Thursday, September 5, 2019

Stumped


“Daydreaming gently of brisk autumn days, of fire colored leaves and fading sun rays.” A.R. (October, Come Soon)

I’ve been spending the past couple of weeks cutting down a birch tree out back in the corner of our yard. It stands about twenty five feet tall, I would guess, and is mostly dead. At least it looks sick to my eye and seems to be negatively impacting another birch that stands next to it. My guess is the people who planted them so many years ago thought they each had plenty of room to branch out, but it was not to be.

I don’t like cutting down trees, to be honest. I like plants, and I like nature (as long as it stays outside – nature I mean. I like nature to stay outside; it’s too dirty to let into the house). In any case, I like to let nature take its course and fill in blank spaces the way God intended. However, this birch drops branches every times there is any breeze, so we’ve got to go out daily and police the grounds. So it seemed the time had come to cut down this tree to make more room for its neighbor to spread its wings.

The job has been pretty easy. One benefit of being retired is I’m in no hurry; as we pay for weekly green-waste bin disposal anyway, I’ve been able to de-limb the tree week by week, working my way up until now I have mostly the main trunk and a few outriggers left to tend to. As I stand back and look, I have a good sense of what needs to be done.

Interestingly, when I get up into the tree (or alongside it on a ladder) I find myself overcome by a sudden case of vertigo, and the task looks more overwhelming than what I can handle. From afar, I am the Little Train that Could. Up close, I find myself just a bit punier than what I’d like to admit to anyone.

And so the tree and I find ourselves in a bit of a standoff. While I like to think of myself as a mostly competent human being, I also know I have what it takes to win the Darwin Award every time I tackle a job for which I am not equipped physically, psychologically, or intellectually. I would love to think I can outwit an inanimate object, but experience suggests otherwise.

Every time I take a shower, I find cuts and bruises about which I have no recollection of acquiring. It is like the world is assailing me from every quarter, and all I’ve got to show for it are dime and penny sized gashes. It seems my skin is getting thinner, while what it contains isn’t. How ironic!

I know the best way to tackle what remains of my recalcitrant birch tree is to simply fell it so I can finish hacking it down to size with my trusty little electric chainsaw (which is, more honestly, a butter-knife with a cord).

The trick is getting it to land where I want it to, as it stands alongside the new fence our neighbor put up, as well as some yard decorations that are immobile, but fragile. I need to think it through before taking that next step.

That is something else I have learned to do in retirement. I’ve learned to take time to think. I know I am capable of over-thinking things, for that’s what I do. Sometimes it leads to the paralysis of analysis, but in reality it saves time in the long run, and that’s what counts.

I can remember being asked by my grandmother to run around the corner from her house to pick up a loaf of bread or quart of milk (back in the days when there were corner groceries owned by locals). I bolted out the door on a mission and was halfway there before realizing I hadn’t waited for my grandmother to give me any money.

My grandmother had an adage for everything. Her response? “Haste makes waste.” She never chastised me or scolded me. Patiently, she would allow me to live and learn, make mistakes and fix them.

I’ll go out on a limb today and suggest that’s good advice for all of us here in this, our valley.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Branching Out

“It’s interesting how something that comes so easily to one person can be so impossible for someone else.” Susane Colasanti, So Much Closer

My wife and I were out for a walk the other day. As we returned home I looked up into the maple tree that dominates our front yard and noticed some leaves beginning to change. It shouldn’t have surprised me, because I had noticed a few dried leaves blowing about the driveway like a flock of drunken, whirling dervishes. I checked my phone and confirmed what I had suspected; we were still in the first half of August, so it seemed strange that the leaves should be starting to fall.

Trees are intriguing. I love the shade they provide on a hot summer’s day. I love how they look so dead in winter, yet each spring they return to life. New branches shoot forth while dead stuff falls to the ground with each passing breeze and storm. Leaves unfurl, as if by magic, and one can almost hear them inhale the old, stale carbon dioxide we’ve let go, while returning oxygen to the lunged species of the world around them.

I don’t know if trees experience happiness or joy; I know scientists say they “compete” for resources, like light, water, and the nutrients of the soil, but I’m not sure competition is the best word to describe what they do. Humans compete. Wolves compete. Birds compete. We so-called higher life-forms compete for food and mates, but it isn’t that way with trees and flowers.

