Thursday, May 31, 2012

Strength at the seashore

Kristiana and I did a whole lot of walking on Sunset Beach two weeks ago. And I took a whole lot of photos on our walks and sits and various visits to the beach. As I went through the photos, I noticed a variety of levels and kinds of strength in the photos.

There were the manmade structures, like the cabana above. Staked into the ground at all four corners with thin cables and spikes, it was rather vulnerable to wind and water.

One night, we watched as a similar cabana dealt with the incoming tide. Abandoned by its owners or renters, the cabana covered several chairs, folded umbrellas, body boards and other paraphrenalia. Along with some strangers passing by, I moved all the things under the cabana farther up onto the beach so that they wouldn't get pulled out into the water as the tide rolled in. We left the beach as the water was lapping against all four stakes. I wanted to stick around and see how long the stakes would hold. The cabana was gone in the morning.

I am that cabana many days. Covering a multitude of other people's stuff, needs, and demands. Often forgotten, abandoned, and left to hold my own when life's waters, be they still or rough, lap around my feet and around my soul. Often I need help, sometimes from complete strangers, in keeping my stuff, my heart, and my soul safe from harm.

Several miles up the beach (like I said, we walked a lot!), we came upon the Kindred Spirit mailbox. (The mailbox holds several notebooks that have been written in and signed by beachgoers - telling stories of love, friendships, beauty, and kindred spirit. We signed our names in one of those books back in 2007 but not on this trip.) 

We had made the long trek to this same spot four years ago and discovered that gaining access to the mailbox was not easy as the dunes were high and slippery. Many hurricanes and high tides later, the mailbox is within easy reach, still standing, but much closer to the shore than it was back then. I wonder if it is the strength of all those kindred spirits that keeps that mailbox and flagpole standing. 

Many high tides of fear, many hurricanes of loneliness later, I'm still standing. Sometimes I say things like, "I have no idea how I'm still standing or why." But I know that it is only by God's grace, the love of friends, and a steadfast refusal to loosen my grip on hope that I'm still here.

The strength of sand is baffling to me. Its properties are equally confounding. It can hold a castle in place, but blow into my eyes with little provocation. It packs together when damp, but moves loosely when dry. It brings me joy when trampled underfoot in the sunshine, but makes me groan when crunched between my teeth. It is washed out to see during violent storms, but nearly impossible to remove from the scalp between my dreadlocs.

Do you see the rabbit? What strength it displayed when sitting still while we took photos, and what speed it displayed when we moved closer to get a clearer shot.

I was most impressed by the strength of the plant life at Sunset Beach. The most carefully tended garden patches and the finest grasses, the most delicate blossoms and the thickest bushes - they send their roots deep, their leaves high, and their faces to the sky. The sand blew. The waves crashed. And there they stood. They waved. They wavered. But they didn't move.

When I grow up, I want to have roots as deep and shoots as strong as those plants.

What was the story behind the placement of these flowers under the Sunset Beach pier? Were they meant to honor a life lost or a new life begun? Such fragile strength, such strong beauty.

The longest list of questions was written in the notebook of my soul when we came upon this jetty at the end of the beach.

Where on earth did those rocks come from?
Who brought them there?
What massive implements had been used to transport them to this place?
How long has it been here?
Did anyone get hurt while working on it?

Who created this pile of stones?
What did it mean to him or her or them?
What would such an altar signify in my own life?
What would it take to move these stones again?

Where on earth does your strength come from?
What did it take to get you to where you are now?
Who helped you carry the stones in your life?
Has anyone gotten hurt in the building of your life?
Where have you built an altar of gratitude and praise for the victories?
What would it take for you to give thanks to those who helped bring you thus far on your journey, to honor those who have walked with you and carried your burdens along with you?
Having survived all that you have survived in your life, what would it take to move you from your current place of thankfulness, peace, joy, and strength?

And don't shake your head and say foolish things like, "I'm not strong. I can barely make it through each day." Look around you. You are still here. You are still studying, girl. You are still working, my friend. You are still mothering and fathering. You are still being a loyal daughter and son, sister and brother, niece and nephew. You are still on this journey of life and love, and you are not alone. 

You are strong. You are wise. You are growing. 
You are being transformed from glory to glory. 
Yes, you.  

Feathers stuck in the sand. Strength. Simplicity. Beauty. Stillness. Presence.
A fragile reminder of a fleeting life, a life in motion.

I am reminded of Psalm 91

The one who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.

