Hearts and Ashes

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Valentine’s Day heartbreak meets Lent’s Ash Wednesday.

Why are we once again holding vigils?
Why are we once again offering our thoughts and prayers?
Hasn’t there been enough mourning, enough tears to fill an ocean?

What is happening?

Guns.
It must be the guns that are all over the place.

School prayer.
It must be that government sanctioned prayer has disappeared from our schools.

The re-definition of marriage.
It must be un-checked liberalism. Maybe it’s rigid, judgmental conservatism.

Perhaps it’s a wall. Perhaps it’s a dreamer.
Maybe it’s a white. Maybe it’s a black.

Does anyone know?
Isn’t this the question of the day?

HOW ARE WE GOING TO FIX THIS THING?

Dare we go to the heart of the matter?

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Dare we travel quietly and humbly into the place where we have lost our own way?

Or shall we shout louder to let others know where they have lost theirs?

We all have a heart that has been lost on the ash heap of ruin. Perhaps there is the smudge of sin’s dirt in our eyes and we are missing it.

…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

The blue planet is so confused, rotating on a double-minded axis.

We so sincerely, really and truly, believe that all lives matter, yet do we realize that, for many of us, our geography of birth sets the course for our paycheck, our education, our incarceration?

Our Valentine date is Fifty Shades of Freed while we stand up for “hashtag me too.”

We choose to stop a beating heart before its time to leave the womb and call it unwanted, yet we wail over the wanted children as their hearts bleed out on a classroom floor.

There isn’t a law or a wall or a government sanctioned prayer that can shape a human heart.

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The one who fashioned the first beating heart from the ashes is the only one who can fix a bleeding heart.

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Hearts and ashes came together this Valentine’s Day in horror.

Not one human can fix that.
But, God…

The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

We are a planet full of crushed souls.

A planet full of killers and robbers, pretty little liars and fakers. Most of us will never wield a gun. Yet, if we dare to get to the heart of the matter, to actually get dirty,  we know that in our own hearts at some point in our lives we have hated. We have lusted.
We have stolen and we have perverted.

We have harmed some one. Some thing. Our very own selves.

Yet,we are not beyond fixing.
There is one hope for our one broken heart.
Jesus.

For some this is just plain silly.
Nothing but foolishness to anyone of any measurable intelligence.

It is not lost on me that Lent, a time of reflection and repentance began on Valentine’s Day, a day for celebrating love. And it is a curiosity to me that this Easter, the celebration of Jesus resurrection, will fall on April Fools’Day.

It is true. Jesus’ kind of love does look a bit nonsensical.

I suppose it is, in all of its extravagance and devotion and forgiveness and acceptance and welcome. My broken heart God will not despise. He won’t walk away from it. He hasn’t walked away from the planet, either.

When we give him our broken heart, He just comes closer.
He has my heart and my ashes.

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Where The River Takes You

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It was daylight the morning I walked across the bridge on my way to Kathy’s Diner. I was meeting friends for breakfast later than usual. When I was teaching I would have to meet my friends much earlier to get to school on time, which meant I was crossing the bridge in the dark.

But I am not teaching anymore. I am in between things.

It was cold like January can be that early in the day. Hard, flinty; brittle and bright like a blade. The sky was just beginning to pink up and the day held the promise of a warm sun, but that would be hours away.

I heard the sound the moment I stepped onto the bridge. The applause of loud water.        I looked to my right.

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Normally the Little Androscoggin is quiet this time of year, but with the recent thaw and then another day of rain and snow, its waters were a fierce tumble. White spray was shooting up from the rocks and clouds formed and immediately floated to the bridge’s rails.

I know it isn’t Niagara Falls; the little river doesn’t even compare to its big cousin breaking over boulders in downtown Lewiston, but I am in awe just the same.

No matter its size, there is something about the power, the pounding, the pushing of a river. Even when it is slow and meandering...everything must go with the flow.

No matter what ends up within its liquid grasp, it will either be taken for the ride of its life, or scraped down and polished… smooth as glass. Changed forever.

