When They’re Ready

This was a summer unlike any other. We have moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and sold our house in Connecticut with the huge yard and garden. We are living in a townhouse apartment so new that the GPS cannot find it. It was under construction when we visited to sign the lease. We are getting used to being able to make toast and use the microwave at the same time and not having to mow the lawn or shovel the snow. Ironically, now that we have a patio instead of a back yard, I have done more gardening than I had in three years. It started out as a way to get to know my new State.

I went to a plant sale at the local high school at the beginning of the summer and purchased some plants, thinking that this would give me the typical local vegetables. However, it turns out that people who want normal plants go to the normal places like plant nurseries and box stores; the school plant sale was for exotic varieties. And so instead of grape and Roma tomatoes, I had yellow baby tomatoes shaped like a butternut squash, and yellow Roma tomatoes.

Yellow tomatoes were just the beginning. I had never successfully grown okra before — in Texas I was too busy and in Connecticut it was too cold. So I bought three okra plants. The flowers were gorgeous — rather like hibiscus flowers. But the okra pods were not green; they were red. A tag on the plant, which I found only after I picked the first three okra pods, said it was Red Velvet okra. We don’t have a garden hose or a water source on the patio, so we have been hauling water from the kitchen to the patio almost daily.

However, it’s been a troubling summer. I keep index cards next to the computer to write down prayer requests from friends. I had to get bigger index cards. Most of it is what Aslan would call “someone else’s story,” but friends with sick children and grandchildren, friends with sick parents, friends whose friends have died suddenly or are gravely ill. In the middle of all that, we haul the water out to the patio daily and pick the beans, the squash, the cucumber (only one made it), the yellow tomatoes, the red okra, the new fruits of a new place. Different but good; we are learning. The routine gives shape to the day and makes me follow the weather.

My husband sometimes waters the plants for me and takes an interest in the daily haul. When I brought in a handful of strange produce, my husband asked about how I know they are ripe. “If the tomatoes never turn red, how do you know when they’re ready to be picked?”

I said, “Oh, that’s easy. I hold my hand beneath the fruit and wiggle my fingers. If the tomatoes fall into my hand, they’re ready. If they cling to the vine, they aren’t.” I opened my hand and we ate the sweet, strange tomatoes.

And I thought of one of my favorite icons. This is a fresco in a church I’ve never been to, but I have it in my “Comforting Images” file to look at when I am stressed. It is an illustration of a verse from the Wisdom of Solomon, “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.” The souls, depicted as people used to be prepared for burial, in winding linen cloth, rest in God’s palm while Angels approach bearing yet more souls. These souls are not alone or unsupported.

I love this icon and love that I thought of it. The people about whom I had been worrying, and for whom we had been praying, seemed safer. God’s hand is beneath them, waiting. Sometimes, God wiggles His fingers. They don’t bruise, they don’t force; they test and invite. After all, these hands know us; they have made and fashioned us.We don’t fall into His palm until we are ready.

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God; such a safe and beautiful place to be at rest.

Where else could we want them to be?

Who Goes There? A Pascha Story

How do you welcome strangers when you aren’t home?

Photo credit: foter.com

I have been away, visiting my brother and his amazing family, and so I haven’t posted in a while. However, I have a short little remembrance from when my children were little. We lived in Texas in the 1990’s, and often had only one car. We had made new friends, a husband and wife, who were Orthodox, and they were coming to the house. But an emergency arose, and my husband needed to be someplace. I drove him, so I could have the car. But, the children would be home alone when our friends arrived. I wasn’t sure how the children would recognize them. They couldn’t really reach the peep hole in the door.

I made my cross, prayed, and smiled.

I called the children into a huddle, gave them instructions, took off my apron, put on some shoes, and drove.

My friend told the story to my brother, who reminded me of it. My children were about nine, eight, and four. Our friends arrived and saw no car, but they rang the bell, and heard a muffled sound, in response.

“I can’t hear you!” the husband said.

There was a murmured consultation, and then the same response, a little louder, but not clear.

“I’m sorry, I still can’t hear you,” the husband said.

There was a longer consultation, and the deadbolt was turned. The door opened, but the chain stayed on. Three mouths appeared at the door. In unison, the children called out, “Christ is Risen!”

