Clean-up jobs

(Christian Courier column – September 28, 2015)

 
Our basement flooded last October. We’d lived in our home for 27 years without a single water problem. This explains why, when the hydro went out during a violent thunderstorm, we didn’t check the sump pump. Complacency. Several inches of water soaked our basement, resulting in ruined flooring, a crawl space full of soggy Christmas decorations, and the marshy reek of groundwater.

 
With five fully-finished rooms in the basement, it was a big clean-up job. My husband Mark and brother-in-law Harry worked to extract the water with shop vacs. A mountain of waterlogged possessions accumulated in the driveway. Our insurance company sent over a crew who ripped out carpets and laminate flooring and installed huge fans to dry out the place. An adjustor arrived to survey the damage. Eventually we got a cheque.

 
The flood was a nuisance, but it wasn’t tragic. With the passing away of my brother-in-law Tim earlier in the year, it wasn’t hard to muster up perspective. Everything we lost was replaceable.

 
However, I found myself surprisingly reluctant to replace the stuff. It was freeing to toss out damp magazines, kids’ toys and the ridiculous amount of Christmas paraphernalia I had collected over the years. Perhaps it’s my age, or an evolving eco-responsibility, but I’m increasingly unwilling to fill up my life with things. I don’t want to be responsible for the nautical lamp that belonged to Mark’s grandfather. I don’t want to imbue with unwarranted nostalgia the needlepoint and crewel work I did in my 20s. Simplicity has its own allure.

 
So, though we could afford to replace everything with the insurance money, we didn’t. We refreshed undamaged paneling and bookcases and coffee tables with paint. We kept our 12-year-old sofa and loveseat since they were relatively unscathed. Of course we replaced the floors and spoiled drywall. Mark did the work himself.

 
We purged our books. Again, it was liberating. In fact, some resentment flared at my university profs for requiring me to buy so many obscure textbooks I never looked at again. Still, those books represented the heady days of university. Bittersweet decisions … toss or keep Origins of the Modern Japanese State and The Chinese View of Their Place in the World?

 
Recently we put the finishing touches on our renovated basement. I scoured every nook and cranny to remove lingering drywall dust. I washed the new tile floors (that look amazingly like hardwood) the old-fashioned way, on my hands and knees. I lovingly wiped all the books we had saved and organized them on the bookshelves. It’s always deeply satisfying for me to clean stuff and put it in its proper place. A little compulsive, you ask? Not the first time that suggestion has been made.  🙂

 
The whole process reminded me of one of my favourite stories. Not a story, really, but a warmly intimate portrait of Walter Wangerin’s mother from his book, Little Lamb, Who Made Thee? Wangerin writes, in lavish, exclamatory prose, about his mother’s spring cleaning rituals. Rugs were beaten. Winter clothes were washed and stored in drawers with fresh paper linings. The scent of Spic and Span percolated throughout the house.

 
Wangerin expresses regret for not thanking his mother when he was a child for her yearly spring cleaning. Now he understands its significance: “And spring was always that fresh start of the faith and hope in cleanliness, of the forgiveness of cleanliness, actually, since everything old and fusty could be eliminated, allowing the new to take its place – or better yet, the old itself could be the new again.”

 
He draws a direct line from the sacrificial cleaning of his mother to a world that seemed ordered and good and kind: “My mother assured me annually that newness has a right and a reality, that error can be forgiven, that the sinner can be reclaimed. In springtime she surrounded me with the immediate, primal light of God.” My transported heart beats “yes” to Wangerin’s exuberant insights. “Yes” to the wink of polish beneath grime, “yes” to the emancipation of soap and water, “yes” to the conversion of old to new.

 
It’s my turn. I bless you, Mom, for teaching me to clean. I bless you, every janitor and maid, handyman and housekeeping aide. May your gnarled hands know the consecration of your work — the holiness of your shined surfaces, the redemptive enchantment of “fixed” and “restored,” the approving smile of God as you renew the places where he is coming to live.

 

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A funeral, a wedding and two baptisms

(Christian Courier column, August 24, 2015)

075In June I attended the funeral of a dear aunt who passed away, as the program said, “Sure of her salvation through Jesus Christ, her Saviour.” Tante Jaike (Aunt Joyce) had lived an exemplary Christian life, serving in many capacities, including volunteering at a nursing home for decades. It was a blessing to hear comforting Scripture passages read aloud with deep reverence, to sing majestic hymns –“Be Thou My Vision,” “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us,” “In Christ Alone” — and to pray for God’s presence to surround us in our sorrow.

