Ode to a Songbird

I hit a bird today. A tiny, sparrow-like mama bird with a pale yellow body flying across the road with a morsel in her mouth. Too late I saw her; too late saw the morsel in her mouth; too late saw her hit the glass and fall to her death on the shoulder of the two-lane country road.

It ripped my heart out to hit her. Red-shouldered hawks have circled our skies for days, gathering meat for their nests, but she’d survived them. She understood the hawks and had probably outmaneuvered them more than once this spring. She’d withstood other predators, too: Squirrels, crows, possums, and coons all enjoy a songbird’s egg. But nothing in her DNA had prepared her to meet a windshield. She never saw death coming.

The little mother was on one of those missions that only another mother can understand; racing through each day, exhausting herself to find food for her young. Her flight path was lo and laser-focused on the first maple in the meadow where generations of mountain songbirds reared their young before her. The meadow was theirs long before the road was ours.

My mind leapt to the nest, to the young who were now without a mother. As I well understand, the death of a parent is a family affair, and I lifted a prayer that they will survive without her. In high contrast to our thoughts of immortality (despite our continued 100% morbidity), wild things live day to day and understand that death is never very far away.

For weeks now the songbirds have greeted me in the morning and their full throated singing has filled my heart with joy. They are such a reminder that new life is rising from the dark cold of winter, that what has been birthed in darkness will soon lift blooms above ground.

This sweet bird’s sudden death was another reminder to slow down and live more intentionally; to hold myself accountable for the precarious balance between humanity (the world’s most invasive and dangerous species) and the rest of nature. Her soft life was a reminder that we, too, face new threats to our survival: poisoned food and water, noxious air, global warming, the marriage of big food and big medicine. (Lord have mercy upon us.) We are all connected, you know. What kills the songbirds kills us, too. Let us remember (before it is too late!) that their songs, our songs, are too valuable to lose.

Break here for spring!

The air was so soft and sweet yesterday that the wild daffodils could not help but nod their yellow heads open. “Slow down!” it seemed to say. The pale sky had big fluffy bits of cotton floating by and before I knew it, I’d taken my coffee to the deck.

As the birds serenaded me (Wait! Who am I kidding? They were serenading each other, it’s nesting season!) I sipped my organic, fair-trade dark roast and began watching the clouds go by.

After cloud-watching during breakfast I traded lunch for a walk and felt the icy days of winter were but a memory (I doubt that, I expect they’ll be back!). I ended the day back on the deck sharing some time with the birds again.

Too often I race to my “to do” list. Too often I work all day and into the early evening only to find that I haven’t checked much off that list. The panic that rises when I see all that is left undone slips into my pajamas and follows me to dream land. But not last night. Last night I slept like a child, softly and securely. The day held me fast right up until nightfall in its gentle embrace.

My to-do list is still there. It never goes away. But spring days are short. Their soft embrace is as fleeting as a moonbeam. “Slow Down!” they sing sweetly from nodding yellow heads. “Slow Down” and be one with what is.

Accepting What Is

3-22 It is What it Is

How many starfish try to be stingrays? Seriously, how much time does any given starfish, on any given coral reef, spend trying to be a stingray or a whale? Not much, right? Yet how many times a day do we try to be something we’re not? If I had a dollar for every time I’ve said to another woman, “Wow, I wish I had your hair!” I’d be a rich woman right now. I’d be a dang millionaire if I had a quarter for all the times I’ve envied another woman’s wardrobe, weight, lifestyle, or home décor. I’m not proud to tell you that, but it’s true.

Animals don’t do that. Animals just accept life for what it is. Wow. That’s a lot easier. So, the two wrens in my feeder today (that I’m pretty sure are about to become Mr. and Mrs.) are engaged in heavy courting. Right now, they’re feeding each other seeds and displaying their feathers. (She’s trying very hard to not be impressed.) But, it wouldn’t enter their minds to ask the crows nearby if one of them would like to make a nest. They’re wrens. They have tiny bodies and sharp beaks. They know what they’re about and they don’t waste any time trying to be a crow or a fox or a cat.

