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 – in 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.

 

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.

Eleven years later…

I wrote these words 11 years ago, but could have written them yesterday – not just about the events of that day, but about all of life when it is lived outside of God’s immeasurable, forgiving, majestic, jealous love. (Please silence your outcry for that last element. God’s jealousy is not humanly petty. It is gloriously divine. It is for us…all of us, and nothing could be more breathtakingly astounding) .

______

Regarding September 11…
I have a thousand questions I want answered.
I have a thousand fears I want quelled.
I have a thousand thoughts I want sorted out.
I have a thousand concerns I want soothed.
I have a thousand things I want changed.
I have a thousand people I want saved.
I have a thousand places I want seen.
I have a thousand songs I want sung.
I have a thousand steps I want walked.
I have a thousand prayers I want uttered.
I have a thousand bridges I want crossed.
I have a thousand roads I want traveled.
I have a thousand books I want read.
I have a thousand poems I want whispered.
I have a thousand birds I want freed.
I have a thousand trees I want honored.
I have a thousand skies I want admired.
I have a thousand oceans I want remembered.
I have a thousand eyes I want dried.
I have a thousand ears I want opened.
I have a thousand voices I want heard.
I have a thousand wrongs I want forgiven.
I have a thousand mountains I want climbed.
I have a thousand stars I want named.
I have a thousand lives I want lived.
I have a thousand fields I want sown.
I have a thousand rivers I want blessed.
I have a thousand children I want born.
I have a thousand sorrows I want healed.
I have a thousand days I want begun.
I have a thousand years I want danced.
I have a thousand clouds I want explored.

But I have only one God, who is true from the highest depths to the lowest valleys, from the farthest east to the farthest west, and from the beginning of always to the end of never.

The god for whom people were willing to die last Tuesday is no god at all.

The true God does not say, “Die for me.” He says, “I’ve died for you.”

The true God does not say, “Hate others.” He says, “Love others…as much as you love yourself.”

The true God does not say, “Crucify the enemy.” He says, “Crucify your heart so I can create in you a new one.”

Would that the entire world could live in the contented peace of such simple truth as this.

copyright 2001 Crystal Kirgiss

A fruitful endeavor

Photo: C. Kirgiss

This year, what with the drought and all, my raspberry bushes were a bust. Nary a single blossom or berry did we get.

Sometime in mid-summer, just when things normally begin to get exciting in the berry patch, the bushes simply fell over into a collective droopy heap of dry, shriveled, sad, exhausted, and bare canes. Where berries should have been was nothing more than small, darkened, hardened, undeveloped blossoms.

We don’t harvest enough berries to brag about – just an added dash of bright red in fruit salads or atop ice-cream treats. But that’s enough to make us feel productive, farm-ish, and connected to the earth in some small way. That’s enough to marvel at the sweet burst of flavor. That’s enough to revel in the mystery of dirt-plus-rain-plus-sun-equals-bounty. That’s enough to be reminded of God’s goodness.

That’s enough to make this year’s non-harvest a source of disappointment.

It was – and still is – quite heartbreaking. I need to get out there and prune back the dead canes so next year’s berry crop stands a chance. But it’s depressing to look upon that pile of despair, to think about what could have been, to realize that the miracle and mystery of nature doesn’t always have a joyful ending.

I don’t particularly like the image.

It hits rather close to home.

It echoes the truth about my humanity.

It reflects what too often happens in my own life.

Droopy heaps of dry, shriveled intentions…of exhausted, bare emotions…of hardened, undeveloped thoughts…of dead, fruitless endeavors…these are the natural result – the only possible result – of a soul’s drought.

Bearing spiritual fruit is a miracle so far beyond dirt-plus-rain-plus-sun-equals-bounty that it’s nearly impossible to comprehend. How can broken creatures such as we produce beautiful things such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?

We cannot, of course. On our own, left to our own devices, life is nothing more than a perpetual, deadly drought.

Thank God we are not consigned to live on our own, to scorch and shrivel and droop and rot in a pile of dry death.

Thank God we are invited to plant ourselves along the riverbank, to drink deeply of the water of life, to fill our souls with the truth of Christ, and to experience the breathtaking miracle of a fruit-filled life.

Thank God we are not subject to nature’s shifting weather patterns but instead are showered with the endless grace of Jesus.

Thank God we are loved and redeemed and transformed and cultivated in spite of ourselves.

Thank God indeed.

Watermelon Roulette

Here’s the thing about watermelon: it’s both the best and worst of summer treats – the best when it’s sweet, juicy, and pip-lite, the worst when it’s, well, not.