We may describe what they do as competition, but in reality there is no ego involved. A plant needs water, so it sends forth roots. It seeks, and it finds. It does not desire the death or dehydration of its neighbor. In times of plenty it thrives, and in times of deprivation it stands still and waits. It does not twiddle its stems in boredom, but stands ready to change as needed with the seasons.

Although I can be a bit of a blockhead, I’m not a very good tree. I can measure two board feet at the lumber yard, which is strange as I can’t hold a tape measure with my two bored feet. I used to pine for oak, but now I pre-fir walnut.

In any case, I found myself befuddled by the sight of leaves turning brown so soon. It seems too early for leaves to be turning colors and dropping from the tree, and yet I believe a tree knows by nature what we try to figure out by the calendars we hang on the wall.

The maple doesn’t turn red in embarrassment that she’s losing her cover. It is in her DNA to do what she does when she does it. She responds to the arc of the sun and the lengthening or shortening of days to decide when to send forth shoots and when to let go.

I sometimes wish I could be more like the tree in that regard. I prefer to hang on to things. I think I got that from my father, who recently passed away.

He was not a hoarder, but he was a child of the Great Depression, so he never replaced what could be fixed. And when things were beyond repair, he would scavenge the parts for future use. Jars and cans of leftover screws, nuts, springs, and washers fill the garage and shop. It wasn’t an obsession; it’s simply what he did out of habit.

I’ve learned to let go of things over the years. Ministerial transfers made those sacrifices essential and, truth be told, they really weren’t sacrifices. In lightening the load, we saved ourselves (and those moving us) a fair amount of money.

Harder to give up are life’s grievances. Each of us has them and, as long as we hang onto them, they weigh us down, slow us up, and cost us far more to carry than we generally realize. If we are wise, we learn to leave our burdens behind as we move forward – to drop them like leaves.

To our great delight, when we let them go, they don’t just litter the forest floor, they return nutrients to the soil from which we will feed as we reach each ensuing season. Happily, that enables us to branch out more fruitfully in this, our valley.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

A Divine Washout

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a dreamer.” “There is not. But dreams have a way of turning into nightmares.” Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus

It was a hot, bright, sunny day. The birds were sitting on cables stretched along the roads. Their mouths were open as they sometimes are. I don’t know if birdies are trying to cool down when they do that or if they’re just ready to say something but can’t find the words. In any case, it was a hot, stuffy day, and no one was doing more than they had to.

On the side of my truck was evidence that a bird had recently sat upon the power line that stretches over my parking space. I looked at the streaky white and gray paste that dribbled down the door of the truck like some avian Rorschach test, and suspected I had possibly been blessed by the highly unusual visit of some lost Condor.

In any case, the unsightly blotch needed to be dealt with and it was far too hot to haul out a bucket of soapy water and hose, so I trundled on down to the local service station, fueled up the truck, and put it through their automatic car-wash service. I handed the attendant my slip with the car-wash code on it and, as he read the details through eyes drenched with perspiration, I casually joked, “You know, this means we’re going to get rain.”

A virtual gully-washer of sweat poured off his forehead as he nearly broke a smile, thanked me for my patronage, and waved me into the mouth of the noisy Rube Goldbergesque cavern which lay ahead.

I marvel at contraptions like that. As I rolled my way through the machine, pushed along a metal track by some mechanical gee jaw, I gazed in awe at the tangle of hoses, pipes, and gizmos that sprayed soap, water, and wax all over my vehicle while industrial strength brushes whipped and stripped the dirt away. I don’t know how it does what it does without inflicting grievous bodily harm to the vehicles that pass through, but it does (and it did).

I came out the other end all wet and shiny. Well, I didn’t come out that way, but I was in the truck when it came out all spic and span, and that’s what counts. Another attendant wiped down the vehicle with a soft cloth, put the side mirrors back into their rightful places, and waved me off (with a smile) to my next adventures. I returned his smile and tipped him my appreciation; I then made my way home (keeping an eagle eye on the sky for avian bombardiers), and parked once again in my customary spot.

Well, I got up this morning, opened the drapes, and noted with smug satisfaction that it did, indeed, rain overnight. The air is now clean and fresh, and the dirt that was washed out of the air now sits upon the truck in the silent acknowledgement that my prediction for rain had come true.

I chuckled sardonically to myself. I laughed quietly as I didn’t want to wake my dearly beloved, nor did I want my neighbors to think they lived beside a homicidal maniac (about which there wasn’t much they could do anyway).

