An Inch, and More, of Grace

We’re heading to Christmas and events are unfolding fast. These last two days have found me walking on the cold marsh with dog just about at first light, and there are a million tasks that I, like most everyone else, am trying to do. But a chance encounter at the local grocery yesterday provided a backdrop to think again about how we’re moving in this crowded and harried space together.

As I exited the store I came upon a woman with flailing arms. She was walking around my car waving a smartphone. She yelled at me to inquire whether this was in fact my car, and if so, how could I have not felt myself hitting her bumper?! This encounter degenerated into a demand to see my license and registration, threats that she’d involve her relatives in law enforcement and that “if there is so much as a scratch on my newly repaired grill costing $ 12,000, I’m coming after you.”

So I answered with words to the effect that her photos had better document that my car was not touching her car: my license plate was touching her license plate, but there was an inch of light between our cars. “My car is not touching yours, and if you come after me, I’ll come after you to prove my car is not touching your car.” Such was the conversation! After a few moments, she seemed to collect herself, apologized, and admitted that in fact, I was not connected to her grill. She went off into the rest of her day. And in the space next to my car sat two older folks, munching on muffins and watching all this go down. There was an inch of light. An inch of grace.

Fast forward to the expensive dog and cat vet visit later, the mounds of laundry to do before the trip, the nagging details of meetings and ‘away’ messages demanding attention. On the happier side, I received two birthday gifts I’ll unwrap tonight, and as I either light or blow out candles, I’ll consider that inch from yesterday a birthday gift too.

My hope is that as we prepare to enter the holidays, as I round up (or hide) the undone and look again for the crèche to which many of us are heading, I will realize that what I saw yesterday was a reflection of so much more grace than just an inch. “God in man made manifest” is right around the corner, and in this crazy, fast paced fragmented world, we need that grace extended to us. If we seek that, is that what we can learn to extend to others?

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Mary and Martha, the Ox and the Lamb

It’s nearly the third Sunday of Advent, the season in my faith that marks time and awaits the coming of Christmas. Today is Saturday, full of chores and unfinished work, of tasks that vary from the return of overdue library books to clearing the room of our returning college student.

Advent is a season of the predictable but of the unpredictable, too. It’s predictable to be hiking to the shed in the bitter cold to find the misplaced tree stand; it might even be predictable during the search to find oneself humming ‘Little Drummer Boy[1].’ But surely it’s unpredictable, just a little, to find oneself leaking tears and getting choked up about the ox and lamb? After all, in that story, they just “kept time.”

This must be the beauty and mystical blend of what is both holy and practical. We too ‘keep time,’ not in the sense of preserving it, lengthening it or changing it, no: most days we keep time by simply doing the next thing in front of us. We wake to work, work to make a difference, sleep to rest; we rejoice, we mourn. We hear the strain of the music and call beyond us, bigger than we are. We take tiny steps toward what we hope is our aim: the love, and the light.

I weep for my friends, and the wider world, who are keeping time in hardship. I weep at the seeming distance of my 21st century life from the intimacy there in the stable long ago. And in the next moment, clutching the found tree stand, old ornaments, and crèche figures from many years ago, two other time-keeping women leap to mind: Mary and Martha. I know which I resemble now in my haste and manufactured but also real busyness. And I recognize the need to also be like the other as well.

Martha, Mary, the ox and the lamb:  all part of a world changing drama that unfolded itself in poverty and humility and hidden-ness. How is it that 2000 years later an anonymous small drummer boy, created in the imagination of song-writers, sung about by millions, dismissed as schmaltz by hundreds, can drill into hearts? Perhaps it is not him, nor his drum, nor the tune itself, nor even the animals described. Perhaps it is the very connection he made, that he finds, with the small child come to bring and to be the Light of the World.

[1] https://www.carols.org.uk/little_drummer_boy.htm

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“The Leavings of a Life”

I’ve been thinking about darkness and light this week, the first week of the four that mark Advent. During Wednesday’s dog walk I found myself saying to myself, aloud, “deep things are not always dark; deep is not the same as dark; ‘darkness is as light with Thee’…plenty to ponder for the early hour.

