Saturday, September 29, 2012

Orange Trees

I took a little drive up into the mountains to see the changing colors. As I stood taking pictures, I heard three women approaching on the trail behind me. "Ooh, orange tree!" one said to the others. Of all the silly things, that quote has stayed with me. Now I've been asking myself: why did I go out of my way to take pictures of orange trees? I suppose the obvious answer is because they're pretty. But why? What is it about them? I've seen trees before, and I've seen the color orange. With other people and places and tasks calling for my attention, what drew me to the mountain on that day?

I don't do this in spring, after all. When spring approaches, I'm itching to see green. My soul aches for signs of new life. I celebrate the shaggy lawn, send pictures of new apricot blossoms to my husband at work, stand in the middle of gardens and forests to close my eyes and breathe the air. But that is spring, and this is fall. In the fall, the beautiful green is mere background to the main event -- the reds, oranges, and yellows.

Autumn beauty is of a different kind. It feels more contemplative, pensive. It brings to mind life and loss and legacy. The world around us is always changing, and we ourselves are changing, too. The mountain colors drew me on that day to the significance of story, and they called me to hold loosely that which is temporary.

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under heaven:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
(Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Unexpected Guests

Yesterday was one of those days when I so wanted to spend a little time with a dog. I was weary and melancholy, and missing Sirius particularly much. It's not time yet to get a dog (though I've thought of it -- check out Titus!), and I can be mostly okay with that, but craved canine companionship.

And look who showed up today!

The gates to the back yard were closed, and no dog-sized holes in the fence, so we're guessing they had slipped in unnoticed sometime while we were doing yard work several hours before. Mark offered them water, which they drank with enthusiasm.

They were friendly and sociable, had tags and looked like someone takes good care of them. Animal Control was closed, so I called the Sheriff's office. The gal on the phone was great -- I explained the situation and she looked them up by tag numbers and contacted the owner, and we all agreed together on my offer to walk the dogs home.

It was one of those everybody-wins things. The dogs went on a big adventure together, Mark and I spent a little time with these furry friends, the Sheriff's office dealt with a call easily while looking good in the process, and the guy got his dogs back safe and sound. It was lovely.

Beyond the Thumb and the Bubble

Facebook's "like" thumb shows up everywhere these days, it seems. It allows acknowledging a post or idea or organization, and joining in appreciation with one quick click.

Sometimes, though, it doesn't quite fit. "Heading into surgery after poking my eye out, hoping to see again." So... is it okay to "like" a status like that?

There is, of course, the option to comment, which is both less ambiguous and more personal than the thumb. It's a step in the right direction.

The like and the comment are useful features for responding to posts, which puts the "social" in the "social network." But beyond the thumb and the speech bubble, I wish there were an ear. Sometimes, when words do not suffice, it is good to know the quiet presence of a listening friend.

For this, Facebook will never be enough.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Looking to Find Perspective

I posted last year around thanksgiving with an A-Z gratitude list. My favorite was xenodochy, partly because I'm thankful for it and partly because finding something other than "x-rays" required a worthwhile intentionality. The A-Z process helped me look in new ways and places.

I was feeling quite low recently and could not seem to pull myself out of a funk. Finally, I picked up my camera and went looking for pictures around our home. Here's what I found:

They're simple photos of simple things, but each holds special meaning. They represent purpose, grace, courage, integrity, transformation, beauty, strength. They bring to mind memories of significant people and events. They helped me to find words again of love and hope.

My little photo safari didn't take long, but was a bit like the A-Z list thing -- helping me to see in new ways and places and, in the process, to gain perspective. And, again, I am grateful.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


I've been waking early, often sitting in the living room with the blinds open to watch the morning unfold. Several cars have slipped already this morning from their driveways, occupants headed out toward whatever this day holds for them. Soon, the first signs of light will begin to dawn over the mountains. Others will head toward work and students will starting heading to their various schools, starting with the oldest. After the activity of these morning transitions, a few neighborhood moms may head out for errands. There will be lawns mowed, dogs walked, mail delivered.

Kids will return from school gradually, more like a meandering than the clear waves of their morning departures. Adults will return likewise from workplaces and other destinations. Dinners will be served and homework completed. Some will venture out again for evening activities and most will return again as night sets in, the street again growing quiet. Darkness will fall and lights shining through windows will be extinguished one by one as their occupants settle in to sleep.

It is easy to sleepwalk through familiar routines, but I am reminded today that such routines form the fabric of life. Such everyday comings and goings will both reveal and create significant moments -- times that could easily be missed in the midst of what feels so ordinary. I wonder what this day will hold, and I want to be attentive to it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

I Might Be Wrong

I signed up for chemistry my sophomore year of high school. I didn't much care for science at the time and felt out of place walking into a class with all juniors and seniors. I was a little nervous.

