Nature's first green is gold, the hardest hue to hold.
Her hardest hue to hold. Her early leaf's a flower;
but only so an hour. Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief, so dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
~ Robert Frost
It doesn’t take much beauty to break open my heart and reconnect me to something greater than my fears.
More often than not, when I’m feeling lost or just plain done I take myself for a walk. Walking. Moving. Breathing. Time after time after time I’ve been able to find myself again - while out walking somewhere else.
As I’ve moved through life and paid attention – one of the great lessons is that beauty is always with us. If “only so an hour.” Mr. Frost captured nature’s presence and fragility in his poem. Nature’s transforming images that are always accompanying us come to life in his words. Before, beside, behind – always around me, around us. Always. I/we just need to trust and look up or look out and have the heart to see.
Beauty can come in a surprising color tucked in a bush or the second highest limb of the closest tree or on the sidewalk just beyond my next step. It can be seen in a piece of natural or human-made artwork.
Seeing something beautiful reminds me of faith and hope and love all wrapped up together. Seeing it invites me to take one more deep breath and then another and then another. That something beautiful doesn’t often fix my problem or solve the puzzle. But, oh my goodness, it strongly and gently reminds me that this world we call home is so much bigger. And this remembering welcomes me back to entering-in again.
A few months ago we learned that a dear family friend had died. Ginny and Ted were two of my parents’ best friends. Ginny and Ted were parents to Phil, Stacy, Steve, Allison and Tricia and each summer our families spent most of the month of August together in CT. Ginny was an Italian treasure with a heart big enough to love the entire world. And could she cook. And could she laugh. And when Ginny loved you, you knew you were truly loved from the top of your head to the tip of your toes.
When I heard that she had died at home with her children beside her, my heart ached with beloved memories of our families’ love for one another. Her death brought up tender memories of losing Ted, and Mom and Dad. It was the end of a treasured chapter and my heart was weeping. So, I went for a walk.
Walking and remembering. Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right. And there she was. I was about to take my next step when I glanced down and saw this leaf on the sidewalk. was it just a leaf or was it something else, something more...a messenger or an angel's visit. Nature’s most beautiful gift of love – right before my eyes.
Thank you, God.
Welcome home, precious daughter, child of God. Say hi to Mom and Dad and Ted for me, will ya?
I am God.
~ Psalm 46:10
Even in the midst of so much hustle and bustle, we are surrounded by quiet places. It’s a helpful gift to our weary spirits when we remember to look.
When I seek out a moment of quiet, I am gifted most every time. I’m often surprised at how good it feels to step back step away and listen. I’m not listening for actual directions or guidance as much anymore. Instead, as odd as it may sound, I’m listening for the quiet. Listening beyond the noise. Listening for a holy presence.
Listening is for me a spiritual practice. It slows me down, calms my spirit, reconnects me. I feel these changes especially in these days when my heart is feeling both/and. Feeling the tender vulnerability of my deep sense of loss and feeling grateful for how blessed my life continues to be.
This is the season when we remind one another that we can bring light to the darkness. I'm grateful to drive through our neighborhood after work and see so many houses decorated with beautiful shining, colored lights. When I see the blues and greens and purples, I know that they shine brightest in the deepest dark. This season is also a time when simple answers are not helpful, and complicated ones wear me out. For many of us this is the time of meeting and companioning Christmases past and present.
So what are we listening for? Perhaps something comes to mind right away. Or perhaps it’s a struggle to imagine. Listening for quiet gives us all permission to take our time, to take this time. And how do we get there? Again, yours is a personal answer, yours is a personal journey. Some of the things that have been helpful for me in the past few days - lighting a candle, or listening for my breath, or standing outside on the cold night watching the moon. Each in its own way has led me to a place of gentle, thoughtful, intentional quiet.
If it’s waiting until your neighbors have gone to bed and crunching through the new snow, or finding a deserted place for a sunset or stopping and listening for your next breath... seek out an intention, your intention for quiet. It’s not listening for the what, it’s the open waiting that sits with the listening. It’s holding on with an open hand...and a quieted heart.
Years ago, in seminary our kind and gracious professors had a phrase they used when we needed us to take a closer look at a behavior or belief. They called this place for examination, "growing edges." Soon we came to understand that these places of the heart were identified as our stuck/caught places. They were places that held us back. They were places that blocked our learning or living. Growing edges. What was true those many years ago at Candler, continue to be true for me today. One of my lifelong growing edges is my resistance to change.
