Saturday, June 29, 2013

But it happpened, didn't it?

June 30, 2013

Dear friends,

I have been thinking about the challenge to straight thinking that experience brings. I may understand subjectively that my experience is real without understanding that I may have a very misleading understanding of what my experience means.

I am including my revision of the children’s story of Chicken Little to illustrate my point: sometimes our struggle with living effectively arises not so much from our life experiences as such as from the meaning we have attached to those experiences.

Chicken Little

Chicken Little’s adventure began on an ordinary morning when in a quite ordinary way Chicken Little set out to find a fat bug for his breakfast. It was a splendid morning. Chicken Little was feeling quite pleased with himself and the world until—as it often does—pain came unexpectedly in a way that Chicken Little found difficult to account for.

This is what happened. Chicken Little bent over to catch an exceptionally fine bug he had spied in the grass. At that very instant—POW—something hit Chicken Little on the head. This startled Chicken Little, of course, and made him jump. What was worse, it made his head hurt. Chicken Little became very cross. He looked around to see who had hit him, but there was no one in sight. All that Chicken Little could see was the sky.

“Ah, ha,” said Chicken Little to himself, “I know what has happened to me. A piece of that sky fell down and hit me on the head. That is what happened.”

Then as Chicken Little talked to himself about that piece of the sky falling on his head, he began to feel quite frightened.

“A piece of the sky came down and hit me on the head,” said Chicken Little to himself. “This is very terrible. The sky is falling. I must go at once and tell the other animals. The sky is falling!! The sky is falling!!” And off he went.

Chicken Little soon met Henny Penny. “The sky is falling!” Chicken Little told her, “I know because a piece fell down and hit me on the head!!”

“This is dreadful!!” said Henny Penny. “We should tell Ducky Lucky at once.” So they ran as fast as they could and found Ducky Lucky catching bugs down by the pond.

“The sky is falling!!” Chicken Little said, “I know because a piece hit me on the head!!”

“This is frightening!!” said Ducky Lucky. “Let’s go tell Goosey Poosey at once!!”

So the three of them ran as fast as they could and found Goosey Poosey eating grass at the edge of the garden.

“The sky is falling!!” said Chicken Little. “I know because a piece hit me on the head.”

“This is shocking news!!” said Goosey Poosey. “We should go at once and tell Molly the Cow.”

The four of them ran a fast as they could and found Molly the Cow resting under the shade of a tree chewing her cud.

The sky is falling!!” said Chicken Little. “I know because a piece hit me on the head.”

“This changes everything,” said Molly the Cow. “We must tell Henry the Horse the sky is falling. Perhaps he can think what the animals should do.”

They went as quickly as they could and found Henry the Horse. Henry was looking over the fence, watching the road, and swishing his tail to chase away the flies.

“The sky is falling!!” said Chicken Little. “I know because a piece hit me on the head.”

“This is an emergency!!” said Henry the Horse. “We must go at once to the forest and ask the Lion King what the animals should do.”

As the animals started toward the forest, many other animals joined them.

Soon a long procession of animals who believed his story followed Chicken Little to the home of the Lion King to tell him the terrible news.

After he had listened to Chicken Little’s story, the Lion King proposed that they all go back to look at this place where the sky had fallen on Chicken Little’s head. Led by the Lion King (who was wise and powerful and had a great deal of common sense as well) the animals returned to the scene where something had hit Chicken Little on the head and frightened him and made his head hurt.

All of them searched and searched but no one could find a piece of fallen sky.

The Lion King, however, found a very large walnut lying in the grass.


Thinking with you that comingling experience and meaning is a challenging process.

See you next week.


PS: I am thinking of making a book in the style of Chicken Little that I'll call Children's Stories for Adults.  What do you think?

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Old Cottonwood Tree

June 23, 2013

Dear friends,

Nature or nurture? DNA or environment? Such questions can trigger a lively discussion when people are thinking about the complex process of human development. Was it the genetic blueprint that I received at conception that produced the woman I now am, or was it that Kansas world into which I was born—the prairie winds, the dust and heat, the country schools, my mother’s death—that determined the “self” of which I am conscious and by which people now identify me?

