Tuesday, May 5, 2015

That's The Difference

“YaYa,” my seven-year-old granddaughter told me, “you’re just a tiny, little bit, not too much, but kind of a little . . . old.” 
It’s true. I already knew it, though. Allie’s little sister, Juliet, had recently let the cat out of the bag.  “Pretty soon you’re gonna need a cane, YaYa, because you’re kind of old.”
And you know what they say—two out of three professionals can’t be wrong. The third one is only two and hasn’t figured out the obvious about his YaYa yet. But the mirror doesn’t lie. I am kind of old.
Fifty-six. Next week I’ll be fifty-seven. It feels a lot younger than it sounds on this end of my life, except when my joints hurt or I get brain fade or when I find myself on the wrong side of a generation gap. I’m so old, I’ve lived through about twenty-five years of disappointment and experience that my younger, adult self couldn’t have imagined.
When I was in my thirties, I had a lot of answers. After hitting rock bottom emotionally, I’d just been set free from the religious legalism I grew up with. I began to learn the truth about Jesus and God and the Spirit: God is for me.
But I didn't know everything. I didn't know there's more to life than easy answers.
This year my best friend, my beloved, the man I’ve clung to for forty years, had his second stroke and third dangerous blood clot. This year we’ve struggled with the surprising and sometimes painful adjustment of living in a small space in full-time retirement. This year there has been stress. There has been failure. There has been a lot of pain we can share with nearly no one else. Few understand any of what we’ve been through together in the last year alone.
So at 2:30 this morning, anxiety rolled in on me and robbed me of a precious hour of sleep. Which wasn’t nice, because old people like me really need sleep. Even worse, Anxiety brought its sidekick, Guilt, along to condemn me while I lay there in the dark. Every reaction, every fear, every harsh sermon I’d ever heard ran through my mind like a horror flick until my heart cried out for Truth.
And the truth I had learned while I lay crushed and broken in my thirties was still the truth this morning—Jesus isn’t expecting anything from me, and He loves me as I am in the ever-now.  Ever since I first learned that, I have sought to know the One who will be there for me in the frightening times when I have no one else.
And then I heard Jesus whisper to me, “That’s the difference.” 
See, you can live with a harsh, angry God when you are young like I used to be—youthful and strong, loved by your family, surrounded by your children, beginning your career with your whole life ahead of you.
But when the nest is empty, when your health fails, when your spouse is ill and you sit in hospitals alone, waiting endlessly for medical tests and results, fearing for the future, listen to me—an angry God doesn’t cut it.
At that point, you’d better hope you are strong enough not to need a God like that because that God knows better than you do how weak and imperfect you are on your own. There can be no comfort from that distant God.
But the God of the Bible condescended—He came down to our level. He identified with us. He carried our sorrows. He bore away all our sins. He proclaimed, “It is finished!” He forgave when no one asked for it. He included even the thief hanging beside Him who never expected that much. Jesus went to the failure, Peter, and lifted him up.
This God is not one of my imagination or indulgence. Jesus is not harsh to His lambs. He doesn’t demand they find their way back to Him and walk on their own two feet. He goes after them, His lambs, and He carries them.
In all the days of old, He felt what they did, suffered with them, and carried them. The more candles I see on my birthday cake, the more I must know how to hear God speak clearly to me of His love and promises. I must know He is for me. I must know confidently that He has my back—He is my rear guard. That He sees and understands my wounded, fearful, desperate heart when no one else can or does.
I must know He is the Lover of my soul that the Song of Solomon describes. If I don’t, I will not make it. I can no more cozy up to a rigid God than I could to an offended rattlesnake.
It scares me to realize how close I came to losing my beloved or, at least, to losing his cognitive companionship. I weep to think how close I came to losing his comforting strength and leadership. We have both come close. I have faced cancer twice and survived with my body mostly intact. Now I deal daily with disruptive hormonal surges that make me hard to live with sometimes. I mourn the loss of my youth. The years are both a gift and a curse, it seems, though by far they are a gift.
It’s taken me nearly a thousand words to try to capture the meaning of what Jesus said to me in the dark this morning:  “That’s what makes the difference.” I need the intimacy and acceptance and unconditional love of God because as life gets more fearful, this Love is my constant.
God is for me.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Distress Signal