Here’s another thing about watermelon: each one is a gamble, a crapshoot, a white-knuckle round of roulette that is just as likely to drape the annual family picnic in a disappointingly tasteless pall as it is to launch the collective tastebuds into a surprisingly savory orbit.

[NB: Yes, my metaphors are mixed. Further, they break all the the rules of “write what you know” for I gamble not, live still, and embrace earth’s familiar solidity. That’s blogging for you.]

[NB2: Another thing about watermelon: it’s one of those weird countable and non-countable nouns, depending on the context. “I like watermelon” is okay but “I like banana” is not. “I grow watermelon” and “I grow watermelons” are equally acceptable (though I don’t). “There will be hotdogs, beans, chips, and watermelon at the picnic” works. So does, “There will be hotdogs, beans, chips, and watermelons at the picnic,” though it sounds weird in the plural. That’s English for you.]

Like so many others, I was taught that a well-delivered thunk on its thick rind was a foolproof way to pick a watermelon. If the thunk rings hollow, grab it. If not, ignore it. Just exactly what a hollow thunk sounds like has always been a bit vague to me.

After having delivered countless thunks with my knuckles to the rinds of countless watermelons, here’s the truth: the thunk test is rot half the time. Some hollow-sounding thunks result in breathtaking deliciousness. Others – last week’s for example – result in something with all the taste and texture of styrofoam soaked in formaldehyde and lemon extract.

[NB: I’ve never actually tasted styrofoam soaked in formaldehyde and lemon extract, but sometimes imaginative hyperbole is the only literary device that will do. That’s creative non-fiction for you.]

Watermelon is (watermelons are?) just about the biggest fruitified mystery of my life. Bananas are easy. Apples too. Grapes can be tested (surreptitiously). Berries can be doused in sugar if need be. But those watermelons (countable noun) are out to get me 5 times out of 10.

In gambling, those might be good odds. At a fruit stand, they stink, unless (fingers crossed) the thunk is a winner in which case the sweet smell of success is matched only by the sweet smell and taste of melon.

Psalm 23 re:mix

I know nothing of sheep (Psalm 23) or vineyards (John 15), but much about music lessons. I believe the heart of God is revealed just as beautifully in the best attributes of a piano teacher (and so many other roles) as in those of a shepherd or farmer.

The LORD is my piano teacher, I have nothing to fear.

He starts me on the easiest songs so I can make true and simple music even as a beginner.

He teaches me my scales (I hate them, I do!) so my fingers know when to cross and tuck, over and under, and I will be ready for the difficult music that lies ahead.

When I stumble and cry because the music is hard (but I practiced! so much and so long!) he comforts me, then breaks it into smaller pieces that I can work on little by little, one by one, over and over and over again. He never ever tells me I am hopeless, untalented, and a waste of his time (like some other teachers do). But neither does he stop challenging me, stretching me, and molding me into a real musician. (Truly, it would be much less work for him if he didn’t care so much about my progress, if he just let me twiddle around in Book I, playing what I already know, never moving beyond 4/4 time signatures in the Key of C.)

When I stumble and err because I did not practice (but I was busy! so very, very busy!) he patiently waits while I mumble my excuses, then helps me get back to work so I can someday make a joyful noise. He never, ever slaps or slams the piano lid on my fingers (like some other teachers do). But neither does he look the other way, pretend all is well, and say “well, well, you are truly wondrous” just so I will feel happy. (Indeed, it would be much less work for him if he didn’t care so much about his students, if he just enrolled them methodically, lectured them dispassionately, listened to them unaffectedly, deposited their monthly tuition checks promptly, and called it even.)

When I play well – and it does happen now and then, miraculously, only because of all he’s taught me – he doesn’t offer cheap, worthless prizes (oh joy…another plastic bust of Liszt) but instead gives me new, more beautiful, more exciting, and more difficult songs to learn.

He is not content that I simply be a piano player. Instead, he molds me into a musician who loves music from deep inside my heart, makes music from deep inside my soul, and hears music from deep inside my being.

Sing! Shout! Make a joyful noise! The LORD does wondrous things for even such as I!