I think nature gives us a pretty good primer in self-ownership. If we try to be something we’re not, it probably isn’t going to work. No matter how hard we try, it just won’t work. (I can testify to this personally!) It won’t work because it’s not real. I’m a short, dark-haired Welsh woman with enough Cherokee to keep it interesting. I’m not a tall Nordic blond. I can wish that for myself, but I’ll never be that.

When we spend our time wishing things were different than they are, we’re wasting valuable self-time. And the fact of the matter is, God made us the way we are. We are enough, we are what we’re supposed to be. Until we accept what is, we will never grow into what truly can be. It’s only by accepting ourselves, all of ourselves (body type, IQ, innate gifts, life experiences, the whole shooting match!) that we live into who we are. And, who you are is actually pretty cool once you embrace it.

So, don’t waste another minute trying to be someone else. Become who you are and own that.

How To Increase Your Personal Possibility

I have spent this week at a lovely home on the Atlantic ocean on North Carolina’s Emerald Isle at a retreat for women retreat leaders. The setting is absolutely gorgeous (our week here is a gift to us from a patron of the religious arts) and we have an absolute blast! We cross-pollenate one another with inspiring ideas and art projects and mix our retreat sessions with long walks/talks on the beach before dinner each night.

beach photoOur theme this year has been “possibility.” Each of us leads a day of this retreat. One day we created foil-lined “possibility hats” that offered us the chance to repel negative thoughts and influences and attract more of what we want in our lives. Another day we explored what it means to be free and read the Declaration of Independence (wow!) and the original writings about the Statue of Liberty. We then drew our family trees and journaled about our family origins. (I have a bit of Cherokee, which explains my Asian-fold dark eyes, but mostly I’m Welsh by blood, my “people” weren’t born here.) We moved further into the turf of what it means to not only have corporate freedom but also personal freedom. Freedom from fear, anxiety, grief, destructive thoughts and behaviors, disease, and so on. Another retreat day focused on reframing negative self-language (exchanging “I can’t,” “I haven’t,” “We don’t” with “I can,” and “I will.”) THAT was really powerful process.

In these highly polarized political times, I think we can all use a little “reframing” of our possibility.

So, I want to invite you to do a really cool exercise from our retreat. Take a blank sheet of paper. On the left hand side, write down at least 5 things you think you can’t do or that you used to do or that you’d like to do but don’t think you can. (Use “I can’t, I won’t, I don’t know how to…” language.)  Then, on the right hand side of the page, reframe your language about each of these things using proactive wording (I can, I will, I want to learn how to…).  The more things you list, the more powerful the exercise becomes.

Just as we can strengthen our physical bodies and develop new muscle with exercise, we can increase our personal possibility by strengthening our minds and spirits. Changing (or reframing) the negative language we often use with ourselves to the positive language of “Yes, I can!” is a great way to do that.

 

Why Do Good People Suffer?

Lent has begun.  Ashenlent crosses have been smeared on our foreheads. We have entered the time of contemplating suffering and sorrow and its role in our human condition as we remember the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus.

It’s not hard to find suffering and sorrow. You can walk to the nearest ICU and find it displayed against the white sheets , bright lights, and beeping monitors that are the company of those in twilight sleep. My best friend of all time is a critical care physician whose daily work takes place amidst the shock and pain. She speaks the language of suffering eloquently and tenderly, often delivering the hard news that no one is ever really prepared to hear

There was an accident in my tiny town on Monday. The troopers were chasing a vehicle and the driver took our exit, blew past the sweet primary school where a few hours earlier kindergarteners with My Little Pony backpacks would have been waiting in line for their parents. The car erratically drove on, into the very heart of town and plowed into 5 vehicles before busting through the plate glass windows of the old-fashioned hardware store like a stunt driver in a B-grade movie.

