Tag Archives: finding joy

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.


Waiting for the Thaw

19 Feb

The sun is out today, for what seems like the first time in months, but winter’s calling cards are everywhere. It could easily depress me if I let it.

Snow-lined street

If it isn’t blocking a car, it’s called ambiance.

Our small suburban side streets are still a mess. After the last storm, most folks dug out only enough to free their vehicles, leaving a patchwork of tar and snow. Sand is strewn over the narrow driving lane, making everything dirty. A stream that formed on our sidewalk is rushing the rapidly melting snow into the gutters at the bottom of the hill.

Snow blob

I won’t name him, lest I become attached. If I DID, he would be called Blobbert.

I stare out my window; a child’s snowman stares back from across the street. He’s actually only a blob with a hat, surrounded by footprints. However, his creator is about five years old, so he’s perfect, of course. He’s the ideal shape for a melting reference so I’ll say it…the sun beating down on him makes his hat look most unnecessary. I’m sure he won’t survive the day. I can’t tell whether his lemon eyes and little O-shaped mouth are expressing surprise or if he’s pleading with me to save him. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I won’t mind it when he’s gone because for once, I’m tired of the snow. We didn’t even get that much this year, really. My sister in Denver, she’s still getting regular blizzards, as are my brothers in northern New England, and my friends in Washington and Maine. I grew up in Rhode Island. I know what a lot of snow looks like, and this is nothing. It just feels like a lot this year.I heard a weather forecaster say it’s not over yet, and that there may be one or two more snowstorms before spring arrives. It just makes me sigh. All those dirty white mounds piled high around the lamp poles in the grocery store parking lots—where will they put more? Let’s hope today’s sun melts them down a few feet.

Still, as I look over the tired, dirty landscape, I can’t help but feel hope. I know that just five feet from the snowman, crocuses are sleeping under that blanket of whiteness. I can almost hear the roots of the brown grass and of the giant Norway Maple in the middle of my front lawn drinking deeply from the crisp, fresh water that seeps into the ground all around them. The tree sports tiny buds like tightly clenched fists, just waiting for the sign to let go.

Even now, there are robins on their way here, and the Canada geese are making flight plans for the long trip south. Mama cardinals are holed up in the trees all around us, keeping their eggs warm. Butterflies are nearly transformed, still snugly curled in their cocoons. Everything is about to change.

Tree blossoms, tightly clenched

The trees of the field are ready to dance.

This is a time of hope and anticipation, especially for those of us who might be feeling weary. We can take heart because we know what’s coming, despite the apparent bleakness. We’ve been here before. We can hang in there. Just a few more weeks. Regardless of the shadows, and no matter how cold it gets, whatever you’re going through right now—know that it’s temporary and something joyful is on its way. Take heart, spring is coming.

A Charleston Portrait

4 Feb

To celebrate our 30th anniversary (and to mark my leap from steady paycheck to struggling writer status), my husband and I spent last week in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. We chose Charleston because we wanted to go somewhere we’d never been, that was near enough to drive to but far enough away that we could escape the cold Virginia winter.

Naturally, we spent three of our five days practically snowed in.

“First storm like this we’ve had this decade,” said all the locals.

Ravenel Bridge

Beautiful, but quite useless in a snowstorm, Ravenel Bridge

It wasn’t much by Virginia standards, but it was enough to shut down the city. Even the elegant Ravenel Bridge, the main route to the downtown area, was closed throughout most of our visit. It was opened briefly when temperatures warmed, but quickly closed again when ice falling from the rigging began crashing onto crossing vehicles, apparently annoying drivers in them.

Because we were staying at Mount Pleasant, this meant either taking the alternate route with hundreds of cranky re-routed commuters or staying on the island and seeing the sights there.Initially, I was quite disappointed. I wanted to experience the Charleston I’d been hearing about for so many years, its lovely markets and restaurants, and that legendary Southern charm.

We instead went out to Isle of Palms, and explored Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island. It was all quite nice, but cold, and I’d hardly say charming.

Then we met Mazie Brown, a sweetgrass basket weaver with a small stand on Highway 17. Sweetgrass weaving, South Carolina’s official handcraft, is an art only found in this region, and the baskets are sold only in the downtown markets and along this highway. Mazie was one of only a few weavers brave enough to set up shop that day, when cold was warding off potential customers.

From the moment we entered her tiny hut we were charmed. Mazie flashed us a wide and welcoming grin, and commenced to chatting as if we were old friends.

“You’re lucky you come by when you did,” she said. “Soon the only place you’ll see baskets like this is in the museums.”

Mazie talked about her art, which she’d been practicing since she was 6, and this stand, which her Mama had established 29 years ago and which Mazie had taken over after retiring from her nursing career. While I listened, I pulled down some of her creations, running my fingers along the intricate patterns woven from grasses and palms.

“Those dark parts is pine and bullrush,” she said, pride emanating from her deep brown eyes. “And that’s palmetto, holdin’ it all together.”

