(Christian Courier column, June 22, 2015)
By the time you read this, I’ll be almost recuperated from two months of extreme gardening. Last fall we left for Florida without accomplishing much cleanup, so this past April consisted of endless days of raking leaves and clearing debris. May was all about weeding, planting and pruning. But June is sheer gratification. Time to sit back and marvel.
I recall last year’s June. Abundant spring rain had given my garden a turbo-boost of energy that resulted in lush exuberance. It was intoxicating. Vivid colours — the bright lime green of emerging tendrils on the elderberry, the sparkling yellow of marigolds, deep purple clematis, royal blue lobelia. The textures – fuzzy moss, waxy hens and chicks, the spidery veins of the caladium. Everything shone, except for the tiger sumac Mark decided to prune on a hot day, promptly killing half of it. Apparently, tiger sumacs don’t take well to being sliced and diced in the middle of a growth spurt. The real satisfaction last year, though, was the maturity of the garden, a five year project completed. It was so rewarding to see those rough original landscape sketches transformed into the artful vistas I’d imagined so long ago.
It will always be a work in progress, naturally, as gardens are. There are plants to relocate, holes to fill. We pulled out eight old cedars last spring, and suddenly, wow, the pear tree in the far corner, which had languished since we planted it, neither hot nor cold (something biblical there), started to shoot up like Jack’s beanstalk.
But truly the most edifying thing about the garden is simply how much time Mark and I spend there together. He enjoys all the things I don’t … filling the bird feeder, installing gadgets like wand attachments to hoses and setting up the rain barrels. He takes care of the gruesome tasks like disposing of the occasional dead bird or scooping the poop left behind by some rascally dog off the leash. One night we heard a rustling in the patio pot behind us. I dropped to one knee instantly, ready to sprint away like a mutant superhero. He calmly lifted the trailing bacopa to reveal a toad. He wondered if I wanted to kiss it. Oh, yes, we have fun in the garden.
He likes to tease me by offering opinions on my aesthetic choices: I think those cabbages would look better in rows, don’t you? That marijuana plant there needs to be pruned, doesn’t it? Of course, I have neither cabbages nor marijuana in my garden. The cabbages are sedums. The marijuana plant? Sumac. He makes up new names for the plants every day, so I’m never quite sure which one he’s talking about. It’s fun to show him new blooms that are emerging, or how much weeding I’ve accomplished that day. He makes a commendable effort to appear interested.
We like to watch the birds together. Of course, as I’ve already confessed in a previous column, I’m terrified of them (ornithophobia). Much of Mark’s enjoyment doesn’t really come from the birds, but from witnessing my fear in action. Do you know how aggressive a mama grackle can get if you (inadvertently) get too close to her baby? She will swoop right at your head! Squeals from me. Peals of laughter from him.
Every evening a neighbourhood cat slinks along our fence on some stealth mission of his own. The resident blue jays go insane. One night they all dive-bombed the cat! It was quite the melee. Better the cat than me, I say. Mark gives ridiculous names to the birds and squirrels, too, some of which are funny but not edifying, so I can’t share them here.
When we sit on the patio and have our coffee, watching the sun go down and waiting for the solar lights to flash on, we can be quietly content for long stretches. I might break the silence by telling him that the fence looks fantastic and thanks again for building that, honey. I might point out that our shed is the second-best one in Wyoming (bested only by our neighbour’s which has French doors and a porch). Thanks for building that, too, dear. I might mention that I saw a hummingbird today. We’ll talk about the weather, now that, as he says, I’m pretty close to being a farmer. We’ll discuss tomorrow’s plans. Golfing? I’ll ask (he golfs every day). He’ll say, “Yep, I might, for a change.”
(Christian Courier column, August 25th, 2014)
Emily Cramer’s funny, candid column, “three year revolution” (CC, August 11, 2014), brought me back 30 years. Teaching, raising children, swept up by the surging busyness. Derek Schuurman’s column in the same issue about his 25th wedding anniversary was another wistful read. When I got married, I, too, was still in school. Their reflections galvanized some further thoughts of my own about the seasons of life.
Let my start by apologizing to retirees everywhere for some unkind remarks I made, oh, about 10 or 15 years ago. Harried, I was juggling marriage, kids and a demanding profession. At the Christian school where I taught, we depended on volunteers to supplement the programming, trying to offer top-notch education on a stringent budget. Driven to excel, frustrated by inadequate resources, I got cranky. I complained about the generation ahead of me. Why weren’t the retirees helping more? They had time. Surely more of them could lend a hand! Yep. I said it. Out loud.