The simple experience of togetherness thrummed in my heart for days later. Frail, elderly faces from the past, cousins settled almost unrecognizably into middle age, convivial handshakes that conveyed mutual history not forgotten. To me, the gathering was quintessentially “church” – people interested in one another’s well-being, sharing hugs and coffee, united in faith.

In July I witnessed the wedding of one of my former students. Again the press of individuals assembled in a charming (and hot!) sanctuary, standing together hopefully before the face of God, affirming the vows of the happy couple. A palpable blessing. I didn’t know many of the people in the pews ahead of me. A few bald heads, one hipster long hair, a tyke with blond spikes. But I sensed a connectivity, invisible halos conducting shared joy. We sang: “By faith we see the hand of God … in the lives of those who prove his faithfulness, who walk by faith and not by sight.” Our presence at the wedding was just that, a walking by faith, proving God’s faithfulness for the next generation.

Now, it’s no secret, I’m a wannabe theologian. Not a day goes by that I’m not inhaling articles and blog posts on Christian topics from a wide array of perspectives. Sometimes the divergence of opinion – biblically well-articulated and well-supported — is dizzying.

What grounds me is the Body. Sitting in the pew among worshippers who are singing the same hymns, reciting the same Creeds, passing the bread and wine, and bowing their heads simultaneously to pray. It’s those lives, right next to me, who “prove his faithfulness,” who keep me from flying off into never-ending circuits of super-charged suppositions, statistics and arguments.

Holy imprints
Michelle Van Loon, a Patheos blogger, using historian David Bebbington’s distinctives (conversionism, activism, Biblicism, crucientrism) and Barna Group’s definition of “born-again” Christianity, explains why she is still evangelical and what’s good about it. But then she goes on to list some of evangelicalism’s deficits: “Evangelicalism … is a highly individualistic expression of faith. These definitions don’t include any reference to baptism, communion, community, or of picking up one’s cross and following him daily; there is no frame of reference for the kingdom of God.” Her criticisms are valid and pinpoint precisely what I treasure about church. That concretion of sin and redemption we are as a congregation, those aggregate bits of clay and holy imprint we plunk down beside each other every Lord’s Day, those “ties that bind,” provide essential context and responsibility for my faith. A sacramental life is lived in the round. My thinking, reading and writing, and my actions have local parameters. Belonging equals sacrifice. It’s the cost of love.

Sarah Zarr, in “Wrestling with Sunday Mornings,” (Image) explains why she is taking a break from church attendance: “I deeply want to better understand why church matters. Maybe it will take letting it go to figure that out.” She’s not giving up on Christianity, she says, but she’s just not sure about the institution. I want to ask her: Don’t you love the people in your church? Won’t you miss them? Won’t they miss you? Your church attendance is not just about you! I want to refer her to Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith where author Kathleen Norris relates the gentle rebuke of a pastor friend: “… we go to church for other people. Because someone may need you there.”

023Last Sunday we celebrated two baptisms. Cousins – a girl and a boy. Their fathers, brothers, have both served as deacons in our church. So has their dad, many times. Family members crowded the front pew, three generations hearing again the promises of a covenant-keeping God. Their lives are proving his faithfulness. And so is mine, as I witness the sacrament and promise to receive these children in love, to pray for them, and to help nurture them in the faith. God helping me.

Dec. column pic 2013

Echoes of Eden, whispers of Paradise

(Christian Courier column, June 22, 2015)

IMG_0001By 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.

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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.”

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When freedom came

(Christian Courier column, May 25, 2015)

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Last month CC marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Holland with articles by Lloyd Rang and Dick Kronemeyer. As a subscriber to CanadaRemembers on Facebook, informative reminders of this event have crossed my newsfeed regularly. I knew about the annual gift of tulips to Canada from the Netherlands, but I didn’t know that many Dutch citizens had painted “Thank you, Canadians” on their roofs for the food air-drops. I also learned about the Liberation Forest in Groningen — 30,000 maple trees planted in honour of Canadian soldiers. Did you know that in Apeldoorn there is a street called Canada Lane and each house comes complete with a Canadian flag?