Her weathered hands stayed busy, braiding a stalk of sweetgrass into a circle, the way her Mama had taught her: in the Gullah tradition maintained more than 300 years by Africans brought to America in slavery.

“It’s dyin’ though,” she said. “My children want nothin’ to do with it. They don’t have the patience…rather play on their textin’ machines.”

My husband held up a serving platter that she said took about two and a half days of weaving to complete. What a shame this art might disappear. We’ve since learned that not only is the coming generation losing interest, but regional development is depleting the sweetgrass supply. Access to the grasslands is limited; harvesters travel nearly 90 miles to find grass, or they buy it like Mazie does.

“When I was a girl, I used to go with my Daddy to pull it up,” she said. “Wouldn’t do that today. There’s so many snakes in the grasses now.”

We purchased the platter and asked her to sign the back. Her face lit up afresh and she pulled a sharpie of her pocket; our request wasn’t original.

“Some folks don’t want ‘em signed, but I’m always happy to do it,” she said.

As she carefully spelled out her name on the evenly spaced palmetto coils, Mazie continued to talk about her family, being alone despite two marriages, surviving cancer seven years now, and about her love for the weaving craft. We could have listened for hours; she had such a sweet storytelling gift.

Mazie Brown

Mazie Brown, artist and storyteller, Charleston personified

So enchanted was I by Miss Mazie, I did something I rarely do, as anyone who knows me will attest. I wanted to have my picture taken with her. I could tell when I asked that she shared my loathing for the camera, but she obliged (albeit, never looking into the lens). Jerry and I both felt compelled to hug her goodbye.

We eventually got to the city, to a few good restaurants (shout out to Page’s Okra Grill!) and to the market where baskets similar to Maize’s were triple the price and stalls were just business establishments. After Mazie, it was a bit anticlimactic.

I’m not sure we would have met Maize if not for the weather; I’m so glad we did. To me, she is now family. To me, she is Charleston. And a lovely, charming place it is.

Taking Joy from the Trees of the Field

13 Nov

Last night’s howling winds have abated, leaving a bleak urban skyline outside my window where only last week a magnificent canvas of fiery color took my breath away. Today, as I look in most directions, I see mainly outstretched limbs of naked trees.

Full tree of red and orange

The Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands

But right next door, and at the end of the street, and on street corners throughout the neighborhood, are trees (mostly maples, I think) still round and full, bursting with glorious color. I don’t believe the tree next door has relinquished a single leaf. It gives me great joy to witness such life, even as parts of it are dying.

People are like that, aren’t we? We’ve all had our leaves change color and darken. We’ve lost loved ones, said good-bye to childhood friends, felt that gut-wrenching blow of bad news from which we’re not sure we can ever recover. Some of us lay down our leaves as soon as we see their loss as inevitable. Others shine forth, seeing each day as a gift and each step in the struggle as part of a worth-while journey.

My life has been blessed by full trees—people who shine regardless of their situations.I see it in my friends Michele and Sheryl, whose lives are being buffeted by headwinds of heartache and change. I picture them, leaning forward against the gusts, sliding one determined foot just barely ahead of the other as they inch their way across the wet, slippery road. Still, they stand. And if you stand near them, they will put an arm across your shoulders or fold you into a hug so personal that you feel refreshed and strengthened for another day.

I see it in Doug and Matt, whose roots went without water for many seasons, until their eyes became dull and listless and they despaired of becoming lost in the darkness. Then they found their way back to the well and drank deeply, and today they radiate so much joy that all those around them can’t help but smile with them and lean in to listen when they speak. They give me hope for the future of this nation.

I see it in my neighbor Bill and in my friend Craig, giant oaks whose roots (or those of the trees around them) are being blighted by cancerous invaders. They don’t know if treatments will drive out the disease, but they sing anyway, and find reasons every day to be grateful. Their faces shine, and they speak light into the darkness.

These full trees have much in common. They each bear scars from harsh weather and lightning burns, and some of their limbs have been pruned, yet they are taller and stronger than they have ever been, and we who watch can only be inspired by their color. Most importantly, they emit hope. They know that brown leaves do not signify the end, because they’ve seen this before. This season will give way to a new one that is lush and green, and there will be fruit again. They know that God has promised to bring them through this, even if they don’t know where “through” will lead. We’ve learned from Shadrach and company that even if God does not bring us where we want to go, we can trust that what He’s doing is for our good.

This does not mean we cannot grieve or feel sadness as the leaves are stripped away, but that, as the season ends, we remember a new season is coming. Being unsure of our future does not mean we must be afraid.

As we go through trial, each of us must choose whether to display despair or hope. I’ve peeked at the end of the story, and I know it’s full of hope. I want my tree to be full until every last leaf falls to the ground and they come haul me away to be used for firewood—and even then I’m gonna make sparks fly!

Job 19:25-27   I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes…”