I once read of a young woman preparing her kitchen for Passover. Amid the traditional cleaning and purging, she had a sense of taking her place in the long line of women who had done so before her, throughout history. As if the rituals of tradition invoked their presence, for within the actions lie inextricable, unbroken threads of purpose, holiness, praise, gratitude…
On the eve of Thanksgiving, I have a similar sensation. Driving to the grocery store, armed with a list of ingredients for foods that my children have requested (deviled eggs and carrot cake chief among them), I am enchanted by autumn’s alchemy. Late afternoon sun gilds the trees along the roadside. The blending of red, orange, bronze, some trees already bare, preparing for winter…for a moment, for mere seconds, I imagine there are figures running through these flickering sunlit woods. If I could look long enough, or just right, I might catch glimpses of people as they were in times past, maybe even my childhood self. Burnished memories still living, beckoning…snapshot scenes of Thanksgivings, with card tables set up for the children. Heads bowed in prayer. My grandfather’s humble blessing, his knobbled, work-worn hands. Grandma’s deviled eggs and potato salad, Mama’s carrot cake (the hit of every holiday gathering), Grannie’s rum pound cake…lifting that big old Tupperware lid, the first whiff nearly knocking me down, but the moist golden richness after…incomparable. I find myself yearning for a slice of it now.
In the process of cleaning and preparing for the holidays I reorganized a closet. I found a box of Grandma’s things. Letters and cards given to her over the years, her green-bronze jewelry box containing her clip-on “earbobs”. Old photos. Books and trinkets I’d given her. Her diaries, dating back to when I was twelve. Programs from my school plays. Her funeral program. And I think about how life is the story of love, sacrifice, survival. How she and Grannie did much with little, raising children during the Great Depression. How they held faith and family above all else…how they do not feel far from me, even now, as I write these words. My own granddaughter, their great-great granddaughter, will be four weeks old on Thanksgiving Day. I have a profound sense of taking my place in a hallowed line of legacy and love. With abiding gratitude. And joy, shining like the immutable sun on the autumn trees, in the ongoing story of survival. The turning of pages, new chapters, in a gilt-bound book…
Here’s to all the blessings that were, are, and are still to come.
with thanks to my fellow Spiritual Journey writers who gather on the first Thursday of each month, and to Carol Varsalona for hosting today. Carol chose the theme “Blossoming of Joy.”
The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come,and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land. Song of Solomon 2:12
One of my favorite things about spring in North Carolina is the birdsong. Each morning when I rise, it’s to a chorus of cheery songs in myriad bird voices, a tiny angelic choir singing praise for the day from the pines surrounding my home. I listen, and am strengthened.
Another favorite thing is wisteria. It usually blooms for a short while in April. The pendulous blossoms hanging from trees fill my soul with nostalgia, for bygone times walking with my grandmother along the old dirt road of her country home, listening to stories of people who lived, loved, and died long ago. Wisteria threads through the landscape like pale purple banners of celebration for spring. It’s both old and new every year, full of secrets and mystery…and this year, for some reason, it is continuing to bloom into May.
I am not questioning.
I am just savoring.
Mysterious how wisteria lingers on disregarding May
This week I have been working with some kindergarteners on letter sounds and names. One little boy had his head down on his desk, buried in his arms, when I arrived. We started a game of naming objects that begin with “y” and he informed me that “yacht” is a boat and “people have parties on them.”
I sat blinking while he played with the toy yacht. He smiled at me: “I am feeling happier now.”
On leaving school, I saw a dandelion growing as close as it could to an old tree:
Y is for yellow the self-confident color of dandelion
Thanks to Carol’s prompt today, I am thinking of many facets of “blossoming of joy.” An image returns to mind from last week. At my church there are three women expecting babies in May, June, and July. We threw a shower for them on Sunday; it was one of those perfect spring afternoons, when the sun shines bright and a soft breeze blows like a comforting and encouraging caress from on high.
