paying attention

I take the dog out for her nightly constitutional.

The evening, cool and eerily still, no heat pump running.  So silent I can hear the absence of sound.  My ears strain and I detect tiny feet walking across dry leaves, something easy to crush underfoot.

The dog has no interest in her bodily functions. She is more interested in peering into the dark dark wood.  Does she hear something? Or is the silence strange for her too?

One bright star blazes in a blue so dark that it is almost, but not quite, black.  It suspends directly over our house, blessing all those within.

Then it comes to me, the barest whisper, almost too far away — the call of a whip-poor-will.  A sound that recalls such longing.  I remember hearing whip-poor-wills as a little girl.  Our family did not have air conditioning, and we slept every night with the windows open, blankets and sheets thrown back, the night air gentling across skin.  I would drift away feeling safe and content in the night and song.

I’m not sure I can identify the bird and make a note to look it up.

Walking the dog back toward the porch, I remember how Sid and I sat there the previous evening with little tiki torches lit as the sun went down. We sat on the double rocker he bought me when I was pregnant with our first child.  Finances were tight, but I wanted it because I imagined that we would sit close together, holding our baby.

Of course, that rarely happened.  He was gone for long hours every day, working and I was up most of the night, desperate to get our small human to eat and to survive.

Here we are, 19 years later, and we can sit in the cool of the evening on this rocker on our front porch, flames dancing on the wine glass tiki torches made by that baby-grown-up.  We can talk about our hopes and plan for the future better than we could before.  I guess we grew up too.  Mostly.

It is like we are partners, after all this time, working together.  The way I had always dreamed.

I go in the house, intending to schedule more evenings on the porch with torches burning, listening for the whip-poor-will.


Some may note that this is not the season for porch-sitting.  I wrote this last year, late summer, early fall.

Infinite Christmas

Relaxed around the Christmas table, warm, replete,

all the time in the world to think of bigger things,

we are the privileged ones.

“There are different kinds of Infinity,” my son said.

His brother’s face reflects my own disbelief.

But isn’t Infinity infinity?

Eager, my son jumped up and drew a number line on the dining room chalkboard.

“The Infinite set of all numbers between zero and one

is larger than the Infinite set of all whole numbers,” he insisted.

How can this be?

Surely it is impossible,

a definite boundary,

the boundary beginning with zero and ending in one,

is no boundary at all.

It is both and.

.

.

I like to think that Love is Infinite.

At least some Love is, the cynical part of me whispers, but

Other people hoard something they call Love, yet . . .

Are there different kinds of Love?

That boundary I find impossible to scale,

that wall I build between me and the other,

can Love expand, fill it up and move beyond,

a limitlessness existing within imposed limits?

Easier to understand what is finite, within lines, boxed, defined.

We are primed to expect scarcity —

The beginning and ending of a life,

the last brownie in the pan,

a few dollars in the bank account,

Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches in a terrarium,

laughing together as we pull mystery gifts from stockings,

this is what we know.

 

We speak of Infinity and Love

as if they can be defined and explained.

We do the same with Truth

and Paradox.

My tongue cannot speak of these things,

my lips unable to form their shape,

They are beyond the veil

but I divine their presence,

an umbilical cord connecting me to

Whom I came from,

 

who confined Himself to flesh and blood,

to the margins of zero and one,

yet human life could not restrain

Her

He showed Herself to be

Infinity, Love, Truth, Paradox

with a beating heart, dusty feet, gentle hands,

a tired sigh,

so ordinary to the naked eye

with the vibrations of extraordinary

for the attuned ear.

 

This is also what I know —

If my Love feels small and limited,

let’s say that on a scale of 0 to 10,

I feel caught between zero and one.

And yet,

perhaps,

maybe

my stingy, narrow Love

is also boundless and all-encompassing,

as beyond comprehension

as Infinity between zero and one.