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I looked to my left. This part of the river was silent. Snow lay on top like a blanket. The river, exposed near its banks, revealed a faint shimmer of movement. Mostly it was a still s-curve of whiteness.

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Where I stood on the bridge that morning is the place right before the spilling, right before everything changes. The in-between place.

Jesus followers call this in-between place the now and not yet:
Jesus has come.
God is here.
Just not in his fullness.

It is when we have glimpses of God’s glory. Touches of his healing. Revelations of understanding. In the dark. In the pain. In the questions.

“Richard Rohr calls this place “liminal space”—-a particular spiritual position where humans hate to be, but where the biblical God is always leading them. The Latin root limen literally means, threshold, referring to that needed transition where we are moving from one place or state of being to another. Liminal space usually induces some sort of inner crisis: you have left the tried and true (or it has left you), and you have not yet been able to replace it with anything else.”  –Ruth Haley Barton, Life Together In Christ

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I love watching a river. I always have.

As a child, if I’d managed to get the passenger side of the backseat of the car, I would press my face against the glass of the car door and watch the Sugar River, a small tributary of the Connecticut River, as it ran alongside the road near my home in New Hampshire.

In winter, snow would mound like white mushroom caps on top of the boulders standing sentinel as the river swirled around them, water constantly moving moving moving, but never freezing, and I would wonder where it was all going.

Swift River - White Mountains, New Hampshire

The river changed color all the time. On really cold days it would be a deep indigo blue and where the trees thinned and sunlight shone through, pockets of diamonds would sparkle among the rocks and snow. On cloudy days, the river ran black, a dark charcoal line against the snowbanks. No twinkling on these days. Just a muted palette of grays and blacks.

In the spring, I would roll the car window down until I got cold and I’d watch the river roll over the boulders, many of them completely submerged except for the really big ones. I could hear the roar of the river above the sound of the car motor and sometimes I wished my dad would stop the car so I could run to the river’s edge and and let the roar of it run through me.

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Summertime brought a canopy of leaves hanging from the trees that lined the banks; a fairy wonderland. Moss appeared on some of the boulders and the river trickled a bright golden ribbon. My sisters and I would step lightly in the clear waters to collect the speckled rocks we could see so clearly now. One day my not yet five year old brother straddled two big rocks and caught a small trout with his bare hands.

aSummer river Moose Brook NH

When Autumn came the river would snake slowly, now a shallow place, an exposed place. Sometimes I would notice a fallen leaf here, another one there, floating down down down like a little paper sailboat. Rocks that were once hidden only months before were now open for viewing. What was not seen, now revealed.

Lost River Gorge in New Hampshire

I dream about rivers. Mostly when I’m in the middle of a big life change and I haven’t the faintest idea how it’s all going to turn out.

In the wee hours of my dream sleep I will be walking about when suddenly a massive river will spring up out of nowhere and I have to quickly figure out a way to navigate my way across the rapids.  Sometimes I have people with me, other times I’m alone. I am never afraid, but I am always perplexed. After much hard thinking and a good bit of Providence, I manage to get to the other side every time. It is quite the adventure and most of the time I wake up feeling hopeful. But it is not lost on me that it’s in the in-between places, in the now and not yet where the real navigation happens.

I am on the threshold of something I know not of. What has been tried and true for me for so long is no longer part of my day to day routine. I am under a blanket of snow, a quiet shimmer of wonder and listening. Listening for the sound of the river’s roar and where it will take me next.

This is one of my favorite scenes from Lord of the Rings. When I first saw it I cried. God knows my heart for the beauty and the power and the life that is in the river.

 

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change and though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains quake at its swelling pride. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy dwelling places of the Most High. God is in the midst of her, she will not be moved. God will help her when morning dawns. Psalm 46

 

I could not find any photographs of the little Sugar River so the last four photographs are similar rivers from the great state of New Hampshire. The Swift River, Moose River, Lost River Gorge and Pemigewasset River.  (Google Images)

Two Things

I do not make New Year’s resolutions.
For me, they come up hollow and wanting.