More often than not, I can't wrap my head around change. Any change – big or small. It has a way of discombobulating my spirit. My biggest fear is that when change comes, I will become lost. And the hardest change of all for me is the kind that comes to my root system.
When changes have come to the places and to the people who keep me tethered and balanced – I have felt truly lost. The deaths of my parents, losses of friends to HIV and other illnesses, the loss of a job I thought I would always have – all of these changes have struck deep to the root of me, to the heart of me.
Sometimes I'm able to imagine the glass half-full. Sometimes I can recognize that change most always brings with it possibility. Openings come with changes that weren’t there before. Opportunities can be found for renewal and restoration.
My life experiences, all the times of holding on and letting go have taught me to trust what was, what is and what will be. My faith nudges me at all the best times to stay open, to keep looking. My faith grounds me and invites me to believe that something will come, a path will appear.
Perhaps our wisest teacher for living in and through change is nature’s yearly lesson of the changing seasons. Summer into fall, leaves letting go individually and beautifully into winter, bare branches bringing buds in the spring. One leading into another. Each season for its time. And then grace comes and there is a letting go and moving on toward what will be next.
My friend MJ took this beautiful picture along the Fox River in Wisconsin a couple years ago. This image invites us to journey on the path that is before us. We are invited to step through the woods, through the cold, through the beautiful possibility into what is to be next. If we stop and give up; if we stop and abandon the journey; if we allow our spirits to get stuck and resist what might be just on up around the next bend, then we might miss the very best moment. Just imagine what may be up the path just a bit…left foot, right foot.
Feel your feelings. I don’t know who first said these words. It would be interesting to overhear that original conversation. I wonder if it was said to someone who was grieving. I wonder if it was said in almost the middle of December when so much of the rest of the world was planning parties and wrapping presents. I wonder what the one who first received these words felt when hearing it - I wonder what that person said in response. I wonder…
It’s not as easy as it may seem, `feeling your feelings.’ There’s a vulnerability with that. There’s an exposure with that. There is a sense that once the feelings start, once the tears begin to flow, there may be no stopping them. And how is one supposed to feel when feeling that?
And yet, I honestly believe that this encouragement is our best hope.
There have been times in my life when I chose not to feel my feelings. Instead of feeling anything, I stuffed them down inside as far as I could stuff them. Does anybody else remember that old Simon and Garfunkel song, I am a Rock? Hours of listening to that one…”and a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries.” I remember wearing a groove in that old 45.
Grief can be one of our most transformative teachers. With grief we learn over and over again about holding on and letting go. With grief we learn to treasure loved ones and cherish time. With grief we learn deep in our souls to come to understand what deeply matters to us, above all else.
There can be a jumbling of emotions with grief. All those things that Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross taught us years ago are woven together: anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – and back again. They are not a check list, that we can experience once and move on. It can be so surprising and disappointing when we say to ourselves, “OK I know now. I understand” (read: `done with denial’) and then something else comes along and we find ourselves right back there again. This jumbling of emotions can be exhausting and unsettling.
Feel your feelings.
When we have the courage and the opportunity to step back just a bit and see what is happening from a different angle, perhaps we will come to better understand. Perhaps we can more deeply understand more about ourselves and of our experience.
I wonder if it was the same person who said, “Feelings aren’t bad, they just are.” Wouldn’t surprise me. Over time these words have brought me a great deal of comfort. “They just are,” takes away the judgement. Not good or bad, feelings just are.
So, in these growing darker nights, don’t forget to light a candle. In these drawing closer to Christmas-days, don’t forget that there are folks around you who care deeply, and would most likely do whatever it is you would ask of them (go for a walk, or a cup of coffee or to a movie). In these missing-them-so-very-much days, don’t forget the promise of Emmanuel. God is with us. Has been all along.
My Mom was perhaps the best listener God ever put on this earth. Sure, my hunch is that many folks would argue, and many would probably make a fine case for their moms. (And maybe this is a shared Christmas miracle). What I know to be true is that my Mom always, always listened with her heart.