Now I’m retired. Fast approaching 60. A different wave is curling in, a new ride with a fresh perspective. Poised to surf this last third of my earthly life, here are some things I wish my irate younger self would have considered.
- Physical decline. Many seniors are commendably fit. More power to them. Others experience a gradual lessening of health and energy. I certainly can’t function at the frenetic pace I maintained for years. Somewhere in an old daybook is an entry detailing a day that started at 6:00 am, included driving students to Windsor in my own car, leading two workshops at a Fine Arts event, racing back to school for a staff meeting from 3:30 to 6:00 pm, heading home for a quick bite to eat and then returning to school for an Education Committee meeting that lasted until 11:00 pm. Now I wonder, How did I ever do that? Aches and pains, diabetes and joint replacements become all too real after 50. For the first time in my life, I’m experiencing stiffness in the morning. The creaky slowness dumbfounds me.
- There is more loss in the later stages of life. The passage of time inevitably results in an accretion of hurts and disappointments. Sometimes people arrive at the threshold of their golden years pummelled and exhausted from broken marriages, the challenges of raising children, financial worries, bereavement. Yes, there are those who can rise above even a lifetime of trouble, sustaining an optimistic outlook and steady faith. Others struggle to adjust. I wish my impatient younger self had been more aware of the toll of fatigue and heartache.
- Retirement offers new opportunity. Many of the retirees I grumbled about had already given decades of support to churches and Christian schools. My former uncharitable self could have chosen to rejoice graciously with these older folks for their chance to broaden their horizons, to explore God-given gifts and passions in novel ways, to serve God and neighbour at a different pace.
I’ve written often about my church participation — teaching catechism, editing the bulletin, mentoring the pastor. I’ve been a strong proponent of “doing,” conscious that my walk should match my talk, especially for the sake of the students I’ve taught.
But, suddenly, I’m doing less. Some of that is due to pressing needs within my family and some of it, frankly, is due to wintering in Florida. I’m still rather defensive, particularly in light of my opinionated past (grin). But this perfect little poem by Erica Jong inspires me to be less so. And eager to embrace what’s still to come.
The Raspberries in My Driveway
Nature will bear the closest inspection. She Invites us to lay our eyes level with her Smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its Plain. —Thoreau
in my driveway
(for the whole eleven years
I have owned
but have not owned
I have never
Always on a plane.
Always in the arms
of man, not God,
always too busy,
that all along
are red, red raspberries
for me to taste.
Shiny and red,
unlike the berries
from the market.
I share them
with the birds!
On one perches
a tiny green insect.
I blow her off.
I burst the raspberry
upon my tongue.
In my solitude
with the world.
The world was always
if you are so beautiful
upon my ready tongue,
lie in store
Today is Boxing Day. I’m doing a fun job, the culmination of a year’s worth of preparing. I’m putting together a slide show for our church, highlighting the events and activities of 2012. The slide show will be shown at the New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day services. I’ve taken hundreds of photos throughout the year. Now it’s time to sort, crop, zoom and sequence the photos into a visual narrative of sorts. It’s almost as fun as writing, arranging the pictures to tell a story… the story of love for God and love for neighbour at our church.
I wish everyone could take a turn at this job (although no one else seems to be jumping at the chance :-). The photo story magnifies what we know and profess _ the communion of the saints _ showcasing it, holding it up for an appreciative view, like a necklace draped on black velvet, its precious living stones strung together, their shine enhanced by proximity, the glimmer multiplied.
We don’t see each other this way enough. We see one another’s flaws so much more readily – Eugene’s impatience, Dayna’s controlling nature, Lucy’s tendency to complain, Rudolph’s parsimony. (All pseudonyms that apply to me as well as anyone else!) Those flaws are real. But the photos tell a true story, too.
There’s elderly Susan holding little Theo at the baby shower. Jane and Jessie are waiting for their turn. There’s everyone lining up to shake the hands of Mike and Jenn and the others who made profession of faith. There’s the fellowship hall filled to the rafters at the potluck lunch to welcome the pastor. There’s Shane and Clay climbing the tree out in front of the church, Jesse and Caleb playing their gameboys on the piano bench, Kailey and Brooke doing a whimsical jig in the church basement. Baptisms, seniors dinners, choir concerts, Sunday school events, HANDS Team pancake breakfasts, Friendship Sunday, VBS, Gems Mother and Daughter banquet, the Serve Team garage sale, Mindy and Marisa playing their instruments, Harry tuning up the soundboard, Jim and Aijolt peeling potatoes. Exquisite moments of hugs, of friendship, of worship, of work, of support, of love for one another. A multitude of moments that combine to outshine passing irritations with a blinding beauty, like the sun breaking the horizon, so bright you can hardly take it in.
