The forest has changed

The forest has changed.

In March, I started walking almost daily in it. There was no sign of spring yet, just brown and gray hillocks clustered with bare trees.

It took weeks for the small weeds clustering the floor to leaf out. This made me ecstatic. Tiny signals of spring. Little neon fingers of yellowest green began peeking out at the tops of the trees, in time, but I could still see straight through the forest to the sky, through the park to the houses.

I don’t know when it happened but the forest changed.

Maybe I walked in it less frequently for a few weeks in April, or maybe April zipped by me while I napped. But this week, I got lost several times on paths I came to know well in their brown phase.

Curious signposts were all I had to anchor me in the riotous expanse of green that was just yesterday an austere expanse of brown. A tree cut off about ten feet high, its stump shredded like a Troll doll’s hair, was my surprising signpost yesterday. I’m here? And there I was. Without that tree I would have thought I were a mile away from where I actually was, because all the other trees are masquerading as strangers. Or maybe their masks are off, now. I’m not sure which.

I’m not a parent but this must be what it’s like to watch your child grow up. Day by day, minute by minute, change is imperceptible. Then all of a sudden, the infant is running and speaking in full sentences.

Change is like that.

Today I walked six miles in sandals, which I don’t recommend, but in fairness I didn’t plan it. Once I got to the trees I turned the wrong direction on purpose and kept going. I needed it.

The wind was sowing pollen everywhere like snow, and it was gusting every which way, a mercy in the sudden summer heat today brought. Whenever I am in the trees and I feel the wind, I think of Elijah:

He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

1 Kings 19:11-13

The problem is, I stubbornly remember this passage wrong. The Lord was not in the wind, it says, but I think he often is. He’s in the silence too, and sometimes the earthquake and the fire. Wind, definitely. The Lord is in the wind. So are allergens. It’s all part of it. Having a humble, sneezy, blister-footed body is part of it.

The creek was calling to me, and I’m usually in too much of a hurry (officially running, officially walking, must get back, no time to spare!) but today, not so much. I bushwhacked a few yards and sat on a rock to soak my feet in it.

God’s in the creek, too.

The last several miles were through neighborhoods, where kids biked around in swimsuits and neighbors sat on many stoops drinking and talking at a distance. Men armed with spatulas and spray cans of OFF faced their barbecues. Groups of friends sat in large circles on lawns.

It’s coming to seem as though socializing outdoors is a lot safer than we’d thought, and indoors is more dangerous than we’d thought. The rule of six-feet doesn’t apply evenly because of airflow. Indoors, you might have the same sickly air passing you by for hours. Outdoors, it all circulates globally and winds carry it in all directions, and it’s hard to get to a dangerous concentration.

There’s something poetic about this, although I’m wary of ending with a trite, privileged optimism. But I can’t help it: I love the idea that we can all, maybe, sit outside together, even this summer, under the trees. Golden summer can still happen.

WHEN I AM AMONG THE TREES

When I am among the trees,

especially the willows and the honey locust,

equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,

they give off such hints of gladness.

I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,

in which I have goodness, and discernment,

and never hurry through the world

but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves

and call out, “Stay awhile.”

The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,

“and you too have come

into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled

with light, and to shine.”

Mary Oliver

Easter.

Y’all know I love thinking out loud about time.

Today is Easter. What does this fact mean to you? Perhaps it brings up memories of egg hunts and pastel-foil-wrapped chocolates. Perhaps it is a fact of deep religious significance, a time of hope and joy. Or maybe it reminds you of a time in your past you’d rather forget. Quite possibly, it means nothing to you.

For me, the religious calendar is a rich source of meaning: it layers over whatever is going on year to year, encouraging us to consider what it is to feel joy, grief, hope, regret, as our lives shift and change. Opening up to this kind of ritual pattern can be meaning-making. It opposes the robotic sameness that can permeate everywhere and every time. It forces us to look a little harder and see what is going on beneath what is going on.

On Friday, Good Friday, we cloaked ourselves in ritual grief and loss, forgetting the coming ritual joy of Easter Sunday.

Sometimes, like now, there is a wide gap between the message of the day and what it feels like to be living in it. It may be Easter on the calendar, but the circumstances feel a lot more like a prolonged Lent with no end date in sight.

I’m not sure where to go from here. I’m writing today’s post live with no plan. I feel a little glum and uninspired.

But then I watched the live Easter service from my boyfriend’s hometown church. The pastor was outside at the chapel in the woods, and in this living room the windows were open, and I couldn’t tell which of the birds were singing outside here and which were with her. That’s a bit of hope.

