Slowing Down –
The last few days have been slooooooooooooooooooooooooooow. We’ve had overcast skies, plenty of rain and this makes for a dreary season and spirit. April showers may bring May flowers but February showers bring time to a standstill. The last few months have been long. I always have a difficult time between Thanksgiving and Easter. It’s dark when you arise and when you arrive home in the evening. The darkness that surrounds me seems to permeate my emotions. As someone with Chronic Severe Depression and a Severe Anxiety Disorder the days slowing to a crawl, mess with my balance and threaten to send me over the edge into negative thought patterns and fixations on disappointments and failures.
The balance, of course, is not letting the anxiety get in there and make my brain whirl like a drugged up hamster on a greased up wheel. Again, it is balance. I make sure the things which help me; meds, exercise, talking to others about how I’m feeling, are done and not discarded even when tempted to do so.
The balance to keep life’s rhythm manageable is an everyday if not every moment discipline. If we let it we would be either swept away in a chaotic whirlwind of activity or mired in a despondent state of surrender. Slowing down isn’t the goal but balance and mindful living are what keeps us sane and steady on the path.
Most of us have plenty. In truth, most of us have more than we need. I was speaking with a co-worker this week and he was saying how amazed he was at how people in our organization and fellow organizations step up when there is a need in our community. I told him I agreed.
We work with a lot of folks who are having a rough time. In certain situations it’s their own poor decisions, in others, the community, the state, and the federal resources have failed them. They feel and at times are the forgotten ones. There are residences you go into and cannot believe what you see. The basics of food, clothes, electricity, heat, medicine do not seem accessible and many are at the end of their ropes.
It’s hard when you know the suffering of others to come home. There may be cracks in the walls, leaks in the ceiling, toilet paper runs out and food spoils, but your house is a palace in comparison to these you see and spend time helping. These are the ones who empty and need to be filled. Much of what you have becomes superfluous, extra, easily given away because you know you won’t miss it.
It’s hard to imagine but can you, for a moment, think of living in a world where it wasn’t; “This is mine and you can’t have any!” to a place of sharing and; “What’s mine is yours.” Only when we begin to give away what we possess do we discover we have everything we need.
I was speaking with a friend this week who is incredibly busy. So busy it seems things that need to get done will never get accomplished. As we spoke I heard the hurry in their voice. “I’ve got to do this, then that, then the next!” Simply listening made me tired. I know the feeling of having too much stuff to get done and that all the time in the world doesn’t seem enough. I also know when I feel like that, take on that burden, I am stepping out of mindfulness and stillness. I am allowing the world and its chaotic rhythm sweep me away to a place where I don’t belong.
After my friend’s list was given I told them it sounded like they needed a nap, a time of stillness and letting go of lists, chores, to-do’s and embracing a still and mellow attitude. “Things will get done,’ I told my friend, ‘do what you can and leave what you can’t. Eventually, all the important stuff will be taken care of and all the rest? Who cares.”
If we aren’t careful we can fill our lives with so much to do that nothing gets done, not even living.
There are three kinds of problems; those we can live with, those we can do something about and those we must separate ourselves from.
It’s the last one which gives us the most trouble. Living with something aggravating and, at least in the present moment, is unchangeable can be a challenge. Fortunately, or unfortunately, we can tolerate a lot. This approach can create more hassles if something needs to be changed and we lack the direction, motivation or passion to do something.
Taking control, bending problems to our will, throwing our shoulder into a problem is an attitude we find easy. There’s nothing like grabbing a difficulty by the throat and forcibly doing away with it, changing it to our liking. The risk here is we can make a situation worse if we are too hasty, too stubborn or not wise enough in our decision-making.
Leaving it, for most of us, takes the greatest strength. To be faced with a problem and not change it but change ourselves, how we approach it, takes courage and trust. When we put up with it we are sullen and prone to negative thoughts and spirits. When we take hold of it and wrestle with it, we feel we are in control. When we decide to let go, step back, allow the problem to exist and find contentment at the same time, we have reached a place of genuine spiritual and intellectual maturity.
Today I had the privilege and duty to be a part of the memorial service for my father. It’s been surreal the last few days. So many errands to run, items to check off on a list, places to go, people to see. There’s been a sense of urgency, a nervous energy, a controlled chaos, riding a wave of sorrow and speed. Because of the hectic pace of the last several days, I stood on the stage behind the pulpit at the service this afternoon with no notes, and no structure to the stories and experiences I wanted to share.