As the photos flash by, we see beyond our own small church circles – our family clan, our Coffee Break study group, our Council meetings. We see a connected whole that, in the right light and with the right spirit, gives a glimpse of what God sees … his people, his family, his children … his delight. And, in the right light and with the right spirit, we also see God dwelling in us and among us. The Wyoming CRC as just another manger.
I love this job. I love my church.
I thought I’d share some thoughts on the sermon I heard yesterday morning, delivered with conviction from our Wyoming CRC pulpit by Rev. J. Hellinga. Not a précis, just some musings. I don’t think he’ll mind. Good preachers want you to not just hear their message, but to think about, make it your own, apply it in some way. Hopefully I won’t garble his points as I share … :-). I didn’t take notes, so I’m going by memory. This is the condensed version, the “interpretation according to Cathy.”
Pastor John began by asserting the value of the various gospel viewpoints, something I also just read about in an excellent Banner article by Meg Jenista. Each gospel adds a unique and complementary angle to the Christmas story. One event, multiple refractions, like a prism. Today’s sermon would come from Matthew 2 which provides, said Pastor John, a critical balance to Luke 2. While the narrative of a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes offers the humble view, Matthew’s version reminds us that this is also, without question, a royal birth. The Magi come seeking a King.
Pastor Hellinga spent a few minutes discussing the star. He said it really didn’t matter if it was a star or a comet or an alignment of planets. It might be interesting to discuss and investigate what kind of celestial body it was, but that’s tangential to the main point which is that creation announced the birth of its king. He quoted Romans 1, referring to God’s invisible presence in creation, and also mentioned the Psalms where the heavens “declare the glory of God.”
The pastor identified the Magi as learned men from Iraq, astrologers, but not astronomers. He suggested that they propounded a pseudo-science and that astrology today continues to be a popular false spirituality. I agree that astrology is something that is neither science nor religion and should be identified for the empty thing it is. However, I’ve always thought of the Magi as genuine astronomers, true scholars as measured by the standards of their day. So I’d like to know more about them and do further research and reading. Pastor Hellinga shared one idea about the Magi, though, that really grabbed my attention. I’ve wondered, now and then, why the Magi connected a new star to the arrival of a King. That assumption always seemed kind of random to me. Why did the star have to signal that? Why not a bountiful year? Or an upcoming victory in a military campaign? I guess I always assumed it was an arbitrary divine intervening – a vision or intuition or revelation – that the Holy Spirit must have provided. But Pastor Hellinga noted that Iraq was formerly known as Persia and, before that, as Babylon. So during the exile and captivity, while Israel sat and wept, they also, no doubt, planted the seed. Or perhaps it was the daring of Daniel and his faithful band. But the Messianic promise was whispered even there, in hostile and heathen lands, for centuries. This struck me as remarkable, both for the fact that I never connected the dots in this way before, but also because of how absolutely fitting it was. I wanted to jump up and say, “Hallelujah!” My mind jumped to the passage in Luke where grizzled old Simeon, holding a tender-fleshed baby, praised God for “your salvation, prepared in the sight of all people.” It was like the smooth joining of a ball and socket, or the satisfactory click of a key opening a door. The salvation was “for all people.” The Magi had been linked into the salvation chain long before either they or Simeon were born. The Jews and the unclean Gentiles were coupled while still enemies, the chosen and the to-be-chosen. The Magi’s presence in the story was not so mysterious and surprising after all, but deftly foreshadowed in OT events. (Pastor Hellinga also pointed out briefly, but refreshingly, that God works in the unholy places and people as much as in the holy. God uses the wise men from heathen nations as well as characters from within Israel.)
Ok, back to the sermon. Pastor Hellinga noted that Herod had to ask his advisors where the promised king was to be born. They consulted the Scriptures and found the prophecy in Micah that predicted Bethlehem would be the birthplace. Here, said the pastor, is where creation’s word, the star, is backed up by the “written” word. He assured us that God’s creation will never contradict God’s revealed Word. Both emanate from God. We should remain calm and not get disputatious about these matters.