Then yesterday I made the delightful discovery of the poem ‘Shadows” by D.H. Lawrence. I confess to woeful ignorance of his poetry: I might be able to name 1 or 2 of his novels at most. But this poem is arresting in its relevance to the season upon us, and it invites reading more than once.

It opens:

And if tonight my soul may find her peace

In sleep, and sink in good oblivion,

And in the morning wake like a new-opened flower

Then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created.[i]

 The poem moves on to describe other seasons of life and it’s here we find his line, “the leavings of a life.” What are or will be these leavings, I wonder.  Will it be the done, the undone, the accomplished, the wished-for; I expect it will be all these and more. Light, darkness, shadows: I hope in this season we can move among them all with a sense of expectancy and hope.

[i] Shadows, by D. H. Lawrence in Morley, Janet. Haphazard by starlight: a poem a day from Advent to Epiphany. London: SPCK, 2013.

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“Be the Scout.” “Attend.”

This about sums up my recent conversations with the dog on my walks this past week and a half. He’s older now, and dawdles down the path sniffing his familiar places (everywhere) and taking his own sweet time. In the early days he was the one running forward with abandon, leaving me trailing behind and shouting for him to slow down, wait, stop…all manner of directions that meant “stay close” (that was another command.) I realize the beauty of the recent warm days beckons us to a slower pace, but…really?

Thus I found myself saying “Be the scout, Probie” as we headed across the flat tidal marsh area where the sandpipers like to find their morning snacks. We dialogued: “Aren’t you supposed to be the scout for me?” “Aren’t you supposed to lead the way and protect me?” That day we left the conversation there, content as we were to enjoy the breeze and proceed more or less in fits and starts and stops all the way back to the car.

The next walk some days later, quite near the same wide place in the path, I was deep in day dreams and had not paid attention to just how far back the dog was behind me. It was though I heard his voice instruct me this time, with this one word: “Attend.” And yes, I thought, I should come forth from my cocoon of the “undone” at work, at home; the thoughts of family far and near; the errands and tasks I was queuing up for the day ahead. Instead of all this flotsam, I should be attending to all that was around me: the dog, yes, but also the noisy jay, the mown field, the water strider.

Fast forward to the workday of today and the on-campus presentations I attended all morning. The plan had been to stay all day, but after the provided lunch and a walk around the exhibits, something just told me to go back to the office.

When I entered the library one of the desk staff hurried over to me with a student in tow. I hadn’t been on email all day so I’d missed her note asking if she could stop in for a research tune-up at 2:30. And wouldn’t you know it? A glance at the clock revealed: 2:30pm and here we were in an unplanned meetup that actually happened without electronics.

Or was it unplanned, really? Only one of us knew it would (hopefully) take place. The other of us was lost in the day. Yet I’d like to believe that sometimes, even when we don’t realize it, even in the smallest moments, we can hear our intuitions and act. Perhaps it’s just called listening. Perhaps, it is to Attend.

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Humble Chai

Today I was reminded of the joy of unexpected surprises and finding out we know something we didn’t know we knew. And in light of recent national and international events, it feels both light and perhaps not-right to share such a small story while huge shadows remain. So I share a story from this morning knowing its smallness up against enormous pain all around.

It began in the stop at the local coffee shop to buy treats for the students I’d be teaching later in the day. Today Bruce, who minds the line and keeps it moving, asked me in a whisper if I knew the answer to his trivia question, posted in small letters at the register. “It’s for a free drink!” he added, enticing me to try.

Usually I don’t know answers to the questions Bruce posts. But today’s was worth a try.

“What two cities have the statue of Make Way for Ducklings?”

My mind raced past the obvious, of course: being a local but also a fan of Robert McCloskey was upping my chances. So I replied, “I’ve got to go with…

Moscow.” Which was met with a smile and Bruce, still whispering… “That’s IT!”

I’ll admit we shared some mini-fanfare in hushed tones (not to deny others in line the chance, after all). Soon the bag of treats appeared and I moved on down the line, amazed that somewhere in my mental files I had tucked away a fact like this. But not to gloat: not only did Bruce have to remind me of the particulars (who gave this gift, and when, and why), it also seemed to be taking a very long time to create this free drink.

