The Communion of Saints

The language in this post’s title may be a bit off-putting for some of you.  It’s a Christian term used in the Apostle’s Creed and in other churchy places.   Many of my readers, I know, have bad associations with “churchy things,” but please, read on.

I flew to St. Louis two weeks ago to attend the memorial service of a friend. She was 51, and for 29 months after she was diagnosed with a brain tumor, she tried really hard to live.

For most of those 29 months, I was away from her. She and her husband came to visit us twice here in Wisconsin, and I was not as good as I would like to have been about keeping in touch while she fought through first one surgery and then another one, through chemotherapy treatments and drug trials and then hospice.

But here is what I do know. For those 2 1/3 years, people loved her and her husband and her children well. Hella and her family were part of a church that helped them. Warren, Hella’s husband, taught at a Christian high school where he coached soccer and taught Biology. (The same school where I used to teach.) Many of his students, even the ones that weren’t necessarily the best and brightest, sent cards, reached out on FaceBook, came to events on Hella’s behalf. There was financial help when medical bills piled up. There were countless meals. Hella was able to take a few trips with her daughter. The school gave Warren time off so he could care for his wife..

As the tumor grew, it increasingly affected Hella’s ability to speak, to form words. For the last few months she could respond but not talk. And though most of us would prefer two-way conversations, people kept coming in; people kept helping out. Church members, work friends, and family members visited her, sat with her. They affirmed that she mattered, voice or no voice, words or no words.

Hella was a servant kind of person- a quiet person who preferred more to listen than to assert herself. She preferred to help others rather than be helped, and I can imagine this was difficult for her to let others care for her in her long decline. But she did it, and in so doing she let the compassion of a community encircle her and her family. In doing this, she also showed to the watching world something that mattered to her: there is value in the church, there is beauty in what people of faith can do.

The night she died, the word got out that she was near the end. Students and teachers and friends came with guitars and with candles to stand on the front lawn of Hella’s house to sing, to pray. Seventy-five people gathered on the grass to sing her out of this life and into the next one. Warren told me: “the juxtaposition of that moment was striking: it was all that is wrong with the world right next to all that is right in the world.”

Churches and Christian communities are often filled with wacky people, and though I am a Christian, I shudder sometimes at what some of my fellow believers do and say and believe. Really, we shouldn’t be surprised: Jesus reminded us that it is the sick people who need a physician, not the well ones. I’ve always thought the best analogy for a church community is a hospital.

For a Catholic, the term “saint” is associated with those special people that have been canonized for their miracles or extraordinary spiritual acts, but in my protestant church, I always associated the term “saint” with ordinary Christians who have somehow managed to live their faith well: to love, to do justice, to be humble, to serve.

So back to my title: The Communion of Saints. It refers to the gathering together, or the union of members of the Christian church, both living and dead. Some of you readers are in a church community; some are not. If you are in the former group, I hope you can see the value of staying. If you’re in the camp of those who are not, please read this as a reminder that despite the bad press that Christians get, despite the many mistakes we make, sometimes we get a few things right. Hella believed in Jesus, and this belief bound her together with other believers, and the communion between them was sweet. People will miss her. I will miss her. But the communion of saints makes the grieving easier.

Almost

The temperature of Lake Michigan in front of our cabin was 43 degrees this morning.

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Despite the fact that our summer cabin is just that — a summer cabin– we have decided to open it up. Yes, the temperature dropped into the 30’s the last few nights, but the pipes won’t freeze now. We have an electric blanket we can sleep under, and when the sun hits the roof in the middle of the day, the cabin heats up enough to take off our gloves.

By this time of year, I long for the water.   It is why we moved to Door County: this place of blue water all around and sand beach that I have loved since my childhood. In the winter, we are close to the water, but not right there. I drive to it or walk to it almost every day, but our little house is inland, and by now I am hankering for the sound of waves.

So, a few days ago, it was time to wash windows. It was time to vacuum up the flies and the ladybugs that somehow made it through the screens and died over the winter in that closed up house. Dave turned on the water, let the water flush out the antifreeze that we put in to keep the pipes safe through the cold. We spent the hours that it takes to change over the winter curtains to the summer ones. We hung the hummingbird feeders, carried the beach chairs down to the deck.

