Saints and Belonging

Saint Francis sustained a blow to his outer garments, in the back near his feet. John dinged him with one of the small logs that Journey had brought from the wood pile. It knocked out a piece of what would be Francis’s legs and created a sizable hole. John placed him close to the back door up against the house, as to maintain the dignity of our dear statue. Saint Francis didn’t belong there, bricks and mortar behind him and concrete under him. His feet needed to feel the earth. He needed the green things with which to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide. I moved him back to the spot underneath the ornamental pear, in front of a potted succulent, tucked into the protection of some branches of a shrub to cover the gaping hole in his robes.

The ornamental pear  doesn’t belong where it is either. (I know, they are a blight on yards everywhere–type “why ornamental pear trees are awful” in the search box of your browser.) The way the Bradford pear grows makes it susceptible to breakage with the weight of weather, early freezes glueing the leaves on till spring and late spring snows bearing down on blossom-full branches. Even though it is the liability that Bradford pears are, we love it and count on it to keep our air conditioner-free home cool in the summer months.

The dying aspen trees that shade the other side of our back patio also don’t belong where they are. In the mountains, they grow and reproduce by shoots and suckers along their lateral roots; in the mountains, they live up to 200 years. Even though our altitude lies in the range of viability for them, their lifespan down here, away from their mountains, is around 20 years. Construction on this house began in 1993, and the cluster of aspens someone planted at about the same time are breathing their last.

If I take in just the scope of my neighborhood, I count numerous tress that don’t technically belong here. When we drive into Colorado from the east on I-70, no maple trees dot the landscape, no apple trees or Bradford pears or oak trees. That broad expanse leading up to the foothills and then to the steep inclines of the mountains–all arid, grassy plains. What grows there, what naturally belongs there, are stream-side cottonwoods and grasses.

I watered the pear tree last night, praying for it and asking it to live longer where it was given space to live and stretch out its branches. The splitting bark and pre-maturely reddening leaves in its top tells me that it is struggling to survive. I watered the vine-y ground cover and the plant that hides Saint Francis’s open robe.

I turned the hose on him to get some dirt off. The little bird he holds in his hand got a bath, too. I kept the heavy shower on him for a good bit, refreshing him and willing him to do his part where he is, with the bird and the growing things and the dry earth that is leaving the roots of that tree without nourishment. I prayed for the wandering ones whose feet search for native soil, whose roots keep reaching for nourishment. I thanked God for saints who go before and leave pathways to help us find our way, who teach us what it looks like to be who God fashioned us to be and to flourish with torn garments.


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Grace at the table

We sit around the kitchen table. I listen to their voices, recognizable and yet not. Their voices changed during the day-in and day-out, bit by bit. The difference from little kid to grown woman or young man comes like a strange, slow motion train. These days, where space and time spread way out, I see the whole thing in front of me rolling at full speed. I sit quiet in the chatter, the wind of transformation rustling my hair while they all talk and laugh and say grownup things.

She starts to explain the answer to a question three or four times, and they interrupt the same amount. I cut my chicken and smile. Some things stay. She fights her way into the voices and makes herself heard, puts her shoulders back and finishes what she wants to say. Keep fighting for your words and your voice, I think, they matter.

The conversation dips into the ridiculous more than once. He tries on a new word, gives a short comedy routine. Everyone laughs. Out of principle, I give my best effort not to laugh. It is hard. His voice cracks, and he laughs at himself.

John adds his own comedic riff. The grace and gentleness and goofiness of him.

“This is the plan for tomorrow,” she says. We all listen and chew. “Will that work?” None of us object. She plans well. She sees. She gives the dog a treat for being still, and then she tells Journey how much she likes her (even though she doesn’t like dogs).

We talk about school and work and how the boy didn’t eat his Brussels sprouts. I pull his plate across the table and eat the rest of them. We talk about their friends and the new happenings and what we miss about being in the same house.

Plates emptied and table cleared, I put a dark chocolate bar in the center of the table and break it into pieces. We linger and carry on for a while longer. I watch and listen more than I talk. I try to find their child-faces in their now-faces. It is like a train. It doesn’t run over me, but I’m positioned so close to the tracks that I feel the weight and enormity and power of it all jarring the ground where I stand. Exhilarating and frightening and fascinating, lonesome and beautiful and true.



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A tale of two men

I had one grandfather. Well, I had two, but I never knew my dad’s dad. What I knew of a man we called “Gran” was limited, and that may be generous to say it like that.

My mom’s dad, or “Daddy Hob” (pronounced with a long O, as in short for Hobert) as us grandkids and most of our little town knew him, filled up enough space for two granddads. Colorful, bold, jovial–like a page decorated by someone pressing the crayons hard onto white paper, intense detail and shavings littering the page as the crayon gives way with the pressure. No room for doubt about his presence wherever he went, in mysterious and complicated ways and in light and childlike ways. He said what he thought, kept his word, laughed from his gut, and worked hard until cancer put him to bed.

