A carol and a candle

We stood all in a row.  The four- and five-year old’s.  December and Christmas wrapped all of our imaginations with pretty bows, holly and hanging evergreen boughs and carols.  I wore a red dress with a slender, black velvety sash and a white collar, white tights and black patent leather shoes that clicked on hard floors when I walked.  Heat flowing from the huge black grates in the aisles warmed everyone.  Something rather magical about the stained glass windows reflecting the sun from outside set the sanctuary on fire with holy, and the congregation sat in the glow looking upon us expectantly.  We all waited for fingers to touch piano keys, for Aunt Betty to direct our grand choral performance.

Away in a Manger.  Just that simple song.  Three verses we committed to little memories, a story about a babe in straw and cattle lowing.  Thanks to an 8-track tape, I had sung that song many times.

Somewhere in the second verse, I mixed up the story.  I sang a line out of place.  Blood rushed to my face.  I fumbled to find the right words, to catch back up to everyone else who told the story without error.  The air felt different, the windows became just regular, the glow slipped out beneath the glass-paned doors.

As soon as the music stopped, several men throughout the congregation (and maybe a few bold women) offered “Amen!” as verbal applause.  I ran to the back row that my family always occupied.  Nestling in close to my mom, I buried my head in her lap.   Tears stung my eyes.  Humiliation washed over my small self.  Mom bent her head next to mine.  I messed up the whole song, I muttered into her wool-skirted legs.  She offered some words of affirmation and grace–which I didn’t know how to receive and wished like everything I could leave immediately–and she ran her hands over my hair.

I sat in church last night, nearly 40 whole years since the bumbled manger carol, and relived the event in my mind.

Before the start of service, I needed to get the microphone off of the stand by the communion table.  The cord stretched toward me with some difficulty, so I tugged gently to release the length of it.  I saw it trying to come toward me as it simultaneously, and in slow motion, slid across a narrow pedestal that held a lit candle.  The candle fell, and how it is in split seconds a person can imagine all manner of terrible-awful like the carpet catching fire, I do not know.  I squinted my eyes in anticipation of the impending burst of flames.  The glass candle holder lay by my feet on its side, flameless.  No fire engulfing anything.  Just one less candle illuminating the Table.

Back in my seat, I could easily see the two lit candles looking down upon the unlit one.  I was a little shaky, my heartbeat hard and visible as I looked downward.  Tears stung my eyes, because it took me too long to shake off a ridiculous pride worn by grown-up skin, because I was the wrong kind of small again.  I heard God whisper that grace was for me, that I could learn it, that it lived there by the Eucharist with all of the other candles and the one unlit one.

Performance and appearances hold me hostage often.  Knocking the candle off the wood in front of everyone just happened, could happen to anyone and quite frequently does, I’m sure.  When I wore the holiday dress and I mixed the chronology of the baby Jesus who was born in a smelly barn, no one minded.  No one cared in either event; most likely, no one even noticed.  Just me, who somehow learned from a very early age that getting it right was most important.  More important than knowing the Light of the world.  More important than seeing the holy and being wrapped up inside of its swaddling clothes.





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Healing Tinctures

We sat under the canopy of the pear tree.  Fall cool nipped at us.  A small flock of geese settled onto the lake with splashy landings.  We turned our attention to the geese and then to the cry of the northern flicker in the Aspen tree behind us.  Our yard bunny nibbled on something in the middle of the wildflowers.  All the while, we talked about goodness and herbs and health and wholeness and watched the rain clouds change the afternoon sky.

Earlier that day, I had stared at the mirror and felt a heaviness of spirit wash over me so plain and tangible it greyed the reflection.  Tears stung my eyes, but I quickly wiped away any trace.  Because company was coming, and I had things to do.  I went about my chores, unloading the dishwasher and choking down the fears, wiping the kitchen counters and pressing back sobs that crept up through my chest.  Stupid emotions.  The bane of my existence for as long as I could remember.  Always in the way of growth and soundness.

When my friend arrived, I hugged her and just told her straight away that I was weird that day, and I apologized for myself ahead of time.  She said she would be weird with me.  She told me that it was okay that she had come on a day when I wasn’t good company.  Without speaking, she whispered to the deep places that tried to hide, “Grace, mercy, and peace be with you.”  But I didn’t know how to receive these gifts, any of them.  Not from her or from myself, or from the Christ who extended them first.