You are already objecting—or at least I trust you are objecting—to the form in which I cast the question. It is true that either/or questions can lead to helpful answers if under carefully structured conditions we are studying meticulously specified factors. However, when thinking about the life-long process of being and becoming we are dealing with a dynamic, fluid process with frustratingly inexact parameters. In this case, while asking either/or questions can lead to interesting arguments, the results generally produce more heat than light. When considering human growth and development we do better to shape our questions in a both/and form and  live with the tension of imprecision that inevitably emerges in the answers we work out.

So—caveat given. You must find your own way today, shape your own questions and develop your own answers. All I agree to furnish for this process are some facts as I now know them and description of experiences that memory still holds. You decide what significance, if any, grows for you out of the piece of my story that you can catch here.

The tree had a name: its name was The Old Cottonwood Tree. Often adults would shorten its name like leaving off a last name when they said things like, “Wonder how long that Old Cottonwood has stood here? It’s seen a lot in its time.”

The Old Cottonwood stood at the base of a small knoll in the pasture that bordered the yard where our house stood. The wind mill and the water tanks for the stock stood on the crest of this mound. When my sister and I went to play in the tree we would squeeze between the little water tank and the  post that terminated the fence between the yard and pasture. This shortcut saved the walk down to the pasture gate. Our shirts often bore evidence of the route we had taken. Barbed wire and nails are not shirt-friendly.

The trunk of The Old Cottonwood seemed huge to my sister and me. Even from present perspective, that seems accurate. When we held hands and stretched as far as we could together we couldn’t reach what we thought of as “half-way” around it. The highest branches seemed so high, so far up against the sky that we thought the place where heaven came closest to earth was where The Old Cottonwood stood.

A long branch of The Old Cottonwood stretched south toward the tanks. When we stood on the mound near the tanks, we could reach this branch and scramble up on it if we helped each other. Only when we grew to be “big kids” could we manage it by ourselves. Once safely up, we would walk along this branch back to the trunk of the tree. Then we would stand there, leaning against the great old trunk looking down and thinking what an adventure it was to be so high, so far above earth. After we had reached the trunk, we would climb and swing on the higher branches we could then reach, and (small miracle) in all the years of playing alone in The Old Cottonwood without adult supervision neither of us fell or was injured.

“How come The Old Cottonwood grew so big?” I asked my father one night as he was watering the horses at the tank.

“He stands where his roots can reach water,” my father answered. “Dry spells and hot winds don’t bother him much.”

One day (I think I was in third grade) I decided to write a story about The Old Cottonwood. I planned to tell about how his roots reached far down in the earth for water and his branches reached high as the sky, maybe even close to heaven. I thought I would end my story by telling that The Old Cottonwood had lived such a long time that not even my grandfather knew how old he was.

In English class I had learned the rule that proper names should begin with capital letters. I very carefully wrote, “The Old Cottonwood is my friend.” I went on to explain that he stood at the foot of the hill where his roots went down far in the earth where he could reach water and his branches went up far into the sky where he could almost reach the stars, and maybe be close to God. I told how I would stand up in his branches and be high too, and far away from earth, and that he never let me fall. Each time I used The Old Cottonwood’s name, I made capital letters for each word.

My teacher said, “This is an interesting story. You have made a mistake, however. You have made capital letters each time you wrote ‘The Old Cottonwood Tree.’ Please copy your story over and correct your errors in capitalization. Then it will be a fine story for you to turn in.”

I was puzzled and irritated for a reason I could not explain either to my teacher or to myself.

“But I did it right,” I protested after a bit.  “‘The Old Cottonwood’ is that tree's name, and names have capital letters.”