Sort of like when I tasted cotton candy for the first time. The packaging all fluffed up and colorful made it look like a good idea, but was such a dissolving disappointment in the end.

Keeping the traditional resolution feels like nose-to-the-grindstone work; something I don’t want to do, yet need to do to become the best version of me.

What does this even mean?

How many versions of me are there? Is there a Cinderella version? A Carol Burnett version?  Is there an unabridged version somewhere that I don’t know about? Ask my family. They probably know.

It’s a bit too bumper sticker for me, really.

Image result for be the best version of you quoteshttp://www.lovethispic.com/image/37568/be-the-best-version-of-you

Sort of like the WWJD bracelet of the ’90’s. What would Jesus do? 

Probably not wear the bracelet, for one. It wasn’t about the externals with Jesus, anyway. Besides, he broke everything down to two things. Love God. Love people.

Trying to create the best version of myself feels like a bunch of cotton candy.  A sticky mess with not much to show for it.

For the past several years, instead of resolutions, I chose one thing that I thought would fit into God’s two things. Last year I wanted more joy, so I went to the most joyful person I could find. Jesus.

In my journey I discovered that so many people think God is angry and Jesus is…dour. So many of us humans do not know that God sings and Jesus laughs.

It wasn’t easy running after joy. I found out I am not naturally the most joyful person. I tend toward melancholy and choosing joy came down to just that…choosing. I had to intentionally choose to be joyful. When I chose to look for God in all things, I found joy. When I chose to love people in hard moments, I found joy.

It wasn’t sappy sentimentalism. It felt divine. It felt sacred. And it felt incredibly real.

This year I am going after friendliness. I wonder if it’s becoming a lost art.

On recent walkabouts in town, I’ve passed strangers on the sidewalk only to have them look to the ground or pull out their cell phone as they sidled pass me. People on neighboring streets turned their faces, again, engaged in a phone, or slipping in earbuds as I walked by. I found myself uttering a quick “Hey there” anyway, just to make a human connection.

Like my pursuit of joy, I know it won’t always be easy. Some days I won’t feel like being friendly; especially to the un-friendly, the un-grateful, the rude.

But, if it really is about only two things…loving God and loving people, and if Jesus really is the most joyful person that ever walked the planet, then I think he must have been the friendliest, too.

With Jesus there is no looking to the ground.
There is no closing off the ear.
There is no turning of his face.

May I be the same this year, and always.

Related image://graceandloveblog.com/2014/09/17/noise/

The Last Day

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I wanted to walk to school on my last day.

It was a bright winter morning and I wanted to feel the cold on my face as I walked up the hill toward Elm Street. It was to be my last walk as a teacher and I wanted to savor the moment.

As it turned out I wasn’t able to savor anything. Strangely, I’d slept late, something I rarely do. Consequently,  I spent the morning frantically trying to gather up the gifts and cards I’d put together for my students and teacher friends. I kept messing up filling out the card envelopes and had to start over several times. I forgot the name of a teacher who I worked with…it just left my brain…gone. I was not myself.

I missed breakfast, another thing I hardly ever do. I eat like a Hobbit…breakfast, second breakfast, elevensies, and then lunch. I missed breakfast and forgot to pack a lunch.

Ten minutes before I had to be at school I asked the Fiery Irishgirl to throw something in my lunch box while I stumbled about the garage searching for a box big enough to hold all the gift bags. When I looked at the size of the box I needed I realized I wouldn’t be walking to school. I swallowed hard, my breath a white puff in the cold garage.

What’s the big deal?

So, I can’t walk to school on my last day gazing at the frosted fields by Laurel Lane and the sun shimmering above the pines that stand sentinel near the big yellow house while contemplating the end of a chapter and the beginning of another.

Why do I think my life has to be like a Meg Ryan movie?

Haven’t I figured out by now that endings and good-byes don’t always wrap up nicely with a pretty bow on top? Not everything works itself out on top of the Empire State Building.

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I sped off  in the convertible.

