, Aleppo is always the safe place they get to rest, the gracious and generous welcoming city in that tradition of Abraham rushing around to provide a meal for the three angels.

Now in Aleppo children have no milk and there is no safety there.

I know this has been happening in other places. But here is a storied place - a place made real to me through years of reading about it - and it is being destroyed. And the people who live there are posting videos they fear may be their last asking someone in the world to help them. What is my mission now that we are moved and my work in my old town is finished?  These Syrian refugees weigh on my mind. I have no home myself but that's just figurative,  just moving and homesickness.  They haven't moved at all: it is their home that has abandoned them.

But the best I can do is sign up for a training for working with refugees that will happen in February. None of this seems real.  All around me a hard relentless plot grinds on.

Bleak House.  Great Expectations.  The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

On a Mission - Week 59 - home again home again

We've found a house.
Which of course we were going to do eventually.
Everyone knew that.
Just as everyone knew it would entail trimming our demands and expectations.

Not quite as short a commute as I insisted was essential, not quite the acreage that Fritz declared necessity.  One broken window.  A remodeling job still in media res.  Some unfortunate paint choices.  No fruit trees.

And still it feels like a gift, this finding.

First of all, because of the poplar trees that line the boundaries of the yard, making the air around the house redolent of a hundred hundreds of Saturday hill walks with my dear walking friend. The air around this house is the spicy-sweet balsam of poplar, cottonwood, which is also the air around my childhood visits  to my grandparents. And the torch-shapes of the trees are those familiar great candles of hope.  I knew I was home when I waded through the front yard full of sweet drying leaves -- so rich, so sweet, so real, so exactly the smell of my favorite perfume, discontinued now, which I dab out only when it is truly needed.

A deep, almost subliminal smell of Home.

Even earlier though, even before the poplars, it was the stone around the door.  Real stone in varied colors. Stones in fair colors, pleasant stones, as if those words I had opened onto when I was tempest-tossed and uncomforted were actually true.  Had been true all along.  A home whose foundation had been laid long before I would know I would be needing it.

And the manner of finding.  Only this one valley had called to us in a deep unspoken way.  All through our summer searches, the storm of loss, the dispiriting voyeurism that is looking at other people's houses with the thought of making that house your own --

 -- all through this long and frustrating summer, we kept making our way up here to this one valley as a respite from the search.  Though the valley, we were told, "never had houses come up for sale."  Certainly never in our price range. Most houses, we understood, were passed down within families.  Or bought up by Californians who used them as second homes, driving the price of houses up out of reach.

We'd looked at some houses over our budget, wincing, wishing, wondering if we could make it work.  We'd looked at some too small, with dry rocky yards. Trying to squeeze ourselves into any possibility in this mountain valley where we could hear our longtime totem, the sandhill cranes who mate for life and raise their chicks with careful attentive partnership.

But at last, good sense had prevailed.  Prudence and practicality had told us to get down to business, down out of the mountains, and find a place to settle down.

On the eve of our Oregon house closing, we gave up dreaming of the valley and found a house down in the city, in the suburb with the good enough schools, a nice enough house, a close enough commute.  We made an offer. They were getting ready to accept it over the weekend.

"Let's drive up and say good-bye to the valley," I said to Fritz.
Or maybe it was Fritz said to me.

Home.  There it was again, that feeling.
But not for us.

We drove around the quiet shaded streets, saw boys in Sunday white shirts cutting through orchards and back fields with their heads together planning mischief, saw tanned couples gliding past on their bikes, saw older ladies sweeping the front porch.  We parked next to the city park with its towering pines (that other fragrant column guarding the way to my childhood's holy of holies - poplar and pine my own Boaz and Jachin).

Across the street the carillon bells in the church tower rang the hour.  We sat there, listening to the peal from those round mouths, those metal tongues.  We offered up our own nearly wordless plea.

"Well," Fritz said.
Or maybe I said.

"Well," the other answered.

"Let's drive once more past that apple orchard street and then . . . "  we didn't have to say.  We knew it was the last good-bye.

But just before the apple orchard, Fritz said, "There's a For Sale sign  down that road."

"No.  Really?"

Really.   Though it didn't show up on any of the realtor sites.

Not a good sign, this sign stuck in yard full of dying leaves.  We'd had that happen before, a sign in the yard but no listing online.  Usually it meant the house had already sold and no one yet had thought to take the post down.