I will say of the Lord, "God is my refuge and my fortress, 
God, in whom I trust."

God will cover you with his feathers,
and under God's wings you will find refuge;
God's faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

How can I not love a God who is my refuge and my fortress,
but who also covers me with feathers and offers me rest in his shadow?
A strong God. A tender God. A protective God. A caring God.
Thanks be to God.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Beach-themed Gratitude

Ten scenes from our time on Sunset Beach that made me smile and for which I give thanks.

1. Heavy, threatening clouds that dropped no rain.

2. Sharing an Italian ice - sold to us by the man with the heavy Massachusetts accent, the same man we met five years ago at his first Sunset Slush franchise on another road in Sunset Beach. This one is his third. Yummy! Good for him and his wife - that their business is growing so well. He gave us a free half scoop because he thought we'd like the flavor. He was right; we liked it a lot.

3. Watching our shadows lengthen as the evening sun began its descent.

4. Breakfast at the Sunset Inn alongside our talkative, friendly, funny fellow Inn-mates.

5. Rocking chairs on our screened-in porch. There was also a swing! (One morning, we noticed that the screen had pulled free of the frame and was flapping in the wind. We told the woman who was on duty at the front desk. When we returned after lunch, she told Kristiana that when the men went to repair the screen, they discovered that a bird was on the porch. We were glad that when they didn't open the door to the porch, the bird didn't fly into our room!)

6. The pier. I love walking under piers.

7. The small rock Kristiana found and I added to a stone altar at the end of the beach.

8. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, blue chips, and a bottle of hard cider for lunch.

9. I am profoundly allergic to cats, but my only reaction to this sign was a smile.
Sure enough, there were several cats in the grass next to the house on the left.

10. Three stunning and serene sunsets out over the marshes.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

488.8 Miles Later

My daughter and I are back at home. Rested. Relaxed. Tanned - not that we needed to work on our tans, but it's hard to avoid the sun when you sit out on the beach for two and three hours at a time, two or three times per day.

I love to travel. To be away from home. To be open to where the wind blows, follow where the Spirit leads, and be a first class passenger to wherever my feet take me.

Together we walked, talked, sat, and stared at the water.

She waded out into the surf. I watched her and filled pages in my journal.

We photographed the people, the birds, the shadows, the waves, and the grasses waving over the dunes.

We marveled at the many thousands of seashells, and wondered aloud why no animals eat dead jellyfish. We agreed that if someone could come up with a use for dead jellyfish - like powering cars or burning them for home heating - that person would be a multi-millionaire. Perhaps we should come up with a good plan. If, however, the implementation of such a plan required that we actually touch those nasty looking things, then we would graciously bow out of the competition.

These delicate plants withstand howling winds and pounding surf in ways that we strong humans cannot. In fact, they are heartier, stronger, more deeply rooted, and more courageous than they appear. I'm sure there's a lesson in that...

Mostly, we basked in the width of the beach, the vastness of the ocean, and the wonder of being alive in such a beautiful place for such a time as this. And we ate a lot of fresh seafood too.

She swore she wasn't embarrassed by my big, floppy hat and the oversized Payton Manning jersey. Her only complaint about the hat was that every time I stopped to take a picture of the two of us, it would hit her in the face, but she forgave me for that as well. She loves me, this daughter of mine. The feeling is mutual. 

More beach stories to come... right now, I've gotta go make dinner with her. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Freedom Friday

This morning, I'm focusing on freedom.
There is great freedom to be enjoyed in this life I live.
This morning, I'm celebrating freedom.

The freedom to speak my mind.
The freedom to shut my mouth.
The freedom to admit when I'm wrong.

The freedom to vacuum.
The freedom not to dust.

The freedom to drink coffee again.
The freedom to accompany it with an egg sandwich and a banana.

The freedom to set rules and goals for myself.
The freedom to break those rules and abandon those goals.
The freedom to not feel guilty about any of it.

The freedom to love.
The freedom to forgive.
The freedom to ask for forgiveness.
The freedom to ask for, receive, and enjoy a long, warm hug.

The freedom to give my handsome son a pedicure.
The freedom to deny that he is spoiled to the core.

The freedom to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength.
The freedom to ask God many questions and express my frustrations about the things of life, love, suffering, freedom and faith.

The freedom to do ten minutes of intense, sweaty, heart-racing exercise.
The freedom to take a long, slow walk instead. Or in addition.

