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Forces of Nature

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“Every now and again take a good look at something not made with hands — a mountain, a star, the turn of a stream. There will come to you wisdom and patience and solace and, above all, the assurance that you are not alone in the world.”   Sidney Lovett

 

Of all the fierce energy that makes up the natural world — tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis — I believe that the greatest force of nature is her ability to heal our souls and bestow on us the gift of belonging. You belong — are there sweeter words?

Humans may have betrayed nature, scraped and beaten and chopped her until she is raw and bleeding, but she endures and she provides for us. We are a part of her.

I first discovered the divine company of nature among the evergreens, ferns, and moss of a New England forest. That’s where I met God. But here in my little corner of suburbia, if I take the time to pay attention to “something not made with hands,” I am reminded every day: I am not alone. I belong.

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The patterns, balance, and beauty of the natural world — the assurance that sweet, delicate, winsome spring flowers will overtake the icy, harsh, and deadly serious winter — these great forces of nature reassure my soul.

 

This post is in response to the WordPress Photo Challenge: Forces of Nature

The Giant Fake Pearl Chandelier

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On a recent visit to Philadelphia, we stayed at a plush hotel to celebrate New Year’s Day and my friend’s sixtieth birthday. A waiter with a linen towel over his arm offered us flutes of champagne as we stood with our suitcases waiting for the elevator. It was that kind of place — the kind I had only seen in old black and white movies.

The dining room was massive, with busy black-suited waiters bustling between tables like concerned penguins. Was this alright? Did we need more of that? Here was a complimentary cocktail made of tomato juice and vodka and oyster juice (or something dreadful like that, I forget. It wasn’t good).

I’ve got a lot of photos from the weekend, particularly of the Mummer’s Parade, a seriously strange celebration that completely takes over Philly every New Year’s Day. I’m sure I’ll share some of them with you. But for now, this week’s WordPress Photo Challenge of “Symmetry,” gives me the opportunity to share this photo of the outlandish giant fake pearl chandelier hanging from the ceiling of the XIX restaurant in the Hyatt at The Bellevue.

 

 

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I Got Skills: And Some Wine

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If you could choose to be a master of any skill in the world, which skill would you pick? Good question, right? I’m still in a bit of a writing funk, having fallen into a vast vortex of nothingness, so I thought I would check out the Daily Prompt from WordPress. I like their question, so — what’s my answer?

I wonder if it’s cheating to pick a skill that people tell me I’ve already got.

Maybe this is supposed to be something to which I aspire. If it is an aspiration, then I’d like to be a brilliant creative writer: My words and I would become one, and my prose and poetry would conjure up vivid images and intense emotions and move my readers from laughter to tears in a matter of moments — and I would never, ever, fall into a vast vortex of nothingness.

Woman Writing Letter by Gerard ter Borch. Public Domain, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Woman Writing Letter by Gerard ter Borch. Public Domain, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

But meanwhile, back in reality, I will choose a skill that I’ve been told I already possess to some degree. Some call it a “welcoming spirit,” some tell me I’m “easy to talk to,” and some say I make them “feel at home.” Others say I make them laugh a lot. Or it could just be the wine.

Anyway, that’s the skill I want — to make people feel comfortable. Not a big deal, but it makes me happy to be relaxed and open with people, and that’s easier if they feel comfortable with me.

Dysfunctional Roots and Shoots

I developed this skill as a way of coping while growing up in an alcoholic home — if I could get people laughing, lighten the mood, relax the tension, then I might prevent the nightly dinner table dramas and arguments. The stakes were high, because if laughter failed, I would have to break the tension by spilling my milk, and then I’d get yelled at. 

As a child, this coping mechanism served me well, although as an adult it morphed into a desperate need to be loved and resulted in some pretty dysfunctional behaviors. But I’ve worked hard to rid myself of emotional baggage, and now I couldn’t care less what anyone thinks of me (yeah, right).

C’mon, Smile

I’ve also used the skill in a professional capacity. Having an easy-going, accessible personality came in handy when I was an environmental lobbyist on Capitol Hill. One of my secret personal goals was to get a staffer or member of Congress to laugh in the first five minutes of our meeting. Even if they were super-conservative, right-wing folks that I simply needed to cross off my list and from whom I had no chance of getting an environmental vote, I still wanted them to listen to my pitch. Putting them at ease was essential.