Pastor Hellinga went on to talk about the Magi finding the Incarnate Word of God, Jesus himself, in a house in Bethlehem. They worshipped and adored him. I loved his progression through the sermon, the triad of Words: the creational word, the scriptural word, and the incarnate word. But, finally, and even better (kudos to Pastor John!) he brought us to the house we were in that very morning, the Wyoming CRC. The Word of God is here, too, he reminded us, and, like the Magi, we must worship and adore him, our Saviour and Lord.
A sermon that made an impression. Taught me something new and pointed to paths for further exploration.
After the service, I was on coffee duty. It was a treat to hand the steaming cups to my fellow parishioners, to shake their hands and say “Merry Christmas.” There were people present from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, the Netherlands, the United States and probably a host of other places. As I exited the sanctuary a bit early to serve the coffee, “Ere Zij God/Glory to God” was ringing around me in both Dutch and English. A fitting doxology. As Simeon had predicted: “For glory to your people Israel” and “For revelation to the Gentiles.” All are bathed in the glory. All belong.
It’s been a quiet day. More of them are these days. That’s OK. The frenzied decades slide into calmer waters. You think they’ll never come. You cover your eyes from the glare of the sun and check the horizon periodically, but you don’t see any change in the distance. You keep doing your chores, your duties, the things you do. Then, one day you look up in surprise to realize that something’s different. Somehow the landscape’s been transformed. It was so gradual, glacial, that you never even noticed.
I remember one Christmas Eve not that long ago. I was still working full-time. I got really sick right before Christmas. Some kind of bronchial infection or walking pneumonia. Who knows? Who has time to go to a doctor? I was coughing up my throat, my lungs and probably my toenails. I was coughing incessantly, and not sleeping well because the misery was worse at night. I couldn’t finish out the semester and felt so bad for my co-workers who had to cover my duties and classes when they were end-of-term weary themselves.
Because I’d been so busy and then so relentlessly ill, I hadn’t had time or energy to decorate the house. So, I was madly hanging ornaments on the tree on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, still barking and hacking. The kids were coming home. There had to be some semblance of Christmas. I remember crying a bit as I hurriedly hung the ornaments on the tree. Too hectic. Too run-down. It was all wrong.
Today my house is decorated and cozy. My village is lit up, nestled on “snow” on top of the wall unit. The Victorian with the wraparound porch and gingerbread trim, the bed and breakfast hotel with the big front window through which you can see a little girl playing piano, the schoolhouse and railroad station house the memories of the people who gave them to me. The little white church was my first acquisition, a gift from my mother-in-law. The following year she gave me a bank. I bought the windmill myself, persuaded by my sister-in-law, who insisted that the village should include a nod to my Dutch heritage. At night, if you walk down my street, you can look up and see the village winking at you through the living room window pane.
In the kitchen I have a Nativity made by my father-in-law set up on a little table. It’s a rough-hewn manger, but it’s lit up too. The figurines are from Dollarama, so please don’t picture an elegant Mary or three imposing kings. Still, I rather like it. My granddaughter was playing with it and she put all the people and animals crowded right up against the manger. Somehow that’s a compelling arrangement. The ceramic Christmas tree on my desk is lit up, too, made by Aunt Eleanor who used to run a shop called Ellie’s Dolls. My in-laws and Aunt Eleanor are gone now, but live on, forever connected to me, especially at Christmas.
A digital frame in my living room, a gift from the kids, rolls through Christmases past, reliving old memories. The photos mark the passing of time in the ever-changing hairstyles, the addition of new faces, the absence of others.
I’m typing this on my laptop, watching CMT and enjoying Christmas music by Martina McBride and Faith Hill. I’ve had time today to vacuum, take a walk, peel potatoes for tomorrow’s dinner, make soup for supper tonight and run to Europa Bakery for some treats to bring to my sister’s later. Mark has been puttering around the house working on some remodelling projects. He put a battery in the wreath on our front door, so it lights up once again. We stopped to have coffee together a few times. Right now he’s reading a book on the KOBO e-reader that the kids gave him last year.
This sounds like a story about the rewards of the golden years, doesn’t it? You live through the harried times and emerge on the other side to appreciate all you’ve got. Some peace, perhaps. Sure, there’s some of that. But the truth is, the older you get, the more your family grows, the longer you stay in one place and put down roots and come to know your friends and neighbours intimately, the longer your prayer list gets. Every minute of every day could be spent praying for the broken and troubled marriages, the cancers, the accidents, the aging, the addictions, the misspoken words, the harmed childhoods, the famines in far off places, troubled waters swirling around your feet. It’s enough to make you cry even when your house is decked to the nines, your poinsettias and cranberry wreaths match, and you’re not infectious.
