Sunday, November 08, 2015

One Hundred Years of Blessing

Dorothy Mildred Evans Christmas, my maternal grandmother, was born a century ago plus one day, on November 7, 1915.  Yesterday would have been her hundredth birthday.

I've written about her before. In case you want to read more about her, you can look at all these posts, and you'll see what I mean when I say how beautiful she was, both from the photos and from the way she wrote letters, gave gifts, and--well, I think you can just see that she was a beautiful person. You can see some of her Christmas decorations and the candle she put on the big dining room table where we always gathered for holidays, birthdays, and other special meals. You can see her Bible and the "Power for Today" devotional booklet she kept rubber-banded together with it, which she read or had one of us read each day. You can see her sturdy old deep freeze and some of the things that came from it, and you can imagine the hospitality that made possible.  You can see a rosebush that came from the rosebush in her garden, and pictures of the garage it was near.

And more.

Yesterday, in honor of her birthday, we ate grapefruit (something I did only at her house) from the green and white bowls that were hers. And used her grapefruit knife. And grapefruit spoons, too--not pictured, but made with pointy ends, just for eating grapefruit.

And I used her spoons while measuring baking soda and cream of tartar for biscuits . . .

and we set the table with her plates for biscuits and scarmbled eggs. My mom told me these were the first dishes my grandparents had, so I guess they are themselves now about eighty years old.

It was a lovely way to start the day.

And although it wasn't done intentionally in her honor, I think she would have been happy that later in the day I took a shoe to the shoe repair shop to have some velcro replaced, rather than giving up on the shoes.

Today I was able to spend a little time looking through pictures. Since she died in 2003, pre-digital cameras, and Granddaddy died in 1989, I don't have as many pictures of them as I feel like I ought to have. But a few minutes' searching turned up some that I hadn't seen in a long time.

What I haven't mentioned, something that strikes me each year as I turn the calendar to November, is that my granddaddy died on November 6, the day before her birthday. I wonder what the odds of that happening are. It's a strange coincidence. I was living in Italy when Granddaddy died. He had been ill for some time, and it was hard knowing whether to buy an extra ticket and come back to see, or to wait a few more weeks when I already would be coming back for Christmas. I took the chance (greatly influenced by not having money for another ticket)--and I didn't see him again. I haven't written so much about him; I hope to remedy that eventually.

For today, I found this picture of Granddaddy, one I was given in a bundle of pictures from the wife of one of my second cousins. I don't know for sure when it was taken, but I am guessing it was the sixties, judging by his apparent age. And I believe this may have been taken in the room that was once a screened-in porch, but before it was redecorated. I could be completely wrong, but that is my guess.

People who knew Granddaddy mention how he liked nice clothes and liked to dress up. So it was fun to find this picture of him with a bowtie and even a handkerchief in his pocket. I wonder what the occasion was, to call for a bowtie and a photo?

Recently I was at a farmers market here in the city. I saw a stall with a lot of pansies for sale. I had not yet bought pansies and was trying to decide whether to get them then and there, or to wait and buy them at one of the large stores where they would almost certainly cost less.

The man running the stall arrived from some errand, and I asked him where his flowers came from. He replied, "Brownsville," and that settled that. Brownsville is where my grandparents lived, and I knew that Grandmother used to buy plants at the small farm there, Willow Oaks Flower Farm. The man I was talking with turned out to be David Levy, the owner, and I learned that at one time he and his wife had lived across the street from my grandparents' house. He spoke fondly of Grandmother and used the word "character" referring to Granddaddy--which fit him, as I think anyone would say. As in "he was a real character." We talked for a nice little while, and I went home with plenty of pansies.

And as pansy comes from the word for "thoughts," it was fitting that I also went home with a lot of happy thoughts  and memories to savor.

Here is a picture of Grandmother from 1998, when she was in rehab after breaking her hip. This is not how I generally remember her. She looks tired. She was in good spirits that day, I do remember that; but perhaps she was in pain, too. At any rate, I like this picture because it reminds me of what determination she had--and I think it really brings out her Cherokee and Choctaw heritage.

The next two photos are from around the same time, but I can't be sure whether they are before or after the broken hip. She broke both hips in her life, and recovered from both and returned back home to live both times. Her habit of daily walks surely had a lot to do with that.

These are photos of photos, so forgive the quality of the image. But this is how I generally remember our beautiful Grandmother. She was a serious woman who read the newspaper, had quite a lot of books in her house, and cared deeply for people. She also tended to smile easily, and smiled a lot when surrounded by her large extended family, as she was in these two settings. I think both are from Christmas holiday gatherings.