I’ve prayed better prayers.
Not that anybody should brag about something like that. It’s just that I’ve spent enough time in Sunday School and Wednesday Night Prayer Meetings to hold my own in a room full of Baptists. I’ve memorized the Lord’s Prayer (both versions—Protestant and Catholic) so I’m pretty much ambidextrous where that one’s concerned. And it’s been rumored that I have, on occasion, when no one was listening, prayed in tongues. But that’s probably just a rumor.
None of that was helpful last Sunday morning when I found myself sitting alone in the corner of a large, empty emergency room in Queen Creek, Arizona. Crying.
I’d have to say, too, at that particular moment, I didn’t even remember the words to “Now I lay me down to sleep.” I just sat alone in that cold, impersonal corner with no idea where the Kleenex were, crying and wondering if God realized how alone I felt.
And how afraid.
That's why I prayed the only words that came to mind in those terrifying few minutes when my husband was wheeled away for another CT scan after another series of stroke symptoms.
“S.O.S.” I said to the empty room.
It was all I could think to say. It seemed pretty appropriate since my soul was in some serious distress and the nausea sweeping over me was kind of like I imagined seasickness must feel. I just kept whispering the words to Mr. Morse’s code in the emergency room to the One Who I was sure would understand my distress signal.
And then I texted my best friend. Who texted our other friends. And then I texted my daughter. Who stopped what she was doing and asked her friends to pray for us. And then I texted my son in Kentucky. Who pulled over on the side of the road and prayed for us with his pastor friends. And then I texted my friends in Idaho. Who prayed with their friends at church and their family. And then I texted my sister in Texas. Who put it on Facebook and fifteen people responded by praying.
And then I stopped crying. My husband came back from the scan smiling and returned to normal. And any day now I’ll stop asking him every twenty minutes if he still feels okay.
A few days ago I had a date with my four-year-old granddaughter and we got to talking about her grandpa, “Chief”, my husband.
“I hope he stops getting sick, YaYa,” she said to me from the backseat of my truck.
“Juliet,” I said, “will you do me a favor? When you pray tonight at bedtime, will you ask God to make Chief well?”
There was a brief pause, because Juliet is thoughtful and chooses her words slowly.
“I’ll keep it in mind,” she said.
Which is all any of us really need—someone to keep us and our needs in mind. Someone to hold you up in prayer when you’re falling and can barely sit up in a chair in the corner of an emergency room stall. Someone to pick up the text with your distress signal and relay it over the airwaves until prayer reaches a crescendo and the God of Angel Armies fights for you and the ones you love.
You don’t have to know how to pray. You just need to know how to spell.
It might be the best prayer you’ve ever prayed.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

January Shmanuary

I don’t like January anymore.
And it’s not because it’s such a letdown after all the Christmas celebrating. Well, maybe that’s a little bit of the reason why I hate it. And it’s not because I despise making New Year’s resolutions, although that’s pretty good motivation all by itself.
I hate January because it’s got a lousy attitude.
For years I blamed Christmas for the way January treated us. Specifically, Christmas’s tree. Not the fake xmas kind like I had as a kid, but the real ones that you chop down. And as soon as I got married, that’s the tradition we kicked off. We took beautiful dead trees, placed them in tubs of water, decorated them with electric lights and prayed we’d make it through Advent safely before the house either went up in flames or somebody got electrocuted.
Every single December we survived without any significant drama. No fires, no fruitcake poisoning, no sugar cookie comas. We showed up for church cantatas, didn’t overshoot the Christmas budget and still made everyone feel loved. And, as the last fireworks lit up the last December night’s sky, we welcomed the new year with a big sigh and sat back upon our laurels.
That’s when January took aim and shot us all in the keister. Which, back then I blamed on allergies from the deforested tree in our living room. But now I don’t think it was allergies at all. I think January is December’s jealous half-sister.
See, December is full of sparkle and music and parties and laughter. It’s all about celebration and families—the most wonderful time of the year, right? But there’s nothing remarkable about January except for flu season. At least that’s how it is at our house. January is like the fourth fairy in Sleeping Beauty—since she wasn’t invited to the party, she’s going to ruin it for everybody.
That’s so unfair. It’s not my fault that January doesn’t happen in the month of December.
Year after year, we went to bed healthy on December 31 and woke up with a temperature of 101 on January 1st—or January 17th, whichever came first. To be honest, there were some years that January surprised us, skipping past post-nasal drip, and simply brought bad news. One new year I came down with a virus that left hives as a parting gift. Nearly twenty years later, that virus still lives here like part of the family and is even mentioned in my will.
We’ve been broadsided in various Januarys with family loss, my husband’s persistent pneumothorax, and whooping cough. And for this year’s Special Edition of January, in the space of one horrific week, my husband suffered a mild stroke, came home from the hospital with a respiratory infection, and didn’t even get all the attention he deserved before I came down with the same virus.
Early this morning, as I lay in bed with a throat that burned like the Sahara Desert, I did my best to ignore the pain and fall back asleep. “The house is too cold to get up,” I reminded myself, “and even if I do, first I’ll have to go to the bathroom, then get some milk in the kitchen, come back to the bathroom for pain meds, and try not to wake up Rob with all that moving around.”
I knew I was right. It was too much trouble to get up for a stupid sore throat.
I guess I dropped off to sleep in spite of myself, though, because the next thing I knew I was standing face to face with Charlton Heston—Mr. Ten Commandments himself, but out of costume. And Charlton looked at me with those wise, all-knowing eyes and gave me this profound piece of advice:
“Go get some Tylenol. You’ll feel better,” he said.
Who argues with Moses?
I found my slippers, padded into the kitchen for medication and crawled back into bed before the sun came up. But not before I was consumed with overwhelming regret, something akin to what Aladdin must have felt when he realized there was no fourth wish.
You know that anyone who can part a raging sea with a stick, or play Chicken with Egyptian pharaohs, could ask the Almighty for permission to wipe the month of January off the face of the earth. He could do it with his eyes closed and one hand tied behind his back. He could slap that self-centered month down and force January to behave herself or hit the road.
But I forgot to ask. I won the lottery and forgot to claim my winnings. Now all I have left is a headache to remind me how forgetful I am.
January scores again.
I’m gonna need more Tylenol.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Handwriting On The Wall