The freedom to write, take photos, and share them here, on Facebook, and in emails.
The freedom to keep my impressions and observations to myself.

The freedom to pray openly and in public.
The freedom to honor the right of all people to do the same. Or not.

The freedom to dream big dreams about my future.
The freedom to dream small dreams about my future.
The freedom to enjoy the dream and the gift that is my present.

The freedom to reach out to friends and loved ones as often as I like.
The freedom to allow for silence and gaps in communication without panic or fear of abandonment.

The freedom to look the Apple genius in his beautiful eyes and take his advice on replacing the computer battery.
The freedom to decline his invitation to replace both the computer and the carrying case.

The freedom to go to the beach for three days with my daughter.
The freedom to leave my son at home with my husband and allow him to do his homeschooling on his own.
The freedom to not have to explain our system of homeschooling to anyone - except to say that we love each other and our way of learning together.

The freedom to declare myself free from (too much) worry about what others think about the way I live my life.
The freedom to encourage others to give up their worries about the opinions of others.
The freedom to keep my opinions about others to myself.

Which freedoms are you celebrating today?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

"Everybody's Got Something"

After a particularly rough patch in our family life, I adopted the phrase,
"Everybody's got something."

Yup, we are struggling through a financial challenge, but everybody's got something.
Mental illness sucks, but everybody's got something.
Looking for a job is stressful these days, but everybody's got something.
Bronchitis, folliculitis, and exzema make for many trips to CVS, but everybody's got something.

Her husband is distant, unresponsive, and neglectful.
Their children are compulsively obsessed, often depressed, and need much more rest.
My daughter's best friend has cerebral palsy and has spent her entire life in a wheelchair.
The wife of a dear friend has multiple sclerosis and is suffering greatly.
One of my closest friends was diagnosed with breast cancer at the same time that her best friend moved two hours away.
Another is separated from her husband and facing an uncertain future on her own.
Someone wishes she could be at home with her family, but she cannot be.
Another wishes she could leave her family, but has chosen to stay at home and fight the good fight.
A lost pregnancy, a loveless marriage, an absentee father, a suicidal son.
Everybody's got something.

Here's the thing - everybody's got something good too.
Blessings and moments of joy from this very day.
Photos and stories of wonder-filled days gone by.

We have all known love and friendship and peace.
We've all felt the warm arms of a loved one around our necks.
We have shared laughter and secrets and long walks thru fragrant gardens.

We eat food that makes our mouths and our tummies smile, drink good coffee, flavorful teas, ice cold water, and fine wines.
We gaze at art, read poetry, watch movies, and listen to music that remind us that beauty is all around us and also within us.
We know what it is to look deeply into someone's eyes and we know what it is to be seen.

We all have gifts, talents, and strengths to share with those around us.
We have wisdom, knowledge, and grace as well.
Our sense of humor brings smiles to the faces of those we know and love.
We cook. We write. We paint. We make jewelry. We listen. We teach.
We give wise counsel. Our stories are powerful.
We open our homes and our hearts to others.

Our kisses raise goose bumps. Our hugs heal.
Our presence brightens the shadows hanging over the lonely and brings joy to the downcast.
Our generosity eases the worries of the needy.
Our triumphs encourage others and theirs encourage us.
Our prayers change everything.

The young woman with cerebral palsy is a straight A college student.
The friend with breast cancer continues to have the brightest smile and biggest heart of anyone I know.
The one who is making her own way in the world after leaving her husband reminds me that Thelma and Louise laughed their way to the bottom of that cliff - and she and I are laughing our way to wherever we may land.

In the darkest valleys, in the toughest times, in the most desperate of situations, I can always find something for which to give thanks, something that can make me smile again and anew.

Everybody's got something.
Which something am I going to focus on?

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

After all the sound and fury...

Now that the votes have been counted,
now that the amendment has passed,
now that hearts have been broken,
now that old fears have been made new again,
after the raised fists are lowered,
after the lowered heads are raised,
the question is this - How now will we live?

How now will I live?
How will I show my love to those with whom I vehemently disagree?
How will I extend love and grace to those whose words and attitudes have been so hurtful?
How will I extend love and grace to those whose hopes have once again been dashed?

I recommit myself to love.
To peace.
To acceptance.
To conversation, to dialogue.
To listening to stories and telling my own.