Words, they’ve flooded my mind and soul since Dad passed. Words from family and friends who care and are sorry for our loss. Words that go into an obituary, on a card for flowers, in a service program and used in phone calls, emails, and texts. So many words used to describe the love a family has for one who is, was, the central fixed, point.
Now, standing behind the pulpit at the memorial service today, I had no notes, no words written, no solid ideas, memories swarming in my head but none coming in for a landing. How do you choose the right words to convey the meaning of a life which impacted many people? In the pantheon of phrases, how do you pick out those which will express the purpose of a life lived well?
A deep breath, a small prayer, and … share my heart, open my lips, loosen my tongue and let the words come. No, they will not be adequate. No, they will not be perfect. Yes, there will be second-guessing and memories that are forgotten to be shared.
Words. They are not, and cannot contain the heart’s cry of longing and loneliness or succinctly express the fondness, the love, the good of being apart from a person you love. This is okay. Living, being, existing, is more than words, deeper than condolences, greater than expressions of sympathy and sadness.
Living should be beyond our ability to communicate it easily if it is done well.
I found this to be an interesting quote. I’m not sure how to forgive; “everything” or if everything needs forgiveness but certainly believe that forgiveness. Genuine forgiveness is in short supply.
We live in a world where everyone seems angry over something. We fight with family, friends, strangers, internet buddies, internet trolls about banal topics that are of no consequence and about subjects with grave consequences. The problem is we can’t tell the difference and fight over everything.
To live with an attitude of forgiveness, to be a walking, breathing living example of forgiveness in a world that hates, fights, shames, shuns, is to invite hurt, pain, betrayal, and accusations of being out of touch. However, it’s also the antidote to the poison that threatens to kill all we hold dear.
Subpoena; sub·poe·na səˈpēnə/, LAW, noun, a writ ordering a person to attend a court. “a subpoena may be issued to compel their attendance.”
Unless you’ve been living under a rock or have become so sick of the news (I completely understand) you’ve no doubt heard the word; “Subpoena” innumerable times over the last several days. It is a summons to court and can be accompanied by additional requirements such as surrendering oneself for arrest. I have been subpoenaed one time in my life. I was a witness to a bad car accident and was compelled by the court to give testimony.
I’ve been reflecting on what it must be like for the people who’ve been served subpoenas and those waiting to be served. I’ve also been reflecting on what it must be like to know your memory and motives will be put under intense scrutiny and anything you say that is false or even misleading will be held against you by the court systems. It’s a scary proposition.
I once heard someone say; “Live your life as if every moment is broadcast live for the world to see.” That’s a lot of pressure but if we live in truth there is little to hide although living in truth can have its own consequences.
Every day we make the decision to live freely and openly or secretly in the shadows.
Your Last Moment –
Last night me, Beth and some friends gathered around a fire and roasted wieners, shared how are weeks were going and then rushed inside when it started raining. There wasn’t anything earth-shattering about the evening but that’s what made it special.
Too often, while living in the present moment, our minds are busy thinking about the moments to come or the moments that have gone by. We are rarely present mentally, emotionally, spiritually, in the present moment.
To treat each moment as if it is our last is a difficult discipline but it starts with the understanding that the present moment is truly the only one available to us. The moments which have come and gone are no longer accessible to us. We cannot relive or change them. The moments which are ahead are unpredictable and not within our power to get to until they become the present moment.
This is why the present moment is so special and powerful. It is in this moment where life and all its possibilities and wonder exist. We miss it so often but if we can embrace it, cherish it, drain each ounce of precious promise out of it our lives will be enriched beyond our wildest dreams.
Earlier this week I watched a powerful documentary on people being released from prison. It was a story of two men who were sentenced under California’s outdated and recently reformed Three Strikes Law. Simply stated the law demanded that any criminal who was arrested and found guilty three times received a harsh prison sentence often 25 years to life. After almost 20 years of being in place, the penal system and the citizens of California realized it wasn’t effective, led to overpopulation in the jails, severely impacted people of color, and left a trail of broken families in its wake.
The documentary follows two of the thousands of men who have been released for petty, non-violent crimes, after serving decades in jail. The transition for both of them was difficult, however, one was able to get back on his feet stay clean and sober, get married and be promoted in his job. The other man, who had a strong family and church structure, struggled mightily. Old demons such as drugs and mental health issues kept him unbalanced and unable to find his groove the way the first man did. At the end of the documentary both men were still out and making their way the best they could.
