Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Autumn Glory or Gloom?

Five years ago today my brother flew into Kansas City to drive my moving truck with me and all my stuff in it to the Southwest. It was my desire to live closer to family and to leave behind bitterly cold, gray winters. I haven't missed the winters at all, but I have missed my autumn loving friends (the other friends too) and autumn. I had been living in my new hometown for about a month when a box arrived in the mail. My thoughtful friends and coworkers (sorry I do not remember all who were involved): Kimberly, Melissa, Danielle, and Virginia sent me a box full of autumn leaves. Among the leaves they included a handmade card by Virginia, a Starbucks gift card and a bag of orange and purple Skittles, handpicked especially for me. It was such a lovely treat!

Having spent most of my life in the Midwest, I get an incredible yearning for autumn every year; it has always been my favorite season. There are those who find autumn depressing as summer's beauty tarnishes, turning brittle and letting go of its hold on life. From his book, Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer wrestles past his own dark thoughts of autumn.

“In my own experience of autumn, I am rarely aware that seeds are being planted. . . . But as I explore autumn's paradox of dying and seeding, I feel the power of metaphor. In the autumnal events of my own life experience, I am easily fixated on surface appearances—on the decline of meaning, the decay of relationships, the death of a work. And yet if I look more deeply, I may see the myriad possibilities being planted to bear fruit in some season yet to come. . . . This hopeful notion that living is hidden within dying is surely enhanced by the visual glories of autumn. . . . Autumn constantly reminds me that my daily dyings are necessary precursors to new life.”

How does the letting go, the “daily dyings” of your life effect you? Jesus taught in order to have life, we must lose our lives. It is a beautiful mess this dying, letting go and losing the self in order to have life and be whole. Not so unlike autumn. The leaves glow in glorious red, orange and yellow. Sometime after the color begins to fade and the leaves start to get crackly, a big, blustery wind tears the last of them from the branches leaving the trees standing stark naked against the gray sky. The leaves eventually turn into compost for the soil making it rich and healthy, all the while seeds fall from dead blossoms to reseed and multiply in preparation for glorious new life to burst forth come spring. Can the letting go in our lives create a rich purpose and beauty? I think so.

There are times in our lives when the letting go, the dying to something in our lives, plunges us into a dark place for awhile. Have you been there? I have. I am amazed when I look back and remember some of the darkest seasons of change for me, at the treasures buried among the decay and hurt. Those surprising nuggets show their true colors on the bright side of grieving. Those were times God used to release me to become more truly who I am, freeing me from fears and dysfunctional thinking and doing, and from myself. I am transformed and made new. It is hard to admit, but in the dying, life is released. Death is not all doom and gloom, autumn is one proof of it.

Here are some of the highlights of my childhood autumn days:

  • After a storm shaking branches from the trees, grandma would bribe us to help clean up the wooded pasture with a promised bonfire. We stacked all the branches against a large tree stump that stood in a small clearing. Later we invited neighborhood friends and cousins to roast hot dogs and marshmallows. All provided by grandma. It was such fun.
  • Burning leaves. Oh what a haunting smell.
  • Trick or treat in the small village nearby. Everyone knew us and we knew them. Mable made popcorn balls and always saved one for my mom.
  • Homecoming, football and the school bonfire.
  • Going back to school. I loved it!
  • Burning candles and the first fire in the fireplace.
  • Walking in the woods and the crunching of leaves beneath my feet.
  • The cool crisp air carrying with it the scent of autumn. Can't explain it and no candle scent is a true copy.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Things Aren't Quite As They Seem

Sometimes things are just not what they seem. Recently I held the hand of a small child as we walked across a parking lot. The sun was bright and the day hot and our shadows short. I pointed out to my little friend his shadow and showed him how to step on it. Shadows are intriguing, but not quite like the real thing; my shadow is either tall and thin or short and chunky. My shadow doesn't represent my exact build, it is a caricature of me. Of course if it duplicated me exactly, I would choose the tall thin shadow laid out before me in the evening light.

Our Stapelia plant is blooming now. Up close this blossom might make you think you are looking at a starfish, but it is a succulent in full bloom. This unique blossom smells like rotting meat and attracts flies. It isn't quite what it seems at first glance or sniff.

Even a name doesn't always represent to whom we belong. Three generations in a family I know share the same last name of Rutherford*. A long time ago an unwed divorcee discovered she was pregnant. Being more concerned with her image than the truth, her parent's insisted she give the child the last name of her ex-husband. In a moment of curious questioning generations later the truth was revealed. Imagine how misconstrued the genealogy search would be without this little known fact: the family bloodline isn't tied to the current last name.

Wednesday was the first day of Autumn. Wikipedia states, “Before the 16th century, harvest was the term usually used to refer to the season, as it is common in other West Germanic languages to this day (cf. Dutch herfst, German Herbst and Scots hairst).” But as the towns became more populated and farming began to diminish “harvest” became Fall. Harvesting isn't obsolete; fewer people are farming in order to raise the vast amounts of produce we consume without a thought from whence it came.

I digress. Here we are in the first days of Autumn; the calendar says so. We are in between the hot days of summer and the cooler, or much colder depending on where you live, days of winter. As often is the case, nothing about the weather indicates it is Autumn. It is hot and muggy; people grumble and are wearing down from the long summer filled over the top with steamy weather. It may say Autumn on our calendars and Starbucks' may boast the return of the Pumpkin Spiced Latte to their menu, but the sweaters are still packed away and the thought of a scarf around my neck makes me sweat. This is what I mean when I say, “Things are not as they seem.”