Today, on my walk I saw some things. I saw the shining sun, not up in the sky, but glinting off the leaden water in a mud puddle. I waited for a train to pass. I saw the usual graffiti, but one black car raced by completely covered with a superbly executed gang name in vivid green and yellow. Dramatic. Masterful. It was there and gone before I had time to even decipher what it said. Then, in my own drab December garden, perched in the middle of bedraggled sedums, bent stalks of grass and lumps of wet brown leaves, a lime-green heuchera – preening its frilly plumage just like a cocky parrot inordinately proud of its bright sheen.
Tomorrow, I think, I will take a breath. I will let myself be at peace for just one day. I will believe that tiny surprises like sunlight dancing in a mud puddle or graffiti art whipping down the track or chartreuse leaves glowing in a dead garden are signs. Blinking bits of unexpected glory. Like beauty in a barn, worth huddling in for a closer look. Tomorrow I won’t focus on what’s wrong. For one day, I’ll strain to see what’s right.
(Christian Courier column, Oct.24th issue)
I was asked if I would be willing to put up a Thanksgiving bulletin board at church. I said, “Sure.” So I went home to check out my boxes and supplies. That’s when it hit me – I’m a hoarder. I have over 200 pieces of student artwork, 30 journals, 20 poetry projects, six or seven essays by high school students, and about 100 hundred short stories, poems and paragraphs written by elementary students. I have all my daybooks from over two decades of teaching. I have 8 binders filled with scrounged “good ideas” and dozens of file folders with articles on pedagogical topics and bulletin board ideas. Maybe I need a reality show intervention.
I’ve been retired five years now from teaching in the Christian school system. I wonder why I have such a hard time letting go of this stuff. I do not plan to return to teaching. Yet the physical process of weaning myself from the “stuff” of my career has turned out to be more emotional than I expected. I can’t do it. Somehow that stuff is me, every piece of art, every creative story written by an eager student, every exam I labored over, all those files so carefully organized.
I sort through art samples looking for Thanksgiving ideas. Time collapses. Here’s a pastel composition, lilac blossoms and tulips exquisitely rendered by a Grade 6 student. A lesson on foreground and background. Here’s a seagull, painstakingly created from construction paper confetti. A lesson on texture. It took incredible patience by a Grade 8 student, working with a toothpick and a gluestick, to layer hundreds of circles into a perfectly-proportioned bird in flight.
Each essay, story and poem reminds me of the challenges of teaching writing: that initial writer’s block, the tedium of drafts, first and second, and sometimes third, stapled together, my handwritten encouragements on the back. The stunning results that can still move me, like this perceptive haiku by a Grade 7 student:
Winter’s gentle snow
falling weightless as paper,
weighing down branches.
I’ve counted. My best estimate, given the vagaries of record-keeping and students who sometimes slip into a school and out again before you’ve even found a desk for them, is that I’ve taught over 600 students. Like their art and their stories, somehow they, too, are “me.” The one who made me cry in the staff room in my first year, the one whose compassion I counted on every day for two years to offer support to a disadvantaged peer, the one who lost his dad, the three who lost their moms, the one who was intelligent but couldn’t read, the one who was bullied and the one who bullied, the one who sang like an angel, the one who made me want to quit, the one who played Anne Frank so brilliantly in my first big drama production, the one who told me to f*** off, the one who was so gifted I felt abashed to teach him. They’ve written their names on my heart. I’ve become huge, bigger than myself, stretched, each one expanding my capacity to believe, to forgive, to endure, to love.
Now, on the other side of the career, it occurs to me that these hoarded bits and pieces of student work, cobbled together in my imagination, form my own pointillistic masterpiece, each one emblematic of a tiny dot of effort in the moment. Fleeting, random. But, stepping back from the canvas, the flecks and dabs arrange themselves into a “still life” portrait. A thankful woman. Me. The one who thought she was teaching when she was really being taught.
When I was teaching, busy, busy, busy, attending to the details of the job, raising a family, supporting church and school ventures, if I was thankful, I was thankful on the fly. Sometimes I was too depleted or too frustrated to be thankful. But retirement is a season of thankfulness. With all those names inscribed on my past, I carry a precious koinonia, a fellowship of teaching and learning, into my future, whatever it may bring.
I’ll keep those boxes in the basement. They remind me how immeasurably blessed I was to have participated in a communal and incarnational endeavor where the classroom was redeemed by the presence of Christ and the chalk dust and mud in the hallway was holy ground.
And now I recognize that my imaginary artwork is not mine at all. See there in the corner? It’s signed by God.