These sudden ends of time must give us pause. We fray into the future, rarely wrought Save in the tapestries of afterthought. More time, more time. ~Richard Wilbur from “Year’s End”
Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.
I’m not paying close enough attention if I’m too busy looking for kleenex. It seems the last couple weeks I have had more than ample opportunity to find out the secret of who I am, where I have come from and where I am to be next, and I’m loading my pockets with kleenex, just in case.
It mostly has to do with welcoming our children, their spouses and their friends back home for the holidays to become a full out noisy messy chaotic household again, with lots of music and laughter and laundry and meal preparation. It is about singing grace together before a meal and choking on precious words of gratitude. It certainly has to do with bidding farewell again, as we begin to do a few hours from now and, to gather them in for the hug and then unclasping and letting go, urging and encouraging them to go where their hearts are telling them they are needed and called to be. I too was let go once and though I would try to look back, too often in tears, I knew to set my face toward the future. It led me here, to this farm, this marriage, this family, this work, to more tears, to more letting go, as it will continue if I live long enough to weep again and again with gusto and grace.
This is where I should go next: to love so much and so deeply that letting go is so hard that tears are no longer unexpected or a mystery to me. They release the fullness that can no longer be contained: God’s still small voice spilling down my cheeks drop by drop like wax from a burning candle. No kleenex needed. Let it flow.
I have a small grain of hope–
one small crystal that gleams
clear colors out of transparency.
I need more.
I break off a fragment to send you.
Please take this grain of a grain of hope so that mine won’t shrink.
Please share your fragment so that yours will grow.
Only so, by division, will hope increase,
like a clump of irises, which will cease to flower
unless you distribute
the clustered roots, unlikely source–
clumsy and earth-covered–
~Denise Levertov “For the New Year, 1981”
For the New Year, 2015:
Several years ago my sister-in-law brought us three paper bags full of iris roots resting dormant in clumps of dirt – dry misshaped feet and crippled fingers pregnant with potential. We were late getting them into the ground in the fall but their grace was forgiving. They took hold and transformed our little courtyard into a Van Gogh landscape. They will continue to gladden our hearts as we divide them someday to pass on their gift of beauty to another garden. This act– “by division, will hope increase”–feels radical. Yet that is exactly what God did in sending His Son to become dust-bound and earth-covered.
God broke off part of Himself to put down roots, grow, thrive and thereby be divided, over and over and over again to increase beauty and grace for those of us made of and limited to this soil.
Our garden will continue to bloom next spring so all can see and know: hope lives here — in the few hours left to this year, and transitioning into the next.
I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape — the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show. ~Andrew Wyeth, artist
How endlessly beautiful is woodland in winter! Today there is a thin mist; just enough to make a background of tender blue mystery three hundred yards away, and to show any defect in the grouping of the near trees. ~ Gertrude Jekyll, British horticulturalist
There is a stumbling reluctance transitioning from a month of advent expectancy to three months of winter dormancy. Inevitably there is let-down: the watching and waiting is not over after all. There is profound loneliness in knowing the story continues, hidden from view.
We have been stripped naked as the bare trees right now; our bones, like the trees of the landscape, raising up broken branches and healed fractures of previous winter windstorms. We no longer have anything to hide behind or among, our defects are plain to see, our whole story a mystery as yet untold but impossible to conceal.
Here I am, abundantly flawed with pocks and scars, yet renewed once again. There are hints of new growth to come when the frost abates and the sap thaws. I am prepared to wait an eternity if necessary, for the rest of the story.
Originally published in Country Magazine in 2008, now updated
Our treehouse is almost twenty years old, lonesome and empty in our front yard, a constant reminder of abandoned Swiss Family Robinson dreams. Over the years, it has been the setting for a local children’s TV show, laser tag wars, sleep overs and tea parties, even a writer’s retreat with a deck side view of the Cascades to the east, the Canadian Coastal Range to the north and Puget Sound to the west. Now it is a sad shell no longer considered safe, as the support branches in our 100 year old walnut tree are weakening with age and time.