We took our coffee outside and visited.  She told me how she was doing in light of some recent upheavals in her own story.  She said she was learning to give dignity to her emotions.  Her words worked into my systems like the herbal tinctures she knew how to make.  I pondered the idea of being kind to myself, of giving dignity to my own emotions, something I’d read about recently and have often encouraged others to do.  As I listened to her and saw the image of God in her, I wondered how long I had punished myself for not being holy enough or spiritually mature enough because my emotions were bad and wrong and difficult.  This woman, her red henna hair like autumn maple leaves, sat with me under the pear tree, and we were just people.  Broken, sad, learning, hopeful, doubtful, fearful, growing, lovely, thinking and feeling humans entering the narratives of one another.

I watched her becoming free–like the wildflowers and the geese, who don’t try to be wildflowers or geese, they just are.  Watery burning eyes at the thought, the mystery of a gift people ache for and yet so often refuse.  Grace, mercy, and peace.  She offered it, and I could receive it.  Even when I was messy and sad and needy and raw.  Would I toss her presence aside and be so proud?  I could learn as she learned, to stop pretending and stop saying the right things that make me look together and strong.  Because I wasn’t.  My emotions twisted around inside, conflicted over the yearning for a freedom I have known and the too much straining to achieve it on my own.

While the wind blew and the blue-grey and white mingled overhead, I fought with myself, wondering if I could internalize that which I profess to believe about the love of God–a lavish grace, a sustainable mercy, a knowable peace.  Words easily spoken and spilled.  It would be a terrible shame to waste them.


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The grace of starlings

My friend and I talked on the phone.  We were sharing life across states and time zones.  This day, we spoke about church.  It’s frustrating, we easily agreed, to know of so much divisive talk back and forth between denominational and doctrinal lines, so much sparring even within a congregation.  And I stopped talking for a bit.

The scene in my backyard distracted me.

“Hello? Are you there?” my friend asked.  “Did something happen?”

“Oh, no, nothing tragic.  I am watching these stupid starlings,”  I told her.  I proceeded to tell her how we had purchased a cute bird feeder from Target–spring green, ceramic, with a rope and a hook–and bird seed that would attract a great variety of birds.  I told her how we hung it and waited for the great variety to show up and grace our yard with beauty.  I told her how every day since the last of the snow melted dumb black birds swoop into our sanctuary space and rule the bird feeder.

A dozen or so starlings squawked at each other as I told my angry tale.  Two or three birds at a time took their turns devouring my great variety feast.  The stylish little feeder toppled back and forth with their clunky movements.  Big, boisterous lot.  I concluded my rant of frustration.

Half to my friend and half to myself, I said, “I wonder if I can find some food for the feeder that would un-attract the starlings.”

I recanted and back-peddled.  I felt guilty about trying to not include the starlings.  I told my friend as much.  Who was I to pick and choose which birds my feeder could feed, I asked.  I felt sorry for the starlings.

“Maybe churches attract starlings, and we just want pretty birds,” my friend offered.

Furrowing my brow, I watched the birds.  “Maybe so,” I said softly.

Those birds occupied my thoughts day after day.  They showed up in the yard so frequently, it was hard not to think about them.  I pondered how I didn’t like them.  They are ugly birds, after all.  Big-billed.  Noisy.  Bossy.  Crowding.  Some people call them dangerous.  I didn’t want dangerous birds hanging around.  No other bird really had a chance to partake of the great variety seed.  The congregation of starlings was just too large, too much.

It was true, what my friend had said.   I want church the way I want it.  No starlings.  No danger.  No boisterous noise.

But something dug deeper in me.  I found myself feeling sorry for the starlings, because I saw myself in their company, clunking around noisily, mimicking the songs of others.  I felt the sting of someone looking out their kitchen window and wanting to dissuade my presence.  No real grace.  Not for me.  I found myself searching for grace.

What do we do with the shitting things, the times that are just like that?  In the church?  In our families and homes?  In our own souls?

I don’t have a lot of answers.  Not really.  But I wrestled with those stupid birds.  In the end, I quit clanging my pots and pans to scare them away.  I let them stay.  They ate what was offered.  Eventually, it was time for them to move on, and they did.  When they left, I imagined that they carried away with them a measure of my gracelessness for them, my gracelessness for myself.


