The Presence in her Absence

Most of the time I see my sister in waking moments. But on September 30, 2014, I was getting ready for work when the dream I had the night before rushed into my awareness. It was one of the most vivid dreams I have ever had, and although it is rare for me to remember even pieces of a dream, I recalled this one in its entirety.

I had wandered off the streets of downtown Nashville into a sparsely occupied coffee shop. I sat down at a small table to the right of the door and wondered what to order. When the door opened again, I looked up and in she walked. Her bell bottom jeans brushed softly against the wooden floorboards. She was wearing a loose-fitting plaid shirt, untucked at the waist. The long dark brown hair that hung limply from her head was tucked back behind the ears. Her face was troubled. I stared for several seconds. A double-take later, I realized I was looking at my sister, circa 1977. “You cannot be here,” I thought, “you’re dead!” She did not look in my direction as she sat down at the large table next to mine. Her back was to me.

More people trickled in. I did not recognize any of them, but I somehow knew they were friends of hers from college days. They filled up the empty seats around the table she had chosen, and soon an animated conversation about life and God ensued. I was mesmerized by her presence and could not take my eyes off of her. I sat, watched, and listened, resisting the urge to get up and join the group. I wanted to interrupt, to tell her how much I miss her. But I had the distinct impression that she would not have heard me anyway.

The veracity of the New Testament was the subject of the discussion. Of all people, my sister was patiently explaining the texts regarding Jesus’ death and resurrection. The young man sitting nearest her commented, “You don’t really believe that stuff, do you?” She replied in a calm voice, “Of course I do.” I got the sense from her statement that she was talking about something more definitive than faith or belief, something more like knowing. It dawned on me that now she sees and knows clearly, even as she has always been seen and known. For her, there are no doubts or uncertainties, only truth and love – oh, so much love.

I wanted nothing more than to stay there in that room, watching her, listening to her voice. Having a dream like that helps heal the scar of loss. Waking from a dream like that leaves a brand new one.

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Sunset on New Year’s Eve, 2014.

On the drive home that night, I thought again about the movie, What Dreams May Come and Robin Williams’s dip in paint. My sister adored color. I have known since the day she left this world that she sees it now like never before. That sunset gave me a little preview. She has painted lots more sunsets for me since then – each of them a creative masterpiece. I know that one day we will swim in them together.

One time at the beach, I asked her to draw the ocean for me. She did it, but then kept insisting she had not gotten the waves or the light quite right. I always thought that the waves and the light in her beach drawing had been perfect, but in this life, my sister had never been able to appreciate her own brilliance. The splash of color across that twilit sky on New Year’s Eve told a different story, a story of artistic abandon transcending the need to get things ‘just right’.

~ ~ ~

For many years I have had a vision of a house sitting on the edge of a cliff, overlooking the ocean. A garden stretches out in front of it, filled with every kind of flower. Now that she is gone, I can see her there, tending to the plants, anticipating my arrival. I should have known all along it was her garden.

Tattoo March 3 2016
Second star on the right and straight on ’til morning. – Peter Pan

Hawks still visit me from time to time. Her way of watching over me, I suppose. Love you bunches & bunches and tons & tons, Ditty.

~ Your Little Sis

The Art of Story

What is your favorite book or movie?

Why is it your favorite? Maybe you are into action stories with shoot ’em up scenes or exciting sword fights. Perhaps a good romance catches your fancy, you know, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl in the end. What about stories based on true events and real people? Is it tragedy, comedy, drama? Or is it the characters themselves you love exploring?

If you are anything like me, that is a difficult question. Too many books, movies, and plays have captured my heart and imagination for me to narrow the answer down to just one. I might be able to give you a top 20 list, but even that would be pushing it. I love everything from history to comedy, science fiction to fantasy, and lots more between. Well, if it isn’t the genre that sets a good story apart, then what is it? This idea of story has been on my mind lately; that happens when you put your hand to writing a novel.

Working to create a good story begs the question: what makes a good story in the first place?