But isn’t that the way of life? We do what needs to be done knowing full well that it won’t be long before the task is undone or needs doing again. One can grimace about it, I suppose, or complain bitterly, but to what purpose? The obstacles in life do not obstruct us on our journey. They ARE the journey, according to an ancient mystic.

And so we smile, thanking God for the rain that waters the earth, rather than cursing the shower for spotting up our vehicle. After all, do we curse our dishes for needing to be washed, or do we thank God for the food that graces our plates?

Approaching life with an attitude of gratitude has really helped me sleep better at night. It helps me in my relationships with friends, family, and strangers alike. I think it makes me a more pleasant ragamuffin to be around.

And it’s far cheaper than a carwash (and more fun than a Rorschach test) here in this, our valley.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Problem Solved

Though the Lord be high, God cares for the lowly; God keeps his distance from the haughty.  – Psalm 138

I was going through some old papers the other day and ran across this gem: Identify a problem you have and work through (the following) steps to solve them. Make sure the problem is YOURS to solve. Don’t solve someone else’s problem.

I like solving problems. That’s good, because I’m also an expert at creating them (problems, not solutions). Try as I might to communicate clearly, succinctly, and accurately, someone invariably goofs up down the line. Sometimes that someone is me. Sometimes it is the other person. Either way, when the problem arises, I do try to find out what happened and fix it. What doesn’t work (I’ve learned) is to get angry or fix blame.

On my Dad’s kitchen window is a placard that’s sat there for years. The bit of wisdom it contains is: It is better to love than to be right.

Now, my ego would prefer to be right, and the fact is I’ve never had an argument where I didn’t think I was right or in the right from the start. It would be silly to start an argument knowing or believing one is mistaken, in error, or outright wrong.

Now, I know people who would argue the sky is green for the sake of argument. They love the adrenaline rush that comes from being in a fight. But that person’s not me.

I’ve also learned over the years that if one puts themselves in the shoes of the other person (which, admittedly, makes for a crowded pair of shoes) and looks at the matter from their perspective, they too may have a point. So why fight? Why not listen carefully, weigh the facts as best one can, and look for a solution that works for everyone?

I remember learning about a thing called “The Common Good” when I was growing up. The idea they talked about was remembering we are not alone in this world. It required acknowledging there are other people – whether in this family, community, or world – and that they have as much right to be here as we do.

As a child growing up in a tiny home housing six people with one bathroom, each of whom had to rise and shine and get off to work or school, cooperating was critical. We had sufficient food for our meals, and we served ourselves, but we each took care to moderate our portions so that everyone would have what they needed for their own plates.

We also had one television, but reception was so poor (and with the constant rolling of a picture we could not stabilize) there wasn’t much fighting over programming. With three channels, we always had a 33% chance of watching the show we wanted to anyway.

No, when one looks at life from the shoes or sandals of their neighbor, it is amazing how many issues can be avoided. That doesn’t mean we need to become doormats, of course.

It seems people are more aggressive and obnoxious of late. I think a good portion of that is due to our continued and continuing isolation. Everyone has their own television; each of us has nose buried in our computer, tablet, or cellphone. People utilize social media as a megaphone for their pet projects or from which to projectile vomit their displeasure at others. Wasn’t it nice when the worse we saw on social media was the oatmeal someone had at Denney’s with a loved one?

We often talk about all our connections, and yet it seems that our connections have divided us. Not only that, but we can block one another with ease. Say something I don’t like? Block! Problem solved … or is it?

No, the problem isn’t solved. It’s only been made worse, because blocking another person denies them their place in your life. A lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” His question was a coin with another side: “Who is NOT my neighbor?”

Jesus’ answer, in sum was: Your neighbor is the one you’d rather be dead than to have them touch you.” Ouch!

So, I am going to continue to find solutions rather than fix blame. I’ll try to love rather than to be right: Problem solved for another week in this, our valley.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Weeds, Bees, and the Local Buzz

It doesn’t matter who hurt you, or broke you down. What matters is who made you smile again - Anonymous

The other day I went out to hack away some of the overgrown weeds around my father’s house. He’s not able to tend to them anymore, so I do what I can to control the tangle of greenery. They look like they’re victims of some botanical form of highway robbery, reaching for the sky as if they’re going to be shot.