And I loved it! I loved the teacher, who was devoted to his teaching and to his family, who was always prepared and spoke respectfully of his students. I enjoyed the topic, which made sense of the world and finally kindled my interest in science. I grew to appreciate my classmates, who generally accepted and made space for me when I felt like the stranger among them. I'm not exaggerating when I say that my sophomore chemistry class changed my life. Not just because I went on to earn a college degree in chemistry and became a science teacher. More important than those was that I learned to think in new ways. It changed me not just academically, but personally. It impacted my character.

One of the first things I learned in chemistry was a core value of science: We might be wrong.

Science is filled with people examining the natural world and trying -- with curiosity, hope, determination, hard work, some frustration and some delight -- to figure it out. They develop models, test them out, and make adjustments accordingly. Someone may create a great theory that seems quite accurate and gains acceptance and is consistently useful in predicting what will happen, and even if the theory works really well for a long time, it's always open to being changed later if (when) new information becomes known. It's always open to question, because we might be wrong.

The process sounds cleaner than it looks, and happens more slowly than it sounds. There are jumps and starts along the way. New evidence isn't always as clear as we've been led to believe, and it takes time and work and ongoing conversation to convince the scientific community of new perspectives. It requires a fascinating balance, one that is dynamic rather than static, introducing new information and figuring out how it might fit within the current models and how it might pull beyond the current models. Established understandings are not simply accepted or rejected, but rather adjusted, seeking to keep the elements which are most true while making changes where appropriate. This process requires discussion of different ideas in ways that give sufficient voice to each. That is not to say that all theories are equally valid -- they're not -- but that even a really good theory isn't a perfect one, and the less accurate models often account for something that merits attention, something to figure out and include in whatever model is being developed.

We might be wrong. In fact, we assume that we are wrong, or at least not entirely right. If scientists believed the current models were perfect, and perfectly right, then they'd all go home because their work would be done. They could get new jobs waiting tables, or pursue new degrees in puppetry or packaging, or retire to Tahiti. But scientists still get up in the morning and go to work because there are new things to discover and understand about the world around us.

That's a pretty good perspective for the rest of life, too. Consider a life approach that leads to persistently and honestly being able to say this:  I've been watching closely, learning, discovering. I've thought deeply about this (interpretation of events, relationship, plan of action, or whatever), actively considering others' ideas and persistently open to new information and perspectives. I've tracked down errors in my understandings and corrected them. Because of all this, I've got a lot of trust in what I believe. And I might be wrong. Such a mix of well-placed confidence and appropriate humility is powerful. And, when followed by "what is your perspective?" and authentic, robust conversation, it has great potential for developing both strong understandings of the world and significant relationships with each other.

This possibility shapes my faith. It is foundational to conversations about matters of faith with others individually and in small groups. It is something significant I've appreciated about my Sunday School class this past year. Such conversations are so important in my relationships with people of other faiths, too, as we seek to understand and challenge each other, with love and encouragement, with a shared goal of discovering truth.

Relationships have been on my mind lately, too, especially misunderstandings and conflicts. Each person's unique self, combined with his or her unique life experience, leaves plenty of room for missing the boat in communication. Even listening really well leaves plenty of room for error as our assumptions influence our interpretations. Words like "He's a [insert category here]" and "I know how she is" betray a worrisome lack of I might be wrong-ness. It permanently stamps the other's character in concrete -- a foolish move, because not only might I be wrong in my previous interpretations, but there is diversity within every category already, and the other person might also change, too.

I might be wrong even about myself. An "I'm someone who..." statement pretty much always includes some truth in whatever comes next -- but not full truth. I am, after all, quite capable of self-deception. And my own nature and expression shift, too. I want to be cautious about defining myself too much or too permanently, because I change. Sometimes it is slow, sometimes by fits and starts, but part of being human is changing. And really, isn't that the foundation of hope?

I am becoming more attentive to the language I use, because it both reflects and shapes my thoughts. I want to speak truth-full-y and grace-full-y, leaving healthy space for both error and change. As I saw in chemistry class, true/false questions are easy to grade, but essays and story problems are a lot more worthwhile, and there's a place for giving partial credit where partial credit is due.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Not Having It All

One particular day, perhaps thirty years ago, I decided to make a snack. A sandwich fit the bill. My thought process went something like this...

Sandwich = peanut butter and jelly.

But I like cheese. Yeah, a cheese sandwich sounds good.

Cheese sandwiches are so much better when the cheese melts. Am I allowed to use the griddle?

Waitaminute. I hate cleaning the griddle.

What about the toaster? Cinnamon toast is sweet like jelly and warm like a grilled cheese sandwich, but without the griddle. I could have toast.

But I like cheese. Mmm.

The logical-to-me conclusion was to spread butter on bread, then a thick layer of peanut butter, a wobbly pile of grape jelly and a slice of Velveeta cheese, sprinkled finally with cinnamon. I was starting to realize that was a lot of stuff for a sandwich, so I figured I'd even things out by skipping the top slice of bread. I popped the whole open-faced mess in the microwave and increased the cooking time. I didn't want to wait all those extra seconds for my fabulous creation, but figured it would be worth the wait.