I’d probably make a good salesperson, except oh my God, talk about a vast vortex of nothingness.

Wanna Be Friends?

The skill I’m after is not the lobbyist’s insincere, slightly manipulative, chumminess. What I want to master is friendliness. Like comfy slippers or a purring cat, I just want to be a good friend. And I’ll bring the wine.

So – if you could choose a skill, what would it be?

Gone But Not Forgotten: A Photograph of Love

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This is Ginnie, probably one of the most well-loved women I know, and for good reason. When you’re with Ginnie, you feel like everything is going to be OK. She has faith like a rock, yet her spirit is light and effervescent. She seems unshakeable. She smiles all the time, and you know that she loves you unconditionally.

Picnic w/ Ginnie

Ginnie and I had a picnic this summer, just a few days after her husband Ian’s memorial service. She and Ian were married more than sixty years. They raised the guy who introduced me to Jesus – the real Jesus, the loving one, not the one who judges and hates and condemns. Because Brian McLaren inherited his mother’s unsinkable spirit, he has introduced thousands to God’s love through his writing and speaking.

This particular July day, Ginnie and I sat for four hours at a picnic table on the grounds of the church that Brian founded. A vase of garden phlox on the table smelled sweet in the warm sunshine, and the bees buzzed around the magenta blossoms.

Ginnie and I shared sandwiches and lemonade and stories. We spoke of many things, but mostly of our mutual journey through grief. We shared the things we would never forget about our departed loved ones, and we talked about where we had found God in the midst of our losses.

Her husband Ian and my brother Biff: gone in 2014, but not forgotten because our love keeps them alive.

This week’s WordPress Photo Challenge is on the topic of Gone But Not Forgotten. This warm summer day is long gone, Ginnie has returned to her home in Florida, and Ian and Biff have moved on — each gone but not forgotten.

Related articles:

https://melanielynngriffin.wordpress.com/2012/09/14/hope-or-hostility-in-a-multi-faith-world/

http://brianmclaren.net/archives/blog/in-memoriam-ian-d-mclaren.html

Refracted Light and Life

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Light as a metaphor for life — man, has that been done to death! So today I won’t inflict that upon you; instead, I’ll allow a picture to speak a thousand words.

This week’s WordPress photo challenge asks bloggers to show refraction, which (as we all remember from physics class) is the way waves — like light and sound — are deflected and change direction when they pass through mediums of varying densities.

I’ve forgotten most of this stuff (hey, I only took Physics for Non-Math Majors) and had to look it up. Turns out, this change in direction is a result of the wave “traveling at different speeds at different points along the wave front.”

Which may explain why, when I step out onto my porch in the mornings, my body receives a clear message to slow down. Could it be beams of light communicating to my psyche? We are stepping into a different medium now, change course, take a detour, and slow down.

Grab your journal, grab your tea, and refract your life into this world for a time.

Bent Light as Life

Bent Light as Life

p.s. – As I’ve said, I’m not into physics. It’s hard. If you must, you may correct what I’ve said in the comments, but it isn’t necessary. I’ll just forget anyway.

I Don’t Believe in God Anymore

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I no longer believe in God. I know it’s cowardly to announce this on my blog, not having talked to any of my God-people, but there you have it. Further conversations with people who believe in fairy tales are not going to change my mind.

Two simultaneous straws broke the back of the camel from Nazareth.

On Death

First, I’ve been asked to give a sermon at church on finding hope in the midst of death and grief, and you know what? I can’t. I’m done trying. It’s silly to pretend that there’s a happy ending, that the people I miss are OK now, and that there is a spiritual realm in which they thrive. What factual evidence is there? We either end up underground, dressed in our finest, or we are burned up in an oven and our ashes thrown around. There are no wings involved.

On Prayer

The other precipitating event that led to my conversion was an exchange on Facebook. One person said “prayer changes things” with regard to some dreadful world event or another, and an atheist responded, “Money changes things more. They give the money to the rich and encourage everybody else to pray. I say get political and take the money back.” Basically quit being fooled into praying instead of actually doing something.

At first I thought I could understand why she felt that way — I have a lot of respect for this particular atheist, and I think that some Christians do ignore the Biblical warning, “faith without works is dead” — but then I decided that my atheist friend is dead right. Prayer is just a chimera.

