Tag Archives: beating the darkness

Winter-weary warriors, wait no more!

26 Mar

It has always been difficult for me to choose a favorite season. I can easily narrow my list down to four finalists, but then I’m pretty much stumped.

Today though, I’m rather certain I like spring best, particularly after a winter as long as we’ve had in Northern Virginia. (Yes, I can hear my New England family saying, “Winter? We’ll show you winter!” All I can say is that for some reason, I’m not pining as much as usual to visit you.)

Across most of the nation, winter receded like an ocean tide this year, ebbing and advancing. With each advance we received yet another blanket of snow, another no-school day, another bring-in-more-wood-for-the-fireplace night, another too-cold-to-leave-the-bed morning.

We’re weary, and some of us are even a bit gloomy. It’s been that kind of winter. But now we’re finally stumbling out of our homes, still dazed and a little hibernation-groggy, and we can see hope seeping up through the tired, cold land that even a week ago seemed to threaten to never thaw. It’s in the air.

Tulips

They’re coming. I don’t think they’ll be blue, but they’re coming.

The trees are still bare, for the most part. Still we know that those tiny, tight buds at the end of every branch are pieces of beauty and new life preparing to burst forth. And just below the surface of the damp ground, millions of eager daffodils, crocuses, and lilies are trembling with anticipation, waiting for the warm sun to call them upward. It’s coming.

There’s something precious about watching nature re-awaken every year. It melts the icy memories until we can barely recall running outside in jammies to warm the frozen car, or sliding over icy patches, hands clutching wildly for something stable, or re-shoveling that mound of white stacked against the mailbox by midnight plow trucks.

Instead, we remember the frogs and crickets who will be back soon to sing their evening serenades, and the mockingbirds and finches who will post themselves high in the trees, where the acoustics will do them justice. And hummingbirds, and butterflies. (And yellowjackets & wasps, but we’re ignoring them for now.)

Spring is a time to plant and wait, knowing good things are coming. Spring also reminds us about second, third and fourth chances, or however many we need. The yard is a clean slate. Squirrels haven’t stolen this year’s crop of tomatoes, we haven’t lost the grass to dandelions, and the holly bush we thought for sure had been trimmed back too far is showing signs of life. Life is all around us.

For those of you who think you can’t make it one more day, trust me, you can. Spring reminds us that all things can be made new—even people. Toss off that cloak of weariness and delight in every good thing. Allow yourself to take joy in the anticipation. Breathe deeply, and notice anew the gift that is spring.

Because in springtime, anything is possible.

See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land. — Song of Solomon 2:11-12

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Christmas year-round: March

I’m a little behind with my March Christmas idea because of family concerns, but it’s not too late to do a little something. In fact, let’s deck the halls, you know, with spring—Eggs, chicks, flowers and bunnies! It’s just the ticket for driving winter out for good…or at least for eight more months.

Easter decorations

A study in Easter’s disproportionate nature

What’s Green and Hurts All Over?

6 Sep

Kudzu.

I never really gave it much thought, but over the summer, as I drove through Virginia’s southern counties, its pervasiveness intrigued me. I did some research and now I find the plant fascinating, or at least, its story. It’s a story of compromise.

Kudzu came to America in the 1800s the way sin enters one’s life—as a beautiful and desirable object from a distant land we’d heard of, but never seen. Let’s not call kudzu alien or unnatural to the region…that sounds so unrefined; how about exotic? What a delightfully mysterious word, exotic.

All the nicest gardens just had to have Japanese kudzu, that hearty and lush vine-bush that grew quickly and provided wonderful shade. Of course, like all exotic possessions, it came at a steep price, but with a little reshuffling of funds (perhaps we could use that money set aside for charity this month…?) status quo was obtained.

During the depression era, someone discovered that kudzu could stop soil erosion. The government began pressuring southern farmers to take it out of their pots and gardens and plant it around their fields and along highways; they pressured the way young men pressure young women to do things they ought not. In some cases, the government even paid farmers to defile their soil. And the farmers agreed, because, well, everyone was doing it. And besides, it wasn’t exactly unpleasant.