From my earliest memory Mom was a leaner-in-ner. My sisters would be glad to share their stories as well. It didn’t matter if she was listening to a bad day at school or winning a tennis tournament (and Mom knew nothing at all about tennis), Mom would listen. She would pour a cup of coffee, light a cigarette and ask to hear it all. When we came back from camp and after getting our 12 or 24 exposures developed at Osco’s, Mom would want to hear all we had to say about each picture. For Mom, each picture captured a moment of my life, and I knew in my heart-of-hearts (as she used to say) that that precious, particular moment mattered to her more than anything else in the world.
These holiday days can hold so many moments. Every now and then it’s almost as if my spirit comes awake – and I am aware of the preciousness of a moment. It might be a string of Christmas lights, or a chorus of a Christmas carol, or a taste of those peanut butter cookies with the chocolate kiss in the middle. It might be anything that awakens your heart. And when you find yourself suddenly `filled up with joy,’ accept the gift. And it is a precious gift. Mom taught me this lesson well.
This year I am wishing I could talk with Mom. I so wish that I could tell her about family and friends, about music and writing, about work and the challenges of the world. I can see her sitting in a comfortable chair with her legs tucked up under, and there she would be - nodding and leaning in. Listening for the story. Listening for the struggle and the hope. Listening for how I am making my way in the world.
There is an aching that comes when I realize no one can ever take her spot. No one will ever take her place. I have lovingkindness all around me and am so, so thankful. But still…
I know no one can fill her empty place in my everyday, but I know that her living taught me well about carrying on. It is when the days are growing darker and those Christmas lights seem twice as bright that I sense her with me. Something, somehow invites me to lean in. Some nudge will come along and bring my weary spirit into a moment that will soon hold a new memory. I feel it. I trust it. As I lean in and somehow with a loving part of Mom companioning me, I listen with all my heart.
For many of us Advent gathers many of our most cherished traditions. Each year holds memories of things we have done throughout our lives. Bringing home a Christmas tree and carefully placing each decoration. Hot chocolate with mounds of marshmallows. Cookies baking in the kitchen. These activities may be more tender this year because our loved one is missing.
With the holiday season comes a busyness that can push us to an emotional edge. There are commercials running day and night on television that urge us to buy more and more and more. There is music playing round the clock, “have a holly, jolly Christmas.” And sometimes all we want to do is jump off the merry-go-round and stop. Just stop and catch our breath.
And gracefully at the best of times an ancient carol enters in and invites us to take a heart-break. We are given an opening to savor a rest from it all. “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” The imagine of the little town of Bethlehem that many of us carry in our hearts can provide a respite, even a sanctuary. It’s quiet there. It is peaceful there. It holds a place where stars can shine through the darkness.
The hopes and fears of all the years. Our hopes and fears journeying with us this year. Both/all are held in this ageless song.
For centuries this song has been sung at Christmas time. Year after year old and young, healthy and fragile ones sing this song and remember. When we are grieving hopes and fears often walk side-by-side. They are both unexpected and perfect companions for the journey. If we were always fearful, we probably wouldn’t have the strength to get out of bed in the morning. And if we were always hopeful, I know our tender hearts would most probably break each day. These two words never exclude one another. Instead, they journey through our lives join along-side one another each step of the way.
Hopes and fears of all our years meet most every night. It is true. We bring both to the season when promises are remembered. Both are again imprinted on our weary spirits. As we continue our journey to the manger in Bethlehem, may this melody enter in and carry us when we are weary. And when you find yourself humming softly, “O little town of Bethlehem,” think gently of these words. Remember that these words have held you your whole life and know that you are always, always held in love.
Holy, living God, you have created us and are creating still. Each hour, each day you are with us. In our hopes and in our fears, you are with us. We lean into your lovingkindness today. In these tender days, Emmanuel, sing again this ancient chorus, for we long for the song of Bethlehem. Amen.
Last Saturday I was raking leaves in the front yard. It was a beautiful, Atlanta day with the temperature in the high 60’s, blue skies. I knew I would be spending the late afternoon watching football, so I wanted to spend a couple hours at least “looking” productive. I was in our front yard building piles of leaves to take ‘round to the back. My thoughts were rambling between this beautiful day and about how much I loved our house.
