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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

Shifting Reality – A Poem

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SHIFTING REALITY

They collide, a bear and a dogbone,

To become a giant mouse head.

I surrender to shifting reality.

◊  ◊  ◊

An angel’s cowlick elongates, circles to her chin

And forms an elephant’s trunk,

Lifting water to mouth.

◊  ◊  ◊

Continents morph as maps float by,

Mountains to peninsulas to islands;

Plate tectonics on amphetamines.

◊  ◊  ◊

A laughing alligator with a camel’s hump

Gallops towards the horizon, and . . .

Blue! All is blue!

◊  ◊  ◊

Airy wisps of white cotton candy coalesce

Shaping a tropical storm swirl,

And the shifting begins again.

◊  ◊  ◊

Shifting Reality

Shifting Reality

The Work of Rest

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My neighbor stood at my back door in his usual state: bare torso sweaty, blue jeans dirty, and straw hat terminally tattered. Despite his appearance, a sweet, fresh aroma entered with him when I opened the screen door, as if he had just been rolling around in his herb garden.

Van held out a carton of eggs and a paper bag spilling over with yellow squash, cucumbers, parsley, and basil. Before I could thank him, he proudly announced what he knew would be an even more welcome gift. “I just bought a brush hog!” he said with a grin.

“Oh my gosh!” I squealed. I knew he was looking for an effusive response, but I was also sincerely  thrilled because my hay fields are going to be forest very soon if I can’t find someone to mow them.

“I’m going to start on my fields tomorrow, and then we can see about yours,” he said. “And you gotta come down and see the solar shower I just rigged up from the rain barrels. Don’t worry, it has a curtain.”

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The Industrious Nature

Like a lot of folks up here in New Hampshire, my neighbor Van rarely sits still. He’s up before his rooster crows, feeding chickens, weeding the garden, or transplanting bee balm and lilies around his Rest Easy Pet Cemetery down the lane from my place. He hammers a lot, building fences and sheds and such. I think this industrious nature may be in the blood — many generations of chopping mountains of wood to fend off the severe winters and farming dawn to dusk during the short growing season.

It’s not that citizens of the Granite State are frenetic like the people in D.C. where I live most of the year. They know how to relax. People in rural New Hampshire work hard five or six days a week, but they don’t work much past five o’clock. On the weekends they go to ice cream socials and sidewalk sales, and they actually stroll in the park (without phones glued to their heads). The bars and businesses in town close early, and then everyone goes to bed at nine or nine-thirty so they can be up at dawn.

So it was with a tone of confession that I answered Van’s query of what I’d been up to: “I’ve really done nothing since I’ve been here.” I smiled apologetically.

“Well, isn’t nothing what you’re supposed to be doing?” I love Van.

“Well, I better get a move on; got to get the chickens in,” he said as he headed for the door.

Re-Imagining Work

What exactly am I supposed to be doing? Is this it? Then why do I feel guilty and ashamed? This was my plan for the summer: a month of cleaning out my family’s house in D.C., then a month resting and writing up here — back and forth each month and catching the fall colors both places.

Yet somehow I feel I should be “working.” I haven’t even been writing much, except for some bad poetry I wrote while sitting by the beaver pond.

Perhaps what I’m doing can be re-imagined as work?

Inspiration for some bad poetry

Inspiration for some bad poetry

The Writer at Work

I feel slovenly when I spend an afternoon reading fiction, but they say that writers should read incessantly — it is part of our work. I’ve finished almost three books in the short time I’ve been here — Keri Hulme’s The Bone People; Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings (awesome); and an Agatha Christie mystery, Cards on the Table.

I say I’ve hardly written, but I’ve actually filled more than twenty-five pages in my journal and covered ten pages of a spiral notebook with random bits of blogs, essays, and poems.

Spiritual Work

Much of my writing has also been spiritual work. I came up here with a specific goal for myself: to examine and pray about some of the character flaws I’d like to have God remove — anxiety, contempt, a need for recognition, and envy. (The latter is an insidious little bugger — I’ve only recently realized I have it!) If you’re interested in my navel gazing about some of these flaws, scroll down to my last post.

I am making an effort to get back to my favorite form of meditation, Centering Prayer, which is seriously hard work because it entails trying to surrender everything in your brain to God, becoming nothing but a vessel for love.

My walks in the woods can be considered spiritual work since most of my wandering is spent in reflection, and they are also a workout for my body. So is my occasional thrashing around on the floor in front of a Rodney Yee yoga video.