 

A Beautiful Life

my husband hanging a self-built bat house on the side of our deck, for temporary testing and observation

a daughter making raw carrot cupcakes, carrots never tasted so good

another daughter dropping a kiss on my cheek for no reason

teen brothers working in the kitchen, washing and cutting potatoes, dropping them into a large pot for boiling

all 6 of us around the table holding hands, praying Grandpa’s prayer “Thank you God. Amen.”

while at the table, *reading aloud about Enneagram number 1 (The Perfectionist), kids laughing, giving me knowing looks as I describe a One coming unglued over an inappropriately loaded dishwasher.  I am not a Perfectionist, but haphazard dishwasher loading will make me sigh, or quietly curse, or grump.

After supper, I see . . .

a son pushing the lawnmower while another son weedeats

a daughter coming outside, asking “Are you having fun planting your trolls, Mama?  Do you need any help?”  I give her the shovel, she digs while I drop in small celosia — deep red, fuchsia, orange, yellow

air dimming, colors and shapes muting

“Look at the sky, Mama,” a peach brushstroke against fading baby blue

fireflies drift, bats dart, we stand under the bat house, looking up, hoping

“I’ve heard that when bats come home to roost . . .” Sid says, sounding like a wise man uttering prophecy, “a whole bunch of them swoop to the bat house at once, all of them trying to fit inside that small hole.”  We laugh, imagining the sight and sound of bats pummeling the little wood house, like a Looney Tunes cartoon.  We stand there a little longer, looking up, hoping

Later, heading toward bed, I see . . .

my 3 teenagers and 1 almost teen, sitting around the kitchen table, chatting, laughing, the girls painting old turtle shells found in the woods, doing nothing really but enjoying being together, each loving the company of the other

 

 

This writing is my turning around, changing the way I see the world, pulling my heart from the pit of dread and despair (just call me Eeyore), and focusing on the Good.

Inspired by Erin’s post Small Step No. 17:  Say What You See at Design for Mankind

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* The Road Back to You:  An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery, Ian Cron and Suzanne Stabile

 

A regular occurrence

The house, unusually quiet as I sit reading.

Then pounding feet on stairs, basement door banging open, and my eldest son of 19 runs into the kitchen, around the island and turns, poised, looking back the way he came, face bright and expectant.

I abandon my book and watch Sidney, wondering . . .

His younger sister, 14, slowly walks into the kitchen, popping her knuckles.  Rachel moves around the island.  Sidney moves in the opposite direction.  She stretches her neck and shakes out her arms.  He laughs, makes a run for the dining room table, putting more distance between them.  She slowly paces him, menaces him with a glaring eye, a smile trembles her lips.

This has been a familiar scene since Sidney and I returned from Memphis 15 months ago.  Rachel loves locking her arms around her older brother, his arms imprisoned at his side, while he tries to wrestle free.  He twists and turns, dragging her from kitchen to dining room to living room.  She hangs on for dear life.  They fall to the couch, roll on the floor, twist their way back to their feet, lurch off walls and furniture.

Twenty minutes, thirty minutes — Rachel has a good, strong grip.  I hope they don’t break anything, including themselves, but it is a vague thought.  I am glad they play together.  In those early days of our return home, Sidney needed exercise, needed to rebuild wasted muscle.  During his tiredest days, escaping her grip was a fun distraction, a necessary workout.

I wonder if Sidney knows that Rachel needed those wrestling matches too.  Still needs them.

His reticent and undemonstrative sister needs to wrap her arms tightly around a brother she loves and never let him go.

Mystifying friendship

From Memphis with love . . .

Several years ago, maybe 5 or so, I attended a 2-day workshop for homeschooling moms.  I met a lovely lady named Michelle.  It was one of those rare, instant connections, a recognition of another heart that gets your heart.  I knew the moment she nonchalantly squeezed the dead cow’s eyeball in my direction, while pretending to seriously focus on note-taking.  We laughed a lot together and enjoyed many talks.   At the end of that workshop, I hugged her goodbye and sadly assumed that I would never see her again. She was a busy mom.  I was a busy mom.  We live about 3 hours apart and life happens.