My peaceful moment was interrupted when, a couple blocks away I heard it. A sports car was revving the engines and was racing down our block. I started screaming. It was that primal, protective, Mama Bear scream, “Hey, SLOW DOWN!!!” The driver was young guy with windows down, music blasting. He didn’t even look my way when he raced by me. It turns out I knew he was in for a big surprise because there’s a stop sign at the end of our block. I stood in the street as he screeched to a stop. Then he roared his engine, squealed his tires and blew on toward the next block.
There I stood in the street holding my rake. And I started wondering what I would do or say if he came barreling back. Immediately words came to mind, “Carter lives across the street. He’s 4. Nathan and Max live next door to Carter, they are 5 and 8. Lola and her brothers live next door. They are all pretty amazing kids. They ride their bikes in the street on Saturdays. I want to watch all of them grow up, so SLOW DOWN!”
But the guy didn’t come back. Instead, another guy who was walking did stop. He was laughing (probably at me) and he asked me, “What would you have done if he’d come back?” And I said to this walker, “I just realized I was channeling my Dad.” The guy smiled and said, “Well, that’s a good thing. Your Dad must have been a good guy.” And walked off.
And he was. My Dad was a good guy. Dad used to do that same kind of primal yelling back on Prairie Avenue in Mattoon. He would be outside and some “jerk” (one of the words Dad would yell in the driver’s wake) would come barreling down our street. Dad would pull out his hankie (editor’s note: we never really understood how this `flag’ would be an effective tool) and would yell for the driver to “STOP!” Never saw one actually do that after Dad’s command, but it made a strong impression on me.
My Dad was a good guy and being a neighbor mattered to him. Our parents lived out their shared-belief that my sisters and I were not raised on an uninhabited island. No, we lived smack-dab in the middle of a community. We had neighbors all around us, and these folks mattered to our lives. Dad invested his time and energy in faithfully caring for the folks in his village.
My Dad was a good guy. He’s been gone since 2010 and I still imagine the two of us talking on our long walks together, or shooting baskets in the driveway. He lived his principles. He laughed a lot. He played incredible jazz piano every night as his daughters drifted off to sleep. My Dad never seemed to meet a stranger.
Perhaps this is the highest compliment we can pay: channeling a loved one we’ve lost and hold close in our hearts every day. My hunch is many of us do it, and maybe sometimes we’re not even aware of it. These folks bring out the best in us, as we follow after them. Their legacy is one of our richest treasures. There was a shift in my spirit when I talked briefly with that neighbor who stopped to speak to me last Saturday. There was a shift when I realized that I was channeling my Dad. His response was truer than he might have known, “He must have been a good guy.” And truly that was all I needed. I took a deep breath, picked up the rake and got back to the work at hand.
Both my grandmothers were “keepers.” From an early age, my sisters and I knew about the significance of holding on to family things. Furniture was passed down through generations, dining room tables and chairs. Paintings and Red Sox hats. Dishes and silverware. Coat trees and hair brushes. Things that mattered to my paternal great-grandmother, things that mattered to my parents matter still to me.
One of the hardest events of grief is the letting go of a loved one’s things. Clothes and shoes. Notebooks and pens. Books and music. Things that your loved one has worn and still has her smell. A bible your loved one carried all those Sundays to church and still has his notes in the margins.
It was impossibly hard not to want to keep everything. How is one to make peace with letting yet one-more-thing go? And yet…and yet a room can only hold so much.
There have been times in my life when I’ve needed to let go of/dispose of/give away family keepsakes. The Antiques Road Show has brought home to me the genuine struggle of determining the worth of our possessions. Folks are startled time after time when their family heirloom is valued at $27.50. It always seems to be a head/heart thing. Our hearts can’t begin to grasp how to proceed through the intersection of our family’s story meeting the cashier’s check of $27.50.
Perhaps our bodies can be our most gracious guides in understanding. Perhaps our physical selves can be helpful teachers using the example of our very next breath. We breathe in and out, in and out. It is not possible to hold on forever. Likewise, we cannot continually exhale. At some point there is literally nothing else to give. Life requires both. It is not either/or. Our breathing reminds us that our life’s balance is both/and.
Giving away or holding on to our keepsakes is a hard one. These aren’t just things. They are our family narrative, our history, our memories. Sometimes they embody our most valued loved ones and places. They are physical reminders of our life’s story.