The dream began in February 1995 when our sons were 8 and 6 years old and our daughter just 2. We had plenty of recycled lumber on our old farm and an idea about what to build. My father, retired from his desk job and having recently survived lymphoma diagnosis and treatment, had many previous building projects to his credit, and a few in his mind that he was yet to get to. He was eager to see what he could construct for his grandkids by spring time. He doodled out some sketches of what might work in the tree, and contemplated the physics of a 73 year old man scaling a tree vs. building on the ground and hoisting it up mostly completed. I got more nervous the more I thought about it and hoped we could consider something a little less risky, and hoping the weather wouldn’t clear enough for construction to start any time soon.
The weather cleared, yet my father’s health faded. His cancer relapsed and he was sidelined with a series of doctor’s appointments, hospitalizations and treatment courses. He hung on to that hope of getting the treehouse going by summer, still thinking it through in his mind, still evaluating what he would need to buy to supplement the materials already gathered and piled beneath the tree. In the mean time he lost physical strength day by day.
His dream needed to proceed as he fought his battle, so I borrowed library books on treehouses, and hired two college age brothers who lived down the road to get things started. I figured if my dad got well enough to build again, at least the risky stuff could be already done by the young guys. These brothers took their job very seriously. They pored over the books, took my dad’s plans, worked through the details and started in. They shinnied up the tree, put up pulleys on the high branches and placed the beams, hoisting them by pulling on the ropes with their car bumper. It was working great until the car bumper came off.
I kept my dad updated long distance with photos and stories. It was a diversion for him, but the far off look in his eye told me he wasn’t going to be building anything in this world ever again. He was gone by July. The treehouse was done a month later. It was everything my dad had dreamed of, and more. It had a deck, a protective railing, a trap door, a staircase. We had a open tree celebration and had 15 neighbors up there at once. I’m sure dad was sipping lemonade with us as well, enjoying the view.
Now all these years later, the treehouse is tilting on its foundation as a main weight bearing branch is weakening. We’ve declared it condemned, not wanting to risk an accident. It remains a daily reminder of past dreams fulfilled and unfulfilled as I look out my window. Much like my father’s body, the old walnut tree is weakening, hanging on by the roots but its muscle failing. It will, sometime, come down in one of our frequent fierce windstorms, just as its nearby partner did a few years ago.
The treehouse dream branched out in another way. One of the construction team brothers decided to try building his own as a place to live in his woods, using a Douglas Fir tree as the center support and creating an octagon, two stories, 30 feet off the ground. He worked on it for two years and moved in, later marrying someone who decided a treehouse was just fine with her, and now they are raising five children there. The next generation is carrying on with the Swiss Family Robinson dream that began in my father’s mind and our front yard.
I still have a whole list full of dreams, some realized and some deferred by time, resources and the limits of my imagination. I feel the clock ticking too, knowing that time slips by me faster and faster. It would be a blessing to see others live out the dreams I have held so close.
Though I may be teetering in the wind like my old tree, barely hanging on, and ready to fall to the ground, I’ll reach out with my branches and hand them off. The time will have come to let go.
In 1959, our family moved from an older 2 story farm house in a rural community north of Seattle, to a rambler style home on seven acres just outside the city limits of Olympia, Washington. It was a big adjustment to move to a much smaller house without a basement or upper story, no garage, and no large haybarn nor chicken coop on fewer acres. It meant most things we owned didn’t make the move with us.
The rambler had side by side mirror image rooms as the central living space between the kitchen on one side and the hallway to the bedrooms on the other. The living room could only be entered through the front door and the family room was accessed through the back door with a shared sandstone hearth in the center, containing a fireplace in each room. The only opening between the rooms had a folding door which was shut most of the year. In December, the door was opened to accommodate the Christmas tree, so it was partially in the living room and depending on its generous width, spilling over into the family room. That way it was visible from both rooms, and didn’t take up too much floor space.
The living room, containing the only carpeting in the house and our “best” furniture, was sacrosanct by parental decree. To keep our two matching sectional sofas, an upholstered chair and gold crushed velvet covered love seat in pristine condition, the room was off-limits unless we had company or for some very specific reason, like practicing the piano that sat in one corner. The carpet was never to develop a traffic pattern, there would be no food, beverage, or pets ever allowed in that room, and the front door was not to be used unless a visitor arrived. The hearth never saw a fire lit on that side because of the potential of messy ashes or smoke smell. This was not a room where our family gathered, talked loudly, laughed much or roughhoused on the floor. This was not a room for arguments or games and certainly not for toys. For most of the year, the “living” room was not lived in at all. The chiming clock next to the hearth, wound with weighted cones on the end of chains, called out the hours without an audience.