There is a short scene from the movie Out of Africa that serves as one of my inspirations to write. In it, Karen, Denys, and Berkeley have just enjoyed supper together. Karen, known for her storytelling prowess, takes a line from Denys and proceeds to invent a story that enthralls her guests late into the night. First and foremost, then, a story must engage the reader, or, in this case, the listener. Stories are meant to entertain and capture the imagination. In Storyteller, by Kate Wilhelm, the author explains: “There are natural storytellers and there are wordsmiths, and their methods are quite different.” Chapter Heading: “Can Writing be Taught”, page 14. I am a wordsmith; storytelling doesn’t come as easily to me as it did to Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen, if you want to get technical).

I learned a long time ago that words have power, and I love words.

Words influence, they can create an emotional response in the reader or hearer; words can actually change people. Movies are nothing more than words come to life before our eyes and ears. I read like I’m watching a movie. A true artist has the ability to make the reader transform words on the page into images and sounds in the brain. I can still see the children sitting in their virtual reality playroom and hear the lions feasting on their parents. I read The Veldt, from The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury probably 35 years ago, but the images remain crystal clear today. Now that is some powerful writing!

Certainly, I don’t remember every book I’ve read the way I do Mr. Bradbury’s very short tale. In fact, I remember little of the rest of that collection of short stories. Why did The Veldt make such a lasting impression on me? Because it elicited an emotional response; Bradbury’s words combined with my personality type brought us together on an emotional level. In other words, his story touched me somewhere inside. I still remember it because emotions burn memories into the brain. That’s why you can smell something and experience a powerful memory laced with all the emotions that come with it – sometimes against your will. It’s also why you want to read some books or watch some movies over and over again – to recapture the emotional response – be it fear, happiness, anger, or love.

Walt Disney understood the makings of a beloved story. In the movie, Saving Mr. Banks he says something profound about human beings and storytelling:

George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.

Hope.

Now that is a powerful word, and the stories I love are chock full of it. Assuming Hollywood got it right (a big ask, perhaps), P.L. Travers (the creator of Mary Poppins) had a difficult (dare I call it ‘tragic’?) childhood. Here is a short exchange from the movie:

Walt Disney: I think life disappoints you, Ms. Travers. I think it’s done that a lot. And maybe Mary Poppins is the only person in your life who hasn’t.

P.L. Travers: Mary Poppins isn’t real.

Walt Disney: That’s not true. She was as real as can be to my daughters, and to thousands of other children – adults too. She’s been a nighttime comfort to a heck of a lot of people.

And there you have our obsession with story. It really is quite simple, isn’t it? Life disappoints, we want something (someone) that doesn’t, a “nighttime comfort” if you will. Even when we know it isn’t real. But, wait a minute, if it isn’t real, then it isn’t hope. What’s truly sad is that somewhere along the way we lost the meaning of the word ‘hope’ altogether. We have turned ‘hope’ into ‘wish’, but hope didn’t start out that way. Hope started out as ‘know’, something you could sink the teeth of your faith into. I believe the need for hope is universal, and hope as a theme makes good story no matter the form. What if we look for hope in a story (be it fiction/fantasy or history/reality) because we know instinctively that it represents something that is very real?

From The Shawshank Redemption, to Liar, Liar, to Seabiscuit, hope – the kind that anchors – is the draw.

I would like to share with you two of the most powerful images of hope I have ever encountered from a writer’s pen. There are probably hundreds of examples I could give from the millions of words I have read and heard, but these stand out. The first is a line from The Return of the King, book 3 of The Lord of the Rings. I will give it to you as the movie line and then from the book:

Pippin: I didn’t think it would end this way.
Gandalf: End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.
Pippin: What? Gandalf? See what?
Gandalf: White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.
Pippin: Well, that isn’t so bad.
Gandalf: No. No, it isn’t.