A Working Chef

Cooking! Surely that counts as work, although it’s fun and something I usually take significant time for only when I’m on vacation. Summer is abundant here, and I never miss the farmer’s market.

Summer Abundance

Summer Abundance

I’ve made gazpacho, fresh corn salad, potato and lentil stew, cabbage and pasta with garlic, tomatoes stuffed with eggplant curry (dreadful), and nearly daily caprese salads with perfect local tomatoes and basil from my backyard.

Does building up the compost pile count as work?

Shucking corn is hard work!

Shucking corn is hard work!

Working Dreams

While we’re pushing the boundaries here, how about dreaming? I’ve heard of “dream work.” I decided to stop setting the alarm because I’ve been waking up anxious, something that happened after my mother passed away and which returned after my brother’s death. I don’t think I understood the psychic cost of keeping the phone by my bed every night for seven years in case my mother or my brother had a crisis or was dying. No wonder I wake up anxious!

After I nixed the alarm, I slept eleven hours several nights straight and had intense and involved dreams of my mother and my brother. The subconscious at work . . .

What I’m Supposed to Be Doing

The work of rest. That’s what I’m supposed to be doing.

Partners in my work - Mayasika and Eliza Bean

Partners in my work — Mayasika and Eliza Bean

Rest is essential to health and creativity.

After my mother died, I went on a retreat about calling and vocation — I thought I had to get busy since my caregiving role had ended. (Little did I know I would become my brother’s caregiver for the next six years.) On that retreat, I learned that restful healing is a calling in itself. I just forget sometimes.

I will not talk about the work of grieving, that goes without saying. It is what I do these days. Except to say that part of grief work is learning to have fun again. Saturday I went to a party and met a bunch of interesting folks and laughed a lot. On the way home, I stopped at the fairgrounds and watched the town’s end-of-summer fireworks.

I am where I’m supposed to be.

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How Do You Escape?

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Next week I will head north, like a compass needle seeking home. After six months away, my annual early summer trip to our family home in the foothills of New Hampshire is always a sweet time.

This first trip will be short — mostly dispensing with mice and mildew and catching up with my neighbors. But I’ll be back and forth all summer, sweltering in the D.C. suburbs for a few weeks and then easing back into the serenity of New England.

In reality, there will be biting black flies and voracious mosquitoes up there, but in my mind it’s paradise.

At any rate, the WordPress Gods’ Weekly Challenge asking for photos that say “escape” is kind of a no-brainer for me.

Here is my escape:

Quiet Hills

Quiet Hills

A Sneak Peek into History

Here is a short excerpt from an essay that has yet to find an appropriate publication to snuggle into, so I can’t share much of it lest it be deemed “published” by my future editor – just a sneak peek:

My grandmother Beedie bought the white Cape Cod with its four ramshackle outbuildings in 1940, after her merchant husband died in what Newsweek magazine called “a fiery elaborate hell at sea.” Investigations of the Morro Castle ship fire subjected families and survivors to nightmarish scenarios of suspected arson, murder and panicked crew members absconding with lifeboats while passengers drowned or burned.

The shaken young widow found comfort working in her flower garden by day, and at night she was entranced by luminous showers of fireflies and stars strewn across the heavens. Deep winter snows softened the edges of her pain. She christened her house and the surrounding forty acres “Quiet Hills” and so created a healing refuge for five generations of her family.

My earliest memories of Quiet Hills are captured in a faded black and white photograph of the two of us in the shade of a massive oak tree. My pudgy four-year-old legs dangle from a tiny Adirondack chair and Beedie sits straight-backed, primly sipping English Breakfast tea. I remember the older kids were racing about on a treasure hunt, upending maple sugar buckets, peering into the lichen-covered well house and scaling the barn silo. I couldn’t tell if it was a good or a bad thing when Beedie remarked, “The hills aren’t so quiet when your family is here.” But she was smiling.

If you are the editor of a well-read and well-paying publication, feel free to contact me if you would like to read this essay in its entirety.

Are you planning an escape this summer? Where to?