T-boned in the melee was a young track coach at our local Christian college named Britten Olinger. A runner now turned paraplegic whose life is hanging by a thread. He has three dogs, a wife and a baby girl. “Lord! Where is the justice in life?” we cry out as the family takes crumpled naps on waiting room couches. I’ve slept on those same couches. It’s not any fun. Seconds take hours, hours take days, you eat from vending machines and keep your cell phone on. People call, but they don’t know what to say except, “I’m so sorry” and you don’t know what to say except, “Thank you.” The clocks in there are very loud.

Asking why good people suffer is an argument best left to the absurd. Understanding and giving thanks for each moment when we’re not suffering is where the lesson is.

So as the next 40 days unfold, sit in prayer with that family and all the others like them. Look for a way to do something helpful, think harder and then just do it. . And as you move through these next forty days, sit in utter gratitude that life includes both suffering and joy. The trick is to look for joy when and where you can because you never know what’s coming next, none of us do.

FOR THE LOVE OF TINY

andy in the kitchen

So, Twice Blest just finished a summer performing for Camp Grier every Friday. I told the story below and on the last day of the summer program, Andy & I made giant cookies with M&M smiley faces for the staff. It was our little way of saying “Thanks!” Here’s the story…

FOR THE LOVE OF TINY!

The camp I went to in the mountains had a cook named Tiny. Tiny made the best biscuits you’ve ever put in your mouth and her cookies were awesome. But, Tiny was not exactly tiny. She was 4 feet 3 inches tall and as big around as she was tall. Tiny was the happiest woman I’ve ever known, she was always singing. On the last day of camp, she’d hand you a giant cookie with an M&M smiley face and say, “Keep smiling honey! A smile a day sure keeps the blues away.”

Tiny called everybody honey and she was sweet as sugar. But Tiny could not stand a bully. I guess when you’re as big around as you are tall, you’re a walking, talking target for a bully. Tiny saved me from the bully who called me “chubby tubby.” Tiny said, “Honey, just cause they’re mean don’t mean they’re right. You just love yourself and other people will, too.”

One year, they hired a helper for Tiny, his name was Big Jim. Big Jim was the opposite of Tiny. He was tall and skinny as rail and he wore a bad mood like it was a Tshirt,  he banged pots around in the kitchen and yelled at us.

Tiny didn’t like that, so she went to work on Big Jim. While she was teaching Jim how to make her famous biscuits, and they were elbow deep in white flour she said, “Big Jim, honey, What was your Momma like?” And he told Tiny his Momma was mean and drank a lot and she’d switch his legs with a hickory stick until he cried every day, whether he’d done anything bad or not. And Tiny said, “That’s not right, Jim. That’s just not right honey.”  The night they made fried chicken Big Jim told Tiny he’d left home at 16 and started living on his own.  And Tiny said, “Well, bless your heart Jim, it took a lot of courage to do that, didn’t it honey.” And then she told him what a good job he was doing.  And after a week of working with Tiny, Big Jim started to change. He started smiling and he didn’t yell nearly as much.

At the end of the week, Tiny wanted Big Jim to stay after work and help her make those giant cookies with the smiley faces. But he said “no!” because he wouldn’t get paid for it. And Tiny shook her finger at him and said, “Now Jim, honey, if you want to get something out of life, you gotta give something to it. Like the good book says, ‘Give and it shall be given to you’.” So Big Jim gave in and they made cookies. Tiny opened a 3 bags of M&Ms and Jim put the smiley faces on all of em. By the end of night, they’d made over 200 cookies. Tiny slid a big, warm cookie into Jim’s hand. He took a  bite of that cookie and she said, “Now, Big Jim, honey, what do we tell the campers?” And he smiled at Tiny and said “Keep smiling, honey, ‘cause a smile a day keeps the blues away.” And then don’t you know they started singing “This little light of mine!” Remember how that goes?

