Nothing Wasted

December 21, 2010

In a queue of almost Soviet bread line proportions at the grocery store, one more register finally opened.  Next in line, the fresh cashier summoned me over.  I moved into place, followed by a small horde.  In my haste to unload, a dozen jumbo eggs sagged under their weight, bounced dully into the cart.  As none were cracked completely open, I carefully lifted them one by one back into the carton.

An elderly couple in line just behind had witnessed the little incident and expressed surprise at my salvage attempts.  Told them I hated wasting food, that my mother was one of eight children, I was hardwired not to.

On the way home, called mom and shared the ephemerality, thanking her for her thrifty advice, but was at a loss for the best way to prepare so many whumped eggs.  She reminded me of a superb pumpkin bread recipe I’d given her years before that called for four eggs; but surely I didn’t have any pumpkin on hand, so she thought.  But I did, having recently bought a double-sized can.  Counted the eggs with little smashes; eight total.  Perfect.  I’d been intending to bake bread for friends and realized I might not have gotten to it; a splendid if not somewhat forced opportunity.  Had to use the crock pot as a mixing vat.

Reflecting on the concept of a double portion, I heard someone say recently that while it is good to be thankful when everything is going as we want, when things are not, there is actually twice the amount of grace at work: grace for the moment, and grace for the good which can come of it.

What we make of the mess is often not only for our own reconciliation, but just as much to benefit others. A double blessing. He makes all things work together for our good.

Now all I need is double the amount of loaf pans.


Words + Pancakes

November 6, 2010

Sometimes an insight or string of insights come along and need to be shared instantly, like serving pancakes hot off the griddle–melting butter is an important part of the full pancake experience along with maple syrup; preferably, the real stuff.

To digress greatly, my great aunts in Vermont’s Northern Kingdom used to gift each family member every Christmas with a quart of amber gold: grade A maple syrup.  There was a time when I could have opened a small Maple Syrup General store so much of the stuff was crowding my cupboard. Apparently, I don’t eat pancakes as often as Vermonters, or maybe they just drink the stuff straight up; it is a question I never bothered to ask, but I wondered how many other family members had the same challenge finding shelf space for all those tan, green-lidded quarts.

I perpetually harbored a low-grade guilt for stockpiling but not consuming such a delicacy in time for the next holiday installment.  A bit of a minimalist by nature, it was probably the closest I’d ever come to hoarding, which frankly bothered me.  When I found out a friend’s ailing family member loved the stuff, I must have given her enough jugs’ worth to fill a bathtub–the stuff well sealed lasts probably halfway to eternity anyway.

But getting back to the original musing, I have been trying to discern these days between prophetically-oriented words that are meant to age like wine; and which are meant to be shared immediately like hotcakes before they are too cold to be truly tasty.

At this point, you might have the following response to this post. That’s okay. I’m still trying to figure out the application myself.

When Less Is the New More

October 28, 2010

A very difficult exchange recently occurred between a family member and myself.  While reparations were made to the extent possible, it was clear on the other side that a degree of  trust had been suspended.

Attempts at pleasant exchanges following the rift, the careful building blocks of a new day after the storm, were met with sugar-coated replies laden with subtle put-downs.  Especially painful coming from the person who had perpetrated the difficulty to begin with–admittedly exacerbated by my attempts to address it.  Guiding principles were speaking the truth in love and better is open rebuke than hidden love.

But not everyone wants to sort through stuff–or is ready to.

Some can tolerate more relational clutter, and do not want their views challenged.  Some of us do–though with love and respect.  For some, simply to be countered is to be attacked, the reason for much separation amongst otherwise perfectly compatible friends and loved ones.

As I carefully weighed out my response, with every intention of being light-hearted and respectful, I suddenly heard a divine whisper: ‘take the hit.’

I now wonder how long the hits will come before this person feels their arsenal is depleted.  Hope remains intact that what once was will be again, though stronger, as good repairs always supersede place of the breaking point.

There is surely a time to speak up, with respect and gentleness: but sometimes, it is stronger, more dignifying, peaceful, profitable and noble to say nothing at all; to  ‘take the hit.’ 

The desire to vindicate oneself may not be necessary.

A number of years ago I was hired to care for a retired musician who at the age of 96 was still teaching new students and coaching former ones, most of the latter employed by the nation’s top symphony orchestras. Having served as principle harpist for 43 years in the Cleveland Symphony, she was a stickler for precision.

As a bassist and recovering piano student shamed by my first music teacher for ‘cheating’ by playing by ear, I felt a great sense of vindication one day while waiting for her at the harp. As I plucked out a simple melody, she walked into the room, sharp eyes upon me, and asked what I was playing–more of a demand than a question. I hardly thought my efforts worth the question, but politely responded that I was just making something up.  Just as matter-of-factly, with absolutely no compuncture she stated: “I can’t do that. ” I almost fell off the harp stool.