In the last chapter, The Grey Havens, Frodo’s final journey:

“And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”

The inevitability of death drives our need for hope

If everybody dies, is hope enough? Well, maybe that depends on what you are hoping for. There is only one object truly worthy of hope: redemption. Jonathan Safran Foer understood that. In the final chapter of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (please don’t waste your time on the movie – terrible; the book is phenomenal), Foer describes redemption as he sees it. People fall up, back into the Twin Towers; the bomb implodes and the planes fly backwards; and so on throughout history, until finally, Eve places the fruit back on the tree. As people stuck in forward, linear time, isn’t the only logical meaning of redemption the complete reversal of all the evil ever to exist in the history of the world? That is my hope.

But there is a more immediate need for hope than just believing there is life (and redemption) after death. It has been said that “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The capacity for evil in the human heart is more real than we like to admit. Ferguson, Isis, 9-11, these are proof of the evil escaping into the world from the hearts of ordinary men and women every day. We live in a scary place. We live in a world that forgets that
the love that binds us is more important than the power we wield. – Mordred, from Merlin, Season 5
But story can influence and even change the hearts of men. Consider the movie Cry Freedom. I had the privilege of watching it in a packed theater in 1987. The movie, recounting the true story of Donald Woods and Steve Biko during the dark days of apartheid in South Africa, had no happy ending. Biko did not live through his final beating. Woods did not expose or overcome the evil of his day (not by the end of the movie, at least). It is the only movie I’ve ever seen that while the credits ran, not one person moved. 200 or so people sat, stunned, while the credits rolled. No one spoke, no one stood up, no one could. Where was the message of redemption in Cry Freedom? In the ones who saw it or read it. The message was for the audience: “be the change that you wish to see in the world”, to borrow a good one from Ghandi. The movie left us asking ourselves if there was something we could do to make a difference half a world away. The movie inspired. And isn’t that what hope is all about: inspiration?

We need inspiration to believe in our own greatness

We need Harry to defeat Voldemort … Frodo to destroy the ring … the boy to get the girl … and Mr. Banks to be saved, because then we can believe that … the Hitlers of the world can be defeated … our addictions can be overcome … and love is worth giving up everything for.
I doubt I could write a story to capture hearts like The Lord of the Rings, I may not have the literary genius to create a character as universally loved as Mary Poppins, but I would like to tell a little story of redemption, of hope, of good triumphing over evil, of love winning, because that is not just the greatest story ever told, it is the only story worth telling.

Seasons & Cycles – A Sunday Meditation

I Corinthians 2:

Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory; but just as it is written,

Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard,
And which have not entered the heart of man,
All that God has prepared for those who love Him.”

It amazes me that in just about 4 short months this:

Side Yard February 16, 2014
Side Yard
February, 2014

will to turn into this:

Side Yard June, 2013
Side Yard
June, 2013

Complete reversal. Brown to green is just a symbol, the move will be from death to life. Well, not entirely true. The Rose of Sharon has buds on the ends of the branches which you can only see upon closer examination, so even though it has the look of death, the death is not entire. And I know that underneath the ground the other plants have healthy root systems pulsing life into parts getting ready to push out new buds. I can’t see the roots, but I know from experience that they are there.

Ironically, from the moment the buds come forth to life, they will begin their journey to another winter, certain death. I’m not sure why this process fascinates me so much. Maybe it’s this life-death-life-death-life cycle that convinces me my inevitable death will not be the end. It’s as if the seasons proclaim this truth year in and year out.

Yesterday a friend shared with me something she had seen on Facebook recently:

She said she hoped that wasn’t true because the idea of doing this all over again – again and again – was horrible. I definitely agree with that! Slogging through another cycle of life to death as a human being trapped in forward linear time doesn’t appeal to me in the least.

But I took the meme a different way. Jesus compared our earthly bodies to seeds which have to die to bear new life; like a seed, our lives on earth carry the promise of a new form of life inside. What if the light we see at the end of our ‘death tunnel’ is the beginning of something entirely new? I have long believed that death is a doorway to something beyond our comprehension.