Harried and un-made up, my hair splayed across my face, I parked and then tried to finagle the box of gifts out of the car, a vehicle I do not like for several reasons, one being the utter inconvenience of putting anything bigger than a Chinese take-out bag into the back seat. I managed to drag the box across the parking lot, retrieve my big key from my coat pocket to unlock the school door, then bumble my way down the corridor. Once I got the box into the classroom the day became like every other day.

All the normal struggles, all the normal resistances.
All the normal reminders, all the normal encouragements.

There was some reading and a little writing.
There was an uneventful music class and a skirmish-free recess.

I read the last chapter of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, thankful I didn’t choke up like I do every year when I get to place where Imogene Herdman bumps into the grace of God for the first time.

I handed out my gifts and a fourth grader made a speech complete with a bow. There was a group hug and then it was time for coats, hats and mittens to be gathered up. I led the last trek through the hallway to the waiting bus. One last goodbye and that was it.

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That’s how it is with children.

What you see is what you get.
And what you get is them.

Children don’t care that good-byes are awkward and messy. They don’t hug quickly and they don’t divert their eyes. They don’t get it over with. They just stand there and look at you. They tell you exactly how they feel.

They put plastic jewels in an old puzzle box wrapped with lined paper because they want to give you something that sparkles. They will draw a picture of you and when they hand it to you they will tell you they love you.

On your last day you get their best coloring page, one they’ve worked on for weeks and were saving to hang in their room.

On your last day a wrapped gift made for someone else is pulled from a backpack and given to you instead.

“Aren’t you going to unwrap it?”   Oh…yes, of course.

Peeling away the paper you see the photo of a child who just days ago rested in your arms after saying terrible things; a photo where she has refused to smile for the camera.

“You’re going to put it on your fridge, right?”  Yes. Yes, I surely will.

Shortly before it was time to go home, I watched a child, unraveled with rage, rip up his papers and books. In his fury he threw everything, including the gift I gave him, fragile and sentimental, across the floor.

A child sitting next to him motioned for me.  “Did you see? He threw your gift.”

I know.

“What if it’s broken?” 

I think it’s going to be okay.

And it was. I don’t know how I knew, I just did.

Moments later, I watched as the sobbing angry child, tears streaming from his face reached his arm back, reaching, reaching until his small hand folded over the gift and, lifting it ever so gently, he placed it back on his desk. Unbroken. On my last day.

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Let Nothing You Dismay

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All five of my children broke through the womb when the frost hit hard.

The first two at Thanksgiving and another on the fiftieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day. Two more came near winter’s end when everyone is longing for spring, but the snow keeps piling high.

My babies met winter on their first day out of doors. They were swaddled in fleece, the first barrier I put up against the cold. Five times I pinched a blanket and laid it above their noses in an effort to keep the wind chill from stealing their breath. Five times I turned from the front seat, unbuckling my seat belt to adjust a too-big knitted cap from sliding off to one side and down over one baby eye.

Birth is the first trauma.

It is a traumatic thing to be pushed out of the warmth of a liquid cocoon only to be mercilessly squeezed through a narrow passageway, the plates of our skull shifting to protect our brain while the rest of our curled up body straightens out for the first time.

We aren’t even breathing yet as we descend into who knows where, and when we do, getting air into our lungs for the first time isn’t always easy. Some of us open wide and gulp oxygen right away, but many of us are silent…until the umbilical cord gets taken from our necks. Some of us need help, a quick jarring to loosen the fluid in our lungs before we gasp…before we breathe.

Our mothers were never more closer to their own death than when they gave birth to us. It’s a wonder that any of them went through it more than once. Yet, most of them will tell you this sort of thing doesn’t matter one bit once their baby was placed in their arms.

All that squeezing and contracting.
All that pain and fear.

The trauma of birth is a fading mist when a mama meets her baby for the first time. Birth is the last bit of trauma any child should ever know.

But the world has fallen down.
She has broken herself and trauma is everywhere now.

Children who should be playing and laughing and dreaming are fighting and crying and nightmare-ing.

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I know because I hold trauma in my hands every day.