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Going to Feed

After work at the local bank, Dad came home, went upstairs, and changed out of his suit and tie. He put on jeans and a more farm-appropriate shirt, though Dad hardly resembled the rest of the farmers in our extended family. He always dressed in a tailored manner, always crisp and well-groomed; his side-zip farm shoes were just older, more worn-out versions of his banking-business Florsheim ankle boots. He came back downstairs and sat in his recliner to spend a few minutes stuffing his pipe with fresh tobacco. “Myra,” he called, “do you want to go feed the cows with me?” He sucked in on the pipe as he said it, the lighter flame responding to each puff. I put on my shoes and ran to climb into Dad’s 1970-something red Chevy Blazer.

He smoked his pipe and hummed along to Kenny Rogers and George Jones as we drove from Campbellsburg to the outskirts of New Castle where Dad leased some land for his cattle. Our eyes roamed the landscape of fields, barns, and houses, all belonging to people we knew well in that rural community. Honeysuckled wind whipped at my ponytail, and I pushed stray hairs out of my face. I sat in the middle on the console top, right next to the driver’s seat. We didn’t say much, but I didn’t mind.

Dad turned into Mrs. Barnett’s driveway, and he pulled the Blazer to a stop in the usual spot beside the cellar door. He turned off the engine so we could go in and say hello to Mrs. Barnett, whose house was old and bent like her. It, and she, smelled of moth balls and old farm clothes and Wonder Bread and some variety of Avon perfume. She offered me a lemon drop, like always, and I took it gladly. Just as quickly as we had made our way on the worn stone path to her door, we said goodbye and went about our feeding business.

I opened the galvanized panel gate while Dad cranked the engine to life again. He drove through, and I latched the chain back in its place. Dad let me sit in his lap to take charge of the steering wheel. I manned my job as expertly as I could.

Dad hollered, “Sook-cavvvvv!” out his window. The cows perked their ears, murmured low responses, and turned their faces toward the red machine that rumbled in their pasture. They began to trot toward us, the little calves kicking up their back legs like they were some kind of big stuff. Dad called out a few more times before he let off of the accelerator, and we came to a stop in the middle of the eager gathering.

Dad moved his finger above the herd as he counted half out loud and half to himself, first the cows then the calves. He got out and walked right through them to the metal feeder. I marveled that he never was afraid of those animals, so many of them and all so large. I stayed in the driver’s seat, resting my arm on the door and my chin on my arm. The dust from the feed billowed as it mounded in the trough.

It drifted to me, all of the smells colliding—sweet like corn and alfalfa and molasses, mixed with the smell of cattle and the strangely comforting odor of manure, and Dad’s cologne and his pipe tobacco. I sat there lost in the scent and the drowsiness of the evening watching Daddy do what he had done for years and years, long before the suits and ties.


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St. Francis

He once stood in another garden space, on a piece of soil, surrounded by herbs and flowering perennials. He once belonged to my father-in-law. After Dad Boyd passed away last November, the St. Francis statue made his way to our family. In a packing frenzy, someone wrapped St. Francis in an old towel, and he rode along for miles and miles to a make his home on a new, drier, sandier patch of soil underneath our ornamental pear tree. John placed him in the shade of that tree, close to the house near the patio, where we can see him and remember where he used to be and in whose care he had always been, until now. He stands there all day and night, spade in one hand, tiny bird in the other.

Tendrils of ivy creep toward his feet, little bunnies play nearby, a pair of doves rummage in his station of the yard. In between the shadows of swaying pear branches, the sun laps his head, his back, his face, and the bird in his palm. It is no matter to him, even on days when the sun doesn’t shine and snow piles or rain falls steadily. Still, he keeps his charge, gaze fixed toward the robins, or starlings, or earthworms, or bugs. He manages to keep his spade ready for the tending of the earth, and all along, the winged one he holds never flees.

Clad in monk’s garb, rain-splattered dirt stains add contrast on his gray-scale motif. Browns and greens and pinks and yellows surround St. Francis on any side, nearly any time of year, framing him, highlighting him. Simple and completely unadorned, his sculptured self demands nothing, yet he attracts all manner of creaturely beings.

He attracts us, our family. Gently he calls to us. He speaks about the holiness of tulips and rabbit families, of feeding the wretched starlings, of smelling sweet roses as well as the stench-y daisies. Creamy white paint with sanded grey edges—just a statue. Yet, every day, we live in awareness of not only the 18-inch likeness of St. Francis, we live in keen and tangible awareness of John’s dad and his deep love and appreciation for flora and fauna, of his love for God’s created world, of his love for a small garden fixture in the form of a catholic saint.

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