Then, because why not, I watched my own local church. The humans inside were few: just the priest and his wife, the assistant priest, the organist, a liturgist, and the camera operator. A tot of wine in a coffee mug and an Oreo stood in for the Eucarist. (Eucarish?) But the sanctuary was splendid with candles and white cloths and flowers surrounding the cross at the altar. And the organ fluted something mighty. The few humans in the sanctuary shouted and clapped as the phenomenal postlude came to a close. That is something.

The Easter 2020 setup.

Thankfully, Easter is less a cause of political shouting than Christmas. But like Christmas, the reality of Easter is a syncretic mish-mash of sacred and profane, ancient and modern, spiritual and consumerist, Jewish and Christian and pagan.

A lot of us can’t stomach contradictions like these. Perhaps because a lot of religious types insist white-knuckled on the purity of their traditions, any syncretism, any muddiness, is an invitation for the irreligious to roll their eyes and disprove the religious. Take Easter: its very name in our language has nothing to do with its Christian content. It is likely the name of a Germanic pagan goddess of dawn. The Christians evangelizing in the British Isles must have shrugged and retained her name and the trappings of her spring celebrations, which overlapped credibly enough with the passover.

And now, we’re doing some bizarre mix of all of it: celebrating the Christian resurrection of Christ on a date tied to the Jewish passover, with all kinds of spring fertility rituals that clearly have nothing to do with either of those things. (Etymonline reports primly that “the paganish customs of Easter seem to have grown popular c. 1900; before that they were limited to German immigrants.”)

But if we can find a way to blend all of these things together in a more or less stable solution, albeit one that forces us to explain to bewildered children what bunnies have to do with eggs, and what eggs have to do with Jesus, then I guess we can find a way to make meaning out of a really weird Easter.

Hallelujah anyway, as they say.

Good Friday sunrise

We sleep in a windowless room. The light comes in through large gaps at the ceiling that open the bedroom up to the main room, with its huge east-facing window. 

At night it is dark. He turns the clock face off. When I wake up in the night, my only clue to what time it is comes from the far wall opposite the ceiling gap.

If I wake up and it’s full dark, I know it’s too soon to get up. I try to go back to sleep. (Whether I succeed is a story for another day.)

If I wake up and there’s a band of pale light glowing through the ceiling gap, I know it’s growing light out. 

If I wake up and there are bright medallions arrayed across the wall, I know the sun is fully up and splaying its light everywhere, flooding as much of itself as it can through the curtain rod holes. 

This morning, Good Friday, I saw a light show I’ve never seen before. The pale band was out when I woke up, so I knew it was dawn. But then a little faint orange glimmer popped up in the corner, flickering exactly like a flame. Then four more. Five little candles dancing on the far wall. I lay in bed watching them as they grew in number until they shimmied across the whole wall. They changed with every moment, growing larger until they were full circles of orange flickering light, carved in lines by the horizontal blinds, and dancing with shadows of the leaves of the courtyard bushes they shone between.

Sooty black imprints undulating on dark-orange light prints. 

Soon they began to descend, twenty sunsets, as the sun rose and the light cast lower and lower, until the ceiling gap no longer let them in. 

That’s when I got up.

Christ’s life, a brief candle. Today we rehearse his death in a ritual of sadness. It’s a day for loss, scheduled on the calendar. We pretend to forget that he will rise on Sunday. That’s how rituals work. For today, we look no further than the grief we bear right now. We sit in it, something I do not know how to do. We sit in it and don’t try to fix it. We let it in and we let it be and we let it pass.

A short story for Epiphany.

Trying something new around here: I had the following idea for a short story this morning. So I wrote it down. Happy Twelfth Night, everyone.


When the wise men set out on the dusty road after the audience with the infant king, their treasure chests were lighter. To their surprise, though, they were lighter only by one measure of gold, one of costly incense, and one of embalming resin. Why hadn’t they given the rest of the tapestries, the rare gems, the stoppered bottle of precious wine?

As it had happened, they disagreed sharply about giving the myrrh. It was in their trunks only because the worst could always happen when traveling. Thieves and murderers tended to lurk around every corner, especially in this restless corner of the western empire. The myrrh was not meant as a gift. It was meant to ensure that, if any of them were to be stabbed to death by ruffians, they would be ready to prepare the body for transport home. So at the solemn moment when they had bowed their heads and offered the gifts (gold first, then incense) to the cooing baby in his mother’s arms, they had shot sharp looks at the third among them.

“Wrong, simply wrong,” the first one hissed at the third one afterward, “to give such a morbid gift to a king.”

“To a baby,” nodded the second, grimacing.

The third had merely shrugged. 

Annoying, essentially unbearable, that it was said that some back home knew him as the wisest of all.