The first cool days of fall I feel more alive; I love the crisp air. So what do I do in the meantime? I join others in frustrated conversations about the hot days; I collect fall photos on Pinterest to fuel my hope, even though I do live in an area where Autumn is quite subtle; and I read poems and verses trumpeting the glorious beauty and cozy delights of Autumn. Though I believe there is beauty in all the seasons God created these lines best represent how I feel about the fall of the year:

Delicious autumn!

My very soul is wedded to it,

and if I were a bird

I would fly about the earth

seeking successive autumns.”

– George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)

Next time I might just write about the gloriously infused Autumn days of my childhood. Until then I would love to hear what you love about Autumn.

P. S. Did you catch my big hint at something else that is not quite as it seems?

*Name has been changed to protect the family whose story I have taken the liberty to tell.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Sweet in Bittersweet

You can endure change by pondering His permanence.” --Max Lucado

A mom recently said to me, “No one tells us when it will be the last time she will want to wear her Disney princess dress.” While we run about trying to do all we can with the time we have, lives are changing and it seems as if it happens overnight. The bitter sweetness of the way things are meant to evolve still leaves us with a longing to go back and relive, to pay closer attention in case this is to be the last time.

For a number of years I carried remnants of my girls' childhoods in a trunk and a few plastic tubs. I still have a few bits and pieces but they have taken the treasures they want as reminders. Many of us don't truly want to go back and relive it all, but we certainly would like to pick and choose the best of our younger years, slow them down and memorize each detail.

When we look back over photos longings can push in on our emotions, longings to see someone again and to relive the joy with total awareness. Several weeks ago I looked through the alumni magazine of the university I attended. An article featured in the magazine included photos of my college pastor and his wife receiving an award. They have clearly grown older. It made me both sad and reminiscent of the ways they influenced and encouraged me. I can't say I wish nothing had ever changed because a lot of wonderful experiences were lived after leaving that college community, but I certainly carry sweet memories of these two people and many others who were significant to that particular season in life.

A longing to hang on, to never let go creeps over me when I sense a change is ahead but so many changes can take us by surprise. Even though we know our kids are going to grow up like every other kid, it still surprises us. And the longing, the ache to hold tight grabs us and nearly squeezes the breath from our lungs. Our hearts ache with an indescribable pain. And yet I can say I enjoyed watching my girls grow up.

Here is the catch-22. We can miss today's moments by longing for what has passed. And we can miss the rich growth change stirs into the mix of who we are becoming by pressing our heels into the ground and resisting change and the possibility it may bring great good in our lives. God means for us to be our better selves and we were made to come out on top, not be destroyed by change.

Kristen Strong, writer of Chasing Blue Skies has written her first book and it comes out today. (It can be purchased on Amazon at Chasing Blues Skies.) In her usual down to earth style Kristen shares how the difficult changes in life have taught her to see change through the eyes of the Father. Heartfelt stories shared from her life and from the lives of others give roots to the truth of how even the most difficult changes can be the very thing God uses to transform us into His likeness and a truer likeness of ourselves. In Kristen's words, “I don't want to just survive change; I want to thrive through it. . . . to thrive means to grow well. And a big part of growing well is seeing change with the eyes of heaven and knowing that God will always, always use it for us.” She does not deny letting go means grieving, but in the end we must embrace the new thing God is doing in our lives in order to thrive. For me, that is the sweet center of the bittersweet in change.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Going Great Heights One Step at a Time

Butterscotch bars filled with toasted walnuts bake in the oven while the sparrows squawk at one another in the background fighting over the food I put out for them. I bake and plan supper while waiting for my husband's return from his Mt Whitney trip. Backpacking to the pinnacle of Mt Whitney with a few friends has been on the horizon since January. Months of preparation: training hikes, making lists of needs, being fitted for and purchasing new hiking shoes, ordering supplies and packing and repacking the backpack until everything fit just right.

And now the week has come and gone. They all made it to the top and back and now he is on his way home. It was a grueling adventure to mark the end of his 60th year in this life. It is a joy to celebrate his accomplishment and a real blessing to celebrate the man whose shoes I cannot fill.

The breeze tosses the palm leaves about and rustles through the tangerine tree as daylight begins to slink lower in the sky. I wait. I hurried about earlier to water the plants outside and feed the birds, all jobs Jim does when he is home. I kept forgetting plants and having to backtrack, and while writing I looked out the patio door and noticed I forgot to put bird food in the gourd feeder. He has such a fine tuned system and I fall short. But the plants are still living and the birds are still fighting over what I gave them and the butterscotch bars smell great.

It seems as if a lot of time has passed since the morning hours, the time I had begun to worry a little. I knew I might not hear from Jim once they started the hike upward, but I had expected to hear from him last night. Finally late this morning I got the call they were about an hour from the Mt Whitney trailhead; they didn't make it down before dark the day before and had to camp on the mountain another night. He said, “We are a little beat up, but we made it to the top and that is all that matters.”

I am thinking about the difficulties in life I allow to keep me from making it to the top. Sometimes the things holding me back aren't really so tough, but with a little negative thought to blow things out of proportion I am soon overwhelmed and doubting I can reach my goal. A friend and I had a heart-to-heart chat this week about the ways we get overwhelmed and brew up a good dose of doubt as to whether or not we are truly cut out to be the counselors God has called us to be. We were able to talk one another back to a place of truth; we just have to get back to the basics and believe God will make us able to do what He has created us to do.

Brussels Sprouts roast in the oven filling the house with their nutty, bitter scent, and I get a message saying they've gotten caught in traffic and will arrive later. So, I slow down the process and watch the light in the sky soften into a dusky glow and listen as the bamboo wind chimes make their woodwind music. I love this time of evening. No matter how long the delay, my husband will arrive home this night, piling camping gear by the door and throwing a big bear hug around me. The timing will be just right. He will have reached his goal.


And as you can see he made it home.