Some childhood memories remain startlingly clear no matter the number of subsequent birthdays. I have not forgotten my teacher’s face or voice when she said, “But, dear child, you know trees don’t have names,” and moved on to help Francis whose desk was next to mine. Francis did not write stories; he did extra hard special problems in arithmetic in his spare time.

I sat for a while trying to work out my dilemma. My tree had a name. Why weren’t capital letters right for a tree’s name? How could I ever get my story written so that my teacher would like it when this tree had a name and I should use capitals and she told me not to?

Thinking with you today of the ways in which life teaches us that rules are tricky things.

See you next week.


Sunday, June 16, 2013

Listening to lilac

June 16, 2013

Dear friends,

The old lilac bush that shades the southwest corner of the kitchen patio has blessed my week. I don’t speak lilac fluently— my aging head struggles to maintain competence in English. Nevertheless, last week I sat each day drinking breakfast coffee and savoring the cool shadows and the bright stillness of morning light, and as I did so the old lilac offered wisdom. Here are some parts of the lilac’s story that I thought I caught.

At times winter comes out of season and without warning, and leaves permanent destruction behind.

This year April followed an unseasonably warm March with an abrupt return to winter snow and freezing temperatures. During the warm March days the lilac had already set early blooms. When April rains turned to ice and snow, these fragile early blooms could not endure. In face of the cold and the winter winds, they withered and froze to death.

In May the grim reminder of April’s damage became evident. Early blooms remained only as lifeless brown clusters tipping branches themselves bare of leaves. It was true that some small life showed  at the root of the bush. However, in the context of the general destruction, the three small leaves I could see appeared ridiculously green and an act of foolish denial on the part of the lilac bush.  Great damage had been done, and it did not appear that it could be repaired, three small green shoots to the contrary.

Blessed be nothing (Grandmother Mary’s personal beatitude).

It requires living for a good while to understand the value of neglect, as Grandmother Mary would have phrased it, and to see the advantage in being of little importance.

Given the widespread damage to trees and shrubs, one raggedy lilac bush near an end-unit kitchen patio did not merit the attention of grounds people, or the cost of replacement from the storm-taxed budget of the home owners association. No one came along to try to save the lilac by “cutting it back,” or to remove it since it appeared to have no chance of recovery.

The lilac was left alone, neglected, so to speak, an act of great blessing. It was left to survive the shock, rest from the trauma, and review its remaining resources without interference. Blessed be nothing.

The lilac did, however, have a watcher. From time to time I would make an anxious inspection to see if I could identify signs of life. I suppose I kept what was a kind of Gardner’s Easter vigil. I confess I was not hopeful. I simply waited.

Waiting is not a waste of time.

Those of you who are gardeners have already anticipated what happened. Day by day as hours of sunlight lengthened and the earth gradually warmed around its roots, life came again to the lilac. It came so slowly and so imperceptibly that at first I could not see it. Touching a bare branch one day and wondering if I should prune it away, my finger tip discovered a small but unmistakable swelling at a leafless juncture on the branch. This was a bud!! No leaves visible, no blooms, but I knew—this was a bud, and the beginning of new life. The dead blooms were not returning to life. The wood on which those blooms had formed was indeed dead as well, and would required pruning. But back of the point of destruction, the miracle of the secondary bud system had kicked in. God and the lilac had determined that there would be a new thing, and there was—new tiny stems and leaves bursting out with irreverent energy in the very face of damage and death.

Slow is one of the basic rhythms of life.

The lilac appears to be following its own timetable. By the calendar on my desk, this is now summer. The longest day of the year is approaching soon. I am intrigued each day by the intricate emergence of tiny new leaves and stems from buds in highly unlikely places on branches that continue to appear dead. But while each day there is discernable change, there is no hurry to this growth. Each day there is growth, and each day’s small fragile growth appears to the lilac to be enough. New things require time. Hurry, the lilac says, is not the rhythm of beginning again.

Resilience stems from faith for new life, not power to control the storm.