I hold it until it goes limp in my arms. I quietly rock it back and forth, back and forth. I wipe its tears and I stroke its hair. I whisper that I care and that it’s going to be all right,  even though I know for some, it won’t be.

Humans can’t fix this kind of trauma because no one can fix the human heart.

So many grown-up humans think they have the answer; the right social service, the tailor-made program, but not so grown up humans know they don’t. Because these little ones will tell you there is still no food in the cupboard, but there are needles…there are bottles. They will tell you there are backhands and ugly words and there are evictions and cardboard boxes.

And they will tell you so much more by not telling you anything at all.

My mother told me not to tell and you can’t make me tell you anything.

So they roar.

When I hear the roar of a child that is the roar of trauma, I feel something shatter. The world breaks apart just a little bit more. It doesn’t make sense, but in the middle of the roaring I come closer. As I do, I pray under my breath…O’ God, O’ God, O’ God…heal the despair, comfort the dismay.  It’s hard to know when to move toward fear and loathing. It doesn’t make sense that holding tight to trauma can be a comfort in the end. When the roaring stops and the broken child is spent, there is rest.

It’s what I need to know this Christmas. That there is, and will be, rest.

God rest ye merry gentlemen let nothing you dismay…

That not even the trauma or brokenness of a child can completely unravel me.

Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day.
To save us all from Satan’s pow’r
When we were gone astray…

Do these children instinctively know somewhere deep inside of them that all has gone astray, so roar they must? Is not their roaring the proper response to trauma and all that has gone wrong with the blue planet?

These children roar the roar of injustice.
They push and shove against neglect.
They bite the pain of abuse.

Because no child, after leaving the safety of the womb, their lungs heaving for the first time, should ever have to know trauma again.

For to us a child is born…

The Ancient of Days has come.

The brilliance of God has squeezed through a birth canal, the plates in his skull shifted and his body unfurled until He too, opened His mouth and gulped air.

…to us a son is given…

A Son given to us by way of the thorn, the lash and finally the cross, the ultimate instrument of torture and trauma that heals all traumas, forever and ever.

From the place of the cross it is He, the Lion of Judah who gets the last roar.

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Oh tidings of comfort and joy
Comfort and joy
Oh tidings of comfort and joy.

 

 

Lion image courtesy of Basehead Art.com    

When Your Teaching Days Are Numbered

20171109_123313 (1)Joy wells when I see that so many leaves are carpeting the back yard right now the whole place practically glows. The trees, black and brown outlines against an opaque-blue dawn, stand sentinel over what they’ve just deposited all over the ground.

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Even though, technically, what has been strewn onto the walking path at the back side of the house is dead, it is beautiful. The kind of beauty that chokes the throat and brims the eye. I don’t know why my heart sings when I see it, it just does.

These leaves.
I don’t have the heart to rake them up.
I decide to let them be.

I wade slowly through a magical pond of yellow.

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Earlier in the week, leaves from the red maples at the front of the house were gathered and now sit as three mounded triangles all browned up and dead for real. I’d raked them up days ago, but the next day it had turned bitter cold, and after coming down with a bout of shingles, I didn’t have it in me to deposit them to the mulch pile. I’d spent the better half of the day before hauling pile after pile to the bamboo patch, but I pushed myself too hard so these last three would have to wait. Their days are numbered. It is just a matter of time before I drag them to the outer darkness that is the side of the house where I’ve been dumping leaves for the last twenty years.

Even the golden beauties in the backyard will eventually curl on themselves and brittle up. They will most likely blow away, ending up in the Little Androscoggin River at the end of the road.

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There is always one day in late Autumn when the wind howls hard and long and all the lawn carpets get scraped clean, the debris swooshed into the stream across from the winter berry bush I prune every year for its splash of red.

Everything is numbered. God, Himself, is in the numbering business.

Leaves on trees.
Grains of sand.
Stars in the heavens.
Hairs on my head.
Days of my life.

Apparently, some things are meant to be counted.

The children in my classroom love to announce they know what the biggest number is, the number that is the last number ever.