I recommit myself to living fully and loving the same way.
I recommit myself to asking questions and living without answers.
I recommit myself to apologizing for the angry words, the insensitivity, the sorrow inflicted on anyone and everyone caught in the crossfire of vitriol that has wounded many residents of my home state.
I recommit myself to making all people, regardless of race, gender, religious practice, sexual orientation, welcome in my home, in my life, and in my heart.

After all the sound and fury, that is how I will now live.
This is how I will continue to live.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

"Look Straight Ahead"

When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, New York, there were two Christian bookstores that we went to often as a family. One was there in Brooklyn, on Flatbush Avenue near Avenue J or K, if I remember correctly. The folks who worked there recognized us and greeted us warmly when we arrived. I would walk around, touching Bibles and books, looking at games and cards, and would eventually choose a comic book or small plastic game of some sort. My parents would often purchase "tracts," those little pocket sized booklets that they would hand to toll takers on bridges and highways or leave with tips at restaurants. Even though I had read all of those little "Chick" booklets dozens of times, I couldn't resist rereading them and praying the prayers at the end of each one, just to be sure I was saved. When I think back on it as I write this, I can still see the flames in hell and the sweaty agony of its occupants. Perhaps I should pray that prayer one more time... Just to be double and triple-sure.

The other Christian bookstore we frequented was in Manhattan, on 43rd Street near 8th Avenue, just blocks away from the Port Authority bus station. Back in the 1970's, that area was not the theater district that it is today. Back then, the only theaters over there were pornographic ones. There were prostitutes standing on nearly every corner and drug addicts slumped in nearly every doorway.

At least that's what I heard - because when we walked through that neighborhood, my mother would repeat these words, over and over, like a well-worn mantra - "Look straight ahead. Don't look to the right or to the left. Look straight ahead." Which is exactly what I did. I looked straight ahead.

When we arrived at the store after walking from the subway station, I could finally exhale and relax. I could look to the right and the left in that huge store. I could look up and down and all around. I could gaze unrepentently at all the posters, the books, the games, the cards, the tee shirts, the tracts, the cross jewelry, the stickers, the records, the 8-track tapes, the cassettes, and the bumper stickers. That store was one of my favorite places to wander.

I'm not sure how long we would spend there on our visits, but it never felt long enough. There were always new things to thumb through and consider, new tracts to read, new jewelry to covet, new Bible studies to do. But sure enough, the call would ring out, "Come on, children. It's time to go." And then, as we exited, the phrase would resound, "Look straight ahead."

Looking back, I realize that I needed to see all of that stuff my mother wanted me to look away from. I needed to see the prostitutes and drug addicts. I needed to see the alcoholics and homeless. I needed to see their desperation, their pain, their fear, and their humanity. I needed to see them and they needed and deserved to be seen.

Looking back, I realize that "look straight ahead" became the mantra for the way I lived much of my life. I looked straight ahead when my classmates suffered with anorexia and bulimia in high school, when I should have gone over to them, sat with them, and asked them how they were and what I could do to hope. I looked straight ahead when a high school classmate, from her bathroom stall, pleaded, "God, I hope I get my period today." I was incredulous - "What? Why on earth would you want to get your period?" It took me far too long to figure out why she would wish that on herself. I looked straight past and then down at - with unhidden superiority - friends from college who talked about problems with their boyfriends, sexual transmitted diseases, and then showed clear signs of what I now know to be bipolar disorder. I was too busy looking straight ahead, looking over, looking around, and then looking askance at them to be of much assistance, aid, or support.

Thanks be to God that I ran into enough of my own sorrows, my own fears, my own hopes that my period would arrive, and into the angry face of a woman whose husband I had engaged in an adulterous affair with, that I could no longer look straight ahead, except at my own self-righteous, prideful, and merciless mirror. I broke that mirror in Madrid during the fall of 1986. Who the hell did I think I was?

Nowadays, I am trying hard to not look straight ahead in an effort to avoid the sorrows of those around me, but rather I long to look into the eyes of the lonely, the drunk, the separated, the divorced, the fearful, the angry, the bipolar, the depressed, the adulterous, the hypocrite, the imposter, the fallen, the broken, the lost - in other words, I am looking into as many pairs of open eyes as I can, trying to stifle my tears of compassion, offer a listening ear, a strong shoulder, and my unflinching attention towards each person I encounter. One saying that my daughter and I coined about three years ago is this, "Everybody's got something." It's not as eloquent as Plato's statement -  "Be Kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle" - but it works for us. And it has humbled us, silenced us, and comforted us countless times. 