I didn’t know Daddy Hob as a man, didn’t know him like my mom knew him as a father, nor the way my grandmother shared life with him as a husband, and not the way people in the community knew him. I knew him as my grandfather, me as a kid and him as the primary representation of a grandpa figure in my life. The specific odor of tired feet right out of work boots combined with the old kind of cigarette smoke mixed with Lava soap and cows and Shaefer beer, it belongs to him. I would know it anywhere, though I’ve not been around it in years. Any one of his grandchildren smile and brim, maybe even get misty eyed, remembering how he lovingly and with a heart full of pride hugged us into his side with, “C’mere, you little shit, you.” We knew his tendency for mischief and were glad of it. We also knew he was the boss.

My other grandfather lived in a closed box, locked up tight and shrouded. He had died long before my first breaths, before my parents even married. I think no one talked much about him because he hadn’t made it easy for anyone to talk about him. I knew basic facts: his birthday, his name, what he looked like, how he died.

Asking questions produced direct answers, short explanations. That’s it. I pried one time with my dad, appealing to what I believed was an assured sadness of his own father’s absence. “How would your dad feel if he heard you cussing?” I asked, feeling brave in my inquiry. We walked along the fence row at the top of the hill. Dad had spewed a few curse words at something or other. I tried to keep his quick pace with my small-girl legs. “He’s the one that taught me to cuss,” he said and kept right on along. I slowed and let him go on whatever mission he had. By my dad’s tone, his edge even, and the answer he gave, I learned only the tiniest bit more.

Much of the quiet surrounding Gran was surely out of respect for my grandmother, a woman of strength and dignity, who loved my grandfather in the worst (and best) of times. That respect extended for years past her death.  After my dad died, some 17 years after we buried Nannie, my Uncle Phil began telling more and more stories about his generation and the one before. “No one knows these stories like I do, and someone needs to tell them before we all die,” he said. My grandfather had been invited to come out of the sacred box. The respect for Nannie and all of the branches of our family tree remains.

The facts paint some colorful, bold, jovial strokes on the canvas, similar to Daddy Hob. Charisma and charm, humor and smarts. Handsome, winsome. All of these traits, and persistence to beat all, won the heart of my grandmother. Like my maternal grandfather, Gran was both mysterious and complicated as well as light-hearted and childlike. Both men coped with the dark and complicated things using a non-prescribed medicine of sorts. It took up the best real estate in Gran’s whole self, robbing him all the way to the grave.

Do as I say, not as I do,” Uncle Phil said with some laughter, “that is how we learned from Dad.” He paused and chuckled a little, “Of course, that’s not a real good way to do it.”

“You can be thankful you turned out like you did, because you have some wild stock in your blood on both sides,” he told me.

Yes, Uncle Phil. And I’m grateful for all of it, all of the blood and all of the story and all of the redemption that works on us, then and now and still.

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What lives in the basement

John and I made up a game for our family. It grew out of long road trips to visit home places. We called it Top 3. Everyone gets a turn to share their three, and everyone takes a turn to choose a topic. We still use the game for conversation on the way to the grocery or when we welcome guests around our table. An unspoken rule says that we try not to repeat categories. Some just work, so they come up often. When we ask for Top 3 favorite smells, it conjures not just a list but beautifully rich descriptions of the smells and the memories and emotions attached to them.

One of my go-to smells: an unfinished basement. The iron rebar and concrete mixes with the hint of earth, like the soil needs to remind the other materials that it still matters, that it formed the foundation first. Cool doesn’t have an odor, but the walls and floor are cool to the touch. Somehow the feel and the smell connect and you don’t know if you can disconnect them, kind of like rain and hot blacktop.  When I go into a basement and catch a whiff, I close my eyes and inhale and try to capture it exactly, just for a minute or two.

My brother and I played for hours in our unfinished basement in the house on the hill. We moved there at the end of my first grade year and my brother’s fourth grade year. It marked a time when he and I lived on a leveler ground, when few barriers existed between us.

A rougher concrete formed the driveway and pebbly concrete for the front and back patios, but the basement needed a smooth finish. Ours was not only smooth, but glossy, and it made as fine a skating rink as Champs Rollerdrome. We kept a broom handy to keep debris from our roller skate wheels. 8-track tapes of Saturday Night Fever and Grease, movies neither of us had seen, allowed us to have our personal soundtracks for the Olympic pair-skating routines we created.

For a season, we put our skates away. The disco light moved aside for the ensemble of Star Wars. We collected all of the action figures as well as the Death Star Tower, an X-Wing fighter, a landspeeder, and a TIE fighter. We brought the whole story from movie screen to real time as we animated the figures and voiced them and directed their fighting and winning and losing.

When The Dukes of Hazard made the Friday night prime time line-up, we created a new game for the basement. My brother acted the part of Luke Duke, and our blonde-haired friend posed as Bo Duke. I was Daisy, of course. Our bicycles took us around the circle of the basement, er, I mean, Hazard County. Boss Hogg and Roscoe and Uncle Jesse joined our charade.