John 12:

23 And Jesus answered them, saying, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal.

Over the years I have often asked the question, “What does the acorn have in common with the oak?” If an acorn were self-aware and you could talk to it, I wonder if it would believe you that its future was the mighty oak tree. I doubt it. I wonder if Jesus had that difficulty as well. Forced to borrow from nature’s pictures, He tried to tell us over and over again that what is coming for us is beyond imagination – certainly He never even hinted at more of the same. What if our bodies here on earth are like seeds carrying a life-force we cannot now imagine – with the promise of breaking forth when the seed is dead and buried?

It’s not so fantastic when I begin to examine my garden closely.

Having lived through a markedly cold winter (for this area), I find myself appreciating spring, the sun, and warmth so much more than I have in the past. The dreary winter and my seeming inability to ever get warm served to heighten my desire for the fresh sunshine of spring and the blazing heat of summer. At the same time, as my body makes its inexorable way towards death (slower than the flowers in my side yard, to be sure, but I’m on my way none-the-less), aging heightens my desire for that something new – a rebirth that exists beyond my imagination.

What do you think is coming after death? Nothing? Everything? Or just another round of the here-and-now? I’d love to hear your thoughts on life after death. What, if anything, does nature tell you?

Art and Community

It all started with something a friend pinned to her Facebook Page:

Teacup Bird Feeder on Pinterest

I saw it, fell in love with it, and thought, “I could make one of those!”

Since that day, almost a year ago, I have been on a journey of metamorphosis. Rather surprisingly (and delightfully), I found I am not alone. And that is remarkable considering how alone I have felt for the past 7 years.

Throughout my life I’ve come to appreciate that “art” manifests itself in many different ways. For instance, my sister graduated college with an art degree: she can sketch, paint, arrange flowers/botanicals, among other things, but spent most of her career in the graphic arts department of GM creating art on a computer screen. Then there’s me, the music major, singer/guitarist/photographer/gardener/writer/sometimes poet who used to cross stitch and sew clothes for her children. This past year I’ve occasionally taken some time to reflect back on my life (looking hard at 50 will make you do that sometimes) and the different phases I’ve walked through. I worked 25+ years in Church music of one kind (choir) or another (worship bands), but it’s been about a year now since I’ve picked up the guitar and almost 4 years since I’ve led worship officially anywhere. My musical “phase” just seems to be over, at least for now (singing to CD’s to and from work notwithstanding). Homeschooling, public speaking, and blogging assumed that creative niche for awhile, but it looks like (until today), April, 2013 was the last time I blogged anything of consequence and the homeschooling ended in 2009 when I was forced to look outside the home for a full-time job.

Working with my hands – other than sewing or gardening – is really new territory for me. My husband is a carpenter in his own right, but woodworking was never my forte. Being captured by the teacup bird feeders pictured above began what I see as a new ‘chapter’ of sorts in my creative life. As a result, I started collecting vintage cups, saucers, and silverware from Good Will stores, antique shops, yard sales – basically anywhere I could find them. Next I began looking around for ways to hang my feeders. Shying away from drilling holes (drills lie WAY outside my comfort zone), which might crack the delicate porcelains I was collecting, I went back to Pinterest to see other teacup bird feeders and discovered brilliance:

Teacup Birdfeeder II

Can you see how the little rings are attached by gluing the other side of a metal ring to the bottom of the saucer? A short trip to Ace Hardware and some enjoyable conversation with the helpful staff (their ads are true, apparently ;)) soon put the solution in my hand.

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Little rings to mount on Teacup Saucers for Hanging

Unfortunately, these little buggers are kinda steep. They don’t look it, I know… I don’t use them anymore. I have learned to make a sort of ‘basket’ out of wire for hanging, which I like much better anyway. At the same time that I was amassing teacup bird feeder supplies, I started thinking of putting a bird bath in my cool side garden:

Side Garden
Mini-Jungle on the side of my house

The flowers, trees, and shrubs attract all kinds of birds, including hummingbirds. Colorful berries and multiple feeders have turned my side porch into a relaxing haven – that is, until the mosquitoes decide to feast. Because of aforementioned blood-sucking menaces, I do not allow ANY standing water ANYWHERE in my yard. I can’t afford to lose anymore blood! (I’m so serious about this that in March, 2013 I made hubby put up a bat house. Apparently it isn’t interesting enough to attract any bats, but I patiently await their change of heart.) Still, the thought of the sound of dripping, dancing water, and the desire to attract as many birds as possible, pushed me to search for a fountain.