If you believe that you are too busy to get away, consider reading one of these posts:

https://melanielynngriffin.wordpress.com/2013/05/09/are-you-too-busy-to-be-happy/

https://melanielynngriffin.wordpress.com/2012/11/25/how-not-to-screw-up-your-holidays/

Emotional House Cleaning

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Labor Day. The end of summer. Soon I’ll be leaving the muse-mountains of New Hampshire and heading south, back to Johns Hopkins University to continue my quest to “become a writer.” Summer hasn’t worked out the way I’d planned, which isn’t a huge surprise, since I didn’t really have a plan. Well, I kind of had a plan, and it kind of happened. I did go to Assateague, where beach afternoons held vodka & tonics and distinctly un-literary paperbacks, and the evenings featured friends smashing crabs, sucking oysters, and picking through lobster claws while I used my vegetarianism as an excuse to have third helpings of veggie casserole and corn on the cob.

As planned, my nephew and his four kids descended on Quiet Hills in July, and I returned to childhood for a few weeks as we splashed in the Ashuelot River, caught frogs and toads, reveled in cotton candy, pizza and ice cream, and played Clue and Monopoly before ending the evenings with Tolkien in Middle-earth. I had even planned to maybe consider pondering the notion of starting a blog … and so!

In fact, much of my summer went exactly as planned, but there’s been one crashing failure. I was supposed to throw myself into de-cluttering mode for large blocs of June, July, and August. I donated my Elvis books — a big step in divesting myself of past lives — but beyond that, nada. Why? Why is getting rid of stuff such a huge deal for me? I’m not as bad as the TV show Hoarders, but I can see how they get there.

In lieu of making any actual progress, I bought a few de-cluttering magazines, which provided no assistance and are now cluttering up the couch. Then I signed up for a Feng Shui de-cluttering class at the local community college. The instructor was colorful and billowy and smelled vaguely like a pine tree, or maybe a pile of peat. “My name is Yarrow,” she said. No last name, or maybe that was her last name. She looked like a swami George Harrison might have hung out with.

Yarrow told us about energy spaces and fire and water and yin and yang and color circles and that the bedroom is the most important room and that it needs to be a safe space. This brought to mind the battered cedar trunk that was at the foot of my bed for several decades, a relic from a psychotic roommate who strangled my cat before vanishing. Why on earth had I kept that trunk?

“Where will you start?” The swami billowed up behind me and put her hand on my chair.

“What?” I asked, surprised and feeling oddly guilty, as if I’d been called out for daydreaming in class.

“What’s number one on your plan to create your safe bedroom?”

“Um, the brown dresser, I guess.” I grasped the first thing that came to mind. I hadn’t actually seen the brown dresser in quite some time, but I assumed it was still supporting that massive pile of clothes and shoes.

“Tell us about the brown dresser,” she urged.

“Well,” I said, stalling for time, “it’s brown.”

“Yes?”

“And the finish is gone and its drawers are broken. The clothes are crammed in so that they bulge through the bottom of the drawers.”

She nodded. “And what will you do with this dresser once it’s cleaned out? You’re not going to keep it?” She raised her eyebrows.

I felt surprised and somewhat insulted.  “If I duct tape the drawers again it will last for a while,” I said defensively. “It was my roommate John’s.”

“Ahhh,” she said knowingly. “It was John’s. Now we’re getting somewhere. Tell us about John.”

“John was my roommate for ten years or so,” I said. “We went to high school together. He’s a good friend … or was. He married a woman who I don’t think likes me, so I don’t see him much anymore.” This reasoning sounded lame even to me, and I looked around the room for support.

Everyone was looking at Yarrow, who was making the blah-blah-blah gesture with her fingers, like a yapping Bugs Bunny shadow puppet. “You see?” she said to the class. “This has nothing to do with the dresser. It’s John she’s holding on to. All of this clutter is about emotional attachments. It’s not about the stuff, it’s about emotional attachments.”

Oh. I guess maybe I knew that at some level.

I do know I’m weighed down with a bunch of stuff I don’t want or need.  A brown dresser becomes a fear of abandonment. A faded patchwork skirt embodies a five-year relationship (he had the skirt made for me) and reminds me I’m past the age when I might give birth to the daughter I once planned to give it to. A white ceramic cat that looks like a giant blob of marshmallow crème with a garland of roses stuck in it represents the loss of my mother – she gave it to me, after all; I can’t very well just get rid of it.

Obviously, this is going to be a long journey. An emotional and spiritual expedition with lightness and freedom at the end of it. I hope that writing it down will ensure that this inner and outer de-cluttering becomes a healing process. I’m ready. If you’re a packrat, or if you just like to marvel at the messes people make, you’re welcome to join me. I hope you enjoyed your summer.

Marshmallow Cat

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