But the realtor we finally reached said it wasn't actually on the market -- yet.  We insisted it had to be. There were issues with the keys.  There were issues with repairs the realtors wanted made so they could sell at top dollar.  We had our realtor call again and then again.  I was driving home (not home, not any more, back to Oregon) the next day -- it was now or never.

It had to be now.  And then it was.  Now, after months of confusion and frustration and second-guessing, everything came clear.

Waiting for the title to close, we took a walk along the water.
We started early -- took the dog --
Home again, home again, jiggety jog.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

On a Mission - Week 58 - closing credits

You know it's really the end of the story when you finally carry out the last laundry basket with only the dish pan, dish soap, packing tape, sharpie pens and the tail end of bubble wrap inside.

All day shampooing carpets, washing out cupboards alone in this house, it was like an archaeological dig back through the layers of our life here - erasing our steps, tracing back to the first day we heard our two very little girls' running footsteps echoing through the empty rooms.

The weather changed throughout the day through all the seasons of Oregon's year - except for winter which I'll soon get enough of elsewhere.

And then standing out on the front walk barely weighed down with my last light load, amid the purple asters and glowing yellow leaves of the sweetspire bush, looking back at that familiar blue door, at those windows into rooms that have held so many moments, I felt such affection for this funny old house, the way it turns its back to the road so it can bury its face in the warmth and fragrance of its sunny bank of herbs and flowers.

It was like looking into the face of a very old friend.

"Thank you. You've been a good house. You've been such a perfect place to raise my family," I said this to my old house and I said it out loud.

Turning at last, walking on toward the car, my heart could hold only an overwhelming gratitude. I couldn't pray for any future, just thanks for all the years, all the days and hours of rain and sunshine, snail shells, blackberry-stained fingers, bike tires in this gravel, meteor showers overhead. I turned the ignition key and instantly the exact song (thanks to a playlist one of those little girls full grown made last year to pull me through a dark spot) came on.

I turned it up loud with all the windows rolled down, singing along at the top of my voice as the closing credits rolled, all the way down the hill and into the next story in my life.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

On a Mission - Week 54 - rootless

A friend last week scolded me lovingly, "You just need to move and get it over with. You're making this harder than it needs to be. You'll be fine on the other side of this."

Or actually, more accurately, she laughed and said she had been tempted to scold but she knows I know. And she is right.

It's just that I've loved this place and living here and the people and stories it has brought into my life. It's not that I'm sad. Just rootless.

We have no home waiting for us there.

though there is a valley where I can hear my totem bird -
  sandhill cranes --
no house though will have us yet
as far as we can tell

And we feel like mere renters here.

Our old house (we say that now, our old house) emptying around us. Bare floors revealing themselves like the unavoidable realities they are. And pools of time wasted looking out the windows, asking, Did I look out at this sky often enough? 
Did I choose the right things to leave undone? 
And how can this be ending right now in what feels like the middle of the story?

Of course we'll be fine.

I am so of the moment that wherever I am I know I can find reason to fall in love with it. But right now I am here in the place I have lived the longest among people I have loved with some of the best that's in me and for now this present moment seems infinite and impossible to go beyond.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

On a Mission - Week 50 - and all thy borders of pleasant stones

"How can I leave this?" I woke this morning asking.

And the Good Book opened and answered:

"O thou afflicted, tossed with tempest, and not comforted! Behold, I will lay thy stones with fair colors, and lay thy foundations with sapphires.

And I will make thy windows of agates, and thy gates of carbuncles, and all thy borders of pleasant stones.

And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord; and great shall be the peace of thy children.
In righteousness shalt thou be established; thou shalt be far from oppression for thou shalt not fear, and from terror for it shall not come near thee."

"Okay," I said. "I'll let go.

It's true.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

On a Mission - Week 48 - the bike path version of the world

Farmers Market Ogden

This man of mine really knows how to sell me on a new place. He knows I like the bike path version of the world -- puts me on two wheels and runs me along a river,
Ogden Botanical Gardens - USU Extension

through a botanical garden, past tidy temple grounds

Ogden Utah Temple

to a street market full of people to talk to: fresh-faced girls selling peaches, quiet cowboys with freezers full of range-grazed beef, bearded bakers, Mennonite beekeepers, Vietnamese greens growers, leather-faced potters and tattooed leather workers and even an expatriate Afrikaans collector of local ghost stories hawking her books - she and her husband now live above the corner bookstore right behind us.