Dilemma #1: No power source. The majority of the solar-powered fountains out there are just what they say: solar-powered, When a cloud goes by or when the sun goes down there is no power.

Dilemma #2: No Power = standing water = increased mosquito population. We can’t have that! It turns out that a solar fountain is rather more expensive than an electric one, but not nearly as expensive as a solar-powered fountain with a battery back-up.

Dilemma #3: I just couldn’t see dumping $250+ into a water feature so began to despair of ever having a fountain in my garden.

Weeks dragged by as I tried to puzzle out my fountain question, while every day on my way to work, I walked past bags of teacups, saucers, copper wire, glue, beads, and some river rocks I purchased on impulse thinking I could find some use for – all sitting in the garage exactly where I left them – unopened and gathering greasy dust and cobwebs. I felt stuck between a river rock and a hard place.

I knew that something was driving me to create. I mean, I was amassing supplies to make something, but this something was a something unlike any of the somethings I had ever made before (that was a LOT of somethings!)

A few months back I came down with an extreme (for me) case of writer’s block. It felt like the well of words that used to pour out of me had run completely dry … had I said everything I could find to say? Some days, just thinking about writing left me exhausted, as if over the past few years I had written the well dry … or as if life had drained all of the words worth writing out of me. (One day maybe I’ll blog about the details of my journey just to give you a glimmer of understanding – suffice to say, my exhaustion is well-earned.) My lack of writing produced all sorts of guilt in me – irrational, I know – but what is the point of having a blog if you never write anything??

At some point the truth dawned on me: it was okay to take a break from writing. Beyond that, I came to realize my desire to work with my hands was a new creative outlet that, while different from writing, still came from the same source inside – the same place the music, sewing, gardening, all of it came from. Breathing a huge sigh of relief, I began to let go of guilt, (no blogging = guilt = creativity stymied) and that’s when things got interesting. I literally waved goodbye to my blog, certain that my writer’s block was seasonal (everything comes to pass, right?), picked up my vintage cups and saucers and started mining my brain for ideas like looking for miniature puzzle pieces to somehow make sense of where this journey was taking me.

Since I knew I did not want to pay the high cost for a solar (with battery backup) fountain, I started to imagine building one. Maybe I could even figure out how to use the supplies I already had. But, how?? The first order of business would be finding a water pump.

It so happens that I work for a pump and power company (irony abounds). I started hounding my coworkers, asking every question I could think of about water pumps (I sell pumps, mind you, but not ones this small – the massive ones we rent/sell move ponds from place to place or bypass sewer lines for maintenance and repair). But thanks to my job, I kind of knew what questions needed asking: How much pressure was I looking for from a pump? How high was I going to push the water? How many gallons per minute was I looking for – a gully-wash or a trickle? And those were just the pump questions. From whether to spray the water up or suspend an outlet to let it drip down to what kind of stand to mount it all on – the questions left my head spinning. I am not an engineer, people! But as fate would have it, turns out I am. 🙂 (Would it be ridiculous to tell you that in the middle of teacups and fountains, I also decided to convert 2 – not one, but TWO – bookshelves into closed cabinets? Now you know I’m truly insane, or maybe just compulsive stupid.)

Open Bookshelf
Unattractive Shelf Twin, Pre-Conversion

Over the years I have come to accept that I work through my problems out loud. For me, writing is one way of doing that … when I write I hear my voice narrating in my head as the words take shape on the page. I understand, of course, that not everyone does this. My husband, for example, works through almost every problem in his head before he talks about it. I’m just the opposite. I’ve often wondered if my brain needs to hear the words come out of my mouth (appear on the page) for my ears to make sense of them, whereas if my husband heard his thoughts aloud he might get that confused look my blabbering so often seems to evoke. So, to work out my fountain problem, I talked about it to anyone who would listen, and even some who wouldn’t.