Sunday afternoon three young women sat outside their fellowship hall
greeting well-wishers arriving in the driveway bearing baby gifts
a drive-through shower a celebration of love a church family
multiplying grace blessing by blessing outpoured on expectant moms
blossoming with joy and the new life they carry despite pandemics
My own son and his wife are expecting a baby in the fall.
My boyish husband and I have come to eat with my parents. There’s a lot on my mind as I carry dishes from the kitchen to the dining room table. My father’s voice drifts from the adjoining living room, mingling with the Macy’s parade-babble on TV. He’s conversing with my husband, who’s planning to enter the ministry. Beyond the old lace drapes of the picture window where I sat so often as a child, the November day is like a sepia print. Browns of dead grass and leaves, oyster sky, skeletal trees bathed in pale, unassuming sunlight.
Coming from the television.
I turn to face it, spellbound. I cannot move. I stand stone-still, between portals, as everything else fades away…there’s only that voice. Almost too pure to bear. It wrenches something inside of me, twists and pierces so that tears spring to my eyes… a man singing “God on high, hear my prayer, in my need, you have always been there…”
He sings of protection for a young man in troubled times, afraid, resting nearby. Of summers dying, one by one. He is willing to die for the young man— “he is only a boy”— if God will let him live and “bring him home.”
I stand, tears flowing, aching to the core of my soul, not wanting it to stop, knowing that I am somehow irrevocably changed.
The singer was Colm Wilkinson, portraying Jean Valjean from the Broadway musical Les Misérables. The song “Bring Him Home” is a prayer for young Marius, who’s fallen in love with Valjean’s adopted daughter, Cosette. Valjean watches over the sleeping Marius at a barricade during the June Rebellion, or the 1830 Paris Uprising. Broad view: On top of harsh economic times, crop failures, and food shortages, a cholera epidemic killed over 100,000 across France. The poor, especially in the city of Paris, were devastated; they blamed the government and retaliated.
I learned much later that the song was especially written for Wilkinson’s tenor voice—a profound marriage of artistry. And revision. Lyricist Herbert Kretzmer struggled with the English translation. He completed it seventeen days before the show opened. Upon hearing its first rehearsal, the cast was blown away. One member, playing the Bishop, said:“You told us at the beginning that you couldn’t keep God out of the show. But you didn’t say you’d booked God to sing this song.”
My husband eventually took me to see (to hear?) Les Misérables on Broadway. My awe has never diminished; so many songs are hauntingly beautiful, meant to pull on the soul with deep themes of loss, love, faith, sacrifice, death…and, above all, redemption.
I’ve been thinking of Thanksgiving in the time of COVID, how life and gatherings— and parades—are changed in ways we couldn’t have imagined. We are not allowed to sing at school, for fear of spreading the virus.
But some things never change. We never really know what is to come in a day, a week, a year…or the next moment.
Like Valjean, I grow older, with my heart turned toward the next generation in prayer for preservation. For their peace and joy. My own boys, now grown… the firstborn followed his father into the pastorate. The youngest is a worship leader. A musician and singer. Yes, how soon the summers fly, on and on…the boys weren’t even born yet on that long-ago Thanksgiving when I stood before the TV screen in my childhood home, transfixed by a cloaked Irish tenor in the streets of New York City, as snow began to fly…
God on high, hear my prayer In my need, you have always been there…
It remains my Thanksgiving song, every day.
God on high, hear my prayer In my need, you have always been there He is young, he’s afraid Let him rest, heaven-blessed Bring him home Bring him home Bring him home He’s like the son I might have known If God had granted me a son The summers die, one by one How soon they fly, on and on And I am old and will be gone Bring him peace, bring him joy He is young, he is only a boy You can take, you can give Let him be, let him live If I die, let me die Let him live Bring him home Bring him home Bring him home
The words roll round my mind as I drive to work, noting how the rising sun gilds the trees in all their fall colors against a deep charcoal sky. The sharp glory of it is beyond my power to describe. It’s beautiful. Haunting. Fierce. How can there be such detailed color and brilliance when the sky is so strangely dark? If a storm is brewing, why is the light so golden-bright? And where exactly is it coming from? The sun itself is hidden.