Resilience is more a matter of faith rather than power to control circumstances. Resilience is the process of relying on God’s willingness to bring new life when, after life’s storm, everything in the soul appears dead. And so far as I can learn from the lilac, small remains the beginning form, slow is the rhythm of this miracle, and, often unlikely is the first place it appears.

Seeking with you to live with resilience, expecting new life after old wounds.

See you next week.


Sunday, June 9, 2013

Stand there?

June 9, 2013

Dear friends,

“Don’t just do something. Stand there.”

This street wisdom has become encapsulated in an orphan saying separated from its author’s name. I have heard this attributed to Buddha, to Jesus, and several others as well. Whatever its authorship, this idea carries truth that our culture finds difficult to understand, and even more difficult to practice.

I had an experience “standing” this week, and can testify to the value of the experience. Nevertheless, from the outset I must confess that I did NOT find myself in a “standing” space by wise decision. I arrived there by providential accident, the result of the serendipitous collusion of several factors which could be considered irrelevant in themselves.

My body is a year older than it was last spring. Aging, while a complex and significant process, is not a daily compelling interest even to the person who is aware of aging. In retrospect, I understand that the developmental space I occupy contributed to my experience. However, I know that did not cause it.

The weather this spring was capricious and unkind to plants. While weather fascinates me, prairie person that I am, and the power of weather to shape my world sobers me, I think about many other things. And on that planting day, I had thought all I wanted to think about past April snows and freezing temperatures. Nevertheless, these factors too provided significant context.

My decision to develop a “garden” spot on both the front and back patios appeared to be a wise decision regarding the use of limited available space. However, the decision made only small ripples of effect, significant primarily  to  me and the nurseries whose plants I would purchase and transplant to my small world. The patio decision too provided context not cause.

The setting for my “standing” experience was the essence of unglamorous reality: the lilac bordering the patio was ragged and struggling to recover from the spring freeze. The flats of young plants were ‘second generation’—I had frozen and baked the first seedlings, unintentionally but fatally. Taking my morning meds had momentarily reminded me of the consequences of numerous past birthdays. But that was then. Now was a glorious spring morning and it was time to plant.

The pots in the garage had to be moved around the house to the back patio, along with the potting soil, the compost, and the fertilizer. This could be accomplished only by numerous trips with soil and containers reduced to manageable loads (sized, I’ll admit, according to the principle that the greater the number of birthdays the smaller the load).

This was not the first planting day. The trellis, new and beautiful, supported a newly transplanted trumpet vine, uncertain yet of its anchor to the redwood grid. Moving the hose from its earlier position would require careful attention; the young vine was vulnerable and easily disturbed.

I moved the pots; they are beautiful ceramic but they are heavy. I moved the soil, compost and fertilizer. I repositioned the hose. I carried the flats of seedlings from garage to patio. I mixed the soil and compost.

Spreading the fragile young roots gently, I nested each plant into the rich earth cradle I had prepared for it, and then covered it with nurturing soil. I watered each plant with a careful, easy mist (too much water is as destructive as too little in the early life of plants). Then I hosed off the patio (and my cane), thinking that the bordering lawn and struggling lilac were grateful for the good soil and water they had received as a by-product of both my spills and my clean-up activities.

Then I sat down.

“I am finished,” I thought, and smiled to myself. I certainly was finished, and in more than one way!

Yet in that moment, sitting there, I entered a “standing” place astonishing in its fullness of life.

I was not thinking in the cognitive sense of the word. I was doing nothing. But without volition or language, I became mindful—deeply mindful—of the living space that formed the context of my shared aliveness. There was the sound of bird song, the essential blueness of high sky, the imperceptibly slow drift of white clouds and the movement of the wind in fresh new leaves of trees. Annie lay asleep in a dappled pattern of spring sunlight falling through the trellis on the patio floor. The stillness held such rich silence that it seemed I could hear the tiny green leaves emerging on branches of the lilac that only last week had appeared to be dead, and I could sense the unmerited gift of life in myself. I was alive, carried effortlessly on the warm fragrant ocean of life, a fragment of knowing life in a world in which the trees and birds and my tiny plants and I sang together in the great hymn of creation. Even Annie—sleeping—joined in.