My bird-loving neighbor topped the list since she shares wine with me on the side porch while we invent disparaging names for squirrels and new curse words for mosquitoes and outdoor cats (bird stalkers). She’s the creative type as well, so please check out her ETSY store here.

As I talked to people, asked questions, and most importantly, began processing ideas, a funny thing happened. In my mind I started “seeing” a fountain begin to take form. Almost every conversation I had became an idea mill and I started wandering through antique stores with a whispered mantra on my breath: try to think outside the box. It doesn’t come naturally for me to look at an object and imagine it being used in a different way. Still, whether it was something someone suggested, or just another person’s willingness to let me process the problems out loud didn’t matter … my ideas continued to take shape. The internet helped too. Researching other fountains, I ran across a tutorial on making one using a teapot and basin:

DIY Teapot Fountain Instructions

The way the teapot was mounted over the pump inspired me. I have a glass bowl with a metal stand which used to hold shells. The shells are packed away so I turned the stand over and created a way to mount a frog plate in a basin like this:

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Froggy Fountain (with impulse buy river rocks)

You probably can’t see the metal stand supporting my frog’s lily pad, but trust me, it’s there. The solar pump I finally decided on fits perfectly underneath.

In the meantime, I found a way to use the teacups and saucers I had been gathering as well:

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Sampling of my Staked Bird Feeders

This past weekend I attended my first ever craft fair as a vendor and managed to make a few bucks:

FHS Fall Fest 2013
Fall Festival 2013
Sporting Hanging Feeders
Above the Staked Ones

Over time, my journey became more about the conversation – the connection I made with other people – than the yard art. Lucky for ME I was open enough to talk it through with so many patient people (my husband’s response when I tried to explain my fountain idea: “You’re gonna have to draw me a picture…” 😉 ). Now every time I walk into my local Ace Hardware or the little antique shops in my area, the folks who work there ask for a progress report with pictures and inquire what new project I’ve taken on now. One of them came to the festival and recognized a sugar bowl I converted into a bird feeder which came from her shop. I have this whole network of people I never knew before – who I never would have known had I shied away from this new (and kinda scary) creative process. Reminds me of blogging a whole, whole lot. 😀

I am in serious doubt as to whether I would have found a way to create any of these pieces without the input of so many others. I think when all of the projects are done it’s going to be time for a garden party (there will be WINE)! Meanwhile, please feel free to contribute any ideas you might have on how I can beautify my (or someone else’s) garden. I have found the actual doing of the work to be therapeutic, and would love to branch out into new areas, incorporating your ideas into my thought processes. So, please, share away!

As always, thanks for reading. And, in case you’re interested, here are close-ups of some finished pieces:

Hanging Feeder
Hanging Feeder
Staked Feeder
Staked Feeder
Garden Candle to Hang from a Tree or Shepherd's Hook
Garden Candle to Hang from a Tree or Shepherd’s Hook
Bathroom Chest with Open Door
Did I tell you I found the shutters at a junk store for $15? They cleaned up nicely, don’t-cha think?
Master Bathroom with Chest
My phone just will not capture the colors: beige outside and in, antique white doors, bronze hinges/knobs. We used magnets to keep the doors closed.

The one in my dining room is definitely my favorite. When we had to extend the middle shelf’s overhang to accommodate the doors (which were too short), I thought a little tile accent might do the trick. I was not wrong. My husband cut out the top shelf’s backing (peg board) and put in a 1/4 piece of plywood for the finishing touch. Voila!

I'm so happy with the way this one accents my dining room - bright and cheery!
I’m so happy with the way this one accents my dining room – bright and cheery!

Both cabinets are now complete … the fountain will not be ready for display until Spring, 2014, so you’ll just have to patiently await the final unveiling.