Landscapes of the Past

23 06 2014


My brother and I named the area of trees and bushes at the back of my father’s farm The Jungle. We were kids, and the world was an exciting vista awaiting our discovery. I spent hours wandering by myself through this magical place, my imagination running wild. Pretending to be lost in the myriad of streams and trees, my heart would pound as a delicious sense of adventure kept me looking for wildflowers and tracks of mysterious creatures. We had heard of wildcats back there, though we never saw one. There were insects and baby turtles and snakes interspersed with the plants. The river was just a short distance away with its bounty of rainbow trout and salmon. That larger body of water fed these tiny streams I followed and sustained the vegetation around me.

The fields of the farm have long since gone to seed. Where the house once stood there is a charred area surrounded by weeds, though the trees shading the side of our home still stand sentinel. Two of the trees are bare, long dead but still upright. My brother and I walked the farm a few years ago as part of a trip to pay homage at the graves of our parents. It was, in our eyes, a memory tour, a visit to our childhood. So much had changed.

That trip verified that nothing stays the same. Maybe it’s our memory that’s at fault, the events of the past being shrouded in this cloak of happy times that preclude the hard things. When you revisit, truth replaces memory and changes the images that were there. Regardless, I choose to hold on to the magic I felt as a child, allowing one memory to weave into another to create an endless stream of recollection.

Four years have passed since we revisited the farm. If I close my eyes, I can envision my young self there again. The pasture where our old sway-backed horse grazed isn’t fenced now, but I can see him there, lifting his head as I walk by. He shakes his mane, pauses a moment, his liquid brown eyes gentle on me. He lets out a soft whinny and goes back to doing what horses do best, being content to nibble at the grass of the field. I wave and walk beyond his world to my own, that magical Jungle of my childhood. And I lose myself in memory.


Thoughts on Winter

1 03 2013

Michigan winter

Michigan winter

Once again I waken to a blanket of white outside my window. The winter has been consistent, snow an almost daily occurrence. Some days it floats down in large, fluffy flakes, gently landing on the ground with graceful ease. Other days the wind drives it wilfully sideways, forcing it to fly across the top of the white quilt beneath. The one consistent factor is the cold. You can’t have snow without the cold.

Snow can be beautiful. It can be graceful. It can be brutal. It can be unforgiving. It can be fun. It can be the enemy. It’s all about perspective.

I look out and see beauty. My house is warm, I don’t have anywhere I have to go today, and the view is lovely as I write this post. The flakes dancing in the wind create a winter scene I enjoy without discomfort. I am an observer.

The homeless old man under the highway overpass sees another day of severe cold, another day of wondering how much longer he will need to endure the brutal winter, another day of finding ways to keep the fire going. He does not see the beauty in his cold existence, only the hardship.

The child eager to build a snowman and learn how to make snowballs sees adventure, excitement, a day of play. He doesn’t mind the cold because he is dressed in warm clothes, and when he finally feels the cold he knows there will be a warm house and a cup of hot chocolate waiting for him. He loves the snow.

The senior who sits in her wheelchair at the nursing home sees the snow and remembers days of struggle as she and her young husband worked the farm and kept the wood stove going in the clapboard house. Freezing cold in the morning, she would start the fire and have the kitchen cozy and warm when the children got up. Evenings she would boil water, pour it into quart jars, and wrap them in towels to use as foot warmers for the children in their icy upstairs bedrooms. She smiles remembering the joy of children with red cheeks and frosty breath as they chased each other in the knee-deep snow. She has fond memories of the snow.

Perspective. It’s interesting how differently we each see things, depending on our perspective.

The Absence of Words

11 04 2012

I’m not sure when I became aware of the concept, but over the years I have learned that there are times when not speaking is a great gift to someone who is suffering. Often our physical presence is all the assurance a person requires.

Have you ever witnessed a well-meaning person with run-at-the-mouth (RATM) disease? That’s the individual who feels compelled to offer words of wisdom or criticism at times when it’s more appropriate to just show up.