One week before Christmas, a tree was chosen to fit in the space where it could overflow into the family room. I enjoyed decorating the “family room” side of the tree, using all my favorite ornaments that were less likely to break if they fell on the linoleum floor on that side of the door. Only on Christmas morning, it was our privilege to “mess” up the living room with wrapping paper, ribbons and us.
It was as if the Christmas tree itself symbolized a house divided, with a “formal” side in the living room and a “real life” face on the other side where daily “living” was actually taking place. Our tree straddled more than just the two rooms. Every year the tree’s branches tried to reach out to shelter a family that was slowly and imperceptibly falling apart, much like the drying fir needles falling to the floor, only to be swept away.
Seventy two years ago this week, my parents were married. Christmas Eve certainly wasn’t a typical wedding anniversary, but it did make it easy to remember during their years together. It was a date of necessity, only because a justice of the peace was available to marry a score of war-time couples in Quantico, Virginia, shortly before the newly trained Marine officers were shipped out to the South Pacific to fight in WWII.
Now that they are both gone, when I look at their young faces in their only wedding portrait, I see a hint of the impulsive decision that led to that wedding just a week before my father left for 30 months. They had known each other for over a year, had talked about a future together, but with my mother starting a teaching job, and the war potentially impacting all young men’s lives very directly, they had not set a date.
My father had to put his college education on hold to enlist, knowing that would give him some options he wouldn’t have if drafted, so they went their separate ways as he headed east to Virginia for his Marine officer training, and Mom started her high school teaching career as a speech and drama teacher in rural Colville in Eastern Washington. One day in early December, he called her and said, “If we’re going to get married, it’ll need to be before the end of the year. I’m shipping out the first week in January.” Mom went to her high school principal, asked for a two week leave of absence which was granted, told her astonished parents, bought a dress, and headed east on the train with a friend who had received a similar call from her boyfriend. This was a completely uncharacteristic thing for my overly cautious mother to do so it must have been love.
They were married in a brief civil ceremony with another couple as the witnesses. They stayed in Virginia only a couple days and took the train back to San Diego, and my father left. Just like that. Mom returned to her teaching position and the first three years of their married life was letter correspondence only, with gaps of up to a month during certain island battles when no mail could be delivered or posted.
As I sorted through my mother’s things following her death six years ago, their letters to each other, stacked neatly and tied together, reside now in a box in my bedroom. I have not yet opened them but will when I’m ready. What I will find there will be words written by two young people who could not have foretold the struggles that lay ahead for them during and after the war but who both depended on faith and trust to persevere despite the unknowns. The War itself seemed struggle enough for the millions of couples who endured the separation, the losses and grieving, as well as the eventual injuries–both physical and psychological. It did not seem possible that beyond those realities, things could go sour after reuniting.
The hope and expectation of happiness and bliss must have been overwhelming, and real life doesn’t often deliver. After raising three children, their 35 year marriage fell apart with traumatic finality. When my father returned (again) over a decade later, asking for forgiveness, they remarried and had five more years together before my father died.
And so too there must have been expectations of happiness in the barn on that first Christmas Eve. It must have been frightening for the parents of this special Baby, knowing in their minds but not completely understanding in their hearts what responsibility lay in their arms. They had to find faith and trust, not just in God who had determined what their future held, but in each other, to support one another when things became very difficult. Those challenges mounted up quickly: there was to be no room for them, there was a baby to deliver without assistance from anyone, and the threat of Herod’s murder of innocents eventually drove them from their home country.
When Mary and Joseph go to the temple for the circumcision and consecration of their son the following week, they allow a “righteous and devout man”, Simeon, to hold their baby as, moved by the Holy Spirit, he tells them the role this child is to play in the world. He prays to the Lord, “As you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
It must have been like looking into a crystal ball to hear Simeon speak, as we’re told “the child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him.” But Simeon didn’t whitewash the reality to come. It would have been easy to do so– simply mention salvation, the light and the glory that will come to the people due to this little baby, but leave out the part about how His existence would cause division in Israel as well as the rejection, anguish and suffering that He would experience. Not only that, but the pain is not His alone but will be His parents’ to bear as well. I’m sure that statement must have ended the sense of “marvel” they were feeling, and replaced it instead with great sorrow and trepidation.