Iamaw rit er.

Ia maw rite r.
I ama wri ter.
I am a writer.
They told me if I say it often enough, I’ll believe it. That it will become clear and obvious.
It’s harder than it looks.
There’s a sign above my desk in our home office that reads, “Until you spread your wings, you will have no idea how far you can fly.”  The sign above that one simply reminds me to “Dream sweet Dream.”
I keep buying the words of random writers, hanging them on my wall and hoping they’ll lead me to the Promised Land where humor drips effortlessly from my pen and eloquence—does whatever eloquence does.
This might take a while.
I really love to write. It’s an open window to my soul. Geez, that sounds like an overused idiom, if ever I heard one, and not particularly original. Which, I suppose, is what makes it an idiom.
Sigh. See what I mean?
For some people, writing is a punishment. I blame school teachers for that. Remember how they made you stay in at recess at write one hundred times on the chalkboard, “I will not chew bubblegum in class”?
Not only did that give you writer’s cramp, but it totally popped your bubble. Sorry. Aren’t puns some kind of inferior humor?
Mrs. Fisher was the exception. She was my third grade teacher at Neil Cummins Elementary in Corte Madera, California, and I adored her. She’s the one who inspired me to love to write. She had a metal recipe box full of index cards on her desk. On every card was a title and, if we finished our work early, we could pull a random card out of the box and write a story to go along with the title.
It was magic.
Mrs. Fisher rewarded me with the privilege of writing. What a genius. But even more than that, she admired my stories and told me I was a good writer. Do you know what happens to a child when someone believes in them and tells them so?
Years later, I found myself sitting alone in a basement apartment writing lengthy emails to friends about my husband’s recovery from heart surgery. It was therapy for me—a way to deal with the extreme anxiety I felt. Putting my feelings into words was soothing. Crafting words that reached the hearts of others was healing. One afternoon, one of those friends dropped by to check on my husband and me and, as he left, he told me,
“You need to keep writing. You’re good at it.”
And I believed him. I believed him because writing is healing for me, even if no one ever reads what I write. And so I kept writing. Do you know what happens to an adult when someone believes in them and tells them so?
Right. Good for you. You’re keeping up.
So, I’m going to keep on writing. Until my dreams come true. Until I see how far wings can take me. Until I believe for myself that I truly am a writer.
Thomas Edison once wrote, “If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.”

Saturday, January 3, 2015


I don’t really feel like an overcomer.