But after they made their goodbyes, they had only the briefest of conversations about how full their treasure chests remained, still heaving back and forth with the donkeys’ every step. They hardly discussed what they would say when they returned the tapestries, the gems, the wine to the storerooms. They avoided agreeing on how they would explain the visit to the homebound many, anxiously awaiting tales of adventure in the hinterlands.

Words failed them, indeed, on all topics.

They could not discuss how they would explain that they had stopped following the star. Imagine: they had come all the way from Persia, even east of Persia, and the star had not failed them for a moment. But when they entered this country, they had thought the better of going straight to where it was taking them, which appeared to be the middle of nowhere. After all, they were united by an uncanny feeling that they were going to a king. It made good sense, then, to go to the palace, didn’t it? Which is when they met the governor-king. But each of them knew, through furtive, discomforted glances—this was not it. This old man, with that evil, thirsty, striving glint in his eye—he was not the one the star had been guiding them to. It had been too late, and too rude, not to answer his many questions. But none of them had liked his reaction to their answers.

And now that they had left the little family in their little house (a poorer house than they had seen in decades; more of a barn, truly, although they did not want to make uncharitable assumptions about the living standards out here) the star lay parked above it, as though imploring them to stay.

They ignored their unease. They did not stay.

They made camp among the kind shepherds, who had insisted on hospitality, and who seemed to be under the rather amusing impression that the men were themselves kings of some kind. That night, they spoke only in significant looks about the strange audience with the king. His parents had been kind, terribly kind, and rather noble of mien, yes, but—in what was essentially a stable. Was that how things were done out here in the ragged west? Where were their attendants, their courtiers, the palace? Where were the subjects? Was he to be a king among sheep only?

But he was unquestionably a king. Far more of a king, somehow, than the old man in the palace. An irrational, unavoidable, conclusion.

And they did not speak at all of the horrible dreams they all had that first night, sleeping rough among the good shepherds. Stomach-turning dreams for each of them, waking up in a sweat. The first saw rivers of blood. The second, an army of the dead chasing him, and his legs wouldn’t run. The third, darkness upon darkness, disorienting and alone, a void, full of screaming. They did not know this, of course, because they did not speak of it, and they did not know as each of them briskly filled his saddlebags the next morning that each had a firm, bone-deep conviction not to return to the governor-king with the directions he’d asked for—a conviction that would have inspired each to travel the hundreds of miles home alone if necessary to avoid that nauseating palace.

So it was with silent relief that they found themselves setting off together the long way, the perilously roundabout way, skirting Jerusalem by many weary miles, until they passed through somewhere called Nazareth, fumbling with the language as they traded for dried meat and fruit and nuts for the extended journey.

And when they arrived near home, they made their quiet goodbyes. Life on the road together had made them closer than family, but they were too wise for many parting words. Perhaps, the first one thought afterward as he plodded alone, they would meet again sooner or later. It might happen again as it had many months ago, when they nearly collided on the road in their distraction at the wondrous new star in the west. 

After all, who is to say what will happen?

“Not a wise man,” he chuckled to himself, and his donkey shook his head as though in wry agreement.

But the star never troubled them again.

They went back to their studies, and to their magic tricks, the only way they knew how to show the masses a glimpse of the inexpressible. All the while the heavens remained silent and ordinary, moving exactly as they always had.

As they aged, and as their sons and daughters grew, in quiet moments they wondered often of the tiny king they had seen. They wondered what had become of him and his brave mother, his kind-eyed father. 

Did they hear the news from Jerusalem nearly three dozen years later? 

Did they wonder if their gold had made his travels easy?

Did they wonder if their frankincense perfumed the space around him, as he taught those who were drawn to him, just as they themselves had been?

Did they wonder if his mother had unwrapped the myrrh, which she in her sad wisdom had saved all the while, and handed it to his friends when they took his body?

Three Greek words for a fresh start.

As my pastor recently observed, it’s the new year. Sort of. At least it is the sense that kids are going back to school and the blazing hot summer is starting to break. There’s an opportunity for a fresh start–which is to say, even though a fresh start is always available, right now it might feel a little more possible than it often does in the middle of things.

A few days ago, I was introduced to Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies, which is a program to help with procrastination and follow-through depending on one’s type of accountability. Are you accountable to your own expectations, or other people’s expectations of you, or both, or neither? You can take her quiz here if you’re curious.

But the quiz didn’t really illuminate anything for me, because I’m so inconsistent and ambivalent. I’m accountable to others–and I’m not. I’m accountable to myself–and I’m not. I’m often saying yes to invitations and requests when I’d rather say no. This builds resentment on my part. It also may cause resentment on the part of those who kindly asked me to participate but who wouldn’t have asked if they’d known I would be sullen and difficult, or half-present.