I know I can be a vegicidal maniac, but I don’t shoot the shoots. Rather, I chase after them a bit like Freddy Kruger or Michael Myers of horror movie fame, slashing at them with garden shears, rusty hoes, or chattering hedge trimmers. If that doesn’t make your sap run cold, you ain’t got no sap! Speaking of saps …

Summers in the Pacific Northwest are absolutely amazing. Things grow so fast out here. A yard can be wonderfully landscaped, each plant shaped and sized to fit its tract ever so perfectly, but within a year, it becomes a jungle. Invading Triffids would stand no chance against the local flora. Even as careful as I am, as well-equipped and well dressed as I am for my assault on the overgrown brambles of life, they do not go quietly into the bin for garden clippings. They have their own plan of attack, snagging anything and everything they can find.

It’s no wonder I’m not overly fond of yard work. I am sure I leave a pint of blood for every ounce of sap they leave behind. I like to think of myself as a man of peace, but the shrubs have made a bushwacker of me, instead. I should “leaf” them alone.

That’s easier said than done, of course. I was out spraying dandelions the other day (a real pain in the grass, if you ask me) and a neighbor noted in passing, “You know, if dandelions were hard to grow, we’d treasure them the same as we do our roses or orchids. They’re actually kind of pretty.”

When you think about it, it’s true. When I peek at a dandelion, I see a weed, but it’s not all that unpleasant to look at. A weed, as we are told, is just a flower that grows where you don’t want it. Every spring I head out and admire the fields of daffodils and tulips in the Skagit Valley, and yet whenever I see a lawn that’s more dandelion than grass, I’m offended. Why is that?

Who made me a judge over the world’s botanical delights – to decide what is worthy and what isn’t? At the end of the plant planting day, did God say, “It is good” or “Ew, ick, dandelions!”?

God found everything in creation to be delightful. Do honeybees avoid dandelions? Of course not!

I have only been stung three times in my life by honeybees and, ironically, all three occurred on the same day, and each bee was on a dandelion I had carelessly trampled while barefooted. I was about twelve years of age at the time, and I learned two things. One, watch where I step, and two, wear shoes … period.

Bees don’t seem to care whether the flower they milk for nectar is a weed or something else. What they care about is that it has what they need for the health and well-being of the hive. A flower is their gold; they need not dig for it, nor do they need to melt it down or refine it. They do not destroy the flower, kill it, or crush it. They simply flit from plant to plant, benefiting the entire field by transferring pollen from one plant to the next.

I’ve gotten to that stage in life where I’m less interested in pulling weeds, and more interested in sitting in the back yard, sipping a spot of tea (with a touch of honey) and appreciating how plants are contributing more to the health of our planet than I am with my hacking and wheezing.

The fact is there is little reason to do as much “yard work” as is often done for in the end, nature wins. Nature always wins. I want to learn to relax and enjoy creation more; that’s the buzz here in this, our valley.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

The Age of Tolerance

My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, or else my heart concealing it will break. William Shakespeare

One day people brought children to Jesus to be blessed by him. His disciples tried to keep those rowdies away. Maybe they were trying to protect Jesus – his time and energy. Perhaps they wanted to keep Jesus for themselves – jealous of any and all who would come between him and them. It is also possible they felt children weren’t worth his time and attention. Maybe they thought blessings poured out onto ankle-biters would diminish the supply of blessings they wanted for themselves.

Whatever their reasons and motives, Jesus was quite clear: “Suffer the children to come unto me.” I always thought the use of the term “suffer” was strange. I know the old English term means to “allow” – to allow the children to come to (Jesus), but it still seems strange. It implies that there is a burden involved, for to suffer is to bear up under the burden of some person or situation.

Life is full of burdens, of course. There are people who drive too slowly in the fast lanes. There are homeless camps littered with garbage, used needles, and assorted cast-offs. There are people who show up late for appointments, forget to silence their cellphones at the movies, talk too loudly in restaurants, or fail to wash their hands after using the facilities.

It is so easy to be intolerant if we want to. Like the disciples, we can operate out of fear or anger. We can try to protect One who needs no protecting, or prevent others from drawing near to One who wants nothing more than to gather all people – the clean and the unclean alike – beneath the shadow of his wings.

To be welcoming and affirming is a burden, of course, because it means putting our own attitude and perspective on hold or at least on a back burner. It means there is a number one, and that One’s not me (or you). That’s an uncomfortable place to be. There are seven billion souls on this planet (not to mention all the non-humans), which means few of us will ever be anywhere but in the great muddle of the middle. I think Jesus would recommend we learn to accept our place in the universe and not be too pushy.