There are a lot of things I don’t really feel like. I don’t feel like doing laundry. I don’t feel like vacuuming the floors. I don’t really feel like paying the bills.
You get it. I don’t really feel like doing that stuff. But I do it anyway. Eventually.
Sometimes I think I am defined by my behavior. When people first meet me, they always start out by asking what I “do”, especially if I’m applying for a loan or visiting a church. When I quit homeschooling our kids, even some of my friends asked me what I was “going to do now.” I told them I was considering petty larceny—because the hours were good and it paid pretty well.
I don’t usually say that to strangers, though.
Of course, the consequences of petty larcency make it a lousy choice, so in the end I always qualify my life and tell the truth by simply answering—I am a homemaker.
But that’s not really who I am.
If you take out all the things you do from the way you describe who you are to others, there isn’t much left to talk about, is there?
Sometimes people attend twelve step programs and define themselves by their weaknesses. “Hi,” they tell each other as they take the spotlight, “I’m Mary and I’m an alcoholic.” Or a gambler. Or a drug addict. Or a dozen other things for which there are twelve step groups. I’m not knocking support groups. They are a lifeline of hope for many.
But if I tell you I’m a homemaker, then isn’t it logical that I should live out my identity, walk away and start sweeping some floors? If I tell you I’m an alcoholic, shouldn’t I go drink alcohol? If I believe I’m a drug addict, doesn’t it make sense for me to keep doing drugs? Does defining myself by the things I do really give me an identity? And does defining myself by my weaknesses really set me free from them?
I’m just wondering.
Someone told me once that I’m an overcomer. Then I read that God says that’s who I am, too. I didn’t really believe it because there are still a lot of things in my life that I need to overcome. Maybe I shouldn’t walk around acting like I have a Master’s Degree in overcoming, I thought to myself, until I’ve officially overcome everything. Wouldn’t that make me a liar if I boast about my accomplishments before they’re accomplished?
I guess so. If accomplishing things was the basis for my identity.
But what if my identity is a gift. What if I stop hoping I can do anything to change myself and start believing I’ve already been changed? Because that’s another thing God said. The day I exchanged my life for His Life, I got a new identity. I didn’t feel it happen. I still looked the same. And it was years before I started learning the truth about what He did inside me that day.
But ignorance didn’t keep it from being true. It just kept me from living in freedom.
So I guess it’s true that I am an overcomer even when I don’t feel like it’s true. It’s true that I am as righteous as Jesus Christ. It’s true that I am His beloved. I am accepted by Him. I’m complete in Him. And holy.
Even if the floors are covered in dog hair and the water bill is overdue and all my socks are dirty. I’m still an overcomer.
Maybe that’s how freedom feels. Maybe God told the truth when He said He made me new. Maybe that gives me permission to believe it. Maybe defining myself has nothing to do with my weaknesses and everything to do with who He says I am.
Maybe it doesn’t matter if I ever feel like an overcomer. Just knowing it’s true is like a transfusion of hope that Jesus will always make me overcome.
And on my worst day, if I sit across the table from a stranger at Starbucks wearing my smelly socks covered in dog hair and no makeup, I can still introduce myself as “Eula, an overcomer.”
Bet that’d knock their socks off.


Thursday, December 25, 2014

We Three Kings Disoriented Are

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved nativity sets.

I'm not a purist, though. From Precious Moments nativities where everyone, including the wise men, are children, to the Peanuts version with Linus and Lucy and Woodstock in the manger, I love them all. 

The standard, though, has always been a traditional set like the one my parents had. I really liked that one. Each Christmas, every plaster of paris character was handled with such care that setting up the manger scene was practically as holy as the baby’s actual birth. I was nearly grown and married before they trusted me enough to put the shepherds in the stable.