In the one below, she is holding up a large Tennessee flag someone had given her.  This is why people who didn't even know her that well will tell you she was beautiful. Those of us who knew her well know that her beauty went way below skin deep.

It's hard to believe she's been gone twelve years. And that she was born 100 years ago.

What an amazing thing it is to be alive. And to realize that your being here is completely dependent on the lives of those who went before you. As the letter to the Corinthians puts it, "what do you have that you did not receive?" I'm thankful my life is connected to the lives of Charlie and Mildred Christmas. The longer I live, the more grateful I am for what I received from them. Their blessings continue to this day.

Happy birthday, our beautiful Grandmother.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Death Be Not Proud

Death, be not proud though the whole world fear you:
Mighty and dreadful you may seem.
But, death, be not proud, for your pride has failed you.
You will not kill me.
Though you may dwell in plague and poison,
You're a slave to fate and desperate men.

So, death, if your sleep be the gates to Heaven,
Why your confidence,
When you will be no more?
You will be no more.

Even death will die,
Even death will die.

Death, be not proud.
Death, be not proud.
Death, be not proud.
'Cause even death will die.

It's a beautiful rendition of John Donne's poem by Audrey Assad, and as I listened to it today while driving, I thought of the beloved one who died today three years ago.

Since her death, I've written about her on this blog, here and here.
Oh, and here.
And then one more here
She was my piano teacher, and she was so much more.

I wrote about her before her death, too, this post about autumn leaves and resurrection.
I had no idea then how much more those ideas of hers would come to mean,
more than they did my freshman year of college,
more than they did when I wrote about them years later.

Because she--who loved autumn so much and saw in it not only the ends of things
but also the beginnings of things,
an encounter with life at a new perspective,
at a new level of  meaning, of intensity--
she died in autumn.

So this morning I took a walk in the park and thought about her,
and this afternoon I took some pictures with the sun shining through the autumn leaves.
I remembered her (I'll never forget her; she's in my music, in my mind, in my heart,
in the way I hold my hands, in the Bible verses I read, in the words I give to my own students)
and I listened to this song.

Even death will die.

Even death will die.

Death's sleep is the gate to Heaven.

And there, or then, however we should speak of that existence--

"I like to think," my teacher said, "that in heaven we will be like the autumn leaves. Our true colors,
our real selves, will finally be revealed. All the things of earth that had to be a part of this season of lie won't be part of us anymore. Only the truest part of us will remain."

I think everyone who knew her knew they were seeing her truest parts.
Her kindness, her graciousness, her honesty, her compassion.
Her sense of humor, her hearty laugh.
Her love for God and love for others.

And remembering her,
we are helped to let go of unneeded parts of ourselves
so that our truest parts can be revealed,
little by little, day by day.

I know it's true for myself, and I see the things people are writing
on Facebook today.

Her light shone in many lives.

And for her life, and for her love, today I give thanks.
And this wasn't a planned-out decision--it just happened this way--
but it just hit me that her degree was in organ, not piano,
and tonight we had an organist over for dinner.

The first time we've ever had this friend over.
What a lovely gift, a way of connectiong with her
without even intending to.

Life is a funny and wonderful bunch of connections.

So in a minute, I'll go play her music,
the music she told me I just had to get and learn to play,
those last couple of years when she was delving into jazz. . .
because she never, never, never gave up.

When you believe that even death will die,
you never give up.

Good night.

Monday, September 21, 2015

How Out of It I've Been and Something Funny and Lovely

It seems I have now set a new record in the length of time between blog posts. From May 31 until now would be close to four months.

It's beyond my ability right now to remember whether or not I have said anything definitive on this blog about why I have written so little in recent months and even a couple of years or more.

A rather fascinating story lies behind just about everything in life, and that's true for this as well, but for now suffice it to say that around the same time I decided to return to school to work on a doctoral degree in ministry, my mom began to have significant health problems. The combination of these things has simply (and in quite complicated ways at times) demanded my focus, my time, my energy more than I could ever have anticipated.

In late April, I turned in my last paper for school. And at some point in the summer I turned in the official prospectus for my thesis. And after that all the paperwork for approval from the Institutional Review Board. I'm now officially in the thesis phase of the degree. Since I had "levelling" work to do (extra classes because I didn't go into the degree with a Master of Divinity degree already), this means I am now freer than I have been in three years. Not free, but not continually under the pressure of huge reading lists and deadlines.

So slowly, slowly, life has been shifting to a more liveable pace. I'm returning to the routines and rhythms that were interrupted pretty severely for almost three years.