Prayer is a farce. There’s nobody listening. Nobody home. No “creator” that cares, no spiritual force working for good in the world, no power stronger than ourselves. The meaning I used to find through prayer was all coincidence, my brain’s neurological transmitters trying to form randomness into patterns.

I have been duped.

On Toast

This world is not getting better; people are not getting better — there is no hope. The human mind is the highest power there is, and history and politics and Rush Limbaugh prove that it is incapable of rising above itself to envision or pursue any higher state of being.

We’re toast.

Now that I understand there’s no God, I can abandon the silly notion that I have power beyond human comprehension to change the world for the better, or to love people I don’t like, or to overcome character flaws I would like to be rid of. I no longer have to carry around this false gratitude for beautiful vistas or cute babies or the belly laughs of my friends. Nope, it’s all just random chemicals and minerals and electrical fields born of primordial soup to no end. 

I’m free!

A bunch of chemicals and minerals playing in primordial ooze

A bunch of chemicals and minerals playing in primordial ooze

Author’s Note

This post was written in response to the WordPress Writing Challenge, The Unreliable Narrator. A time-honored literary device, the term was first coined in 1961 by Wayne C. Booth. He wrote: ”I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work (which is to say the implied author’s norms), unreliable when he does not.”

So . . .  consider this post unreliable and expect a return to your fairy tale-laden blogger friend in the next post.

To Try

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I try. I’ve always tried. When I was a kid, I tried to be good, I tried to be smart, I tried to keep the peace in our house. Kids think the world revolves around them (you may also know adults who did not outgrow this) so they try extra hard to control things, especially in an unpredictable alcoholic household.

I’ve always tried to avoid conflict. It reminds me of the dinner table when I was growing up, where I couldn’t understand my father’s tirades or my mother’s silence in the face of family chaos. I tried to be invisible so as not to become the target of paternal wrath or sibling ridicule.

When I was a teenager, I tried to belong; I tried to be the cutest and the coolest; I tried to act like I didn’t care. I tried to end the Vietnam war.

As a young adult, I tried. I tried everything. I tried to see how many drugs I could take without passing out or going bankrupt and how much tequila I could drink and still drive home. I tried to see how many boyfriends I could run through.

Thankfully, grace abounds.

As an older adult, I tried to get ahead in my career as an environmental lobbyist, and I tried to be a good mentor and manager. I tried to make members of Congress vote against the polluting industries that funded their campaigns. You see how well that worked out.

Trying to Save My Sanity

When I was young, I tried to save my father from the bottle, but he died at fifty-eight. In recent years, I tried to save my brother from mental illness and heart failure. That didn’t work either. He passed away in December.

Nowadays I try really hard. I try to work through my grief. I try to “let go and let God,” to surrender my illusions of control and accept what is. I think I finally get that I can’t control anything except myself, and that’s where I need to focus my trying.

I try to manage my time better. Because I know that life is short and getting shorter with every breath, I try to spend time with safe people doing things I enjoy. I spend quality time alone with God, whether that means journaling, meditating, or being out in nature.

I try not to try so hard, and I remember to schedule time for having fun. I just bought a djembe drum!

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So my trying is a constant, though the object of my effort evolves. Now I’m trying to learn to play the drum.

There are a few constants: I will always try to avoid math whenever possible. I will always try to be grateful. And I will always try to change the world; I think I’m hard-wired for that. That’s not trying to control, it’s trying to hope. I’ll be marching in the streets as long as I can, trying to end endless wars and trying to get action on climate change and trying to promote justice.

Because you have to try.

Trying

Trying

♦ ♦ ♦

Thanks to WordPress for today’s Daily Prompt: “Verbal Confirmation: To be, to have, to think, to move — which of these verbs is the one you feel most connected to? Or is there another verb that characterizes you better?”   http://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/verbal-confirmation/

Writing Challenge: The Story of John

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John had been here before, a long time ago. I watch as his eyes follow the train tracks into a copse of trees. His chocolate brown pupils have turned milky with age and look almost purple against the bloodshot whites.

“That was almost sixty years ago,” he says dreamily.

Then he straightens his shoulders, hitches up his belted black dress pants shiny with wear, and looks directly at me. “That’s when God put his hand on me and called me back,” he says with a vigorous nod.

John knows the moment he left God. He was fourteen, living in a small town in North Carolina not far from where his family had been enslaved a few generations before. One Sunday after church, John opined to his mama that he didn’t think he believed in the God that Granny’s pastor talked about, “the one who sends people to Hell and tells us we are despicable creatures. No sir, I didn’t know that God.”