We’ll slowly begin stocking the cabinets again: canned soups and peanut butter so there will be something there when we come by for a few hours or decide to spend the night.

Soon, people will be arriving in full force. We’ve bought new toothpaste and cleaning supplies- those things that won’t keep over winter. We have unfolded blankets and bedspreads and put them on the beds so they are ready for the people that will come and go. Once it’s full-on summer, we’ll take our turn. It is not ours alone, so we’ll go back and forth, grateful for the weeks when we can be there.

And yes, it’s a lot of work. Having two houses in very close proximity gets confusing, and sometimes a bit overwhelming.  Should we really try to plant flowers at both houses?   Should we take things back and forth or buy one for each house? These are the things we are figuring out as we are on the cusp of another summer in Door County.  But until guests and family start arriving, the cabin is ready for us when the mood strikes and the weather cooperates.

And, oh, the lake. I sat down at the beach yesterday and felt the sun on me. ( Ok, full disclosure: I was wearing a winter coat and gloves, and the temperature was barely 50 degrees and the cold wind blew off the Lake, BUT I was on the beach again. Waves came in and out. It’s not summer yet, when I can sit all afternoon with a book. But the cabin is open. And the lake is already a very blue blue.

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Waiting for Spring

Spring is waiting to arrive. I vacillate between contentment and disgust, between giving-myself-a-good-scolding-for-being-whiny-as-I-wait and looking for beauty anyway.

I wore mittens on my walk today, and the forecast this weekend is for dismal rain and temperatures in the low 40s. Yet, there have been a few crocuses in my yard, and daffodils are blooming, now, on the roads.

I have had a few delightful walks with friends in the woods, and I’ve met with some friends about writing projects. On one lovely morning last week, I did both: we talked about our writing projects while we walked, occasionally stopping to listen to each other read from the pages we had stuffed in our pockets.

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And, the gulls are back in the fields and at the shore.

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Despite the cold, we took a drive and then walked a very short path to see this always-spectacular view of the Sturgeon Bay Canal Light.

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Yes, spring is tarrying. ( What a great word, right? And when is the last time any of us have used it?) We are going into our third year here in Door County, and I don’t remember the wait for color and warmth being so hard on me in our first two years.

Soon, I’m sure, I’ll be happily spending all of my days outside. I will have forgotten this feeling of being parched and famished for color and spring.

Having waited long, perhaps I’ll be more grateful when it finally arrives. I’ll count on that, and until then, I’ll look for the graces given in this not-yet spring.

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Poem: Man of the Upper Room

In this week before Easter, I have spent time again reading the accounts of Jesus’ last few days on earth. The Gospels report the events, but I am always drawn to the people that must have been so affected by those events.

Here are my thoughts on one of them, the host (restauranteur?) who provided that last supper for Jesus and the disciples.   (For extra background, read Mark 14:12-15 or Luke 22:7-13.

Jesus remembered the Passover, eating that Seder dinner with his disciples in the tradition that would have been done by Jews in Jerusalem for centuries. But He also knew His own death was coming. Along with other Christians, I see powerful symbolism in His death – a new sacrifice for a new kind of Passover. I’ve hoped to hint at that with this poem.

Man of the Upper Room

 Of course you can use this room, I said to
those friends of His, riding high on
celebrity, renown.

And yes, I’ll keep it a secret
promising to keep away onlookers, the flocking crowds
who wanted to gawk
see scales fall from eyes
watch magic food multiply inside baskets.

Yes, I’ll have extra basins of water for your feet
Though I hardly thought they’d need it
walking as they did that week on green palm leaves
fame growing, applause ringing
smiles ubiquitous.

There will be enough lamb for the dinner, I assured
and spent the day slaughtering.
Blood of goats and sheep
flowed into the mud just outside the door.

All is ready, I told them.
But I was not ready

He washed my feet
made me eat with them.
Kindly, He said my lamb did not
particularly matter.
And, there was to be more
blood, His blood.