It was in the Paschal season. In the Orthodox Church, we prepare for great feasts by abstaining from meat and dairy, and then we celebrate the feast for a long time after. And so we greet each other for the forty days of Pascha (Easter) with “Christ is Risen!” to which one replies “Truly He is Risen,” or “Indeed He is Risen,” depending on your parish’s preferred translation.

And so our friends called out, also in unison, “Indeed He is Risen!” The children consulted again, and closed the door, unchained it, opened it, and welcomed the guests into the house, into our lives, and practically speaking, into the family. That happens, especially in Texas. “If you don’t have family in Texas when you arrive,” my brother-in-law had explained when we moved, “you create family.”

Christ is Risen!” It is a greeting to bring joy, to proclaim victory over death, and to draw like minded people closer together.

Christ is Risen!

“Tree at My Window”

(In honor of National Poetry Month)


Tree at my window, window tree,
My sash is lowered when night comes on;
But let there never be curtain drawn
Between you and me.

Vague dream head lifted out of the ground,
And thing next most diffuse to cloud,
Not all your light tongues talking aloud
Could be profound.

But tree, I have seen you taken and tossed,
And if you have seen me when I slept,
You have seen me when I was taken and swept
And all but lost.

That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather.


Robert Frost

That Friend

My late father told us a joke about the simple country preacher who counseled his flock to answer the door in their BVD’s if they didn’t know the person knocking. Why, we asked. “Because many have entertained angels in their unnerwears,” was Dad’s response.

We didn’t get it. Dad had to explain that it refers to Hebrews 13:2 “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” One Orthodox rendition of the Holy Trinity is also called “The Hospitality of Abraham,” and shows the three angels that he and Sarah hosted, who shared with them good news.

This hospitality to strangers is an essential part of most cultures. In ancient Ireland you were required to offer the stranger at the door the best food in the house. This was also the rule of the desert. It is a Christian duty. But it’s not always easy.

On social media, a mother asked what to do if your child brings home a friend whom you cannot stand. She’d called the child who just visited “bossy, obnoxious, loud, and rude.” The post was removed, and wisely so (it’s a small town), but, the problem is real. I had written a response, and thought that I may as well use it, because sometimes it helps to have a plan.

Here’s what I had written:

Many children have never been to someone else’s house alone before, and children simply have no filter. When I started subbing, I would become upset with students who broke rules. At some point, though, it dawned on me that the children did not know that there was a rule, or why it existed. And so what you can do is help the child learn the rules of a new place. “Our house is small, so you have to use a soft indoor voice.” You can say, “Here, instead of ‘I hate it,’ we say, ‘No thank you, I don’t care for any.'” You get the idea.


You are the Designated Adult, and so it has become your job, while the child is in your house, to gently guide her the way you would want someone to speak to your child.


I think every child has a friend whom the parents would rather were not in the circle of friends. But that child fills a need. The outspoken help the reticent. The athletic help the home bodies. I took each of my children’s friend as a gift that God sent, sometimes for reasons that I couldn’t fathom, but that were sent by God and needed to be honored as guests and treated like beloved family.


You can ask yourself, before saying anything, “What is the kindest way to help the child make better choices?”
Of course if a visiting child hurts your child in word or deed, you need to call the parents and cut the visit short. But second chances, after explanations, are important.


A wise mother also taught me her trick. She keeps small presents, like birthday party favors, on hand and calls them “going home presents.” You don’t get them till you’re leaving. If a child truly gets on your last nerve, you can mention or point out the going home present without actually mentioning that you’d like the child to leave.


Entertaining strangers is a Christian duty. But like most Christian duties, it isn’t always comfortable or easy. The important things seldom are.

Photo by patchattack on Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Refreshment of Spirit

The road divided; I bore left. And that changed everything.

I had spent two weeks with my amazing mother-in-law in Michigan while she went through a time of illness. It was time to head home to Connecticut; I was loading the car. While I ferried bags, my mother-in-law took a spanakopita from the freezer and carefully wrapped it. She reached down the newspaper from its shelf and taped that. She unfolded a heavy paper bag and carefully closed it around the package. She put it in a plastic bag, after, so the seat would not get soggy as the pita defrosted.   While I finished the last of my coffee, she smoothed out the plastic.