As I’ve shared before, the Liberation and its legacy comprise my historical DNA. https://cathysmith001.wordpress.com/2012/11/30/war-children/. Both my mom and dad lived through the Occupation. My mom recalls the end of the war with a vivid emotion that slices through the fog of long ago and far away:

“The last year of the war was the worst for not having electricity or enough heat. The winter was bitterly cold. My classroom was heated with bean straw. We took turns keeping the fire going, sitting in front of the stove.

Sometimes oranges came in crates from the government. We would be so happy. They were so good! We never went hungry like in some parts of Holland. When we came home from school, we had a slice of turnip. My parents would eat an egg after we went to bed. Dad had to work and Mom was diabetic, so they needed to keep up their strength. My aunt and uncle took in two girls from Rotterdam, Audrey and Annie Dikken, because of the starvation there.

One of my friends was an only child. Sometimes after school her mother would butter some crackers and sprinkle them with sugar as a snack. That was better than a slice of turnip! Jealous, I longed to be an only child! A lot of families, including ours, had to deal with scurvy and lice. There was no soap. Near the end of the war, our school was closed for a time.

I remember all these things because I saw the fear in my parents’ eyes. More and more I realize how hard life was for them back then. No electricity and an 8:00 o’clock curfew at night. Just a little oil lamp. When it got dark, we would sing or play word games or just go to bed.

During the war I learned to spin. That was a smelly job because the wool came dirty off the sheep. My mother would wind the wool around jars and wash it that way and then we had to knit socks and underwear. Yes, knitted underwear! Itchy!

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Blown-up bridge.

On April 15th, 1945 we saw weary Germans walking by on their way to Delfzyl, the most northern part of Holland. The next day they blew up the bridge over Damsterdiep canal. The explosion destroyed my uncle’s boat which was moored behind my grandmother’s house. Her windows were blown out by the blast. We fled into the fields. That night we slept on straw bales in a barn outside our village.

In the morning, we saw lines of Canadian soldiers walking towards Ten Post. A man on a bike rode toward them with a white flag to let them know it was safe. As we watched them approach, an amazing thing happened. Spontaneously, we all started singing the Dutch national anthem.

Later that day we returned home. The next day was a celebration. The flags came out and we wore orange. Canadian tanks rumbled by. We saw captured Germans and Dutch collaborators with their hands behind their necks. It was an unbelievable feeling of freedom. Finally that part of life was over. I was 13.”

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Impromptu parade.

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Collaborators.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many CC readers share similar memories and hold them dear. Personal and honest stories of the war and its aftermath. The past reverberating and rolling into the present. Influencing the next generation.

Mom’s wartime experiences molded her, manifesting their impact even 70 years later. An abhorrence for wasting food. A robust thriftiness. Vigorous faith. Appreciation of freedom and recognition of its responsibilities. National pride. Respect for the sacrifices of the Canadian military. But also a deep-seated anxiety and need for control. Security as a base value.

Here’s what troubles me. I share my mom’s WWII story with unmistakable empathy for the truth of her experiences. Her story is uniquely precious to me. But am I prepared to accord the same respect to the stories of others? Can I set myself and my own heritage aside long enough to listen with deference to the equally unique and precious stories of other ethnicities, other races, other orientations ?

This week I read a moving piece in Salon ( http://www.salon.com/writer/julia_blount/ ). Julia Blount, a bi-racial middle school teacher, begs for white America to listen to her story. She relates how racial prejudice is still a comprehensive reality in her life though she is educated, affluent and privileged in many ways. How much worse, she concludes, are the systemic disadvantages of those who are black, poor, and ill-educated? As I read, I knew I was guilty of some of the knee-jerk conclusions that Blount decries about the riots in Baltimore. Remarkably, at the conclusion of her article, she expresses gratitude to the reader who, like me, stuck with her to the end of her story. She believes the listening will make a difference. She was right.

Listening respectfully to another’s story is simply this: love. As I was drafting this column, a friend sent me this excerpt about the power of language (from Stone upon Stone, Wieslaw Mysliwski):

Words lead the way of their own accord. Words bring everything out on to the surface. Words take everything that hurts and whines and they drag it all out from the deepest depths. Words let blood, and you feel better right away. And not just with outsiders, with your brothers also words can help you find each other, like brothers again. However far they’ve gone, words will bring them back to the one life they came from, like from a spring. Because words are a great grace. When it comes down to it, what are you given other than words? Either way, there’s a great silence waiting for us in the end, and we’ll have our fill of silence. Maybe we’ll find ourselves scratching at the walls for the sake of the least little word. And every word we didn’t say to each other in this world we’ll regret like a sin. Except it’ll be too late. And how many of those unsaid words stay in each person and die with him, and rot with him, and they aren’t any use to him either in his suffering, or in his memory?