So, of course I passed on the tradition of fear and mistrust years later when we finally got our own fragile nativity set.  Finally, after I saw he was using both hands to arrange the Holy Family, I let my husband help with the display.
So it makes me pretty happy that my grown children and their families love crèches, too. Plus, it makes Christmas shopping pretty easy. Every time I see a unique manger scene, I buy it in duplicate, wrap it up and give it to my daughter and daughter-in-law.
Last year, I found a homemade wooden crèche cut with a jigsaw into puzzle pieces that rested inside a wooden frame. When stood on end and emptied of the puzzle pieces, the frame became a stable and the pieces represented each nativity character.
The grandbabies loved it. It was safe, it was educational, and it was compact. But it was not completely kid proof.
“Will’s not allowed to put anything in the garbage can anymore,” my six-year-old granddaughter told me last week. Her two-year-old brother is working on his fine motor skills, as well as Cause and Effect experiments. You gotta admire a toddler with a penchant for cleaning house, though.
“Why not?” I asked, putting away dishes from the dishwasher.
“Because we think he threw Mary in the trash,” she said casually.
I nearly choked on a sugarplum.
For some reason, her matter-of-fact statement cracked me up. Still, that just doesn’t seem like a nice way to treat the mother of Jesus. I considered the sublimely ridiculous and realized that at least he threw her away after the incarnation. But Allie was still talking.
“And we broke the head off another Mary last week,” she said, chomping on some walnuts.
“Rough day on the Mary’s around your house, huh?” I said with a twinkle and another barely smothered chuckle.
“Yeah,” she answered. “Juliet broke a leg on one of the donkeys, too,” she added. “And a wing got broken off an angel.” She took a drink of milk.
“Wow,” I responded. “It’s amazing our Savior survived with you guys around.”
Allie’s eyes grew big and she nodded in solemn agreement.
So, I got to thinking. Since it sounded like there were some gaps in the Brady family's manger scenes, maybe I could help out.
The next day, my husband and I headed over to my favorite antique store during its Christmas extravaganza. I was on a spiritual mission and, in no time at all, found exactly what I was looking for—an entire display of random characters from the Christmas story. There were enough Mary’s to stand by Joseph for at least a couple more weeks, plenty of two-winged angels to fill the celestial choir, and an odd assortment of shepherds.
Most of the tags on the pieces labeled the characters along with the prices. I guess that was to prevent anyone from mistaking a wise man for Mary’s betrothed. It seemed unnecessary to me until one little statue caught my eye. I couldn’t figure out if he was supposed to be Joseph or a shepherd or one of the three kings. The truth was he looked a lot like a Buddhist monk. But there he was, standing right in the middle of a bunch of Josephs and Mary's. Even the vendor didn’t know where this character belonged, and finally just wrote on the price tag, “Nativity Guy.”
I kept the tag. I had to. All these years, I never knew we were missing such a key player in the Christmas Story as the “Nativity Guy.”
I wrapped up the spare manger people, put them in a Christmas box, and gave them to our daughter’s family this morning for Christmas. I knew she’d really be happy with our thoughtful gift.
I’m a little worried, though. It turns out it’s not that hard to find a new Virgin Mary or the whole wise man entourage.
But if Will goes on a cleaning spree again, I don’t think I’ll be able to replace Nativity Guy.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

On Another Night

“I don’t know if I want to go through this ever again.”
I understand. I felt like she did. Twice. Some women feel like that a dozen times, depending on how things turn out. And some would do whatever it takes to go through it at least once, but they never have the chance.
There’s enough sorrow on all sides to make us wonder why it has to be this way.
It’s a consequence, I guess. We can trace it back to that unfortunate snack attack of the first Mr. and Mrs. If only they’d been happy with plums and bananas, instead of acting like chocoholics on a midnight binge. Then maybe the ‘fruitful multiplying’ that followed would have been as easy as an apple falling from a tree.
I guess we’ll never know.
But sometimes I wonder—why did birth pains have to be the price for the woman’s sin? Why must something so miraculous cast such a fearful shadow? “I will greatly multiply your grief and your suffering in pregnancy and the pangs of childbearing,” He told her, as she listened in dread. “With spasms of distress you will bring forth children.” (Gen. 3:16)
Every mother does. And that’s only the beginning.
As if parenting challenges aren’t enough, we’re never the same after childbirth—even our psychology changes. For example, to the best of my postnatal memory, I was once an adventurous girl. I dreamed of going to France as an exchange student. I wanted to jump out of airplanes and ride horses wildly across a ranch. Somewhere. Not on the same afternoon, of course. I didn’t get a chance to do any of those things, but I did eat a homemade pizza covered in sautéed rattlesnake—once. And I waded through an alligator-infested river beside my damaged canoe while I was pregnant. Actually, that one might have been kind of stupid.
But once I gave birth, everything changed. I gave up serpent chow for meatloaf and threw away my oars. Because now I wasn’t living for myself—a couple of helpless little someones depended on me for their very life.
It’s not just a woman’s psyche that changes in motherhood—she pays a price with her body to bring a new life into the world. Girlish figures change forever—hips get wider, boobs get longer. We all have scars, inside and out.  Listen, getting that kid out can leave a mark. The pain we each undergo is unimaginable, known only to other women who have endured the same thing. But ask any mother you know and she’ll tell you it’s absolutely worth it.
Men have no idea.
No, there is one Man Who understands.
He also suffered unimaginably so He could give us Life. Agonizing alone, he literally sweated drops of blood in His distress. Ironically, all these years after His resurrection, His imperishable body is still scarred from His ordeal.
God sent His Son, but where was He while His Son suffered? He was right there, “in Christ Jesus, reconciling the world unto Himself.” That’s not the picture most of us have of Him, is it?  God is not a Punisher Who stands at a distance, reveling in the miseries we bring upon ourselves. He stepped down into our dimension and experienced, in flesh like ours, the distresses of our lives.
Why did He do it? “For the joy set before Him, He endured the cross.” (Hebrews 12:2) What joy? How could there be joy in such suffering?
Maybe the clue lies in another night, thirty-three years earlier. Remember? A young woman, virtually alone, endured childbirth’s spasms of distress in the worst of circumstances. But for the joy set before her, she endured. And the world has never been the same.
I am amazed by that courageous young mother, as I am amazed by every woman’s courage in her uniquely painful circumstances. But it is the extravagant love of God that makes me catch my breath. He took on Himself the curse of our sin so we could become His very own children.
Maybe the shadow that fell across childbirth was a foreshadowing of the pain God Himself would experience one day so we can have new life. No wonder Jesus told Nicodemus he had to be born again.
There is no life without birth. And no matter what it costs, it is absolutely worth it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