Soon, the farmers realized they’d made a mistake, and that new life was being created at rapid rates. The government said, “Wow, that’s quite a mess you’ve gotten yourself into,” and turned away. They went back to Washington, removed it from their list of species acceptable for use under the Agricultural Conservation Program, and labeled it a weed.

Kudzu planted its roots deep into the Georgia and South Carolina soil, strengthening into a network of obstinate toddler-like tendrils that shot up and raced across the ground, stopping to climb mailboxes and telephone poles. It was cute at the beginning, like a child’s first swear words, or those “But I wanted a trophy!” temper tantrums that we’d video tape, chuckling. Coddling fools, we lifted some of the barriers so they wouldn’t feel stifled—anything to keep the little ones happy. Next thing we knew, the vine children became rebellious teenagers, racing over and past farmland boundaries, pushing down fences, climbing over walls of absolute truth that blocked their paths, and yelling, “Progress through freedom!”

Winding its way up and around. Isn't it pretty?

Winding its way up and around. Isn’t it pretty?

Throughout the late 1900s, the vines thrived through a system of situational ethics supported by the motto, “anything goes if it benefits me.” They started climbing trees, wrapping their manipulative tendrils around even the tallest and heartiest species.

Townspeople noticed, but did nothing.

“The leaves make a pretty contrast against the forest, and it isn’t hurting anyone,” they’d say to protesters. “Stop being so dramatic and show some tolerance, for Pete’s sake.”

Others said, “Sheesh! It’s not as bad as cogon grass or privet, so what’s all the fuss over a few weeds?”

The trees noticed though, because they’d become embroiled in a battle over light and nutrients, and the war was very real to them.

Kudzu devouring a hillside

It’s not really hurting anything…

Sadly, their age and wisdom were no match for agility and avarice, and millions of acres from Florida to North Carolina (and now Virginia) and as far west as Texas were smothered and choked. Kudzu and other weeds like it now consume an estimated 150,000 acres of trees and other flora each year. Under every one of those delightful green towers (look Dad, that one is shaped like a clown!) is a dead or dying tree that once contributed greatly to our ecosystem.

In 1998 it was listed by the U.S. Congress as a Federal Noxious Weed, but this fancy label didn’t come with an eradication plan. Besides, some people enjoyed it. They fed it to their animals, made baskets, and chopped it up to use as fertilizer.

“I’ve got it under control in my back yard; I’m not too worried about your problems.”

In Japan, it’s made into jelly, so we may as well make room on the store shelves now. It’s coming, whether you like it or not. If you don’t, you’re a hater.

Can it be defeated? Possibly. People once tried to introduce an insect that supposedly eats the kudzu vine. Regrettably, it also devoured soybean crops. They’ve tried locating the root crown, which can be quite deep, and destroying it, but some reports say even the tiniest sliver of surviving crown can regenerate. Many eradication methods could work, but it will require a strong stand against compromise and a lot of effort. Too much effort it seems, now that the beast has been allowed to run wild for so long. In some regions entire houses, barns, and silos have been overrun, as if it were easier to leave than fight. Perhaps the owners just didn’t want to be seen as bullies.

Yes, it’s bleak out there, but what do you think? Is the battle lost?

kudzu overwhelming roadside

Kudzu, or muscadine, or porcelain berry, or Virginia creeper. I’m not a botanist and can’t swear, but the vines are all similar, and inflicting similar damage.

“Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”  — James 1:15

 

 

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When Fathers Are Imperfect: You Call this Love?

14 Jun

Not everyone loves Fathers’ Day.

Did you have the perfect dad, someone who attended every sporting event, band concert, and scout ceremony? Who knew your friends’ names and read the articles you wrote for the school paper?

I didn’t. My dad barely knew me, and he attended nothing—not even my high school graduation.

Dads are a strange lot. When we’re young we think they’re perfect, but for most of us, at some point we learn the truth: that they’re human, and we’re disappointed.

What was that moment for you?

Perhaps your dad was away on business on your birthday one year and he didn’t call.

Or maybe he promised to bring you something and then forgot.

Perhaps he committed an unspeakable shame that your mother forbade you to talk about, even  with your best friend.