At any rate, she deemed by abilities worthy of taking some harp lessons. Beginning with some preludes and struggling to read notes dangerously perched above the ledger lines (a condition she referred to as ‘ledgerlinitus’) she looked me squarely in the eye and said: ‘it’s not difficult, it’s just new.’  Become familiar with it and it will become easy. She said her predecessor sounded like a beginner every time he practiced, playing slowly, simply and repetitively to become proficient, to develop the calm, unshakable confidence of craft.

What stands out to me is the aspect of relative ease afforded by relationship: whether with notes, with a fingerboard, with a person, with a job assignment or task of any sort, when we develop a relationship with whatever it is, it becomes easier. Opens the door to more.  Next time a task seems daunting, just remember: it’s not difficult. It’s just new. Take time to get to know it–whatever it may be–it may just contain the very joy it seems to be barring.

It is easy to focus on a problem until it becomes all we see. To illustrate: hold a piece of paper up to your face until everything else is blocked from view. Now slowly pull it away until it is at arm’s length.  Notice how much smaller it looks in perspective with your full range of vision. God wants us to see that thing, that situation, that whatever-it-may-be with a viewpoint not limited to what is challenging us.

When we allow the only One who can shift our circumstances to invade our hearts with the truth of an abiding peace that can never be disturbed no matter what is happening, or what has happened, that which troubles us can no longer control us.  Perhaps more often than not this transformation takes place within us rather than in changed circumstances–but the end result is the same.

In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. We are ‘overcomers’ for one reason: the love of God. God is love.

Return to your fortress, O prisoners of hope; even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.

God not only restores things lost, but perhaps the twice as much is the promise that He will restore the same thing in the life of another person who needs the hope that you carry: I will repay you for the years the locust have eaten–and you will praise the name of the Lord your God, who has worked wonders for you; never again will my people be shamed. Restoration may come in a form we don’t expect or immediately recognize, but it will be greater in measure than what was lost.

Never again will my people be shamed. Sometimes the difficulties of life, whether through our own doing or what was perpetrated against us can carry great shame–and yet we have a promise that God will remove our shame, and restore more than we had before our loss, as we simply give it to Him, and agree with His plan for us in the midst of it.

What if things are actually not as bad as they seem? Not to minimize what we go through at times — but to remember that there is a very strong Someone working on our behalf, who will faithfully see us through to the other side of whatever we are facing. We are not alone.

Cat Ant

August 12, 2010

I sat outside with some fruit on a break at work today, finding refuge from the sun on some steps built against a retaining wall which served as a backrest.  Within moments, a sizable ant began making its way up and over up and over the miniature valleys of sunken mortar between the bricks in the wall in my general direction–that later proved to be specific. As I leaned away to let the tiny creature pass, I realized that it was now making its way toward the fruit in my hand, which I shifted to the other hand and held at arms’ length.

Daunted from the fruit prospecting business, the ant scampered smoothly across the pavement on to who knows where, to do whatever ants do when they’re not carrying a piece of food 50 times their own body weight or digging a new tunnel and piling a new ant hill or establishing an ant farm or strategizing the next picnic raid.

It wasn’t two minutes before another and slightly larger ant appeared on the wall, making the same up and over and up and over journey to get to what I now knew to be the Ant Magnet. This time, I would be ready. The little guy wanted some fruit.

In the time it took to break a small, ant-sized piece of fruit away and place it within range, the ant’s tiny antennae scissored with eagerness as it reared up on its back legs in anticipation.  I felt suddenly transported to my own home and a similar scene on a slightly larger scale when opening a bag of treats to give to my cats.

The now sated ant settled over the tiny speck of fruit, lapping at it like a cat at a saucer of cream. I found myself marveling at its ‘nose’ for fruit–though it took two of them to prove its power to me–its eagerness–its taste buds–and its pleasure in a very simple moment.

Toe Bone Teacher

August 2, 2010

At first, it was humbling, a little embarrassing, and, well, slow. This was the fifth or sixth time I’d broken a pinkie toe, and there was nothing much to do except tape it to its neighbor.  Having done this all the other times, I knew what to expect. (I once set a fractured thumb on a popsicle stick; why pay someone else for your own common sense?)  I had no idea how much rushing around I constantly do until the toe incident sort of kicked the legs out from under my ability to make every activity a kind of small hurdle race.

Almost as slowly and difficulty as the impaired toe itself, I learned something from the otherwise frustratingly short tether afforded by the pain: the art of walking.  It didn’t start out that way: but eight weeks is long enough to become resigned to something that no amount of wanting is going to bring the desired change — except for a change of mind.  The joy of taking steps, slowly; like sipping a choice beverage; to rush through would be to miss the moment entirely.

I’m not sure if I first noticed it as the pleasure of walking. one. foot. fall. at. a. time. and. then. the. other…and the corresponding awareness, the simple appreciation of covering ground. Of accomplishing a distance. Being fully in the step. You have time to ponder these sorts of things when your stride is, oh, say, five to seven times slower than your usual pace.

After settling into this new groove, I found it was not only enjoyable to just sort of stroll around doing errands or walking into or out of work, but it was in a strange way powerful. Not what I was looking for. I was merely looking to not get hurt just walking into the post office on a pathetic little broken toe bone.  But as I more felt than saw people hurrying around me in an all too familiar mode, realized how off-center I’d been, caught up in many little whirlwinds of busyness that just never seemed to let up.