Wanting for you this week a space in which, doing nothing, you know yourself while standing  there.

See you next week.


Sunday, June 2, 2013

Remembering Bill

June 2, 2013

Dear friends,

The waste basket was the tipping point. I don’t mean that the wastebasket itself tipped over, although it was overflowing with advertisements from week-end sales. “Memorial Day Sales” appeared in large letters, often in red ink with stars and portions of the flag used as additional efforts to catch the reader’s attention. As I emptied the over-stuffed basket into the trash can, something in me tipped over from deep inner distress into words.

I grumbled aloud since I was alone and could safely talk audibly to myself. But then that awkward paragraph of Paul’s in his letter to the church at Phillipi came to my mind. “Do everything without complaining,” I remembered, and had a suspicion that in its essence that text covered post week-end clean-up chores.

“Yes, but. . .,” I began my inner self-justification, then, in that silent wordless way the Spirit speaks, I clearly heard, “Do not grumble. Say what you think thoughtfully, but do not grumble.” This Memorial Day Blog a week late is the result of my slow obedience.

Increasingly I have serious discomfort with the way as a culture we celebrate holidays. I am no fan of Santa Claus, of chocolate Easter bunnies or of Thanksgiving turkeys. I suppose I am becoming in some senses an all-season Scrooge—I can say “Bah! Humbug!!” on any given holiday with equal energy. But this year, due perhaps to the juxtaposition of several events, Memorial Day hoop-la particularly irritated me.

 When I returned to my desk after my trash basket trip, I sat down and asked myself seriously what it was that seemed inwardly to me so out of step, so incongruent and so inappropriate. After some self-examination, I discovered (little surprise here) that I was objecting to the Memorial Day application of what I call the “Brag and Buy” approach to holidays. At any holiday time, I find the push to buy things as celebration misleading and destructive at many levels. And I find bragging, whether done by individuals, groups, or nations, extremely distasteful, unattractive behavior. And this Memorial Day the idea that buying the biggest best gas grill and bragging about national economic and military superiority was proper celebration just tipped me over the edge. But I needed to say something—to say what I could say where I was—and stop the grumbling.

From my point of view, Memorial Day is for remembering—remembering in gratitude.  So—I remember, and share with you the memory of a soldier who was my friend.

His name was Bill. He was my uncle’s brother-in-law. My sister and I thought he was handsome: sandy haired, merry eyes and deep laughter. He worked hard, loved the land, and, we believed, loved me and my sister. He would play with us. He listened to our stories, and was the best person to go to when you had a splinter in your foot. He knew, somehow, a secret way to get the sliver out so that it didn’t hurt so much. And he would sit on the porch and play his guitar and sing country western songs. He once asked my sister and me why we thought they called the wind “Mariah.” When we told him we didn’t know, he just nodded his head, and said that he didn’t know either, but that if we ever found out we were to write him a letter and tell him because he’d really like to know.

Bill joined the Army in the summer after Pearl Harbor. He wrote occasionally, very brief letters. Reading and writing were not his favorite pastimes. We received a letter telling us that he was in Italy, and had come through the initial landing at Anzio Beach safely. He added, however, in his typical understated fashion, that he thought there was trouble ahead as the Allied Armies moved north.

We received no more letters from Bill personally. His mother was notified that he had been killed by random sniper fire one evening as he sat resting by his Jeep. He was buried somewhere in a military cemetery in Italy.

My sister and I were devastated by Bill’s death. We kept asking if it were possible that there had been a mistake.

Now at this age, having lived through World War II, the Cold War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, I want more on Memorial Day than a barbeque, flags flown from neighbors’ porches, and two sentimental verses of “America, the Beautiful.”

I want my childhood question clearly unanswered. When war takes away the person most gifted at removing stickers, haven’t we made a mistake?

With you, longing for Shalom,