Recover my sight

In my early childhood, my family spent vast amounts of time outdoors. Camping trips, or daily feeding runs to the farm where my dad leased land for cattle, or fall treks on my grandfather’s land to search for walnuts, or the imagination station of our own yard (that was far grander in scale from a small perspective than it was in actual scale)—outside informed me about the world and myself. Before many other voices gained entrance and told me otherwise, the world told me that it was full of adventure and wonder and mysteries. Creation formed a mirror by which I saw myself, full of adventure and wonder and mysteries.

We walked creeks that wound through lands my parents and grandparents knew. We swung on monkey branches that gave us safe passage across ravines we imagined to be large and dangerous. We scaled hills. We found our way to town across three farms that belonged to people we knew, because everyone knew everyone then and there. We created make-believe orphan homes by dried-up creek beds and fallen trees. The domed canopy of the crab apple tree and its smooth, damp floor served as a hiding place from all the bad guys.

Dad taught us the song of the whippoorwill, how to listen for it and how to whistle a response and see how long the exchange could go on. Mom took us to Granny and Daddy Hob’s garden and taught us how to recognize a ready green bean and ear of corn. She knew where the blackberries grew. My parents set up a house each spring for the purple martins, and we watched for their arrival. With an ice pick, Mom poked holes in countless jar lids to give our lightening bugs and grasshoppers and frogs and butterflies air to breathe.

We rode on the back of the tractor and on wagons pulled by a tractor. We jumped the oversized round bales like an obstacle course for some Olympic game yet to be known by real athletes. We traipsed without fear on barn scaffolding. We played in Uncle Phil’s silos and tobacco barns. We fished, we romped in the fields, we made hay bale mazes in Ms. Barnett’s barn, we built forts. We came home with dirt under our fingernails.


When I was little, we played and lived as much time as we were allowed outside.  Before circumstances and people told me who I was, God’s good green earth informed me. Ants and lightning bugs and birds and flowers and clovers and water spigots and clouds and snow and rain and snakes. Cracks in the sidewalk and leaves and blossoms and maple leaf helicopters and sand and swings and wind and stars in the sky. Bats and the smell of earth and grass and fresh strawberries off of the vine and cows and cow manure and barns and fields of waist-high grasses and handfuls of violets and dandelions and weeping willows and the moon and the sun. These were the voices I heard first. They spoke true words, true elements in the face of every other thing that could turn.

Before I believed weird stories about myself—that I was too much, that I was too sensitive, that being a pretty little girl was a power or a detriment; before pornography told me I was sexual, that my body could be dirty, that I could be dirty in my body. Before all of this, my heart beat strong inside me. I trusted the goodness of God, I trusted God in me. I believed, with the pure faith of a child, the words we sang around the piano at church—Jesus loves me, this I know.

Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?”

The blind man replied, “Rabbi, let me see again.”


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Living in the What-if

Some nights ago, I set my book on the bedside table and turned off the lamp. Barbara Brown Taylor had told of caving, of her experience in the utter darkness of an inner hollow underground. This, just before my eyes started to close with sleepiness and the book began slow-motion falling onto my face. Night sounds of fan and breeze rustling the curtains lulled me toward actual sleep. As I envisioned the scene BBT described and let the dark surround me in my bedroom, my mind grabbed a memory from childhood–a vacation to Mammoth Cave. Decades away, my body remembered it well. While I lay still in my bed, my stomach dropped like speeding over jump hills on a country road.

Our family traveled there around 1975 or ‘76, making me four or five-years old. My folks bought a fifth-wheel to pull behind the wood-paneled station wagon. We took weekend trips in our state as well as a few grand excursions to other parts of the United States. I recall little about going into the legendary Kentucky wonder of Mammoth Cave, only the damp air as we descended and my dear dad picking me up to help me see over a barrier.

I reached my hands upward, grasping the rim of metal piping that enclosed the attraction. I tried to peer down through the fencing. The guide said something about the hole to all of us crowded around it. From the angle my small height afforded me, the diamond-shaped openings of the chain link fused together and blurred what I was supposed to be seeing. The people began moving onward to other features of the underground world. Dad asked if I wanted to see the hole before we went with everyone else. He lifted me to his hip.

The span of time between Dad picking me up and the next moment was seconds, maybe. He held me, and I dared to lean my head scant centimeters past the edge. I looked down, down, down into the nothing of the hole. Nothing except blackness disappearing into smaller blackness. That’s all I saw, all I wanted to see. I suppose Dad thought that I couldn’t truly grasp the enormity of the gaping black unending darkness past the fencing. He held tight under my arm pits and angled me in such a way that my upper body from my waist extended several inches past my comfort zone and over the railing.

I put a death grip around his waist with my legs, panicked and terrified that Dad might accidentally drop me right into the pit. He pulled me back to himself and assured me that he had me, that I was safe. His words offered little comfort. The possibility of what-if had entered my mind, entered my being. It embedded itself in my cellular memory.

Outside the dark of a cave and nowhere near any openings in the earth, I recalled that experience and felt the what-if, afresh. While I lay in the safety of my room, after I put my book away, my tummy flipped over at the memory. I stared into that black and bottomless mystery, as a little girl and as a grown woman.


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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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