 

 

 

Mother’s Day Memories

Mom and II was thinking this weekend about legacies. Specifically, legacies of motherly love. One of my nieces gave birth recently and I’ve been ogling the baby’s ever-changing face (along with the other half the world) on Facebook.

My dear son treated me to dark chocolate and a lunch of fabulous Indian food and wrote me one of those heart-felt letters that makes me cry. I save all those so I can cry over them later! (I have one that dates back to kindergarten. It’s a four-word-tear-jerker written in a chubby hand, “I love you, Mommy.”) And then Andy showed up at my door with a big bouquet of flowers and another bar of rich chocolate, which I ate half of, crying over the letter my son gave me.  (I’m thinking Andy is a keeper.)

There were lots of things my mother taught me. And her mother, a mountain matriarch, lived with us for half the year (after she turned 90 and her kids caught her on the roof cleaning her own gutters) and Grandmother taught me a lot as well.

But the memory that came back to me this weekend the strongest was of a dress Mother made me for our family’s debut in a new town. We were moving again. This was a three-year occurrence for Methodist pastors back in the day. We were moving from a very ornate church in a highly cultured town to a not-so-ornate-one in a not-so-cultured southern part of West Virginia.  This church did, however, have three of the richest coal barons in the country on its administrative board. They were known as “The Three Eds” and they ruled the mines, the town and the church.

Now it just so happened that my Dad was involved in the civil rights movement back in the day and was known for preaching some pretty powerful sermons about racism in the church. And before we moved to this town, The Three Eds had paid my Daddy a visit. Just like the three kings, they brought gifts from afar for us kids. Shiny things like what the settlers gave the Indians. And after a delicious meal out (which in those days was a real treat and usually happened a big hotel) they sat down with cigars in the lobby and had a “talk” with my Daddy. They told him they’d been talking with some pretty big people and that it had been decided that he wouldn’t be preaching any of his freedom sermons in their pulpit. They didn’t care what the bishop said. And the appropriations committee that loved to see their checks arrive every year in the denomination’s headquarters agreed with them. Daddy didn’t say much, which surprised me. He wasn’t the silent type.

But the next day, Daddy sent Mother out to the fabric store with a wad of “Mad Money” he’d saved from the previous year’s weddings and funerals. She bought a beautiful piece of fabric for each of us and began to sew frantically. It was only three weeks before we would move to the new church and the dresses were to be ready by then. In the meantime, Daddy contacted the local paper and told them that our family would be available for a photo and interview. Mother sewed with a frenzy and still managed to pack our household with the help of her women’s circle, who seemed to be whispering, hugging her and rubbing her back an awful lot as I look back on it.

Like many of the women of her day, my mother was an excellent seamstress. The dresses had simple lines and elegant details. They were the finest we’d ever had and they were barely finished when we made the move.

We got to town, unpacked and mother set about ironing the dresses and curling our hair. I remember seeing my father in his home office, big reference books in open boxes all around his chair, praying. It didn’t feel like a good thing was getting ready to happen.

The newspaper came and took our picture, us girls in our elegant new dresses with our curled hair, Daddy with his clerical collar and jet black hair that matched his suit. They did the interview and he invited everyone in town to worship the coming Sunday. The article and photograph came out on a Wednesday.

When that Sunday came, his “girls” as he called us, had our hair curled and our new dresses on. We were introduced to the congregation before worship and everyone clapped. I looked at my Mom and she looked back at me. She had soft blue eyes unless she was mad. When she was mad they turned the color of storm clouds and when they looked at me that day they were dark gray. We sat in the front row and I politely folded my hands in my lap. I didn’t know what was going to happen but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t misbehaving when it did.

Daddy began his sermon with these words: “See, I am making all things new.” And then he informed the church that he’d been told that some pretty powerful people didn’t want him preaching his civil rights sermons from that pulpit and that he had been given to understand that he was in the South now, and that things were different there.  You could have heard a pin drop. Then Daddy said that he’d been talking to a pretty powerful person, too, and that the sermon he was about to preach was inspired by prayer with his Lord, Jesus.