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Road Trip Report (#2)

Most of us fall comfortably into routines. We like drinking our morning coffee in the same chair, or having a particular salad dressing for our lettuce, or stacking the plates in a specific direction when loading our dishwashers.   Some more than others of us are prone to repeating these routines; we like things done in a particular way. And pretty soon, we get “set in our ways. ” The danger of this is that we insist on our preferences to the point where we become  rigid, unbendable, unlikable. But travel works against these tendencies.

Travel makes us ask what’s important. When we’re out of our routines and away from the places where we have control over the details of life, we are forced to be flexible, to care less about trivialities and more about what really matters. No, the hotel coffee isn’t as good as our own. The rental cabin’s kitchen is lacking a good knife. The heater is hard to regulate, so we are alternately hot, then cold at night.

But really, how much do those things matter? In Jackson, Wyoming, our hotel wasn’t fancy, but we were right across from acres and acres of a wildlife refuge for elk. We watched herds graze. There were moose!

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The mountains across the valley turned purple at dusk. And in the morning we drove just seven miles into Grand Teton National Park to watch the sun rise on the mountains, turning the white snow on the peaks into silver.

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Things go wrong; how will we react? Not all travel experiences are beautiful. We had a flat tire. This forced us to spend a morning at a tire shop in Lincoln, Nebraska getting four new tires.

I had altitude sickness. I did not want to be sick, but I was. How rude of me to decline a lovely meal that our friends in Colorado prepared for us; how sad to miss such great conversation over the meal while I slept off my nausea.

After driving for hours through desolate landscape, we were more than ready to stop for the day in Casper, Wyoming. However, at the first place we stopped, we learned there were no hotel rooms left in town. ( An Elton John concert. We had not thought to plan for this. Really? It was a weekday in the middle of March.)

But the problems? We got through them. We waited for our car to be fixed and we drank coffee, together. I adjusted to the altitude and we had fun strolling through the streets of Salida the next day. And together, we left Casper behind us and got through another long, difficult 100 miles of Wyoming before finding a hotel.

Like every other disagreeable event in life, problems test a relationship. Will we choose cheer over anger? Will we turn away from blame? Will we be kind to the other in adversity and walk through to the other side of this problem together? If we (or you) can answer  yes  both in travel and in marriage, these are the ways to survive, to flourish, to love.

Decisions, decisions. Meals, lodging, activities: multiple options confront at every turn. This hotel or that one? What do you feel like eating? Which café?  Should we turn off here? Drive that far,  see this site? Are you up for the sunset? Is this a good spot for a picnic?  Again, the way we handle all these little travel decisions is a metaphor for the way to handle life together.

Here’s what we’ve learned after years of practice: we voice our preferences, and then we gauge the degree to which these things matter to the other. Sometimes he or I feels strongly. If it matters to him, we do what he wants; if it matters to me, we do what I want. ( If it matters to neither of us, well, we plunge in and take our chances….)

The southern entrances to Yellowstone National Park were closed, still buried under the winters’ snows. Dave had it in his mind to drive the 32 miles to where the road was closed- to get as close as possible to the park. I thought the plan was foolish, but it was important to him, and really, why not? To get to a sign that said ROAD CLOSED,

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we drove through gorgeous forests on empty roads with lovely mountain views.

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Sometimes I like to wander into book stores or galleries in little towns. Not interested, Dave waits outside, preferably in the sun.

Like all good friendships, honesty matters. And so does a little bit of sacrifice.

So as I report on our trip, it seems I have also reported on marriage. I’m glad I’m taking trips with my husband, David. Travel makes it clear that who we travel with, whether on road trip or in life is a pretty big deal.

 

Road Trip, Part One

My husband and I returned last night from a little road trip. Well, not a little road trip. In fact, we drove 4,900 miles.

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Please wait a while before asking me to get back in my car.

Now that I’m back, I am doing some reflecting. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” so I’m spending some time thinking about what I’ve just experienced. Writing about it helps in that process.