So alas, I had to approach the counter again. My drink had gotten missed in the hub-bub, and now would have to be made ‘out of line.’ The roster of names continued to ring out: “soy Americano for Nick,” “mobile order for Allison,” and then, sure enough, “chai tea latte for No-Name.”

I left with treats for others and one for me, happy to have surprised myself in a very small thing, and also at once aware of its little place in the big things. Many of us are in an OK place, and many of us, someplace else.

I’ll be thinking of these as I try to read the paper tonight about what’s happened in our nation these last 2 days. That won’t be anything like the wonderful story of how our ducklings were protected, guided, and then helped home. Not even close.

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“Reach for the Red”

There was a time, if I am not mistaken, when this implied reaching for the sports section of USA Today.

But today I realized this carries a new meaning for me, because now down in my handbag (there’s nice old-fashioned term) sits a smartphone, my first, in its new dull red case. Yes: I have joined the ranks of flat phone carriers, or should I say owners, since all our phones use carriers?

Thus too begins a new chapter in my connectivity, and to “reach for the red” will mean digging out the buzzing or ringing device with someone I know (hopefully) on the other end.  I admit I am not as comfortable with this as the myriad of folks around me on this train, to take just a small sample.  There’s someone who can hold a tall coffee drink and scroll through messages. I see a few using two hands. Another person has a stylus poised, and today, I note, there are two print book readers visible!

Perhaps my communication adaptation is somehow like the cormorants I just now see taking off from their posts in the marsh at GE Riverworks. Touched by the morning sun, they awkwardly manage to flap their wings and rise just above the water. They also avoid the soaring great blue heron, the real master of these skies who drops and blends into the reeds to find his fish with the greatest of ease. Perhaps I, too, am taking off in a slightly erratic fashion. Will I become airborne with this now ubiquitous technology?

It’s early days and given the present workload of September and the jostle of home logistics in full swing, I know I need to give myself more time. Surely I will get to the place I can find my contacts as fast as before. Maybe I will understand and come to appreciate some of the icons I have not yet touched on the home screen. It may take longer for me to feel casual about this, however, coming from grandparents who had party lines and boxy crank phones. Those certainly didn’t fit in the back pocket of anyone’s jeans! But….since it’s only Monday, I think I’ll indulge just a little bit, and imagine my paternal postal carrier grandfather, and my other farmer, one-of-two-identical-twins grandfather, carrying such phones in their jeep and tractors in and around their rural lives. Out at the croquet game or down in the tobacco barn, they could have been early adopters, those two.

Now that I think about it? Definitely.

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I Took a Moment

The dog walk on the marsh yesterday coincided with a slow, ebbing tide. I marveled as the ripples steadily headed toward the sea: how could this gentle movement of water be so different from the enormous amounts now flooding so much of Texas? Standing on the woods path, I took a moment.

I took a moment to look at this small tidal river, walked a step and then took another moment to think about the people whose lives are soaked and completely uprooted. Here, in my town,  we are in a near drought.  Why can’t we engineer a solution that transports excess to deficit? Is it impossible?

After this moment my dry day went on its way: visits with friends, work from home, closing out the Atrium from last year’s classes (washing chalkboards, throwing out papers, all very satisfying), and then dinner: a sub sandwich grabbed from the store with ice cream to follow at the local stop. Even the Red Sox won.

And today, thanks to an improvised schedule change, I had the unexpected chance to walk said dog again on the very same path as yesterday. This time there was no motion on the water, tidal or otherwise. The moment I took this morning showed a completely still surface on the river; it was a perfect reflection of the scene above:  skyscape and treetops framed by grasses. Then, another surprise: a bit further on, high in a tree sat a raptor, right in the canopy’s gap, waiting, just like us, for the warmth of the morning light.

My prayer is that those in Texas will see in the water’s reflection, not only moving water and despair but the faces of those who have come to care and help, both now and in the days ahead. As they keep watch may they also keep hope. And may we take some moments to remember and help however we can, too.

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