When the sermon was over, my mother took us by the hand and lifted us up for the benediction. I wasn’t sure my legs were going to work and I wasn’t sure we would be allowed to walk out of there. But walk out we did and that church became one of the leaders in the civil rights movement. It seems not everyone agreed with “The Three Eds.”

My mother taught me how to stand by your man and stand by what is right on that hot summer’s day and she even made sure I wore a beautiful new dress as she did it. Thanks for making me the woman I am today Mom, I love you!

A Grace-Filled Journey

LISTEN TO: 20150609 143049

My musical partner, Andy Gwynn Andy for weband I were rehearsing down in South Carolina for our old hymn concerts (“Songs for the Faithful”) when we ended up singing with a mountain. A most unusual event, even for us. Of course there’s a story involved.

We were taking a play day near Wallhalla, where the family farm is. We’d done some local tourist things. We’d downed  boiled peanuts and viewed a waterfall. Then we drove out to the old Stumphouse Tunnel. A mystical place. Caves and tunnels have an energy all their own, as any spelunker can tell you. You hear things underground that are other-worldly, I think that’s part of their allure.

Anyway, Andy is one of those people who reads every sign around a site like this. He takes his time, he’s a smart man and likes to be informed about things. The sign for the Stumphouse said it was built with the labor of 15,000 (that’s right, thousand) Irishmen by hand with a little help from black powder. They worked twelve hour days, pounding the mountain with pick-axes but the blue granite fought back and only gave those 15,000 men working twelve hour days, six days a week 200 feet of tunnel a year. That’s a lot of lives pitted against a mountain for not much reward. Which is why the project was cancelled when funds ran tight. It was decided that the great railroad would just have to go another way.

Then Clemson University took it over as a place to age their famous blue cheese. But when modern methods became more convenient they, too, abandoned the mountain. It’s in a beautiful area of the Blue Ridge foothills so developers bought the land to make an upscale housing division, one of those places with the pretty views and big lots, you know the type. But the mountain and the tunnel had been a part of that community’s lore for over a hundred years and the public cried “Foul!” A ninth hour deal was cut that involved historical societies,  conservation groups, a few politicians who needed re-electing and local citizens. The tunnel was saved, the land bought from the developers (who saw a healthy profit) and it became a part of “Oconee Park.”

As we walked up the hill to the foot of the tunnel, a cool breeze from miles underground greeted us and once we entered, the tunnel stole the white-light of spring from our eyes and enveloped us in a velvety-gray darkness. Water dripped from the high ceiling and fell into hand-chiseled pools on the floor. As we walked further in, it was hard to see where to place your foot for the next step. Another few steps in and the amusing sign bolted to the entrance,  “NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ACCIDENTS,” no longer seemed funny. So we stopped where we were. We weren’t afraid to go further in you understand, we were just feeling mature and responsible that day. Anyway, about that time, the tunnel began to talk. From deep within its bowels, sounds came. The logical explanation was water dripping further back in the tunnel but that explanation didn’t quite cover the goosebumps raising on our arms.

Then Andy went and did it (he does that a lot). He went and sang a note. And the tunnel sang it back. Then I sang a note and the tunnel held it, vibrated it and then gave it back. Andy gave me one of those knowing looks that musical partners know means, “Hey y’all, watch this!” He took out his iPhone, hit record and started to sing Amazing Grace. I joined in and so did the mountain. There were certain words and tones the mountain liked better than others. It would hold these for a minute and then enfold them back into the bowels of itself. Water dripped relentlessly from the ceiling, like the tears of the Irishmen who pounded axes against her granite sides.

The mountain gave us the rare and amazing gift of its music that day. We hope this recording on Andy’s iPhone blesses you as it blessed us. No, it’s not perfect and it’s not recorded on great audio equipment but it captures a moment in time where grace gave us a chance to make music with a mountain. Here’s to more encounters with magical mountains and the grace that saves us all.