******

When I last had been in Michigan, it was the height of summer. But this time I got to see something my husband had told me about, the beauty of Ann Arbor in autumn. I’m from New England, and I thought that I knew leaves. But these were different trees, different colors, a different sky — beauty in another palette. My late father-in-law was an architect, and the condo they lived in was not a hastily subdivided former one family house, as the condos in the Boston of my youth had been. This was a well planned building, with a flow to it. Light and air swept through each room. The earth tones brought unity while the artwork on the walls, much by relatives, kept it from being monotonous. The landscaping is tasteful, well maintained, and not cookie cutter.

Illness had kept us indoors, but connection with nature is essential.

My foretaste of refreshment of spirit from the woods came from the view from kitchen window.

“That tree!” I said.

My mother-in-law knew which one I meant. “It’s perfect,” she said. “Completely symmetrical.” It was some sort of maple or sumac, next to an oak that we could only partially see.

The tree was green with a tinge of red on the side farthest from us. The oak leaves had all turned gold.

When my mother-in-law went into the hospital, the red spread slowly across the tree, left to right.  The yellow, green and red of the two trees gave me something different to think about in the days she was gone. When she came home, the oak was almost bare, while the maple was engulfed in red.

It was time for me to depart with the foliage.

My mother-in-law and I embraced, she kissed my cheek, and handed me the heavy package, spanakopita wrapped in foil, newspaper, paper, and plastic, to share with her son when I got home. She told me how to defrost and heat it, and showed me the printed instructions, besides. I thanked her.

“I don’t care what time it is,” she said, “call me every two hours to let me know where you are and again when you finally get home.”

And I left.

******

I took I-94 East and eventually called her from the parking lot of a McDonalds near I-80 to say I was in Ohio. A station in Toledo was having an All Seventies Weekend, and I car-danced until the signal faded. But there was still a lot of Ohio before me.

I had packed a snack from Meijer’s grocery store, a package that contained a hard boiled egg, pea pods, cheese cubes, and some kind of trail mix. I had a bag of honey crisp apples that I ate slowly, to savor them, and to save some for my husband. The road split, I bore left, and the coffee kicked in. I wanted to stop at the rest area, but it was only available from the right lane of the temporarily divided road. I groaned at the sign “Next Rest Area Thirty Miles.” A sign at the next exit suggested there was food and gas to be had. So I left the road.

I set my GPS for the nearest McDonald’s, 1.5 miles from the exit. I drove slowly through what looked to be a prosperous town full of many treats for tourists — gift shops, restaurants, quaint businesses. But no McDonald’s.

My need became more pressing, and as I debated which shop might have a rest room, I saw a sign that read “Visitors’ Center Ahead.” Visitors Center usually means there will be a rest room. So I drove.

And I drove.

And I drove.

The drive was beautiful, increasingly so as I got further and further from the highway.

The rest area was not some prefab construction with brochures and a coffee machine. The parking lot was unpaved and full, and the buildings around it reminded me of my own town’s Boothe Park, only much larger. I had inadvertently come across Ohio’s only National Park, Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Goodness. Goodness and mercy.

After addressing the most pressing needs, I began to wander the grounds. An art show (photographs, drawings and paintings) with the theme “Change, End of Season” took up most of a barn-like building, and if I had the money and the wall space, I would have brought home several pieces.

I could first smell and then see the water. The sun shone on damp leaves, fallen in their changing colors, and all around was color and light. Families were gathered, conversing and hiking.

I went outside and walked down a trail toward Brandywine Falls, explored more commodious wooden buildings,  and crossed the road to find the gift shop with hiking gear, tee shirts, guide books, coffee and ice cream.  Everything one needed was there.

We find what we need, often, when we’re looking for something else. I wanted McDonald’s. I found refreshment of spirit.

I also bought what I needed for refreshment of body, and was ready to tackle the rest of the journey.

I decided to drive straight home, rather than stopping or meandering. My  husband was waiting for me. My spirit was refreshed. And I had a spanakopita defrosting in my back seat.

I buckled my seatbelt, called my mother-in-law, and shifted gear.