Perhaps one day, when you needed him more than ever, he looked the other way.

Or worse, walked out of your life.

Maybe he died before you even got to know him, and all you have of him is a photograph in a tiny frame.

Or maybe you don’t even know who he is.

I believe there’s a place in everyone’s heart set aside for loving a father, and we long for that love, but it doesn’t always look as we expect it to.

My dad was tough, a U.S. Marine, private first class. He fought with the First Marine Division in Korea, where one day a piece of shrapnel sliced through his head like a band saw. The Corps sent him home with a metal plate in his head and a glass eye, and a prediction that he wouldn’t live to 25. He beat the odds, married, fathered nine children, and died at the age of 64 in 1997. Love wasn’t part of his vocabulary.

Still, I know without a doubt that my father loved me, even though he only said it once. I was around 35, and home for Christmas, unaware that it would be the last time I’d see him alive. He mumbled, “luv ya” at the door when we were saying good-bye. I was so surprised I asked him to repeat himself, but he wouldn’t.

If I had measured his love for me according to outward affection, I’d be one hurtin’ puppy. In fact, I remember standing beside his easy-chair every night, waiting for my bedtime kiss. He’d touch his palm to his lips, turn his hand over, and slap me on my forehead. That was love.

Oh, how I despised him sometimes. Many times. He let me down; he let my brothers and sisters down, each one in a different way; and he let my mother down in the worst way. He never read to me. He got himself fired every time we were about to be ok. And he died, way too soon.

Oh, how I loved him. He was a good man. He made us all laugh. He could fix just about anything, and he loved dogs. We joked that he treated his dogs better than he treated his kids, but I challenge my siblings to consider this: he treated us just like his dogs. He wrestled with us, took us out on the water so we could feel the ocean breeze blow through our hair, and he always made sure we were fed. That was love.

Dad and his father

Dad and Grampa. Don’tcha just want Gramps to pull him closer?

Dad’s own father was more than strict; he’d been hardened by events of World War I and the Depression, and by a secret past he didn’t want anyone to know about. To his children, he was as cold as ice.

So here’s my epiphany: Nobody taught my dad how to “do” fatherhood, so he did the best he could with what he knew. I believe my dad was determined to be what his father was not—warm, funny, and adventurous. He took the good from his dad, too, like a hard-working spirit and a sense of responsibility for family. We often went without, but we were always sheltered and fed (I know Jo, but a tent is shelter). You see, he could do the opposite of his father’s example and he could mimic those traits in his father he admired, but he couldn’t create a picture of what love looked like by watching a man who didn’t love.

I forgave Dad for being human long ago. He gave me my sense of humor, pride for my country, and a special fondness for the ocean. As a parent, I’ve tried to retain the good from his example and forget the rest. I’ve disappointed my sons many times, but I think I’m closer to getting the love part right because I saw into my dad’s heart, to who he wanted to be but didn’t know how. I pray my sons come even closer with their children.

I know now that there’s only one perfect Father, and He has shown us everything we need to know about love. He loved us first so we could watch and learn. I so wish my dad had known Him.

Regardless of where you stand this Fathers’ Day, there’s something you can do to make it a meaningful day:

If you’re angry at your dad, forgive him.

If your father is still here, tell him you love him.

If he’s gone, remember the good things about him.

If your heart is aching because you never knew a father’s love, call to the one true Father. He won’t let you down.

“We love because he first loved us.” 1 John 4:19

Take THAT, Cancer! A letter of hope.

30 Apr
Cicada swarm of 2013

Remembering the cicada swarm of 2013

Call me Jim, for want of any other name.

My world came crashing down about a year ago when the cicadas swarmed, with their beady little eyes and gnashing teeth, making a noise that was so horribly loud I thought it would never stop. But it did, and they disappeared, leaving destruction in their wake. I could see it on the oak tree across the street all summer long, a constant reminder of my own condition: dead, cancerous brown tufts where there was supposed to be verdant new life.

I tried to live a normal summer, but the after-effects of my treatment was devastating. My limbs are still scarred from the abuse I suffered, and I ached in the core of my being. Some days it sapped all my energy just to keep breathing. 