To my surprise, Michelle called me not long after and drove that long 3 hours with her 3 little daughters to see me.  I was thrilled to reconnect with her, meet her beautiful daughters and introduce her to my children.  We spent a lovely day together and I regretted the need to let her go back home.  I hoped to one day visit her, but you know . . .the 3 hour drive and life.

Several years passed and Michelle stumbled onto the news of Sidney’s tumor.  She emailed me and planned another visit —this time, an approximate 11-hour drive to Memphis Tennessee.  So I met Michelle a third time.

That is not a normal heart.  That is a selfless and faithful heart and I am blessed, though also perplexed, she chose to count me a friend.  I’ve never gotten in the car and driven to see her, never sent her a birthday card or even kept up with her.  I either don’t talk much or I get nervous, swing the other way and talk too much, jumping right into tough, even awkward topics.  Unlike some people in my family, I don’t connect with people quickly.

But this friend overlooked my little oddities and hung in there beyond time and distance.  To top it off, she brought along one of her other friends, Kris.  I only got to hang out with Michelle and Kris for a few hours.  But I have a feeling Kris could be another one of those special, rare friends too.  They left Sidney and I both smiling and happy.  Isn’t that one of the best goals we can have?  To leave other people smiling and happy?

I don’t know all of God’s plans in this cancer muckiness, but I know he is blessing us many, many times over.

She only appears tame

.

sitting quietly on the couch reading her Bible.

.

A jiggly foot betrays restlessness momentarily lying beneath her surface — the need to run, stretch, climb, sing and dance fingers across a violin.

That archy foot with delicately curved toes carries her swiftly across grass, dirt, forest floor, too fast and wild to be constrained by a shoe.

In honor of my father

My father-in-law died 6 days ago.  We buried him yesterday in the cemetery of his church.  His place is near an old oak tree, its welcoming branches spread wide.  He is surrounded with beauty  — his quaint and historic church, headstones that go back to the Revolution, the Clay’s cow pasture and more distant views of the mountains, including Table Rock.

When driving into town, if I drive a little out my way, I can pass within feet of his headstone and wave hello.

At the funeral, it was a bit startling to hear the preacher say his full name — Sidney Louis Gaskins, Sr.  My own husband is Sidney Louis Gaskins, Jr., but since my father-in-law went by his middle name Louis, it is easy to forget their shared name.

Louis’ children, neighbors and friends shared many wonderful stories of Louis yesterday.  And I want to add my perspective as an in-law.

Those of us who have married know that coming into a new family can be like entering a foreign country — strange, exciting . . . . and a bit scary.

The Gaskins were indeed a foreign country to me.

When Sid and I were dating, he shared a childhood memory with me.  His dad had a pick-up load of hay bales that he needed to get up the driveway.  For those of you who have never visited the Gaskins’, their driveway is long and steep — the kind of steep that loses gravel in a hard rain, so they poured concrete on it.  So the Gaskins’ have a long, steep and HARD driveway.  With a couple of sharp curves too.

Well, this was a problem, because Louis knew that if he started up that driveway with his load of hay bales, he was likely to end up with hay bales scattered down his driveway.  But my father-in-law was a problem-solver, and he often solved problems . . . or attempted to solve problems . . . in unique ways.

His solution to THIS problem was to put weight on the hay, to hold those bales down.  So he rounded up his kids and told them to sit on the hay bales.

So up the driveway they go —Louis in his pickup truck stacked high with hay bales and kids perched on top.  They take a curve . . . and then the hay . . .and the kids . . .all tumble down the driveway.

I knew I might be in trouble when this boy I was thinking of marrying told me how much fun this incident was.   Rolling down a concrete driveway didn’t sound like fun to me.

Sid had many such stories that often revolved around something his dad did.