I Think That I Shall Never See . . .

It can't be helped. We gave it our best shot. A year ago we spent big bucks to save it, but now that it got so big, it’s coming down. That just seems . . . illogical.
I am a sap about trees.
What makes me such a tree hugger? They’re only majestic, beautiful, reliable, resilient, and immoveable. Usually. Unless there’s a chainsaw involved. Stop it—you’re just adding to my guilt.
A friend gave me a Hallmark card once that compared our friendship to the safe haven of a shady  tree. “You are an oak,” it finished, right above the flourish of her signature. I don’t think that’s what my doomed paloverde would say this morning. “You are an ungrateful traitor,” is more likely what’s on its mind.
Oh, come on. You know trees have opinions.
I gotta say, I agree with my tree—I feel like a traitor. That thirty foot giant was perfectly healthy. For the last seven years it’s grown tall because we watered and cared for it, hoping it would grow tall and give us privacy and shade and . . .
This isn’t making me feel any better.
But hear me out. We get so little rain here in the desert it’s a waste of time to measure it, so plants and trees have to be as clever as camels to survive. That means shallow roots stretching along the surface to grasp every droplet of water so the sun won’t get to it first.
Which spells trouble for thirty-foot tree owners.
We also have violent summer storms made up of powerful, swirling winds every monsoon season. And paloverdes, trimmed up like majestic green umbrellas, uproot and fly off like Mary Poppins, or snap into pieces like colossal peppermint sticks and, the next thing you know, you’re spending thousands of dollars to rebuild block walls and replace your neighbor’s pool pump.
That’s why our tree is coming down today—it can’t keep its branches on. Shameless hussy.
I know—I’m just trying to justify the annihilation of an innocent tree. But hey. We’re not laying waste to it like they do in the rainforests—we’re replacing it with its very distant cousin, an oak. Like the faithful one on that Hallmark card, only a lot shorter.
I’m not feeling any better about this.
Here’s the thing. We hired a guy to assess our tree dilemma who knows more about trees than the guy we originally hired to plant this plant. And this older, wiser, tree guy explained to us that our paloverde is a hybrid. Its genes have been rearranged by scientists who wanted desert plants to grow unnaturally tall unnaturally fast, and then it was planted in the worst possible place in the world—right next to a block wall with no room to branch out. This Frankenstein belongs in the middle of a pasture, acres away from block walls and new pools, where it can break or fall or fly off to its delight and never hurt anyone’s bank account.
I bet you’re thinking now that it’s stupid to mess around with plant genetics. You’re a genius. And that’s food for another blog.
What’s on my mind as I mourn this tree is how often I, too, want to grow like a hybrid paloverde. I am impatient. Maturity takes too long. I want to loom tall with the illusion of strength and wisdom like that oak on my Hallmark card but at microwave speed. You don’t develop robust, resilient trees in seven years with minimal moisture, though. It takes seventy years of deep watering and exposure to storms to produce something that won’t uproot, break down or fall over in a strong wind.
Which is why, today, we are exchanging our misplaced paloverde for an unabridged oak. Because now, when I sit on my patio and look at the smaller tree in the corner of my yard, I’ll have something to look up to.
And, someday, deserve that Hallmark card.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Vine Life

Without knowing me, you might think this blog is about my love of all things fermented. Things like beer (nope), and wine (not exactly), and sauerkraut (maybe). I understand. The name is a little misleading.

But The Winepress has nothing to do with fine merlot. I am alcohol ignorant. I’d never heard of cabernet sauvignon until I got married and I didn’t take my first drink until I was in my thirties. Honestly, until I learned that people can drink responsibly, I was afraid of the stuff.

So it might surprise you to learn that my best beloved and I just spent our anniversary in wine country—Sonoma Valley—because he does know a thing or two about wine. And among the apparently thousands of vineyards in northern California, he found one with our name on it: MacLeod  Family Vineyards. Of course, we had to go there.