Words are a great grace, a reaching for the other, a stretching beyond self. The Word-Become-Flesh authenticates an even greater grace, a grace beyond human definition, a divine freedom to be embraced. New life from ashes …. It happened in Holland. It can happen in Baltimore. It can happen in my soul. And yours.

 

 

 

Covenanting with birds

(Christian Courier column, March 23, 2015)

I’m afraid of birds. (Someday I’ll share the backstory.) Paradoxically, though, they also mesmerize me. Phobias are like that. Fear sparks fascination.

Coming to the end of our Florida stay, I was granted a sight I’d been coveting — a bald-headed eagle. Its colossal size took my breath away. After it sat quietly regal on a high branch for a few moments, it soared away, white tail echoing the dazzling white head. I didn’t have my camera, but I doubt I’ll ever forget it.

Florida 2014 403    Florida 2014 396  sandhill crane

It was similarly thrilling to encounter a pair of sandhill cranes on the golf course. These stately birds stand four feet tall and have a distinctive rattling call that can be heard a long way off. My sister and I were able to get quite close. The cranes backed away haughtily, the male vocalizing his displeasure. Teresa snapped dozens of photos, both of us transported by our luck.

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heron DSCN0206 wood stork

A great blue heron stalks the north corner of our park, calmly meandering through the yards. It trains a steely eye on me as I bike by, but doesn’t flinch. That’s true of the wood stork, too. Possessed of a penetrating stare, it stands so still I mistook it for a lawn ornament the first time I biked past. Occasionally it roosts on a car roof. Sometimes it rests on its “knees,” a strange sight. Its visage is strikingly ugly, but it has a handsome wingspan, edged in black.

One day while I was biking a great white egret flew right at me! I gasped, but it swerved up effortlessly, and then landed, unruffled, in the garden beside me. Its yellow eye, ringed with vibrant green, peered back at me nonchalantly as if to say, “What’s your problem?”

Hawks are common. I’ve learned to recognize their flight and high-pitched shrieks. It still shocks me, though, to spot a hawk perched immobile on the corner of a neighbour’s house! Or busy with something in the grass. Disturbing.

Ibises are numerous, too. They flock together, grunting like pigs as they gobble up insects in the lawns. Despite their numbers, they are relatively shy, almost as nervous as I am. They hunch sociably on the hydro wires, leaning back to balance their long curved beaks.

Front row seats

Across the street, our neighbour Bob puts out seed for the black-hooded parakeets. Picture parrots rather than budgies. Dozens swoop down simultaneously, clashing over the bird feeder. Their brilliant appearance — black faces and lime green plumage — and their incessant screeching create quite a stir. Pedestrians stop. Cars slow down. And some individuals check the skies before venturing out on the bike. (Grin).

Crows mass randomly. They’re the worst, aggressive and menacing. They line up on the wires where the parakeets like to hang out. Then we have a front row seat for bird wars. The crows zoom in. The parakeets give way, screaming insults, sidling back to their spots as soon as the intruders look the other way. A crow will then arbitrarily harass a single parakeet, chasing it relentlessly. In the midst of all this avian sound and fury, I stay safely ensconced under the carport.

Not long ago, biking to the recycling centre to drop off some pop cans, I was suddenly and stealthily surrounded by hundreds of crows. OK, 50, at least! Swirling and cawing. On the lawns, on nearby roofs, on the wires above. Quaking, I retreated, walking my bike around the pond, two men watching from a distance, no doubt befuddled by my choice of path.

So why all this ornithology? Last night my devotions included this passage from Genesis 9: “Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: ‘I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you — the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you — every living creature on earth.’” I was struck by the startling equation implied in this verse. God’s covenant was struck with humanity and every living creature. Beginning with birds! My partners in a cosmic contract: the black anhinga with its vivid white spider web on its wings, Hallowe’en cousin of the cormorant, the splendid osprey spraying fish guts everywhere, the mellifluous mockingbird, Florida’s state bird. We’re in this together. All recipients of God’s beneficence.

This inspires a weightier, more theological, birdwatching. Someday I will live in peace with birds. And geckoes. Mice. Snakes. (The list goes on. . . .)

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All photos courtesy of Teresa Boer-Gravelle.