I had popped in to grab some groceries the other day and needed to pick up some green onions. A woman had parked her cart in front of the green onions while she examined the contents of the radish bin with the thoroughness of an IRS auditor. Not one radish escaped her eagle-eyed survey as I patiently stood by until she had finished. Nothing I did was heroic; I was simply stoic. When she was done, she moved on and I got what I needed.

There was no applause from my fellow shoppers, and I doubt seriously there was much rejoicing amongst the heavenly hosts. I just figure people have enough burdens of their own to deal with, why should I add to them by being intolerant?

The same goes for politics. Each of us has a perspective on who or what is best for us or our community. Goodness knows I do. I’d even like to think I am right, but a moment of thoughtful reflection would confirm that others are, first of all, entitled to their opinions and, secondly, have perspectives based upon experiences which could enlighten or inform me. Working humbly together, we might be surprised and find better solutions and make better decisions than if we simply screamed loudly at one another.

Each of us brings something important to the table – our experience, strength, and hope. So rather than trying to “win” an argument, perhaps we should suffer the other to come to the table. After all, it has been said that a burden shared is a burden halved.

Jesus acknowledged that others could be a burden. “Suffer them,” he says. That includes us, of course. I can sometimes be unbearably insufferable. But Jesus’ shoulders are broad, strong, and more than up to the task of carrying us all across the finish line.

Can we do less than suffer one another here in this, our valley? I hope so.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

The Old and the Gray


And now that I am old and gray-headed, O God, do not forsake me, till I make known your strength to this generation and your power to all who are to come … Psalm 71

I am old and gray-headed as I start this column. I wasn’t always that way, of course. I was once a bouncing baby boy – full of life and drool and (likely) a bit of other stuff as well. I knew nothing of God and don’t know a whole lot more now. I grew up in a family that didn’t go to church, so my earliest experience of God was generally as a word attached to a string of other words expressing some displeasure toward someone or some unpleasant thing the adult members of the family were experiencing (I’ll mention no names).

That changed over the years and we began to attend a local church which, to be honest, I found quite boring. The music leader would jump up and down trying to whip the congregation into a frenzy whenever they were singing one of their hymns, and yet the congregation just dragged its feet and refused to become enthused.

We sang sitting down, as I recall, and if there is one thing I’ve learned over the intervening decades it’s that one cannot sing while sitting down. You need to stand to allow your diaphragm to work properly, and to get your air moving in and out with strength and gusto (and hit those gosh-awful high notes that are thrown in for good measure by those dirge-writing craftsmen of yore).

Well, we did some church-shopping back in those days and finally found a parish where the people stood to sing and knelt to pray and where it seemed God was something other than a swear-word. And with that, something changed in me.

I loved the calisthenics in church. We were always moving: standing, sitting, and kneeling. Worship wasn’t passive, but active, and I came to discover that a congregation isn’t an audience sitting listlessly while watching an entertainment event up front, but a community gathered before God to engage in a divine conversation.

There is no one right way to do church, of course. People may look around and I suspect they are bewildered by all the different choices out there in their communities. I think humans are diverse enough that God recognizes a diversity of expressions will, of necessity, take place. I appreciate the more settled rhythm and flow of a liturgically oriented church. Others may prefer more loosie-goosie expressions of faith. Each is different from the other, yet each points beyond itself to God.

Today, I am old. I’m not decrepit (yet), but there are days I feel my age more than others. I’m old and I have come to believe more and more two things about God: God is love, and in our being filled with the Divine, God expects us to share that love.

Some may complain that’s too simplistic. They could be right. Who am I to argue? I am sure God has enough space in heaven that those who are of an exclusive bent can have their own quarters and not be disturbed by the grand banquet taking place for the rest.

That’s the other thing I’ve learned. I am here, and my life’s experience has spanned fewer than seven decades in that continuum called eternity. I don’t really think God expects any of us to get our acts all that well put together to be perfectly right about anything. She is satisfied to have us sit in the back seat of the Family Sedan and not kill each other on this trip we call life.

God’s promise, as I understand it, is that God will lend us the strength and the power we need to behave responsibly in taking care of creation, in loving one another, and in being decent human beings – reflections of the Divine – in our own speaking and doing.

We may botch things up from time to time; I know I have, do, and will! But we have God’s word that we have been forgiven, are forgiven, and will be forgiven. God expects us to pass that favor (called “grace”) along: “Forgive us … as we forgive …”

That’s my heart’s hope and desire in this, our valley. Have a great week!