Several years back now I lost my favorite earring. It had been given to me at a special time and I treasured it. When I moved from the Midwest down here to Atlanta, I would intentionally wear those earrings on days when I was unsure and needed to feel grounded. I remember I was at seminary in the common area and I panicked when I realized that I’d lost one of them. I frantically traced and retraced my steps. This desperate search went on for over an hour or two. Back and forth and back and forth, I frantically searched. A friend saw me and asked if she could help with whatever was wrong. After a time, with no luck she said these wise words to me: “Maybe it has served you long enough. Can you offer your thanks and bless it on its way?”
“Maybe it has served you long enough.” Powerful. Generous. Releasing and restorative words. “Can you offer your thanks and bless it on its way?” Not always possible. But most always helpful.
(P.S. Linda is an amazing `keeper of stories. A couple of these treasures are from her family. She would honestly say that all of these in the pictures above are "ours."))
Everybody needs beauty...places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul alike.
~ John Muir
All along the way, throughout our lives nature is teaching us. If we have eyes to see and hearts to experience what is happening all around us, then we can come to understand nature’s lessons of comfort and hope.
As one moment moves in and through to the next, we can watch and find reassurances from what is always all around us. There is comfort for me in knowing that as summer has given way to fall, and now as fall is moving into winter; we have been taught throughout our lives that in due season we will come again to spring. We just have to wait. And remember. And believe. As time passes, we are reminded of changes happening within and round about us. These lessons can be as gentle as a leaf falling to the ground, or as harsh as a hurricane. In and through it all, we watch the sun go down and wait in hope that the sun will rise again tomorrow morning.
I've known times in my life when I honestly thought my heart would stop beating. Times in my life when grief was so strong that I couldn't see beyond that single moment, let alone on to the next one. I’ve known times when my loss was so desperate that I believed the world had stopped turning. All along the way there has been strength enough for me in knowing that grace and mercy can find us at the most unexpected times. I can honestly say that time and again I have been found by the whispering of the wind, by a cloud in the sky, or by lovingkindness standing under the stars.
In those moments when you feel you're about to lose hope, may you be reminded of something beautiful that has been here companioning you all this time. May you see a color that catches your eye and tenderly holds your heart.
Hope is patience with the lamp lit.
December is the darkest month of the year. I’m never sure if my old bones can somehow feel this growing-darkness because the winter cold sneaks in, or because the nights are actually growing longer. We know about the coming of the winter, the wind blowing through our jackets and often wishing for a heavier sweater. We know about the feeling of dusk coming sooner than we expect.
We know about our spirits wishing for a lamp at the end of the day to guide us home. Many of us know of this hope Tertullian is naming. It is the hope you can find in waiting rooms and doctor’s offices, it the waiting that happens in the dark.
Lighting candles has become one of my most precious and sacred acts. It’s an intention. It’s an acknowledgment. It can be words spoken into what’s next. This intention of bringing light into what has felt so dark has brought me strength time and again. This intention has brought the possibility of action to places where I’ve felt helpless. This intention has helped slow down the noise and brought a peaceful quiet.
Lighting candles has become an acknowledgement of the pain that has felt so engulfing, so overwhelming. This acknowledgement of needing a nudge, wanting some kind of movement toward light and hope. This acknowledgement of realizing the energy of place and purpose.
Lighting candles has become a symbolic act of bringing light so that we might see beyond this painful moment of despair. Lighting candles can bring a purpose and with it an assurance that what feels so desperate and dark now, can change. Where darkness has been, light can come.
Perhaps this can be a helpful Advent practice for this season. Find a candle or two or three and set them in a place where you’ve been aware of darkness – literally or figuratively. Find a candle that brings to mind your loved one. Set the candle in a place where your soul will be invited to feel a shift – however small – a shift of seeing past this sense of deep, December darkness.
May it be for you an intention. An acknowledgement. A symbolic statement of hope for what can be next. Lighting a lamp shows us that even into the cold, December darkness light can come. To the homeless waiting through a chilled and lonely night, to families whose loved ones struggle with illness, to ones who sit and wait in jail, to children who are hungry, to the military families whose loved ones are serving in some far-off place, to the father and mother at the bedside, to the woman who is pregnant with child ~ for all of us this day and into this night ~ light is coming. Love is on its way.
Working in Family Experience at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, Lesley is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She and her partner, Linda Ellis are raising their two sons, Brogan (now a freshman at Guilford College) and Sam at sophomore at DHS in Decatur, GA.