Because he loves wine and I have a Winepress and we are a McLeod family. Ta da.

We joined the wine tour already in progress—because I am the navigator and . . . oh, let’s leave it at that. Four other couples sat comfortably on hay bales as we arrived, surrounding a dungaree clad man lecturing from a plastic lawn chair. Mr. MacLeod himself, who took a barren hilltop thirty-seven years ago and transformed it into a fifty acre vineyard full of merlot, ladyfinger, sauvignon blanc and zinfandel grapes, to name only a few. He was fifty-six years old at the time.

That was my first lesson of the day. You’re never too old to follow your dreams.

“I never worked a day in my life after I planted this vineyard,” he told us. “That’s the trick—find the thing you love to do and it’ll never feel like work.”

I’d kind of been listening politely, holding the glass of rose (ros-ay) I’d been handed, spinning the stem casually like I knew what I was supposed to do with it when I was really thinking that 10:30 in the morning was awfully early to begin drinking and would he be offended if I didn’t like the stuff?

Suddenly I snapped to attention as he told us how the grapes have ‘a relationship’ with the vine tenders. “Are you listening?” I heard the Lord whisper to me.

I was. I remembered Jesus talking about grapes and branches and how He is the Vine in John 15. Somehow it came across as kind of a frightening passage, with all that talk about pruning every branch that doesn’t bear fruit. I don’t know about you, but I’m not crazy about getting cut down to size.

Instead, I was about to learn the day’s second lesson. Pruning is not a punishment. It’s life giving.

“Pruning is one of the most important things done in a vineyard,” the old gentleman was saying. “Leave too many buds and there will be too much fruit for the vine to ripen properly.” I didn’t  know there was such a thing as too many grapes. But there is. Get too greedy and you’ll wind up with a crop that won’t reach maturity.

Branch by branch, bud by bud. “. . . He Who started a good work in you (He) will carry it on to completion . . .” (Philippians 1:6) All the branch and grapes have to do is hang out and enjoy being attached to the Vine.

But Mr. McLeod was still teaching from his plastic lawn chair. “Grapes are sensitive,” he said. “When you know how to listen, the vines will tell you in a dozen different ways whether or not they’re happy. If you want to grow quality grapes you want to make sure that your vines are happy.”

And that was lesson number three. It’s a gift to be sensitive.

We don’t value sensitivity very much in our culture. Being sensitive is often seen as a weakness or, at the least, a handicap that needs to be overcome. There’s no place for sensitivity in a dog-eat-dog world.

I’ve been told most of my life that I’m too sensitive—I cry too easily, wound too readily, feel too deeply. But here sat a ninety-three-year-old man who told us that the key to excellent wine is the careful handling of sensitive grapes.

If it matters to the Vinedresser to keep his grapes happy, it must be all right if they are sensitive.

I drank some of the rose, walked through the sloping rows of vineyard, sampled a few dozen grapes right off the vine, and listened to the other guests with gifted wine palates extol the intricate flavors of three MacLeod wines at the tasting table.

But what I really learned on that shady hill in Sonoma Valley is that the Gardener loves His vineyard and His relationship with sensitive, dependent grapes.

I’ll drink to that.

Quotes reinforced by content from "Journey To Harvest" by George M. MacLeod, published by George and Greta MacLeod, copyright 2014

Friday, September 12, 2014

Listening to the Lullaby

I sat on a black leather sofa in the dimly lit family room—listening to her voice and processing our afternoon together.

“Jules has some kind of virus and is very sad,” her mama texted me earlier. She needed some things from the grocery store. “I could use a bit of help.”