Letter to the new young elder

(Christian Courier column, Oct. 27, 2041)

Dear son,

You are too young to be an elder! (Grin).

I’m sorry that what I should have said first, I didn’t actually say until later: “I’m proud of you. Proud that your spiritual maturity has been recognized and affirmed, but even more so because you accepted the task of leadership in the church of Jesus Christ.” Not very long ago, in the CRC anyway, families would travel a considerable distance to attend the installation of a relative as an office bearer. It was deemed an honour worthy of celebration! After the service, the whole congregation would line up to congratulate the new office bearers. Those customs are fading, another obscure consequence, perhaps, of the democratizing individualism of our society with its subtle effacing of any rank or authority. Today people are reluctant to serve on Council for analogous reasons; it’s perceived as a thankless task offering no intrinsic reward, an intrusive commitment of time and energy into lives already fast-paced and heavily scheduled. Thus, how much more should your willingness to serve have sparked my immediate appreciation!

What emerged first, of course, was that involuntary exhalation of maternal protectiveness: “Oh, no, really?” I wasn’t prepared to have you experience the bald reality of being a church leader: that close-up view of the stark unloveliness of the sagging, scarred, unclothed Body. The stench of sin – adultery, shady business practice, abuse. The bile of petty bickering. The burdensome weight of confidentiality. Not because your church family is worse or more troubled than any other; but because we are all Gomer and now you are Hosea, called to love the church in a more particular way – with greater resolve, more forgiveness, more looking to Christ to learn devotion and sacrifice.

As a mom, selfishly, I didn’t want to see your youthful faith and positive outlook tainted. Frederick Dale Bruner, in his Commentary on John, wrote, “The gospel is for admitted failures, for confessed incompetents, in short, for people like all of us when we are honest. The incomprehension and incompetence, almost the rudeness and even perhaps the slight contempt detectible in both Nicodemus and the Samaritan Woman may all be intended by John to say to readers: Jesus’ promises are for problematic people; get used to it; be grateful.”

Admonished, I will be grateful. Like Hannah, I will give you up. I will trust that if God sends you on stony paths, he will provide strong shoes, to quote Corrie Ten Boom. As an elder, yes, you will deal with problematic people. But beyond the conflicts and controversies, you will also be privileged to speak peace and spread joy. You are not only Hosea, but his contemporary Isaiah. “Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for,” urges the Holy One of Israel (Is. 40: 1-5). So, in the baptisms and Lord’s Suppers, in the graduations, weddings, anniversaries, funerals, meetings and potlucks, be the voice of God’s faithfulness. Prophesy to the people in your church, your people, that the glory of the Lord will be revealed, has been revealed, and is being revealed every day to those who affix their hope to the cross of Christ.

Speak the good news, but know that your best leadership will be tapped in the habitual unsexy practice of kindness and caring attention. The elders who have blessed me are those who have smiled at my kids in the fellowship hall and learned their names. Who thanked me for my service as a catechism teacher. Who asked my opinion on church matters during home visits and then paid me the respect of listening. Who paid a short visit to your grandfather in the hospital, shared a bit of Scripture and the briefest prayer, and offered a compassionate handshake instead of a pious sermon. Who listened patiently to your grandmother as she relayed her worries about her family and then remembered to ask how things were going … weeks later. Who picked up a shovel on a wintry Sunday morning to scrape fresh snow off the sidewalk. Who stacked chairs after the congregational meeting.

In the confidence of your church, God comes calling. In your willingness, the Holy Spirit comes anointing. In your doing, the Word is embodied. In the serving, comes the blessing.

But let me be first: God bless you, son.

Tom off to church

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seasons

(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.

  1. 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.
  2.  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.
  3.  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.

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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

The raspberries

in my driveway

have always

been here

(for the whole eleven years

I have owned

but have not owned

this house),

yet

I have never

tasted them

before.

 

Always on a plane.

Always in the arms

of man, not God,

always too busy,

too fretful,

too worried

to see

that all along

my

driveway

are red, red raspberries

for me to taste.

 

Shiny and red,

without hairs—

unlike the berries

from the market.

Little jewels—

I share them

with the birds!

 

On one perches

a tiny green insect.

I blow her off.

She flies!

I burst the raspberry

upon my tongue.

 

In my solitude

I commune

with raspberries,

with grasses,

with the world.

 

The world was always

there before,

but where

was I?

 

Ah raspberry—

if you are so beautiful

upon my ready tongue,

imagine

what wonders

lie in store

for me!