I don’t remember the day or week or month. I think it was when my brother went to middle school. I made up single’s skating routines, which wasn’t near as much fun. I quit hanging out in the basement. My parents stored their boxes of Blue Nun wine down there. They stacked the Christmas decorations in the corner. The furnace and the water heater stood like sentries over an abandoned landscape, and the Star Wars cast all huddled together under the staircase.

Before my brother much grew older than me and I became way younger than him, before my dad moved out and our home changed with the shifts of seasons, I accumulated some rare artifacts. I only learned today that I have been keeping them in the basement.

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Venn diagram of blue and red–I live in the purple part

Where I grew up, one chose up sides early on. Either blue or red. Bird or Cat. One of the L’s–Louisville or Lexington. Rivalries demand loyalties. The choice to follow and cheer on, and perhaps even attend one of the institutions for higher learning, marked us in the state of Kentucky. Pick a team, for Pete’s sake, and pick well–the Kentucky Wildcats or the Louisville Cardinals. And never the twain shall meet. My family bled blue, so my blood type was decided. Plus, I had a crush on Kyle Macy as a grade school kid.

I also had a crush on a boy in my class. His family belonged to the other side. I started questioning my loyalties. I asked for a Louisville Cardinals shirt for Christmas. I was a full-on traitor. A lone wolf red-coat in a sea of blue-bleeding Wildcat fans.

I don’t think I owned another Cards shirt. When I began attending the University of Kentucky, of course, my loyalties were no longer in question. There were bigger fish to fry in all of the places where a side demanded to be chosen. Everywhere I turned during college, in new and overwhelming ways, I found myself trying to choose one side over the other.

The first election where my age allowed me to vote was in 1992. Bill Clinton vs. George H.W. Bush vs. Ross Perot. Another issue of red and blue. I don’t know what color Ross Perot stood for. My tribe at school and most of my family (all of whom knew the political ropes better than I) beckoned me, without protest, to the reds. No one said so directly, but I surmised that a red vote looked most like a Jesus vote.

After one Monday night prayer, a friend pulled me aside. I had just reminded all of those gathered to please pray for our country and the upcoming election, and I may have given a subtle endorsement of one candidate. “You know, there are some people who love and follow Jesus that will vote for a different candidate than who’s on your button there,” he nodded toward the lapel of my jacket. I stared at him in disbelief. A few weeks later, I stared in disbelief at the Electoral College map that my professor had posted outside her office door. The blues outnumbered the reds. I think about my friend’s words often during election seasons.

We live in a culture–the tangible one full of people we interact with face to face and the less tangible and maybe imagined one of social media–where rivalries demand loyalties. Choose, and choose wisely. If we are one thing, the implications dictate, we are most assuredly not the other. More so, if we are not one thing, we are diametrically opposed to the other, vehemently opposite.

The trouble in my own soul about this: I’ve never, even when I was in grade school and crushing on a boy from the other side, understood why one had to despise the Cardinals to cheer on the Wildcats. Never. Living far away from my home state, I love cheering on any team in the tri-state area, which means I cheer on the Hoosiers when they make it to the big dance in March. Scandalous, I know.

In the larger picture, outside of some concise choices–say, Jesus over Satan, life over death, Port William over 50 Shades, dark chocolate over milk chocolate, water over soft drinks, bluegrass over crabgrass, and maybe a few others I could find if I went looking–I don’t believe I have to choose up sides all of the blasted time. I can choose to live in tension. It hurts my head sometimes, but I prefer it.

I don’t have to choose a political party. I find myself in both, and even in the elusive third party that has yet to materialize.

I don’t have to choose a precise doctrinal camp, because I love and am fed by many streams in the Christian tradition. Baptist is in my blood. Wesley informs my heritage and that of my children. I read Jesuit priests and other monastic souls, and then I hang out with Oswald Chambers and Dr. Lloyd John Ogilvie. I respect and have learned from Beth Moore and Kathleen Norris, Elisabeth Elliot and Barbara Brown Taylor. The eclectic bundle of books on our shelves don’t seem to mind sharing space with each other. I’ll follow their lead.

I don’t have to choose to Black lives over Blue lives. To stand beside a human, any human, and hold a hand and extend mercy and see their humanity means their life matters to me.

I don’t have to choose sides in a divorce. I tried that. It was very painful.

I don’t have to choose whether someone is in the circle or not. I can let God do the work of redemption, and if God lets me, I can participate in it.

I can be Team Captain America and Team Iron Man. Many reasons exist to love them both.

Coffee and tea. Digital and film. Dogs and cats. Mountains and beach. Kentucky and Colorado.

And I don’t have to choose the Kentucky Wildcats over the Louisville Cardinals. For crying out loud, I can cheer for both teams. #kentuckyproud




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