Katy doesn’t ask for backup very often and Jules hardly ever cries when she hurts. It was an SOS if ever I heard one. Calling my daughter for details, I could hear her little four-year-old sobbing in the background. On Sunday she spiked a fever and for the next two days she had a pounding headache. They’d had a long week and it was only Tuesday.
I know I went through it—the whole sleepless, clueless, endless mothering thing. And when I got Katy’s text, I thought something empathetic like, “Poor thing. It’s so hard to be a mommy.” But until I walked through the door and saw Jules’ swollen eyes and took in the whole weary scene, I forgot what it’s like to be in the trenches with your children.
I read once that becoming a mother is “to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” You’re permanently vulnerable—it doesn’t matter if it’s a limp weed-blossom bouquet offered by sticky fingers or your own frightened imagination stirred by childhood illness, every gift is priceless and every attack on your babies targets you, as well.
That goes for grandmas, too.
So I hung with the other two kids, giving me a chance to read and cuddle with them while my daughter took Jules to the doctor—who ran some tests, scratched her head, and sent Katy home with no final diagnosis. Maybe they can’t be certain until the patient gets well. A few times when my kids were small and got sick, the doctor actually wrote “F.U.O.” on the billing, followed by the amount I owed him for that professional opinion. I’m not sure “Fever of Unknown Origin” was worth the co-pay.
Katy knew what to do, though. By the time the night was over, she had comforted her little one with warm baths, head rubs, pizza, meds and an impromptu tea party. They don’t teach that kind of care in medical school.
Lost in thought on the sofa, I waited while she ran through the bedtime routine with her kiddos. Suddenly Juliet stood next to me. “I have a present for you, YaYa,” she said, and put a purple unicorn in my hand. It was one of her treasures, handpainted and marked with a “J”. What do you say to a four-year-old who forgets how much her head hurts and gives her favorite unicorn to you just because she loves you?
She hugged me and ran off to bed, while a six-year-old breeze filled the void. Her older sister, Allie, always running at high speed through life, sprinted past me into the living room, grabbed a forgotten book, and spun around to run the other way. Abruptly, her arms were wrapped around my neck and she gave me a second good night kiss.
“Please come again soon, YaYa,” she pleaded with big, expressive blue eyes. “I love it when you’re here!” And then she was gone, papers ruffling on a shelf as she flew past.
For a few minutes I was alone, my hands filled with a ceramic unicorn and my eyes full of tears. Quietly, serenely, my daughter’s soprano voice floated down the hall. I sat in the shadows while she sang a lullaby to her babies, comforting and reassuring them again that she would be there to protect them.
A priceless drama had played out before me for the last four hours, culminating now in the soothing acapella which soaked into my own worried heart. I’d been there before, playing the lead role in my own family’s mini-dramas, and still my heart beat outside my chest as though for the first time.
It was just me and that unicorn, listening to the lullaby, and pleading for mercy before an audience of One. The One Who heals, the One Who laughs, the One Who created music.
And the One Who held us all in His arms that night, His heart beating on the outside, too.

Saturday, September 6, 2014


Can I gripe a little bit here? 

Fair warning if you’re only looking for ‘positive energy’ from me  today. Maybe I should have called this blog, The Whinepress.

Starbucks has been my coffee shop ever since that mermaid was a tadpole. Okay, maybe I’ve been unfaithful a few times—trying peppermint mochas at knock-off beaneries—but I always come back to the real deal. It’s my favorite place to blog and my first choice for coffee dates with friends.
But I’ll be danged if I’m gonna spend two or three hours sitting at a table with my legs dangling four feet off the ground.
Which is my gripe.
Why is Starbucks suddenly full of tall tables? Who signed the petition asking for stepstools to sit on instead of comfy chairs? And what’s up with the eight foot tables. Did some designer think, “Hey! Espresso and picnic tables! Awesome!” That doesn’t make me think coffee shop—it screams cafeteria.  Sure, a long table like that could seat eight or ten people. But it never does.
Because nobody wants to sit next to a stranger at the same table.
That only happens at bars. And in tiny towns where you can still get a tuna melt at a Woolworth counter. Wait . . . nope. Even they went out of business. Because nobody wants to sit that close to strangers.
I don’t know. Maybe Starbucks is appealing to college students. But, listen, it’s the middle-aged crowd who has money to spend on overpriced coffee. And this isn’t Europe—we like our personal space here.
Last week I met my cousin in Mesa for breakfast. We did a little shopping and then headed for the real point of the reunion— a couple of iced grande peppermint mochas. We drove around town for an hour trying to find a Starbucks with seating for two that wasn’t in the nose bleed section or rubbing elbows at a communal table. In the end, we drank our five dollar coffees in the car.
The thing is, there wasn’t an empty café table in sight that morning—only the uncomfortable spots were open. I don’t see how it could be any more clear than that. Nobody wants to share a picnic table, and we only perch like birds when there’s no other choice.
Maybe the timing is right for me. It’s not healthy to drink peppermint mochas all the time. I can blog at home. I can drink generic decaf coffee for a lot fewer calories than a grande three pump in a disposable cup. And now that Starbucks has taken down their welcome sign and replaced it with unfriendly tables, I can take a hint. Stay home, save some money. Sure, I know. This sounds like a ‘first world problem.’
But I live in the first world, whatever that means.
More importantly, they can’t get rid of me that easy.  I’m no quitter.