A Latino father and sons with a 2-acre farm out by the lake fish out their best watermelon for us -- guaranteed delicious or our money back -- they knew they were safe. By the time we sit on a shady curb for lunch, I'm sold. Tow-headed kindergartners goggle at our funny folding bikes. An Island woman confers with us over the trail map and leaves her bike under our watch while she goes in search of water.

Ogden Union Station

We eat tuna fish sandwiches and cherries (packed from Fritz' apartment) outside the grand Union Station (now a museum and grill but lots of great old engines and cars collected in the covered yard).  Looks like this place will have all the ingredients I need to be happy -- all that plus cheerful old men in wide-brimmed hats pedaling along the path, urban kayakers putting in, families of rubber rafters splashing out, bold half-grown boys coming over to chat, Mexican grandmas sitting on the rocks hugging their arms while their grandsons try to catch the big one and then when the paved trail ends we get to ATV it to the river's edge where boys & rocks & bodies of water do their usual thing.

Weber River Parkway - Ogden River Parkway

Since it looks like we will have to find ourselves a house here, I'm glad it looks like we're going to be able to find ourselves a home.

all the usual consequences
you would expect
from mountain biking over scrub
in road slicks

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

On a Mission - Week 44 - the unlooked-for ending

I'm looking through the windows at someone else's future home.

What will they carry through this door?  What will they expect to hear and smell and say when they cross over this threshold?

It's not a perfect house.

The dining room, for example, is really just an extension of the kitchen and rather cramped.  There are other quirks and patches and places the tile doesn't exactly match.

But the Christmas mornings around that fireplace.  And the stories read in that brown chair.  The simple pieces plunked out at the piano.

But the piano and the chair will be coming with us.  And this will all be refurnished.  And filled with new children and unseen Christmas mornings.

Someone new will stagger to the kitchen in the dark for a drink of water. Faces this mirror has never seen will close their eyes and dream while the moon wheels through the sky above, unfamiliar hands rubbing strangers' eyes in the first fuzzy light of dawn to peer back through this sliding door.

But the mirror, too, is coming with me.  All that stays behind are the things either too big and rooted or too small and ephemeral to pack in boxes and load onto a truck. And it is only tonight, looking in from the outside at the place I have been so long within,  that it seems to me that some of the smallest things were really all along the biggest.

And I'm left with the enormity of this unlooked-for ending.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

On a Mission - Week 43 - lead, guide, walk beside

Sea holly, or Eryngiumn amethystinum,
tolerant of drought, winds, salt spray and sandy soils,
extremely adapatable, zones 4-11

I'm feeling prickly.  With pride.  Resentment.
Last month I was "Employee of the Year" with public praise and prizes.
Now I don't know who I am.

What is my work now?
I make a list of what work I can claim now but the list is full of competing claims.
And half the things seem not quite possible.

My administrators approved my continuing as a consultant next year
(in the event that we don't find a better employment option here for Fritz,
in the event we have to sell our house and move).

The idea is I'd be coming back one week a month and advising remotely the rest of the time.
Their reluctance to see me go is flattering.  And reassuring.
But how would the logistics of that work?

Could I give myself as wholeheartedly if I'm only there (or rather here) some of the time? (I'm seeing a problem already)
And how would my family fare when I am gone away from them one week in four?
All I know for sure is that the idea of leaving feels like a little death.

Pomegranate, or Punica granatum
 fruiting for the first time since planting a decade ago -- 
if it ripens in time
maybe we could eat a handful of its pips
and then be doomed to stay here forever
or at least return for a few months out of the year?

It feels like a limb dying, leaves falling out of season.
I find myself bristling at good advice from others to buck up --
not exactly rejecting,  but assenting and then looking past it,

concentrating more on the speaker's personal failings:
arrogance, tactlessness
-- which are just code words for giving advice when I don't want it.

Already I miss my work and mourn it.
My hard engaging work that made my life so much easier.
I mourn my home, suspecting more each day that it will slip out of our reach,

despite all our backflips and acrobatics to hold onto it.  
And I'm getting no answers about what's next.
And then the thought occurs to me,

"Am I part of the reason I'm not receiving an answer?"
Yes.  (darn it) I've thought it doesn't matter,
if I'm leaving anyway, my irritation with the good advisers.