Christmas is a time of joy, a celebration of new beginnings and new life when God became man, humble, vulnerable and tender. But it also gives us a foretaste for the profound sacrifice made in giving up this earthly life, not always so gently. A baby in a manger is a lovely story to “treasure up” in our hearts but once He became a bleeding Redeemer on a cross, it pierces our living beating hearts, just as Simeon foretold.
My parents, such young idealistic adults 72 years ago, now servants dismissed from this life in peace. As I peer at their faces in their wedding photo, I know those same eyes, then unaware of what was to come, now behold the light, the salvation and the glory~~the ultimate Christmas~~in His presence.
…the point is that God is with us,
not beyond us,
Christ’s suffering shatters the iron walls
around individual human suffering,
that Christ’s compassion
makes extreme human compassion
—to the point of death even—possible.
Human love can reach right into death,
then, but not if it is merely human love. ~Christian Wiman
There is nothing I can give you Which you have not; But there is much that, While I cannot give, you can take.
No heaven can come to us Unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take heaven.
No peace lies in the future Which is not hidden in this present instant. Take peace.
The gloom of the world is but a shadow; Behind it, yet within reach, is joy. Take joy.
And so, at this Christmastime, I greet you with the prayer that for you, Now and forever, The day breaks and the shadows flee away.
– Fra Giovanni Giocondo letter to Countess Allagia Aldobrandeschi, Christmas Eve 1513
Says a country legend told every year: Go to the barn on Christmas Eve and see what the creatures do as that long night tips over. Down on their knees they will go, the fire of an old memory whistling through their minds!
So I went. Wrapped to my eyes against the cold I creaked back the barn door and peered in. From town the church bells spilled their midnight music, and the beasts listened – yet they lay in their stalls like stone.
Oh the heretics! Not to remember Bethlehem, or the star as bright as a sun, or the child born on a bed of straw! To know only of the dissolving Now!
Still they drowsed on – citizens of the pure, the physical world, they loomed in the dark: powerful of body, peaceful of mind, innocent of history.
Brothers! I whispered. It is Christmas! And you are no heretics, but a miracle, immaculate still as when you thundered forth on the morning of creation! As for Bethlehem, that blazing star
still sailed the dark, but only looked for me. Caught in its light, listening again to its story, I curled against some sleepy beast, who nuzzled my hair as though I were a child, and warmed me the best it could all night.
Now, newborn, in wide-eyed wonder he gazes up at his creation. His hand that hurled the world holds tight his mother’s finger. Holy light spills across her face and she weeps silent wondering tears to know she holds the One who has so long held her. ~Joan Rae Mills from “Mary” in the Light Upon Light Anthology by Sara Arthur
God came to us because he wanted to join us on the road, to listen to our story, and to help us realize that we are not walking in circles but moving towards the house of peace and joy. This is the great mystery of Christmas that continues to give us comfort and consolation: we are not alone on our journey. The God of love who gave us life sent his only Son to be with us at all times and in all places, so that we never have to feel lost in our struggles but always can trust that he walks with us.
The challenge is to let God be who he wants to be. A part of us clings to our aloneness and does not allow God to touch us where we are most in pain. Often we hide from him precisely those places in ourselves where we feel guilty, ashamed, confused, and lost. Thus we do not give him a chance to be with us where we feel most alone.
Christmas is the renewed invitation not to be afraid and to let him-whose love is greater than our own hearts and minds can comprehend-be our companion. — Henri Nouwen from Gracias: A Latin American Journal
We stood on the hills, Lady, Our day’s work done, Watching the frosted meadows That winter had won.
The evening was calm, Lady, The air so still, Silence more lovely than music Folded the hill.
There was a star, Lady, Shone in the night, Larger than Venus it was And bright, so bright.
Oh, a voice from the sky, Lady, It seemed to us then Telling of God being born In the world of men.
And so we have come, Lady, Our day’s work done, Our love, our hopes, ourselves, We give to your son. ~Bob Chillcott “The Shepherd’s Carol”