And so, at some point in the late spring or early summer, I began noticing the straggling green things out in the pots on our deck, and I thought, oh, one of these days I will have time to plant flowers again. Planting flowers has not been completely neglected, but it has not been the regulary activity that it once was, so that something was blooming pretty much all year round. Where we live, it usually means pansies in the winter and impatiens and petunias for the spring and summer.

Of course I had to get that prospectus turned in and all the IRB paperwork. But in the back of my mind I was dreaming of buying and planting petunias, at least a few, to enjoy through the heat of the summer. I also remember noticing with the peripheral vision of my awareness that those plants out in the pots still had blooms, and it seemed awfully late and hot for that. Pansies don't generally make it into the summer heat in full sun.

On July 30, I finally actually walked out there and watered and weeded, thinking there was still time to plant some petunias, if I could find any for sale that late in the summer.

And for the first time, I realized . . . these were petunias!

Which meant they had been planted early LAST summer, and that I had never planted any pansies in the fall. These guys had made it through the winter and come back to life.

So, I did of course water them, and I pulled out the amazing little weeds that find their way through the air into the pots. And I pulled off the dead blooms.

And I laughed at myself and at how crazy life can get, and smiled at how beautiful it is that these flowers made it through with absolutely no help from me or anyone--just the sunshine, the soil and whatever rain fell on them over the course of most of a year. (And this was the coldest winter we've had since we've lived here.)

It felt as if they were saying, "Surprise! Welcome back!"

"We're still alive, and so are you. It's time to stretch and breathe and grow again."

I've been watering them and pulling the occasional weeds and the spent blooms, and they've continued to grow through the heat of the summer, and as the air has begun to turn toward fall's shorter days and cooler temperatures.

The spearmint from last year made it through, too, not surprisingly. Mmmmm.....

Maybe soon I'll even clean these pots so they can be as pretty as what grows in them.

And I even dare to hope that I may manage to get pansies planted for this fall and winter.

It's hard to know how to describe the past three years. A lot has happened, a lot has had to cease for a while. "Upheaval" comes to mind as a one-word description that avoids the extreme emotional content other words would carry with them.

But these flowers bring to mind other words, words that remind me in a comforting way that while my life matters, and each person's life matters in ways we surely cannot fathom, each life is also part of a whole that gives us meaning and hope and comfort beyond what we could ever come up with on our own. These beautiful words--

While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.

After three years of pursuing a "Doctor of Ministry degree in missional and spiritual formation," I may have learned more about spiritual formation from these sweet petunias that came as "missionaries" to assure me of the good news that life is much bigger than my life, and strength and resilience and beauty are everywhere in the midst of it all. Even when I'm exhausted and oblivious.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

All in a Moment

The other day I had one of those moments when the light falls on something and captures your attention so completely that for that moment you are transfixed, and time seems to stand still. I was actually working on the other side of the room, but something made me turn this way, and I saw the light.

It was light on this hydrangea blossom that I had put in a bowl and set on my prayer desk.

And then I saw the cross that the wood from the window made.

And then the cross on my candle holder, with its beautiful prayer:

O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength: By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God.

And the gospel reading from the Sunday before Pentecost. The sermon that day was so good that I asked for a copy of it.

The ball of grapevine I bought after Mrs. White's death, to have a tangible reminder of the interconnectedness of our lives. Something I could pick up and touch when I needed to.

The crystal that a client once gave me as a token of appreciation. She grieved deeply at multiple losses during that time, and she felt she had become more solid through our work together, and that she reflected more light.

The pine cone from a beach in Fairhope, Alabama, a reminder of the importance of going deep. The tree from which it came was very, very tall. Quite a lot of the roots were exposed, because of the way the sea had eroded the sand. But others clearly went deep and kept it grounded and growing. I picked this up because I didn't want to forget that image for times when I feel like I'm being ripped up.

The stained glass window that I set inside my window. I found this in antique store in Collierville and wish so much that I knew where it came from. I'd like to think it was in a house out in the country somewhere in west Tennessee. I miss living in the country. It makes me think of a sunrise, even though it is blue instead of yellow. Or of a person raising both arms upward to greet the light.

A photo of a church window somewhere in west Tennessee, given to me by a friend who is quite good with a camera. She has suffered incredible wounds in her life, she struggles with the trauma symptoms. And she has such an eye for beauty, sometimes it seems incongruous. Other times it seems so natural, because beauty heals and gives hope.

This little pin with the "Love" stamp from the 80's, given to me by my friend Amy. We used to enjoy stamps together and sent many letters back and forth across the ocean. Her letters helped me live through the war in Croatia.