I’ve heard this refrain for the better part of seventeen years. The biggest number  they come up with is always something like ten million, billion, ka-trillion,gajillion, quadrillion. Right, Mrs. McKellick?

I always smile and say, Remember, there is always ten million, billion, ka-trillion, gajillion, quadrillion… and oneWhen I say this, every single time the child face falls and darkens. Then, suddenly they smile, too, when they realize that counting numbers goes on forever, because forever to a child is a magical thing.

Some things are meant for forever, like souls and love and faith and hope.
The very words of Jesus that speak and are still speaking go on and on into eternity.

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

Some things are meant to end and will, like suffering…hate…despair.

“and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”

All these march to a timetable we do not know.

Yet, there are timetables we do know, where flesh and blood live out a daily routine. It is here that we do some of our own counting.

I step into the Art room at school on a Thursday and like every other Thursday before, it’s the same. The scent of hot glue and wax crayon mixing with the odors of paint and wet paper assaults my nostrils. Here the cacophony of children’s voices, sometimes joyful, sometimes irritating, pierces the ear as the stuff of creative abandon gets played out in forty minutes. I love it.

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I have three more Thursdays. Three more Thursdays where I will watch over young humans furrow the brow and squint the eye to bring about their next masterpiece. Three more Thursdays where I get to scrape glue off my hands and dodge permanent marker being wielded by an unaware fourth grader. Three more Thursdays to encourage the maneuvering of scissors around tight spaces and I get three more Thursdays to look one of those humans in the eye as he holds up his creation and I will say with all honesty, “It’s beautiful.”

All my Mondays through Fridays at Elm Street School are numbered.

I know this like I know the leaves in the backyard are numbered, having given up their summer splendor to die for a little while.  My time at school is waning like the last fade of Autumn. So I wade through the hallways slowly when I can, thinking that here too, is it sometimes magical. Some days you can actually see it;  the wonder, the understanding of a concept, a truth, come to life all over a child’s face.

Winter is coming and this chapter is coming to a close. However,  this life being God’s glorious art room,  I know there will be color again.

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The Long, Slow Closing Of A Door

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There are so many doors.

Some swing open with a gusto and close with a bang. Others open with a slow creak and need to be pulled shut. Some doors never actually close. They come up against the door frame and just stop, a shaft of light coming from the in-between place of in and out.

Some doors seem to not want to open, and the jiggling of the handle and the grip of a key that doesn’t want to fit leaves one to wonder why is there a door here in the first place if it’s so hard to get inside?

There are doors with glass in them and doors with busted out glass. There are new doors where the paint lacquer shimmers on their fronts and there are old doors where the paint has peeled back and the wither and weather of old wood is exposed.

Doors invite.
Doors keep out.
Doors expose.
Doors hide away.
Doors include and doors exclude.

There is a narrow door.
And there is a door where the Ancient of Days knocks and asks to come in.

Then, there are doors that cannot be seen. They are a metaphors. Like a door that signifies the beginning of a new opportunity, or the door that closes when it’s time to move on.

The long, slow closing of a door begins for me today. Thirty school days from now a door will shut. Eighteen years at Elm Street School will come to a close.

After almost a year of ruminating, muddling, talking, seeking counsel, and many, many conversations with the Lover of my soul, it has become clear that it’s time for me to walk out the door and whatever happens when one leaves something behind, I’m to embrace it all.

It hit me last Saturday morning while watching my grandson play his last soccer game on the lower field at Elm Street, that it was my last soccer game at Elm Street, too. Despite the mist that surrounded me that day, I was suddenly struck with the clarity, that in the days to come, there will be many “lasts.”

How do tears spring up so suddenly that you have to grip your lawn chair and grit your teeth so hard to keep from crying because you don’t want the parent sitting next to you to think you are a crazy person who cries at soccer games?

When a door closes slowly, you see everything in slow motion. The space gets smaller, more detailed, more specific. The images of what is closing around you gets etched in your brain. You remember.

I’ve got thirty days to remember it all.