Dry cereal delight

Fact: sometimes there’s nothing more satisfying than dry cereal. The snacky kind. Not the breakfast-is-the-most-important-meal-of-the-day kind (which, let’s be honest, doesn’t really even exist since there’s nothing remotely healthy about processed, packaged, preserved ready-to-eat-grain-in-a-box, regardless of how many vitamins are pumped into it. Ninety percent of them are nothing more than candy / caramel corn / cookies dressed up as Real Breakfast Food (in other words, delicious). The other ten percent are nothing more than crackerish / popcornish / brannish chunks (in other words, blecch) requiring so much sugar to be edible that in the end they’re no healthier than the pastel-colored-candy-called-cereal and are a lot less appealing to the eye, sort of like moistened dog food suspended in a milky sop.)

Because I descend from immigrant farming stock, I grew up eating oatmeal (read: lumpy mush), Cream of Wheat (read: grainy mush), and Cheerios (read: stinky mush). Because at least one of my immigrant farming ancestors had a sweet tooth (sprinkled sugar on his lettuce and tomatoes, my grandfather did), to each of those various mush varieties I added a hefty serving of sugar – brown for hot, white for cold – so that the oatmeal and Cream of Wheat looked like tanning-bed regulars, and so that when the Cheerios were gone, there remained a layer of gritty silt settled in the milky dregs, thick enough to trench with my spoon. As an adult, this sounds pathetic. And dentally irresponsible. But as a kid, it only made sense.

On very rare occasions, my mother was gripped with indulgent impulses. The result? Lucky Charms, that duplicitous candy-plus-grain concoction that besnookers all attempts at simplistic categories, the only cereal that doesn’t lie about its candy contents (“Featuring Brilliantly Dyed Stale Marshmallow Bits!”) but instead increases their celebrity status by hiding them among a crowd of pale and shapeless oat commoners. Marketing brilliance.

Lucky Charms provided my training ground for dry cereal snacking. One hour of after-school TV, a big bowl of dry Lucky Charms, and immigrant farming stock genes taught me this: plow through the pale and shapeless oat commoners first, then savor the brilliantly dyed stale marshmallow bits en masse. Delay gratification. Save the best for last. That kind of thing.

I’m older now. And immeasurably wiser. I know that cold cereal is one of the biggest scams of the grocery world, that the prescribed serving sizes wouldn’t satisfy an ant, that the added nutrients are essentially worthless, that the marketers have shamelessly targeted young children, and that I would be better off eating two eggs and 4 strips of bacon (or a donut).

In spite of all that, every now and then dry Lucky Charms is what I crave. Because I’m older and wiser, though, I no longer eat the duplicitous concoction in two phases. I have neither the time nor patience for that kind of neurotic precision. Which is to say, I have neither the time nor patience to waste my snacking energies on pale and shapeless oat bits, but I have all the time in the world to pluck out the brilliantly dyed stale marshmallow bits.

All of them.

As an adult, it only makes sense.

No-run zone

This Summer Olympic season seems like a good time for non-runners to declare themselves.

So, I do declare. Proudly. Boldly.

I. Don’t. Run.

Ever.

My reasons are straightforward enough:

Joint pain
Perspiration
Exhaustion
Boredom

I’ve heard about how to overcome all these issues, but I’m not interested because the overcoming strategies sound equally painful, sweaty, exhausting, and bor(yawn)ing. I’ve also heard about all the amazing benefits of running, including the euphoric runner’s high that one eventually achieves (at some point after the aches, sweat, exhaustion, and boredom, which seems a little late, don’t you think?), but I have a secret stash of dark chocolate which offers plenty of benefits, thank you.

My running friends swear that running is the best thing ever. But I just recently discovered the joys of hard-steamed eggs – no green gunk around the yolk and a peel that literally slips off – so, sorry, but “the best thing ever” has already been spoken for.

My running friends assure me that running is good for whatever ails me. But I have a giant soaking tub – and approximately 837 books – so, sorry, but “whatever ails me” already has a remedy.

My running friends promise that I’ll love running if I just give it a try.  But I have tried it, on no less than three different occasions (as a kid – the obligatory “I want to be an Olympian” phase; as a mom-of-toddlers – the obligatory “I’m getting back in shape” phase; last year – the obligatory “I’m still getting back in shape” phase) all of which ranged from lackluster to dismal failure (not an Olympian; got in shape but killed my shins on the pavement; flew off the treadmill while adjusting the speed and incline) so, sorry, but “giving it a try” was a great big downer. Times three.

But my running friends are still my friends. Even though I don’t run. Even though I just walk. Even though I move at a different pace, with a different gait, for a different reason. Even though I am not just like them.

So with all the other non-runners of this world, I declare this:

I. Do. Walk.

And that’s just fine with me.