Nowadays, as I drive through our lovely area in South Charlotte, I imagine that behind those heavy, strong doors are broken families, some facing bankruptcy, some dealing with school problems, joblessness, marital crises, abuse, alcoholism, mental illness, hoarding, and cancer of all kinds - the same things that people face behind weaker, less ornate facades in other areas of this and every city. I watch other drivers in their cars and wonder where they are heading - to a doctor, a lawyer, the supermarket, to work, in search of work, to the hospital, or to a hospice. I know that each of them, each of us, is struggling with something, is wishing for easier times, is praying for a miracle, for healing, for peace, for an end to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Sudan, the Presidential campaign trail, the voting booth, and within their own homes and hearts. In church, in the aisles of Trader Joe's and Harris Teeter, while pumping gas at Sunoco or BP or Marathon, while checking into and out of hotels, placing orders at restaurants, or waving to the mail lady as she comes down the street, I am no longer able to simply straight ahead. Sometimes I wish I could, quite frankly, because it's getting harder to hold myself together when I think of all the ways in which all of us are trying so hard to hold ourselves together all the time.

Nowadays, I wonder how many times I've said that phrase, 
"Look straight ahead," to my children. 
Hopefully, not many. 

PS. I just did a quick Google search, and that Christian Publications store on W. 43rd Street is still there! I may have to take my daughter there when we are in the city this summer. What a walk down memory lane that will be. 

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Rain and deeper roots

As often happens here in the South, we are in a period of drought. All the warmth and sunshine of this past winter has led to more warm and sunshine this spring and added up to lack of needed precipitation. Despite the beauty of the Carolina Sky during the past few days, I have often gazed up into the mostly cloudless skies and pleaded for rain.

I suspect that I am one of precious few people who is glad when the forecast calls for rain, especially two or three days of rain in a row. (May it be so, Lord. May it be so!)

Like so many of us, the trees are often deceiving. Their leaves are broad and green these days, providing shade for passersby and picnickers. They appear strong and steady, ready to face all storms, having easily withstood all that has come before. But their roots are spreading out, desperately seeking moisture. They are vulnerable to strong winds, to fire, and to illness and death due to the lack of water.

I am guilty of attempting to project a similar invincibility. Who me? Storms? What storms? See this smile? See these airy, upbeat blog posts? I'm fine. I'm just fine. What disagreements? What escape fantasies? Who me? I'm fine. I'm just fine. What financial fears and worries? Getting my children into college? Me, worry about homeschooling, maintaining with this aging house and this aging body? Who me? Not me. I'm fine. All is well.

There have been many fierce storms through the area of late, even though the sky is cloudless at the moment. Just ask the folks trying to get payments from suddenly silent insurance companies, the same companies that promised, "Yes, we cover that." Ask the folks who lost loved ones when the car was struck by a falling tree or a bedroom was crushed by a falling roof. Ask the people who had no insurance at all, who lost their homes and beloved family members; ask them about storm damage, weak foundations, and leaky roofs.

Many of the storms that have blown through my life and the lives of many people I love have been named storms - Anxiety, Apathy, Bipolar Disorder, Cancer, Despair, Divorce, Exasperation, Exhaustion, Fear, Hunger, Job Loss, Lack of health insurance, Loneliness, Long Term Joblessness, Neglect, Sending Children to College, Suicide Attempts, and Surgery - to name a few. Other storms have been unspoken and unnamed, but their effects have been devastating nonetheless.

One of my new favorite bloggers recently reminded me that all is not always well, love doesn't always win, and the life is not always good. I knew that already, but she expressed it far better than I have here.

As calm as things may appear on the surface, as beautiful as the days may be, we are in a drought. We are thirsty, hungry, lonely, in pain, wondering how we will pay the bills, survive the marriage, and help our anxious, lonely, hungry, thirsty family members, friends, neighbors, and children when we barely know how to meet our own needs.

What I long for, what I pray for is relief. Reprieve. Rest. Redemption. Rain.
And deeper, stronger, well-watered roots.
For all of us. For all people everywhere.

Lord, you are a present help in trouble.
Come revive
In our darkness come as light
In our sadness come as joy
In our troubles come as peace
In our weakness come as strength
Come Lord to our aid
Restore us
O Lord
Open our eyes to your presence
Open our minds to your grace
Open our lips to your praises
Open our hearts to your love
Open our lives to your healing
And be found among us. 

-David Adam, The Book of a Thousand Prayers