There is something about a slow, resting walk that is a reminder that things will get accomplished whether I work up a tizzy in the doing, or not. I now find myself walking slowly simply because it is more enjoyable. It somehow makes me feel like I am the one in control, and less bullied by the transient demand of the moment.

In the wake of knee surgery three days ago, I have been pondering the break as an inadvertant precursor to labored mobility. The toe after all had only healed about two weeks before the surgery. I ran, jumped and danced the day before the arthroscopy to remind my muscles that the momentary interruption to come would lead to more running, jumping and dancing than I have been capable in years, thanks to the discovery of a small tear in cushiony cartilage that could have been repaired years ago, had I not been so fearful of a diagnosis of ‘inoperable.’

I can hardly call my post-op hobble ‘walking’ yet. But I am confident the momentary slower pace, even slower than the new normal slow, will be easier than it would have been before the Lesson of the Toe.


July 13, 2010

We are always, always in the midst of one season, about to enter another, or just beginning one. It came as a great relief to ponder recently that seasons…end. There is no such thing as a static season.

Sometimes a season feels endless. ‘Feeling’ that way is not the same as reality being such. In fact, the seasons which seem endless are typically if not always the ones which are most difficult. Conversely, when things are as desired, it is rare if ever to ‘feel’ such a time to be endless.

‘For the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning the shame.’ Jesus knew what it was to suffer through a painful season, well beyond what anyone else has ever endured. Yet it was never fruitless: and its harvest was the ultimate in sustainability: a joy that was and is never-ending. ‘In Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.’

The question I’ve been asking these days about any given season is not ‘when will it end’ but ‘am I getting all that I can out of it?’  Eternal joy; temporary suffering. If it takes momentary pain to get to an endless joy, it would seem be a very wise return on investment.

As much as I am looking forward to crisp fall days, it would be unfortunate for labor day to roll around not having jumped in the deep end of the pool. Each season has its purpose; leaves drinking in the sunlight prepare for a glorious fall display. To be fully ready for the next season requires claiming all that the current one offers up. Reaching past its potential pain to lay hold of all it has to give is the key to the joy which is surely coming.

The Reluctant Mentor

June 23, 2010

On the morning dash to work yesterday, I rolled past the one store in my town’s small historic district that I still plant flowers for, the final holdover of the gardening business I ran several years ago. Typically, shop staff tends the plants, but I’d been asked to care for them during the owners absence.

The flowers looked happy, but with temperatures slated to spike into the 90s, wanted to be sure none were thirsty. As I pulled a U-turn and into a parking spot directly across the street from the shop, a dignified, slightly bent-over gentleman was walking past.  It was a Pulitzer-prize winning author, New York Times columnist and former Masterpiece Theatre host. And former gardening client.  For the past decade, he would ‘appear’ whenever I was silently but deeply questioning my own writing; he would inspire me thoroughly with entirely backwards advice, such as to quit focusing so much on writing and get a job that paid real money–that finding an editor was challenging–and writing wasn’t really all that. Usually, he had a somewhat mischievous smile on his face in the manner of one who is enjoying popping a neophyte’s false assumption bubbles about a craft they know little about. I invited him to speak once at my writer’s group, and he flatly declined, stating he had nothing to say about writing.

There is more I could say about our exchange at approximately ten minutes to eight that morning, but suffice to say, sometimes the best mentors and teachers are not those who have any interest in being one.


June 9, 2010

A friend recently took me to dinner to celebrate a milestone–the completion of my first manuscript.  What had started as a simple journal developed over time into a full-fledged book, through many doubts, fits and starts.  Not until its completion did I recognize one of its most important lessons, the key perhaps to understanding the entire process: the purpose of the pause.

As we discussed events of our lives over the past year during the five course meal, moments between dishes served seemed a perfect picture of needful reflection on what we had just taken in; the chance to savor fully; the cleansing of the palate to make ready for the next.  As if to underscore this, at the top of an hour, an unexplainable hush fell over all the diners as an old grandfather clock in one corner of the room chimed out the time; the curious silence hovered in the air for a moment or two before conversation swept back like the tide.

Through much of my life, I have not taken adequate time to pause and reflect in life’s many passages. Next moments seem to come faster than the last ones; yet the more I attempt to capture them, the more bereft of time I feel.  The irony is that when I am vigilant about holding intentional space for rest and meditation, the more time there seems to be for responsibilities, opportunities, and play.

The Hebrew musical term ‘selah’ means ‘to pause, and think calmly of that.’  Appearing in instances throughout the book of Psalms, the songwriter directs readers to a bridge of silence between movements: a nuanced tension.  To create readiness for the next moment because the previous one was experienced to the full.

A pause honors what was, and is the preparation for the new.  One season merges gradually to the next; the sun rises and sets and in between, there is rest.

Before starting the next project, I am going to reflect on what it means to have just completed a journey.  Selah.