 

 

The Case of the Missing Baby – A Christmas Story

ChristmasCCLike many Christian families, we always put up a nativity scene. Ours was a substantial Fontanini display with elegant figures, a moss-covered shed with angels hanging off of it and a manger for the baby Jesus.  We were married in late November and it was a wedding gift from one of our pastor relatives (we never did figure out which one, we had 8 total and it was left at the reception in a huge box without a card).

After our son was born, we moved the nativity from its traditional location on the mantle to the round oak coffee table so he could enjoy it. He pulled up on the table and then stabilized himself with his chubby hands to look at the nativity his first Christmas.  The next year he was walking and he used the table to cruise all around the nativity. He’d lean against the table to support himself, and then move the animals and shepherds around, giggling with delight.

By year four he was in an excellent preschool program at a nearby Methodist church. I was pleased to hear that the children had seen the life-size nativity scene in the sanctuary. The pastor had even joined them to tell the story of the birth of Jesus.  My husband and I complimented each other on finding such an outstanding pre-school program as we set up the Fontanini on the coffee table that year.

After dinner the next day, when we sat down on the nearby couch to read to our son, we noticed that the baby was missing. (The Baby Jesus that is, ours was sitting in his Daddy’s lap.) “Oh honey,” I said, noticing it first. “You forgot to unpack the baby Jesus.” Our son looked up at him with those huge eyes little kids always seem to have and said, “The baby not there Daddy.” So he promptly handed our son off to me and went to the basement to fetch the baby from the box. He returned a few minutes later, empty handed. “It’s not there, did you drop it under the table?” The three of us got down on our hands and knees and looked around under the table. All we found was a spider and a hairball our cat had puked up. Our son shook his head and said, “The baby not there Daddy.”

The search for the baby Jesus continued for almost a week without success. We finally decided that he must have fallen on the floor the previous Christmas and been inadvertently tossed in the trash with the giftwrap and boxes.  So my husband said he would go to the over-priced lady’s gift shop (the only Fontanini dealer in town) and buy us another one that afternoon.

After we took our son to preschool the next day, we sat down to drink coffee and I said, “Are you going to get a new baby for the crèche, honey?” And he replied, “Oh, I did, it’s in the manger.” I looked at the crèche, looked at him.  “No, honey, it’s not.” Baffled, he blinked his eyes and said, “Well, I put there last night when I got home, where is it?” Confused too, I said, “How should I know? I didn’t even know you had another one!” Like synchronized swimmers, the two of us fell to our knees to look under the table again. No spider, another hairball, no baby Jesus.

When I served our son a snack on the coffee table after preschool, I told him that our new baby Jesus had gone missing. He looked at the crèche, looked at me, shook his head and said very seriously, “Baby not there yet Mommy.” Later that evening we were again reading to him after dinner and his Dad mentioned that he had purchased a replacement baby at the store and that he was now missing, too. Our son shook his head again and said, “Baby not there yet Daddy.”

Privately, we both blamed our big black and white cat, Mr. Kitty, who was notorious for batting things off tables and stealing them, for the baby’s disappearance. As Christmas drew near, we did a room-to-room search for the missing child. He was still MIA when we left for the Christmas eve worship service.

When we got home, we told our son it was time to go to bed. He shook his head and ran to the other room. (This was a fairly common occurrence when he was asked to go to bed, so we didn’t think much of it.) But what happened next was far from common and bordered on the miraculous, as befits the Christmas season.

“Close your eyes everybody!” he ordered from the next room. We complied, smiling those knowing parental smiles as we heard the sound of his pony-like run on the hardwood.  “Be nots afraid!” he yelled with his hands behind his back as we opened our eyes. “The babys is born for you in Beth-la-hams.” And then, he thrust his arms up into the air and said, “Rejoice!” Much to our amazement, in each chubby fist, he held a Fontanini baby Jesus. He grinned, squished them both into the manger, pointed a fat finger at his Daddy and said, “Now the baby born, Daddy! Everybodys rejoice!”