Daffodil dismay

As October winds down to its last day, the weather has kicked into a frenzy that is leaving everyone a bit upended.

Sandy has already begun wreaking havoc on the East Coast. So much for humanity being in charge of the world. Every now and then, we are faced with the reality of What Lies Beyond, and our only response is to batten down all the hatches. And also shut down Wall Street.

In my own little corner of the world, the past six months have wavered between drought and drenching rains, seasonal dog-days and early chills, and now seasonal frosts and surprising heat. Last week it was 70 degrees. And also 34.

Photo: CKirgiss
October hydrangeas

The hydrangeas in my front yard are playing by the seasonal rules (those rules of nature that we humans know are beyond us but that we still like to nod at and murmur over, as though we somehow devised them ourselves). They are dried out, appropriately bronzed, and extra crunchy to the touch. They’ve settled into a dignified state of horticultural rigor mortis, no longer in peril of bending and bowing, blown this way and that, tossed and twisted by the air that blows around them. Instead, like the aged who droop with elegance and grace, they are at risk of being snapped off in a flash, torn from the stalk that roots them to the ground.

All is as it should be there in my front yard. I have successfully ushered my hydrangeas through another season of life. Just look at them. Really, I am quite something.

My back yard is another story. Amidst all the naked trees, withered leaves, and shriveled perennials (who are compliantly following all of the seasonal rules), there is this:

Photo: CKirgiss
October daffodils

Green among the brown. Growth among the decay. Life among the death.

If the context were anything other than the late-October nature cycle, this scene would be cause for rejoicing, would it not? For these little daffodils of mine are a delightfully poignant metaphor of the spiritual life. Rejoice! Give thanks! All is new! Amen.

I love spiritual metaphors as much as the next person. Sometimes more.

But these are my daffodils, thank you, not my soul. I look to them for miracles and messages Рin season. I want them to do their regular old daffodil-thing so that I can, in small measure, fancy myself to be a green-thumber who works wonders in her little plot of dirt. I need this from my daffodils because, truth be known, my thumb is as ungreen as it could possibly be. Embarrassingly so, being of good farm stock. On both sides.

These rogue daffodils are doing it all wrong. They are making a mess of things. They are threatening my springtime feelings of humble smugness and self-congratulations. Springtime! Blooms! Look what I grew! Amen.

Stupid daffodils.

Beautiful life.

Beyond my control and comprehension.


Knowing and Known

Photo: CKirgiss (Otto and Alice Jacobsen)

Eighty years ago yesterday, my Norwegian immigrant grandparents were wed in Orange, New Jersey – separated from their parents by both an ocean’s roaring expanse and a generation’s widening gap.

My bestefar died when I was only seven, my bestemor when I was eight. That was a long time ago. So long that I don’t remember much about them. Hardly anything at all, in fact. What I do remember certainly doesn’t look anything like the picture above.

Grandparents have a certain something that identifies them from a distance. A look. A gait. A tip of the head. A style. An air. It has little to do with age in some cases, and much to do with wisdom in most cases.

The people in this picture are not my grandparents. They are strangers to me. I don’t recognize their youth. Their style. Their poise. Their intimacy that is so mysteriously visible it makes my heart ache. With joy. With sadness.

Who are these people?

I want to meet them. To hear their story. To ask them questions. To know who they were before they became my grandparents, before they were the quiet man who carefully peeled his boiled potatoes and the kindly woman who gently cared for the quiet man.

The years make little sense. Youth. Age. Past. Future. Then. Now. Was. Is. Here. Gone.

It all starts to jumble together after awhile. We wake up one day and realize that we are no longer grandchildren (but will always feel like we are), that our own children have grown (how did this happen?), and that with each breath, we move ever-so-slightly closer to becoming someone’s memory, whether in fact or photograph. (Yes – the seasons of the year often mirror the seasons of my soul.)

This would all be desperately heartbreaking if not for the promise of new life and new breath that waits for us not just on the other side of this world but in the here-and-now. The sadness of my grandparents’ deaths does not define my soul. The weight of my own mortality does not measure my existence. The reality of all life’s fragility does not color my faith.

Rather, it fills me with wonder. With awe. With expectant pause. Because though I will never really know the people in this picture (and oh, I would so very much like to know them), the Almighty Creator knows me.

I. Am. Known.

And that is enough.

A tale of death and life

Photo: CKirgiss
2012 Apple Popcorn Festival, Brookston, IN.

A few weeks ago, I saw these pumpkins while walking small-town streets during a small-town festival.

And I rejoiced because I love everything about this time of year. The crisp air. The changing leaves. The crunchy earth.

The impending death.

Weird, I know.

Most discussions about being, whether humanistic or religious, are framed by the precisely ordered phrase “life and death” for good reason. The one so obviously follows the other.

Except when it doesn’t.

Coming as it does between summer (the season of life) and winter (the season of death), autumn treads in both worlds, displaying a bold embrace both of that which is flourishing and that which is dying. In these early days of autumn, the dying can be beautiful to behold – shocking red that is so rich I can (almost) smell it, feel it, taste it. And on the same branch, a green so deep I can (almost) hear it breathing, singing, growing.

Photo: CKirgiss
October leaves of Indiana.

We tend to view autumn as the season following life (summer) and leading into death (winter). And we tend to view that transition from life to death as a completed cycle, the final stage, the end of something.

Except when it’s not.

Because of course, winter is not the end. Spring follows on its heels, each and every year without fail, leading into summer’s riotous burst of life.

I love autumn for all the reasons listed above, and like all other autumn lovers, I’m thrilled to be wearing sweaters, eating soup, and wrapping myself in wool blankets again. But I’ve learned that my autumn-love is about so much more than that.

It’s about celebrating “death and life” in that precise order. My redeemed but still-sorry soul is so desperately in need of death – pruning, refining, purifying, cleansing – so that life can flourish in its place.

Autumn helps remind me of this, helps settle my soul into a place of spiritual expectancy in preparation for the much-needed, oft-repeated, sanctifying process of dying to self so that I can live for Christ. Such death is not the enemy, not to be feared, not to be avoided, and certainly not to be mocked. Such death is miraculous, renewing, and breath-taking. Such death is a gift, really, an invitation from Jesus himself to enter the re-creation story of my own spirit that he began on the cross.

I need to die. I really do. In so many ways. How unspeakably wondrous that such death is really a birth, which is a paradox typical of life with Jesus Christ.

And how even more unspeakably wondrous that nature’s season of death, stretched across the long, dark winter months, is momentarily pierced with the greatest Birth of all. Such is the grace of God that though life leads to death, death also leads to life. Over and over and over again.