But my resentments sour and embitter me.
And that shuts me off from the sweetness
and flow of inspiration.

every autumn, around Halloween, All Saints Day,
my grandmother would send
-- no matter where we had moved to --
a well-taped cardboard box
of pomegranates from her yard
in southern Utah --
it made Demeter's story
resonate strangely with me when I read it,
knowing pomegranates only as a private fruit
no one else ever ate
in my 1970's suburbs
in Indiana, Ohio, California, Wisconsin . . . 

Which I need.  I need that leading.
But I need more.  There is a song the children sing at church.
Lead me, guide me, walk beside me.

I was thinking how each phrase is an intensification.
I need not just a leader to tell me where to go,
what to do, not just a leader directing me

But a guide who takes up staff and lantern and shows the way,
who knows the stones on the path even in the dark, the dangers,
the rough unreadable places,

who takes you from where you from where you are now
to the place of safety,
the lighted door, the waiting feast and scented rest.

I need someone to walk beside me
with friendship and conversation, observations along the way,
bandages and kind hands to bind up the hurts that come with traveling.

my no-water garden in rainy Oregon--
planted years ago on a steep and sunny bank
because I missed the garden I had made
in arid Utah

I know where to find that leading.
But I have to be willing to follow that Guide.
I have to also be willing to walk beside.

Friday, June 17, 2016

On a Mission - Week 40 - what comes next for willing hands to do?

my morning meditation
Since the first of April I've been musing each week over a different question asked in General Conference.

The last week of May the question was "Is there someone in your family who needs your love and kindness?" (from Neill Marriott's "What Shall We Do?")

I didn't want to write that card because I didn't want to know the answer.

I knew my mother-in-law needed me to come sit down for a long visit which I put off and put off until Friday.

The boys needed me to make home, make peace & order, make dinner  --which I only tossed beanbags of effort towards -- instant salad bowls one night, fish & chips from the stand behind the grocery another night.

I never wrote the question up on a card because I didn't want to do anything more for family members.  Because whatever I did do, it always feels like not enough, not right, not what they wanted.  It feels like trying to climb a hill I can never get to the top of.


When I finally asked the question, seriously, thoughtfully, "Is there someone in your family who needs your love and kindness?"

The answer that arose in me was  Me.  

Which  I wanted immediately to squash down because it sounded -- it is so obviously selfish.  But the more that answer persisted, the more I realized that if I could situate myself once more in the fields of joy, then I could more easily provide love and kindness to others.

It has helped keeping these questions rotating through my mind as I go through my day.  Earlier this spring, the question "What time and resources do I have?" (from Cheryl Esplin's "He Asks Us to Be His Hands") reminded me to set healthy boundaries, but within those boundaries to give wholeheartedly.

Now this week's "What comes next for willing hands to do?"  (from Linda K. Burton's "I Was A Stranger") reassures me that the joy I've felt in this job doesn't have to end.  If I'm willing to be engaged in work beyond myself -- worthwhile work in the service of others  -- I will discover that work is everywhere.

This week's question has helped me lift my view to the future, so that this last week of work hasn't been too sad, this last week of the school year, but instead incredibly satisfying, full of so many highlights :

  • One of the undocumented students I'd worked with for hours, standing at her shoulder as she sweated over the alternative to FAFSA filled out with all her family's records of taxes -- I hadn't realized we have taxpayers who don't have the privileges of citizenship! -- so she can attend community college came and she'd hunted me down last spring at graduation because she and her family wanted to take pictures with me -- and then her coming in this week to go through the online orientation before her college classes start.  
  • Giving the good news to next year's Chance to Become scholarship recipients -- the light dawning in their faces as they realized what this would mean, how their plans for the future could be wider than they had before imagined. These five bright, hard-working students whose lives have run through hard places.
  • Talking with one of this year's scholarship recipients, advising him about college options -- comforting him when he began to feel overwhelmed, assuring him of the people behind him who believe in him.
  • One of this year's juniors coming in to tell me he'd already applied for one of the scholarships I'd talked up in the junior class assembly.
  • Another junior coming to tell me he'd emailed the alumnus who works now as a sound engineer that I'd recommended he contact: "he was really happy to talk to me and said to come and we'd set up a job shadow."
  • The hand-written note from a sophomore I'd helped to figure out how to get her final presentation on Prezi to work.

I don't have a clue what comes next, but I believe if my hands are willing, the work will fill them and fill me.   Future promises are closer than they appear.

Related Posts