“Mama whipped me good that time,” he said. But he was used to it. His mother often disappeared, going on drinking binges and leaving him alone for days at a time, only to beat him when she returned.

A few days later, still sore from the thrashing, John stepped out of a movie theater into the bright afternoon sunlight. His guilt-ridden mama had treated him to the show. “All the white folks were on the ground floor and all us blacks were up above. I decided it should not be like that. Things were wrong. That’s when I decided to go where the train goes.”

Going where the train goes...

Going where the train goes…

That’s also when John told his first lie. He asked a man outside the theater to give him a lift to the depot, and told him he had permission from his mother.

Then John hopped a train.

“Just like that,” he said. “My mama kept disappearing, so I disappeared.”

Enslavement and Liberation

By the time I noticed we were walking, we were some distance down the tracks. John was striding from tie to tie as if his feet had rediscovered an old familiar pathway, like fingers recalling a musical instrument after a lifetime away. I trailed behind.

“I had to lie again when I got to Raleigh,” John said over his shoulder. “I told the man at the depot I was sixteen and that my parents had died.” The man helped John find a job on one condition: that he go back to school. “Yes sir, God had his hand on me all along.” John shakes his head in wonder.

He stayed in school and worked afternoons at a hot dog stand. On Sundays, he would make good money selling wine and whiskey from behind his stand. “Soon enough I couldn’t do without the stuff; I was an alcoholic just like Mama.”

John slows his gait and looks up and down the tracks and over at the copse of trees. “Right about here,” he says, stopping,”right here.”

“One night I was sitting by the tracks — here — with another wino, wondering where we were going to find the money for more booze. All of a sudden, I see he’s crying. I asked him, ‘What’s the matter, Pokey? Don’t worry, we’ll find a way to get more wine before we go to sleep.’

‘It’s not that,’ Pokey answered. ‘It’s you I’m worried about — you’re not going to make it.'”

John is silent for a while, as if reliving that conversation.

“That was my low point, yes it was,” he says finally. He toes the dust with his black lace-up shoe. “I thought about it all night. After that I went to an AA meeting and had a miracle. God took away my desire for alcohol. It’s more than drinking, it’s liberation . . . that’s where I found the true God.”

Pokey went to a few meetings with John, but he’s the one who didn’t make it. “He died of alcoholism in his forties,” John says, “but he saved my life.”

* * * * * *

Based on a true story (John’s name has been changed) and in response to the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge, which this week offered a selection of photographs and introductory lines to kick off a story. I chose the train tracks and a variation of “I had been here before, a long time ago.” Photo credit: Cheri Lucas Rowlands/The Daily Post.

A Beautiful but Dangerous Frame of Mind

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I saw it yesterday, the very image you are requesting. Powerful is too tame a word for it; the whole world was transformed — dramatic and primal, beautiful and dangerous at the same time. 

Standing on my screened porch, which had seemed perfectly safe and sturdy until that moment, I watched the storm blow in. The trees were dead-still one minute and then whipping about the next, as if a wind-snake of monstrous proportions were writhing and whirling overhead. 

Quiet. Then chaotic. Then calm again. Then wild. Branches squealed and moaned. My skin tingled and my heart raced. 

“Don’t be silly,” I told myself, “you love storms.” 

Fear. Dread. Tornadoes. Falling trees. 

I weenied out and went inside. I clicked on Facebook, a safe and familiar refuge. The screen flashed a dozen photos — Check out this rainbow! Go outside NOW and see the rainbow! Double rainbow! Gorgeous sunset through the black clouds!

I looked out the window. Black as death. No sign of any other color. My friend texted from a pub three blocks away — “did u c the rainbow?” I looked out again — the black was turning charcoal grey, but I saw no rainbows. Thunder rumbled.

I clicked on a few random articles — gun rights and transgendered rights and women’s rights and civil rights — and then looked out the window again. The entire sky had turned a brilliant gold in a matter of minutes. I don’t mean that muddy yellow you see before a tornado, I mean an intense you-have-died-and-gone-to-heaven golden blaze.

The color you never see in the real world except in those landscapes from the Hudson River School painters like Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Cole, and Albert Bierstadt.