I cannot quite capture how I feel. It’s more than one thing. Awe. Reverence. Curiosity. A bit of foreboding.
Mostly gratitude for having been here to see it.
I am thinking a lot about the interplay of light and dark this holiday week.
And the fierce beauty of life.
My husband is here after a massive heart attack this summer. His surgeon said that his blockages were such that when the last artery went down that day, he had no reserve; he made a “medically inexplicable recovery.” This coming only three years after my husband lost an eye to ocular melanoma.
Light and dark, dark and light.
He lives to see our son get married the day after Thanksgiving. Not just to see it, but to officiate. After all the years of praying for the boy to go into the ministry and the boy saying, no, Dad, that’s not for me.
He ordained our son into the ministry three weeks ago.
Never say never.
Today the boy took the last of his things out of our house to finish setting up his new home. He’s gone, but not too far away.
He took his dog.
The last dog.
In two years, we’ve lost three: Nikolaus the dachshund to old age. Banjo the yellow Lab that I raised from age seven weeks to a new home because my husband can no longer manage a 90-pound dog after bypass surgery. And now Henry, the best of the best, the rescue dog whose sole mission in life is to extract and exude as much love as possible.
I am now dogless for the first time in almost two decades. On every one of those days I could always count on a happy greeting, an ever-faithful warmth, some commiseration or comic relief. No tail thumping tonight, no snuffling, whiskered nose in my hand, no nails scrambling on the floor in exuberance for a pat, a treat.
How strange is it that my son moves out and I write about missing the dog.
And another thing: I recently wrote about the two old mules around the corner, how one of them was sick. I often saw it lying on its side in the pasture as the other mule grazed nearby. The farmer didn’t want to put his ailing mule down, knowing that the other mule would grieve, as they had never been apart. He finally had to. When I rode by the following week, I saw the remaining mule standing bereft in the pasture. My friend who lives on an adjoining farm said the mule hadn’t eaten since its sister died. I dared not drive that way for a few days afterward, fearing what I’d see, or not see. But this week I braved it. I drove past the pasture. There was the mule, grazing, which made me happy. As I watched, a big orange tabby cat came strolling across the pasture to sit by the mule. It looked right in my direction, swishing its tail.
A once-in-a-lifetime photo shoot that I couldn’t stop and capture.
And then today as I went by . . . the cat was still there. In all these years of loving those old mules from afar, I have never seen any other creature in the pasture. That cat is there keeping that mule company. It was sent. I am sure of it.
What is life but a bizarre balancing act, a series of give and take, comings and goings, losses and comforts, laced with love, fierce in itself. A mosaic of light and color, a stark silhouette against a backdrop of darkest gray.
Every day is one to be celebrated.
Tonight I go to sleep in my dogless house, beside my husband who’s still here. We have one more son sleeping upstairs. Although there’s an ache, there’s not emptiness. I am grateful for that big orange cat who’s out in the pasture with the old mule left behind. I am grateful to see the glory and drama of autumn with the promise of celebrations to come. I am deeply grateful my oldest has found his calling at the same time great love has entered his life; on the day after Thanksgiving, he becomes a husband and a father all at once. It just so happens that his wedding day is the second anniversary of his grandmother’s passing; how she’d rejoice for him.
Light and dark, dark and light.
Oh, and on the wedding night, I get to bring home a little girl, officially my granddaughter; she and I will have our own celebration with Bride’s Cake ice cream and peppermint bark Oreos and probably the movie Frozen.
I put the Christmas tree up early, just for her.
How can there be so much light.
Note: After publishing this post, I learned that the big orange cat has a name: Sunshine.