By autumn, I began to shut down. I took no pleasure in the foliage across the street because I just couldn’t bring myself to feel joy. One by one, I began to drop those things that gave me my own color.

I slept through most of the winter, and through the long Spring that Refused to Come. I just couldn’t seem to get going again. As we were pounded by one snowfall after another, each bringing the cold back with it like an unwanted relative, I became certain I would never be warm again. It was almost too much to bear. I wanted God to take me. I even begged Him. I stood outside one morning with my bare, frail arms stretching upward and I made a fist as best I could in the buffeting wind and screamed,“ENOUGH!”

But He didn’t take me.

Spring blossoms, at last

Across the street, spring blossoms, at last

Instead, He gave me another spring. Today I look around at all the color across the street, and I’m amazed. The oak is green again, having sloughed off those dead branches. The cherry tree on the corner is alive with pink blossoms. Front lawns are decorated with yellow daffodils, purple hyacinths, and tulips of all colors. Bees are darting about the fragrant blooms, transporting life from one end of their world to another.

Cynically, I say to myself, it’s only temporary. The colorful blossoms will fall away, and all around will be ordinary green. It will be as if spring never happened.

Or will it? I consider the oak across the way. I remember only a few years ago when it was a frail sapling, struggling to survive. Yet each year after the spring, it is a little bit taller, stronger, and heartier. What a nice word, hearty. I let it linger on my tongue, tasting it gently, longingly.

Finally, each day is warmer than the last. I stand still in the front yard, staring up at the sun as His life-giving sap runs through my veins. I can tell that I, too, have been touched; my own color is returning. It was a long, arduous year, but I made it. And like the oak, I know I will never be the same as I was. God may, indeed, still take me before I’m ready to go, but right now I’m alive, and He is with me, so I will lift my face to the heavens and sing praises for the days I have.

I peer into the window where I can see my friend Bill resting in his chair after another round of chemo. I beckon wildly but he does not notice. I wish, as I have so often since the cicadas came, that I could speak to him, but I don’t know how.

If I could though, do you know what I would say?

I’d say, “Bill, take heart and look to the heavens. If He would bring me through all this…me, an ordinary dogwood tree, what do you suppose He’s doing in you?”

There’s a Cure for That, but Can You Handle it?

10 Apr

The kitchen looks like a war zone—plates and pot lids strewn about, towels on the floor, a blade from the overhead fan dangling precariously. Blood is seeping out from my husband’s sleeve, dripping onto the kitchen island. Our foreheads are drenched in sweat and we’re panting with exhaustion. The cat’s ears are flattened back, and his eyes seem to be spinning wildly.

I look at my husband for support. We nod in agreement—break time is over. We’re going back in, this time with even more determination.

We’ll get this medicine into him if it’s the last thing we do…

 

OK, it wasn’t that bad, but it felt that way. Aslan, our sweet kitty from the Twilight zone, fought like a wild tiger for about ten minutes before we gave up, and we had to give up, to keep him from hurting himself.

The most disheartening part was that we were fighting over pain medicine. He was in great pain from a bladder infection. We were struggling so hard because we love him and don’t want him to be in pain. But he was afraid.

Cat in a box

You can’t hide in a box. There’s pain in there too.

You cat owners out there would agree, the veterinarian’s instructions were almost laughable (and by laughable I’m talking about that hideous, fear-based, strait-jacket laugh):

“Just measure out 3 milliliters with this plunger and squirt it under his tongue twice a day,” she said. “Do not squirt it down his throat.”

Under his tongue. Riiight.

So we all know how that train derailed, don’t we?

When Aslan wouldn’t open his mouth voluntarily (I hear you snickering), hubby tried the grip & pry method, which instantly brought out the claws.

Then we tried wrapping him, cajoling him, and bribing him with treats, all to no avail.

Then we tried brute persistence (“the heck with under the tongue; this is going down the throat!”) Naturally, more medicine went into my own mouth than his. Tastes as nasty as you’d expect, but my neck doesn’t ache anymore, thank you very much.