The Bible my dad gave me when I was six years old, the one I referred to in this post. This is its second binding, and I kind of think a third binding may be not too far away. Somehow this one has gotten pretty scratched up and really shows it, more than the first one did.

And the prayer beads from Deron in our Doctor of Minstry class, a section on spiritual disciplines. His wife and daughters made these for everyone in the class--so sweet! I did not grow up even knowing what prayer beads were, and they have not become a constant companion, but I think they are wonderful.

So, the light fell on all this for just a moment. And for that moment, which seemed like a very long time indeed, I took in all these wonderful objects and remembered the people, the places, the ideas, the love and sadness and joy and peace and tumult and just the life they connect me to. They lift me to that Presence where I can be still and know that He is God.

It was a blessed moment. A blessed moment that I wanted to remember. So I took these pictures, quickly and quietly, and then just sat for a while and wondered at how rich and full a life can be.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Firmanent in the Midst of the Waters

And God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters,
and let it separate the waters from the waters.”
And God made the firmament and separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament.
And it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven.
And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.

People who know my story won't be surprised if I say the passage above has fascinated me since I was four or five years old. When you grow up going to church, in a church that believes in teaching while young minds are fresh and can absorb easily, you start thinking about these kinds of things early on.

And when your daddy gives you a Revised Standard Version of the whole Bible when you are six years old, and you have already become a lover of words and reading, you start reading Genesis, because it is, well, the beginning. And the words that appeal to you stick in your mind. And words like "separate the waters from the waters" appealed to me, as did "firmament." It was just fun to say and to think, with the two m's and then the n near the end. To say it was almost to sing it.

And that word "firmament" just always fascinated me. Partly because for many years I never heard it anywhere except in this passage. And I remember conversations at school and church when we would talk about what it could mean to separate the waters from the waters, and how much of that was reflective of scientific thinking and how much was more poetic. (These were later classes, not in first or second grade, I'm sure.)

I suppose the next time I encountered the word "firmament" was in high school chorus, when we literally sang that so-singable word, as in, "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork," in a setting composed by a professor at our local college, Dr. Bill ("Doc") Hollaway. I remember it well.

This past Sunday I drove back to my hometown for the funeral of Marilyn Allen, who was one of my earliest Bible class teachers. We moved to Searcy when I was four; I had to have been four or five when she taught us, because we were in an upstairs classroom where the youngest children went. I remember flannelgraph stories. I remember her husband coming to our class dressed as Abraham or Paul, sharing his story and answering our questions. I remember having memory verses and putting stickers on charts when we recited them aloud. I remember Elsie Huffard coming to visit us all the way from "the holy lands" and telling us what it was like to live where Jesus had lived.

While I know that some people have unpleasant memories and even strong negative feelings about their experiences of growing up in a church, my memories of church are among my most cherished memories. I had wonderful, dedicated teachers like Mrs. Allen who loved us and loved God and taught us from the grounding of both those loves.

One by one, I am saying goodbye to my teachers--school teachers, teachers from church, piano teachers. Mrs. Allen was not only a teacher but also the mother of my friend and classmate. And she was in the same nursing home that my mom is in. Saying goodbye to her was more than honoring a childhood Bible teacher. It brings many thoughts and feelings to the surface.

I took these photos the day she died. As I was looking at the reflection of clouds on the surface of the water, I thought how the waters above and the waters below were coming together to create such beauty. And as painful, terribly painful, as death and separation are, the longer I live the more I sense that it is a temporary separation and that something very real still connects us after death to those we were truly connected to in life. Just as in the Genesis account, the waters above and the waters below were apparently considered to be one before the firmament was created to separate them, the oneness we have in Christ is there before death and continues after death. Some refer to the mystical body of Christ. While that isn't a phrase or concept I learned in my church growing up, the more I've heard it and thought about it, the more I think it should have been.

For now, we wait. For the new heaven and the end of the separation. One thing my church gave me was a love of music. We didn't sing this, but because of growing up where I did, I grew up to sing it later in another church setting:

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Spring Fever

Five months. I think it has been roughly five months since I posted. And I believe that is a record. Not the sort I ever intended to set, but so be it.

Maybe I'll write more later about what's been going on in those five months, or maybe not.

But today . . . Today the long winter was clearly over. Signs of spring are all around. And I had to bring some flowers in, and take some pictures, and I have to share them. And while we never know what lies ahead and therefore I am willing to be wrong, I just have the feeling that I am going to be here more often, writing more, sharing photos more. Change is in the air.

Spring is in the air. And in my house.

Life is in the air. New life.

Just look.

"It's spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you've got it, you want --- oh, you don't quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!"

~ Mark Twain