Yeah, I was wrong.

One of the valuable lessons I began to learn that day was that even if I can "have it all," I don't want it all. Not at the same time, anyway.

I'm still learning, and it's a good journey.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Waiting for the Sun

It was dark when I woke this morning, the early signs of the sun not yet visible over the mountains. Orion shone bright in the sky, a familiar constellation which has served to re-orient so many through the centuries. The street was quiet and still.

It would be awhile yet before the day; I returned inside to watch through the window awhile. The outline of the mountain peaks came into view just gradually at first, a nearly-imperceptible black shadow against the near-black sky. Soon, though, color began to overtake the darkness. Full light is coming.

This faithful transition from night to day is a hopeful one, and I am grateful again for sunrise.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Missing Sirius

We brought Sirius home as a little pup in 1998. I wish I had a picture, but that was before we had a camera, or at least a digital camera and the snap-happy-ness that came with it.

That first night, I put a cozy box for him next to our bed, with a warm fuzzy blanket and some kind of rhythmic white noise to help him relax. He barked and whined, loudly and persistently, but I expected that and waited patiently. Until four hours later, with no pauses and no sign of him slowing down, when I finally gave up. I picked up his frantic, furry body and nestled him to my chest. He immediately became still and we all fell asleep, exhausted.

Thankfully, he did eventually begin to settle in. He learned to sleep on the floor of our bedroom, and even learned after a few years not to eat furnishings and stray socks while we slept. He enjoyed staying at the doggie daycare when we traveled, and even stayed a few hours at a time with friends and family.

But for much of the past fourteen years, he has been nearby whenever I've been home, watching me anytime I've moved and following me when I stepped away to do laundry or other brief task. Even when I've tiptoed quietly out of our room as he continued snoring deeply in the wee hours of the morning, it's rarely been more than about fifteen minutes until the characteristic jangle of dog tags, followed by him ambling down the hall to the living room. It seems like his nature has been to rise from deep sleep at regular intervals to count his people, and to search for the one who'd gone missing.

And throughout these fourteen years, he's trained me, too. I've become accustomed to his constant presence and aware of those rare times when he hasn't been underfoot. I've awakened at night when his breathing changed or when he meandered to the garage for water.

We said goodbye to Sirius yesterday. We were with him when he died. I held his body as the vet made a paw print in clay. I helped her lift him onto the stretcher, cover him with a blanket, and carry him to the van. I kissed him on the head one last time.

Today feels different. I find myself wandering, feeling like I've forgotten something, realizing anew that Sirius isn't getting a snack when Mark goes to work, that there isn't a need anymore to go outside periodically throughout the day. I find myself listening attentively to an unidentified noise, and realizing anew that it's just the unfamiliar sound of quietness without the dog snoring or chewing on his feet nearby.

I knew this was coming, this change in everyday experience and the ebb and flow of grief that comes with it. I knew about the sadness, the weariness, the body aches, the loss of appetite, the restlessness, the struggle to focus. Ignoring that reality doesn't "fix" it, so in the meantime I'm drinking more water and allocating more time to accomplish tasks. I am allowing myself a little extra time and space while still being intentional about re-engaging in the work I'm called to, re-engaging with people I love.

I know that I will adjust gradually to this new reality. The weary, restless muddledness begins to lift. My mind and body will begin to function more normally again. It won't all happen today, certainly, but it will happen, and I rest in hope.

And I'd like to put a finishing paragraph on this post, something to tie it together, to bring it to completion. But it feels more like a "to be continued," and I'm okay with that.

07/31/1998 - 09/13/2012

Friday, September 7, 2012

Back to School

'Tis the season for Facebook photos of my friends' kids heading off to school, and I've been enjoying it quite a lot this year. Some hold handwritten papers that read "first day of kindergarten!" Some head into the new year with expressions of trepidation, others with clear enthusiasm. Most seem to reflect a degree of hope. Whatever the year, it is a new beginning.

Some of my friends are teachers, too. I love seeing their classroom ideas, especially in the middle elementary grades. I don't know whether that's a particularly fun age, or a particularly fun category of teachers, but the stuff they do makes me smile. Our world needs people like that.

And I've got a soft spot for aisles upon aisles of paper, crayons, colored pencils, notebooks, binders, multi-colored post-it notes, 3x5 cards, and those little clamp-clips. The school supplies are clean and fresh, standing ready to engage with the future. By the end of the year, they'll be folded, bent, dulled, broken, marked up, written on, scattered and gathered and scattered some more. The current beauty of their pristine condition will be replaced by a more diverse and humble beauty, one which reflects part of someone's life journey.

For me, the start of school still feels more like New Year's Day than New Year's Day does.