Last week ended with a professional development session. One of those “compliance” types for which it’s hard to muster enthusiasm. I’ve led professional development under some tough circumstances—like, for an entire staff on the last day before winter break, when snowflakes began billowing on the other side of the window—so I know how hard it can be. I attempt to make whatever PD I do as inspirational and practical as I can for teachers (in the case of the snowfall, it was “Bye! Vacation starts now!”).
But this time, I was an attendee. The whole week had been out of whack between the holiday on Monday and my battling a minor illness. I was happy to see the end arrive despite some trepidation about this PD session.
Especially when we participants were asked to draw hand turkeys.
For real? I sighed. Is this in any way productive?
I couldn’t recall the last time I did this. In my early elementary years, surely. I tried to remember helping my own children trace their little hands in autumns past.
But I complied. I penciled the outline of my hand onto white paper.
We attendees were then told to write “something we’re proud of” on each of the four so-called tail feathers. These things could be personal, professional, or both.
Well, this was kinda different. The four things came to me pretty quickly:
–My blog. It was born as a way of making myself write regularly, evidence of “walking the walk” as a teacher-writer. I can’t stand before colleagues and profess my love of writing or testify to its impact if I’m not doing it on a regular basis. That’s how the blog started; it soon became a keeping-place of memories and reflections, a patchwork quilt of my life now and long ago. Not to mention that it threw the doors wide open for meeting other teacher-writer and reader friends who’ve enriched my days immeasurably. That I’ve sustained it for nearly three years feels like a true achievement.
–Coaching. My daily work. I collaborate with K-5 teachers on English Language Arts instruction.There’s a different ebb and flow to it each year. The work can be like riding a train and watching the landscape zip by at an alarming rate. It’s sometimes like trying to irrigate monotonous, barren deserts. There’s a lot of new expectations of my teaching colleagues this year, new curriculum, newly-tweaked standards (again). With new and greater demands on top of all the old ones, it’s easy for a teacher to feel constrained, paralyzed. Every time I can help simplify, problem-solve, or streamline the work of classroom teachers, I feel like the “flow” gets better for them and for their students. We ALL grow.
–My sons. I am so proud of who they are and where they are in life. Both of them are working on seminary degrees, one in music, the other in graduate divinity studies. One knew his path from early childhood, the other took the long way round, but both have chosen paths of service. On this note, my heart becomes too full for words. . . .
–The Facebook devotional. I don’t have a Facebook account (preferring Twitter) but my husband does. He’s had it for years and hasnever written a post. Last week, out of the blue, he said: “I need your help.” He’s a pastor. For three decades now he’s tirelessly served churches and communities. He’s married people, buried them, held their hands during their darkest times, laughed and rejoiced with them in the better ones. And ministry is changing; social media is a way to reach out . . . so, enter me. Would I help him craft a short devotional post each day? It’s a small thing, really, but if the words help someone, or give them hope . . . then to me it’s a way of giving back. See, November marks three years since my husband was diagnosed with ocular melanoma. He lost his eye, but he’s alive. He’s here. Cancer-free. Every day is a celebration. There’s always, always, always something to be thankful for . . . yes, I’ll help him share it each day.
I suppose the professional development presenters may have wondered why I kept working on my hand turkey throughout the entire session. They may have thought I’d tuned them out. I hadn’t. I was listening. What they had to say was actually quite helpful. I processed it all as I added more and more detail to my turkey—let’s hope the facilitators thought I was sketchnoting. One thing just kept leading to another until I realized that the words on the tail feathers represented more than things I was simply proud of. This is the work of my hands, I mused, as I wrote and drew with one hand inside the outline of the other. Each thing I’ve listed is an opportunity, a piece of life’s work given to me.
Pride wasn’t the appropriate sentiment. Not even close.
I draped my turkey in a banner bearing the word “Gratitude.”
Isn’t that where the personal and professional roads should converge, anyway? Or the point of origin from which they radiate?
It is for me.
It is from this crossroads of gratitude that I wish you professional and personal joy, in all the work of your hands.