Here are a few observations:

Getting away can be helpful. We were starting to be too preoccupied with a few of our problems. The grey and gloom of winter, combined with a few months of some medical s**t had made us start to see things in a negative light. Getting away changed our focus. We thought about people other than ourselves. We saw blue sky and felt warm temperature, and we remembered that we’d someday have those again. We saw spectacularly beautiful sights – beauty is always solace and grace for a soul.

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We saw some rather plain sights, too, which made us remember that where we live is pretty wonderful.

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It would have been lonely to just sightsee.  We loved that we had some days to ourselves to explore, but spending a few nights with people  was pretty great, too. There’s something good about being on the receiving end, not being in charge, learning to be flexible. We had good conversation, comfortable beds, nice tours of local sites. And we connected differently with the people that we stayed with because we were on their turf instead of ours. Friends, family? These relationships are great gifts worth nurturing, cultivating, holding on to. I love to travel to sightsee, but I’m glad we could spend time with good people, too.

There were pleasant surprises when we slowed down. It’s easy to be destination-focused when you look at a map and just want to get to point B from point A.   On our third day we weren’t in a huge hurry, so when we started seeing flocks of hundreds of birds overhead, we realized we might be somewhere important  (in the bird world) and in the middle of something good. So we stopped, chatted with locals, and learned we were witnessing the great Sand Hill Crane Migration. We made a phone call to the local Audubon center to find out just where we could drive for a good view of the nearly 140,000 birds that were in the area that day. 80% of the world’s Sand Hill Cranes (about 650,000 birds) will migrate through the Nebraska flyway this spring. And we were there to see part of the aggregation.  If you are a regular reader, you might know that I am enchanted by cranes, as we have a pair that hangs out in the land behind our house.  So to watch cranes  ( and snow geese) congregate was pretty wonderful.  Yes, we made horrible driving distance that day, but taking that little sidetrip was one of our highlights. Watch 18 seconds here

One other example: thankfully we were driving slowly on a road without traffic when this guy flew down from a nearby tree. We were able to stop and watch him, long enough to take this picture.

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 We didn’t need half the stuff we brought. It’s always hard to know what to bring. We knew we’d need stuff for a variety of activities and a variety of temperatures. But truly, we overpacked. Did I really need six pairs of shoes? ( uhh… no.) Dave pretty much wore the same three sets of clothes the entire time. There are washers and dryers in people’s houses, in hotels. We brought about 30 lbs of dogfood, but our dog was adjusting to new places every night or two so he didn’t feel like eating. ( As if we’d forgotten there are grocery stores?) We spent more time re-arranging the excess items in our car than actually using them.

And here’s a revelation: we lived just fine for three weeks with half of the items that fit in about three suitcases and a few extra containers and bags in our car. So why , really, do we need all the stuff that we own?

I’ll stop here but add more  in the next few days, as there is too much for one post. I’ll write about our national parks, because they are wonderful. And another post, perhaps, about traveling companions, as in my husband, who is great. And maybe another about spending time with one’s grown children. Until then, here are a few pictures from our trip.

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Ice

There are about three thousand reasons to love this beautiful place where we live,  but we’ve spent a lot of this winter complaining about the one thing we DON’T love: ice on the streets and sidewalks.   When day after day the temperature climbed above freezing only to drop again each night, we had continuous ice  from the thaws and refreezing. We have both taken bad falls in our lives, so we are babies when it comes to walking cautiously, fearfully.  But when I haven’t been afraid of slipping, falling, I have had to admit that this nemesis of ours can be incredibly beautiful.

Here are some of my favorite photos of ice that I’ve accumulated this winter. ( And by the way, NONE of these have filters.  The colors really are true.)

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The frozen water that gathers at the shore line changes constantly. One week there are thousands of broken crystals in shattered pieces, another week there are piles built up, added to by continual waves.

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And up close, the beauty of ice!

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And just yesterday, more snow, then ice, then more snow. But we were left with gorgeous scenes; gleaming trees, shining branches.

 

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I won’t miss the ice under my feet when it is finally spring in way-too-many  months. But I am glad for the beauty of it, and for the eyes to see it.

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