So I entered this family with a bit of trepidation.  My father-in-law clearly lacked a careful concern for safety pounded into me since birth.   My cautious family had raised me to be fearful, whereas Sid was raised to be fearLESS.

Marrying into the Gaskins’ clan was a culture shock.

I had the good fortune of a long relationship with my father-in-law.  I met Louis while still a girl of 15 yo, not fully grown.  First, he was the father of the boy I was dating.  It was a given that I would find him intimidating.  But a few months later, Louis also became my Chemistry teacher.

In my family, education was not highly valued.  It was scary enough dating a GASKINS, because everyone KNEW how smart the Gaskins were.  Their awesomeness was LEGENDARY.

And I had to slog through Chemistry taught by the patriarch of all this awesomeness.  To say that I was terrified is stating it mildly.

I expected Mr. Gaskins (as I called him then) to place a high value on intelligence or book-smarts.  But I slowly realized that he valued heart and work ethic far more.  He was interested in people, their experiences, their opinions, their stories.

He showed a kind of respect for people one doesn’t often encounter.  He showed me what it meant to live as righteously as possible, to see good in others, and to extend grace liberally.

He even respected his adult kids.  He respected us with the expectation that we would make right choices:  righteous choices and also right choices for US.  Even if we were a bit slow about arriving at those choices.

When Sid walked away from his professional career in TV-News in favor of a dirty, sweaty job swinging a shovel, to do a job that required no education (a job that my own illiterate father had done for 40 years), most people would question that decision.  Most parents would express doubts or concerns over their adult child moving down the food chain, all the way to the bottom —- to install other people’s wastewater systems.

But Louis . . .(and I swear he did this with quiet excitement) picked up a shovel and jumped in to dig ditches too.  Into his 70s, he worked with Sid, often embarrassing our younger employees who admitted that Sid’s father was out-shoveling them on the job.  Our younger employees worked harder than ever to keep up with him.

If there is a motto by which Louis lived his life  — only one instruction that he could give to his children and grandchildren — I think it would be this —

to faithfully serve.

Louis was the most faithful and the serving-EST man I know.  Most people think of faithfulness only in terms of faithfulness to a spouse, which is a concrete idea or faithfulness to God, which is a blurrier notion, with a bit of fuzz around it for most of us.

But Louis’ faithfulness was not just an abstract thought.  He sought to put hands and feet to his faithfulness in every way he could.

Those who knew Louis know what I am talking about.  They witnessed his faithful service.  But those didn’t know Louis well, may not know that he also served in quieter, unnoticeable ways.

After I gave birth to my fourth child, I didn’t do well for a long, long time.  My mind and body were broken, and I did not know how to ask for help or even what specific help to ask for.

My father-in-law, my busy, busy father-in-law, would stop by my home several times a week.  He sat on my couch in my tiny, cramped trailer.  Little Sidney, Lincoln and Rachel clambered over Grandpa while baby Prairie slept.  He talked about growing up or taxed my brain with an unusual theological question.

Often he would fall asleep, sitting upright on my couch, with my children still attached to him.

At first, I was perplexed at why he took the time to hang out with us week after week, when I knew he had many commitments.  But eventually, I realized that he was checking on me and looking for some unobtrusive way to serve me.

He was probably hoping for manual labor, something to fix.  It would probably surprise him to know that he was fixing, or building up, my faith.  Church so often felt empty and useless to me, and faith slippery.  But Louis’ theological questions, crazy though some of them seemed, drove me to my Bible, reading scripture and then asking my own questions.

I learned from Louis to be fearless in asking God the big, scary questions.

And to be fearless when those answers are not clear.

Louis changed my approach to God and the way I talk to my kids about God, faith and the Bible.

I began to tell my kids, “Be fearless in seeking the Truth.  I learned that from your Grandpa.  But just in case he asks, don’t climb onto any hay bales stacked on his pick-up truck.”