NB: For those who are tempted to read into this post some sort of veiled analogy about the recent culture wars, please don’t. There isn’t one. Truly. This is really just about being a non-runner. A content non-runner. A bookish, J.S.Bach-ish, nap-ish non-runner. A devoted, devout non-runner who, nonetheless, is glued to the media coverage of every single Olympic running event. Huh. Life is funny like that sometimes.

No Service

I am spending two days here to, you know, get away from it all.

To enjoy the peace and quiet.

Away from the crowds and busyness and traffic and chaos.

Away from the noise and stress and rush and press.

Away from the piles and stacks and tasks and lists.

Away from all that is of this world.

All of which sounds prosaic and introspective and intentional and even spiritual…a little time for me and Jesus, me and family, me and I, to do some serious reflecting and resting. It doesn’t require much beyond a good book (check), a decent bed (check), and indoor plumbing (check).

So this should be great in every way. It really should.

Except for this: two words in the top righthand corner of my phone screen –

No Service

Nothing. Zip. Zero. Not even half a bar of “can you hear me know now?”

I’m stymied. This has never happened to me before. I’ve always been connected, even if by nothing more than the tiniest glowing arc….just a dot, really, at the base of that rainbow-ish / radiowave-ish / parachute-ish symbol that is the supreme essence of 21st-century existence in a wirelessly connected world.

Huh.

No Service.

How, exactly, am I supposed to fully enjoy and appreciate the peace and quiet of this place – away from the chaos and noise and stress of the world – if I can’t, with the click of a button and the swipe of a screen, pull up a minute-by-minute reminder and replay of said chaos and noise and stress?

How indeed.

 

Thirsty dirt

The earth is thirsty. Cracked across her skin. Parched to her roots.

And we are all crying out for rain. Oh please, God, rain. We need it so badly. (And the crying out becomes complaining and cursing and fists shaking in rage and disbelief.)

But when we do have rain – when things are green and sated and as they should be (indeed . . . so that over time water really does turn into wine) we simply roll along, taking in the miracles that lie before and behind and above and around us.

On May 6, the earth was sufficiently watered (in Indiana, at least) – and in her subtle, surprising way, she was slowly slipping out from under a heavy, dull brown blanket, worn for many months, into a light, fresh green shift (n.a loosely fitting dress that hangs straight from the shoulder; a chemise) that shimmered when it caught the light.

I saw this from a motorcycle, which is sometimes the perfect place for noticing the mundane things that lie to the left and right – for seeing the unexpected way the earth rises and falls, lilts and skips – for seeing the flashing, blinking field rows that fly past – for seeing the unnoticed world that surrounds us – for seeing, well, all kinds of things that one doesn’t normally see.

I wrote this at the time:

Spring Fields

A gently whispered green
tints the earth
and teases the eye
here then gone
seen then not –

a silent ode to human hands
that ever and again
work the land
with patient care –
a soaring anthem to Divine Mystery
where ever and again
broken seeds become bread
and broken bread becomes grace
to any who would take and eat.

CK 05.06.12

I mused, detangled, listened, and reshaped until the rhythm, flow, and words were finished, complete, and just so.

I wrote. I posted. I breathed deeply and (admittedly) felt a certain sense of self-satisfaction at having found something to say and then a way to say it. In a very small way, I had created, and as Dorothy Sayers would point out, that is perhaps one of the most important ways in which humanity images the Creator.

Good for me.

I wrote. I created. I imaged the Creator. And yes, I experienced awe, amazement, and gratitude for the creation God placed in our hands.

What didn’t I do? I didn’t – not even once – stop and specifically thank God for the rain that made the mysterious “whispered green” possible. For the rain that miraculously turns dead seeds into living plants – living plants into fruit and grain – fruit and grain into food and sustenance.

Experiencing gratitude (which I did) is not quite the same thing as giving thanks (which I did not). The one is passive. The other is active. The one receives. The other gives. The one is experienced. The other is enacted.

I do not for one second espouse to some (crack) theology that equates my lack of giving thanks with the current lack of rain. The lack of rain is what it is – a lack of rain. It’s happened before. It will happen again. As I understand Genesis, the earth reaped her own set of unsought consequences from humanity’s fall.

But I do espouse to a faith that can challenge, transform, and grow a person no matter how long they have known God or followed Jesus.

So:I want to live a life defined by thanks rather than complaints – contentment rather than curses – peace rather than unrest. Perhaps a very manifest dry spell in the weather can help reroute a very obscure dry spell of the soul.

(Image: dupontfieldreports.com)