Here’s an example: a spouse dies after an especially painful illness. Ms. RATM begins to gush on about the deceased being out of his/her misery, it’s best this way, he/she is in a better place, grief doesn’t last forever, life will be easier now, etc., etc. ad nauseam.
Is this really what the widow/widower needs to hear?

I would like to offer a few thoughtful comments which are more time-appropriate and helpful to those in grief: I’m so sorry. You and your family are in our prayers. I have wonderful memories of him/her. Or just a heartfelt hug. Sometimes no words are necessary.

Another example: someone has endured abuse, either physical or verbal (or both).
Mr. RATM has a lot to say: You’re better off without him/her. You need to get on with your life. Why didn’t you leave sooner? Are you having him/her arrested? He/she really had you fooled, but we could all see it coming. What did you do to make him/her hit you? I told you so.
Helpful comments? I think they do mostly harm.

What you should say instead: I’m so sorry. I will be here for you. I love you. And, sometimes, nothing. Just be there. Offer to help with the children–better yet, call to say you’ll take them for a day. Bring a meal or two. send cards with expressions of support. Don’t judge. Never assume fault on either side–you weren’t there, you don’t know. Your job isn’t to judge, but rather to support.

Another scenario: Someone who is clinically depressed. Never, ever say the following: You need to volunteer. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Just get over it. Get a job. What’s wrong with you anyway? I’ve never had that problem because I simply refuse to let myself go there. You’re not being strong enough. Where’s your faith?
Don’t ask what you can do–you won’t get a response. But don’t disappear.

So what should you do? First of all, do not ignore this person. He/she needs to know that people care. That means sending cards that convey they are being thought of. It means showing up and just being there. Allow them to speak if they wish, but don’t offer solutions. That’s not what they need, they need an impartial listener. Bring meals. Take the kids for a day. Do the grocery shopping, washing, cleaning, if appropriate. Bring flowers from your garden.

Divorce–he says/she says situations: Don’t say good riddance, what did you do to make him/her leave, you didn’t try hard enough, what are you doing to the kids, whose fault was it, tell me what happened, divorce is wrong, (you fill in the blanks).

What to do: never take sides. Support the person by being a friend. Listen unconditionally. Don’t try to solve the problem, only the person going through the situation can do that. Often that person gets a clearer picture of their situation just by hearing him/herself saying his/her thoughts being verbalized. And remember, sometimes the couple gets back together. If you’ve said derogatory things about the spouse, you may no longer be welcome.

Final scenario (though there are countless more): A child has run away, gotten in trouble with the law, done something terrible, etc. Your children may have turned out wonderfully well. Be thankful. Never judge those parents, or tell them (or someone else) what terrible parents they are, how you would have done the raising so much better, it’s all their fault for doing things the way they did, how they were too strict, or they were too lenient, or they should have known, or walked away in this difficult time.

What you should do: Don’t judge. You’ve not walked in their shoes, nor are you privy to their home situation. If your children have been perfect, give thanks, and remember that can change on a dime. Don’t ignore the parents or their situation. But at the same time, don’t offer solutions unless they specifically ask. Listen, listen, listen. Support them. Call them. Send a thinking-of-you card. Assure them you are their friend. No one is exempt from potential problems with their children; even Billy Graham had problems with his son.

Bottom line: Sometimes words do harm. Compassion is best served when unspoken. Always, always, always, think of the effect of your words before you speak. Remember the adage by the wise little Thumper: If you can’t say something nice (or kind, or helpful) don’t say anything at all.



A special honor

29 03 2010

I was just asked by someone from the Grand Rapids Art Museum  for permission to use my children’s poem “God’s Paint” for the Conversations about Spirituality display on Friday, April 2.  It’s pretty exciting to have something of mine on display for the general public to read. A little scary, too! Stop by if you get a chance. Otherwise, you can read the poem in the children’s section.