Bierstadt; Sierra Nevadas Wikipedia Commons

Bierstadt; Sierra Nevadas
Wikipedia Commons

As the gold faded and the sun reached the horizon, the sky turned pink, then scarlet, and then rich plum. And then the stars ventured out.

So, WordPress Daily Prompt, you want me to paint my current mood onto a canvas and tell you what the painting would look like? That was it. Yesterday’s storm. 

Black and grey and magnificent gold and radiant scarlet, changing moment by moment and sometimes all at the same time. Deep and primal; menacing, yet captivating. 

You know there’s a rainbow, but you can’t see it yet.

I know this canvas. This is my painting. This is grief, six months, two weeks, and two days after my brother’s passing.  

Want to Know My Dream?

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The question makes me laugh: “You just inherited a dilapidated, crumbling-down grand mansion in the countryside — what do you do with it?” As it turns out, this is not a theoretical question for me. Today’s WordPress Daily Prompt is, in fact, a reality in my life.

All except the second part of the prompt, “Assuming money is no issue…” That part is definitely theoretical. Oh, and the part about it being a grand mansion. That’s not exactly true either.

What is true is that I have inherited the loveliest piece of real estate on the planet, named Quiet Hills by my grandmother Beedie who purchased the place in 1940. The old (1782) Cape Cod in the countryside of New Hampshire could probably be described as somewhat dilapidated, but I don’t see it that way. 

Quiet Hills

Quiet Hills

Because of the money issue, I don’t spend time dreaming of what it might become, I just enjoy it for what it is: a wildlife sanctuary of woods and meadows and a quaint house full of ghosts and massive old furniture, which I imagine house servants slathering with beeswax back in the day. It smells of lavender and witch hazel and my grandmother’s face powder. 

On still nights, I can hear the Ashuelot River rushing over boulders at the foot of the hill. The Hermit Thrush announces the setting of the sun, and the Great Horned Owl welcomes the falling of darkness. I can’t say what happens at dawn because that’s not my thing. I always stay up too late reading Beedie’s musty old novels to see the dawn.

But . . . but — what if I had money?

A Writer’s Haven

No question. Quiet Hills would be a retreat house for writers and nature lovers and spiritual seekers. I’d give classes in writing techniques and in contemplative spiritual practices like Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina (sacred reading). 

We would have silent retreats, too, and I’d have someone teach yoga  and tai chi. I’d set up nature trails on the property with prayer prompts along the way, and build a prayer labyrinth with benches and weeping birch trees around the edges. People would frequently have life-changing spiritual epiphanies there.

Prayer labyrinth

Prayer labyrinth

I’d run a bed & breakfast for my retreatants, and every morning my helper would get up early and make a humongous country breakfast. Our speciality would be blueberry muffins with berries from our fields and fresh butter from two dairy cows who roam the meadows and come into the old coach house for milking. And eggs, too, from my chickens who eat the pests in the vegetable garden where lush tomato vines are heavy with warm fruit and the aroma of sweet basil is overpowering. There would be no meat in our meals, and no one would miss it.

Eggs, not meat

Eggs, not meat

I’d fix up the massive barn; one end would be a huge picture window overlooking the woods — that’s where we would hold workshops, and there would be sleeping quarters in the lofts above. In the corners of the barn I’d have mounds of brightly colored handmade quilts for people to snuggle into each autumn and to spread out in the meadows for writing and naps in the summer. 

I’d get custom-made windows for the main house, and insulation, so I could be there in the winters, too. I’d build a big stone hearth and fireplace in the living room where the small wood-burning stove is now, and expand the kitchen to fit several long tables where people could eat together. Why not put a fireplace in the kitchen, too? And a big bay window with lots of hummingbird feeders just outside. Everyone would marvel at the constant comings and goings of the hovering jewels.

I’d have all new (but vintage) wallpaper and curtains and oriental rugs, and wall-to-ceiling bookcases in every room, because after all, this is a writer’s retreat. I’d have lots of bathrooms, and instead of the dug wells that run dry in August, there would be an artesian well sunk deep into cold, underground springs. There would be a jacuzzi. 

Best of all, Quiet Hills B&B retreat house would be free for those who couldn’t afford my already reasonable rates. Money should be no hindrance to dreams.

And that, WordPress Daily Prompt, is what I would do with my dilapidated inheritance if I had money. Now – please tell me that this is actually a contest, and I win, and the prize is that you’re going to fund my dream. 

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