We even tried putting it in his food, but apparently the odor is easily detectable, and thereby initiated a hunger strike.

And after all this struggling, we still hadn’t even touched the antibiotic—a rather large purple pill that he needed to ingest in order to cure the infection.

So finally, we gave in. Setting aside the pain medicine, we managed to get him to take the antibiotic by disguising it in a bit of tuna. After about a week of only antibiotic medicine, he is back to his old self. The pain medicine is still in the vial. It makes me sad to think he was in pain much longer than he had to be…if he had only let us help him.

When I think of how hard Aslan fought us and the stress he put himself through, I wonder if that’s what it’s like from God’s perspective as He directs our paths. Does He feel frustrated, or does He watch in amusement when we fight Him? Does He try to force us, or does He give in and let us stay hurt just a bit longer than we might have been?

We’re such goofy kids. We turn away, hide, make deals—anything to avoid THAT, because it’s painful, or different, or scary. How sad to think that all along we’re not only making things worse, but we’re missing out on wonderful gifts He wants to bestow upon us. Because we think we know better. Because we’re afraid. Because we’re mad at Him.

I struggle with the irony that I only want to curl up on His lap and purr when all is well. However, it’s when all is NOT well that He wants most to hold me. For more than ten years I was particularly angry at Him because I lost many loved ones before what I thought was their time, despite knowing that as long as I’m on Earth I never will understand why. By not trusting that God knew what He was doing, I spent years wallowing in anger and hurt before I came back to Him, exhausted from the struggle. He wanted to hold me but I wouldn’t let Him.

I can assure you that whatever pain you’re going though, God is certainly aware of it, and He knows the reason for it, and He knows what will come of it. Trust that He doesn’t want you to be in pain. Why would He, who loves you more than anyone could possibly love a cat, want anything but good for you?

Don’t fight the arms that hold you. His touch can heal. Sit still, already! The best is yet to come.

 

For Gary, who turned around…

11 Mar

This week I’m dedicating my blog to Gary, an ordinary man who lived a life of extraordinary kindness. Most people who read this page didn’t know him, but that’s ok. I didn’t know him as well as I would have liked, but I’m touched by his spirit and I think you can be as well.

Gary was a quiet, unassuming man who was quick to help and slow to anger. His face displayed a curious mix of inner peace and ancient pain. He knew how to listen. Anyone who stopped to talk with him walked away thinking, “Gee, that was a lot more than I meant to tell him about myself, but it’s ok because he likes me anyway.”

People were drawn to him, particularly people who were sinking in despair.

That’s because Gary knew what it was like to be on the bottom. At one point in his life, he sank so far down into a murky pit that the walls started caving in over him, and that could have been the end of his story. Instead, one day he looked up and saw an outstretched hand against a small piece of light. He grabbed hold and began what would be a long, arduous climb to freedom. It wasn’t an easy journey. The walls of the pit were slippery; what few foot-holds he could find were so sharp they left scars; and there were people still at the bottom who pulled at his legs, trying to drag him back down. He never would have made it out if that hand hadn’t remained tightly clasped around his. It gave him hope and encouragement, and he knew whoever was behind it would never give up on him.

Eventually, he was pulled into the light, where he lay for a while gasping, joyfully tasting the clean air, and grateful for a second chance.

Many of us, when we’re pulled out of our darkness, dust ourselves off and say, “Whew! That was close!” Sometimes we even remember to thank our rescuer before we go on our way. We rarely look back.

Gary, however, once he caught his breath, turned back to the pit, planted his feet firmly, and reached out his hand. He set up camp there, on the edge of darkness, where he spent the rest of his days pulling people to safety and encouraging them, fighting with all he had to keep them from falling back in. He never forgot that outstretched hand.

The church was packed yesterday for Gary’s funeral service. I was amazed to see how many people were there, people whom Gary had touched in just a few short years. But there’s more to the story, because Gary taught them more than just how to climb out of the darkness. By his example, he taught them to turn around and reach back down. Today there are many, many people camped at the edge, feet planted, hands extended.

As I see it, Gary’s legacy is a ripple of kindness extending light outward across a pond of darkness. And in the end, the light will win.