And when it comes to commitments to myself, I’m the same way: I over-commit, always making ten plans when one would do, and then when I only end up completing one, I irritate myself. Or I burn the candle at both ends striving to get all ten done just to say I did. Plus, the weight of the ten expectations I set makes me want to rebel by procrastinating like a toddler striking from naptime, with more or less the same predictable results.

Still, for an optimistic committer such as myself, the lure of the new plan is often irresistible. I use Google Keep to store my dozens of to-do lists, containing everything from the grocery list to the daily to-do list to the weekly to-do list to the prioritized list of movies I want to watch soon (I know) and, of course, the long-term to-do list that is the only barrier between me and fatal inertia. A lot of this in Enneagram terms is down to my type’s tendency to struggle with priorities: all priorities seem equally urgent, so I put them all off equally, which causes total chaos. My two most productive times are the panicked hour before I must leave work, and the panicked hour that straddles my planned bedtime.

As an experiment, I’m taking a break from the to-do lists. We’re going to see what happens. May need to schedule a wellness check just in case this experiment results in me starving to death because the list didn’t tell me to shop for groceries.

But contrast this list-making, task-obsessed, rebellion-inducing behavior with the following:

Right around the new calendar year, I printed out a page with three Greek words on it, that I hoped would set the tone for my year. It hangs on my fridge thusly:

Eudaimonia

Eucharistia

Metanoia

Eudaimonia: literally, “well-daemoned,” “well-spirited.” Happy, virtuous, excellent, living well. For me, this meant to aim for the things that create that sense of joyful ease, creative flow, peaceful purpose.

Eucharistia: gratitude.

Metanoia: transformation.

These words are a guidepost, not a to-do list. This means they don’t provide the tremendous satisfaction I associate with the conquered to-do item (seriously, nothing like hitting that check box on Google Keep; how I miss it…) But I see them every day, and every day I’m a little more likely to think about what I have to be grateful for, or how to lean further into the things that give me joy, away from the things that don’t. Or to reflect on the ways transformation is always possible.

I think it’s helping, even if it’s hard to know without being able to cross it off as complete. I still have a long way to go with the transformation part. But for today, I’m sitting outside with the birds and the breeze, and that is hard to beat.

More or less without comment…

The Lectionary is the daily set of Bible readings many Christian churches use: each day there’s a passage from the Old Testament, one from a Psalm, and one from the Gospels. On Sundays, there’s a reading from the epistles.

I read it most days, because it fascinates and inspires me. It also so often speaks directly to something I or the collective “we” are going through. Uncannily, sometimes.

Today, the Old Testament reading is from Judges. Speaking the first parable of the Bible, Jotham cries out on the mountaintop against the kingship of Abimelech:

All the citizens of Shechem and all Beth-millo came together and proceeded to make Abimelech king by the terebinth at the memorial pillar in Shechem.

When this was reported to him, Jotham went to the top of Mount Gerizim and, standing there, cried out to them in a loud voice:
“Hear me, citizens of Shechem, that God may then hear you!
Once the trees went to anoint a king over themselves.
So they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us.’
But the olive tree answered them, ‘Must I give up my rich oil,
whereby men and gods are honored,
and go to wave over the trees?’
Then the trees said to the fig tree, ‘Come; you reign over us!’
But the fig tree answered them,
‘Must I give up my sweetness and my good fruit,
and go to wave over the trees?’
Then the trees said to the vine, ‘Come you, and reign over us.’
But the vine answered them,
‘Must I give up my wine that cheers gods and men,
and go to wave over the trees?’
Then all the trees said to the buckthorn, ‘Come; you reign over us!’
But the buckthorn replied to the trees,
‘If you wish to anoint me king over you in good faith,
come and take refuge in my shadow.
Otherwise, let fire come from the buckthorn
and devour the cedars of Lebanon.’

For context, Abimelech was a power-hungry would-be king of Shechem, a city in Israel. He killed all of his brothers but one, Jotham, to seize the throne.

Stan Patterson writes:

A dominance orientation is always rooted in an exaggerated opinion of self and a marginalization of others. It opens the door for coercive behavior that engenders fear and force limited only in terms of what the character of the person will allow. In his bid for dominance, Abimelech’s character allowed the most extreme coercion–deception and murder. The reward was his coronation beside the “oak of the pillar which is at Shechem” and the title of king.

Does this remind you of anyone yet?

Jotham’s parable of the buckthorn (or “bramble”), which he shouted from the mountaintop, criticizes the people (the mighty Cedar of Lebanon) for choosing a scheming, parasitic bramble of a man to crawl all over them and declare himself king. How can a bramble, which is not even a tree, but which may constrict and suck the life from a tree, be king of the trees, by the trees’ own choosing? Woe to the trees. Woe to any of us who let ourselves be ruled by a bramble man.

And then…this happened:

Never say the lectionary isn’t relevant, kids.