As I watched the film I couldn’t help but feel for both of these men. I work with men who are incarcerated and addicted. Addiction is a powerful force for evil and destruction. Incarceration can also be a doorway to a life of crime and recidivism but I’ve also seen men who learn how to make different choices so as not to end up in the same predicament.
Men who do three things greatly reduce their chance of going back to jail or getting back into their addiction. The first is having a positive home environment that might not necessarily be with their biological family. The second is a full-time job, a chance to do something and receive. The third might be most important and that is living a life around positive people, folks who will pull you up not drag you down. These three things, which most of us take for granted, will help men stay balanced, sure-footed, and on the path to a new life.
1 I lift up my eyes to the mountains where does my help come from?
2 My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot slip he who watches over you will not slumber;
4 indeed, he who watches over you will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord watches over you the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
6 the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all harm, he will watch over your life;
8 the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.
This morning, while getting ready for worship, I thought of an elderly woman I used to attend church with who had some unspoken rules she followed when it came to “going to God’s house.” Two that I remember were; “No candy and women always wear dresses.” I thought they were silly rules but the woman and I had a special relationship so it didn’t really matter.
As she got older she developed breathing problems and dry mouth occurred as a result. It was then that her rule about no candy was broken so she wouldn’t cough during services. I also remember a Sunday when I called her and she told me about a rash that was covering portions of her body and all the dresses she tried on were uncomfortable. I asked the simple question; “Couldn’t you wear pants?” There was silence on the other end for a while and then a soft voice replied; “I hadn’t even thought of that.” It was after this phone call her no pants rule was broken, though still not very often.
The more rules and regulations we have the less peace. We can wear ourselves, and others, out by placing burdens of expectations on our collective shoulders. The joy we could know by living simply becomes complicated when we slap our paradigms of how things should be in different facets of life. Trusting and letting go, allowing the journey of life to unfold before us unforced and naturally, will lead us to peace of mind, body, spirit, and freedom.
About the Journey –
As a Benedictine Oblate (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oblate), I receive a monthly newsletter from the Archabbey I was adopted into; Saint Meinrad’s (http://www.saintmeinrad.org/). Last night I read the newsletter for February. The newsletter’s chosen subject was stability and faithfulness. Included in it was a story; “The Worn Path,” by EudoraWelty.
The story is below but the point of it is missed by most. When Eudora Welty was asked if the grandmother was able to save her grandson with the medicine, she replied; “It doesn’t make any difference if the grandson is alive or dead because the story is about the journey.” She went on to say that it is the force of the grandmother’s will and her willingness to face danger, hardship, setbacks and the longest of odds to journey to and from the doctor to procure the prescription. Her fidelity, faithfulness, and stability to see it through to the end no matter the outcome.
In our world getting what we want, when we want it, without waiting or struggling to achieve any real meaning in our lives is because there is no journey to travel, no roads to wander, no paths to navigate.
Too often we miss the point of living. It’s not arriving that makes it worth doing. It’s how we get to the end and beyond.
If you have the time, read the “The Worn Path” below. Reflect on it and be sure you’re in it for the journey.
It was December—a bright frozen day in the early morning. Far out in the country there was an old Negro woman with her head tied red rag, coming along a path through the pinewoods. Her name was Phoenix Jackson. She was very old and small and she walked slowly in the dark pine shadows, moving a little from side to side in her steps, with the balanced heaviness and lightness of a pendulum in a grand-father clock. She carried a thin, small cane made from an umbrella, and with this she kept tapping the frozen earth in front of her. This made a grave and persistent noise in the still air, that seemed meditative like the chirping of a solitary little bird.
She wore a dark striped dress reaching down to her shoe tops, and an equally long apron of bleached sugar sacks, with a full pocket: all neat and tidy, but every time she took a step she might have fallen over her shoelaces, which dragged from her unlaced shoes. She looked straight ahead. Her eyes were blue with age. Her skin had a pattern all its own of numberless branching wrinkles and as though a whole little tree stood in the middle of her forehead, but a golden color ran underneath, and the two knobs of her cheeks were illumined by a yellow burning under the dark. Under the red rag her hair came down on her neck in the frailest of ringlets, still black, and with an odor like copper.
Now and then there was a quivering in the thicket. Old Phoenix said, “Out of my way, all you foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons and wild animals!. . . Keep out from under these feet, little bob-whites…. Keep the big wild hogs out of my path. Don’t let none of those come running my direction. I got a long way.” Under her small black-freckled hand her cane, limber as a buggy whip, would switch at the brush as if to rouse up any hiding things.
On she went. The woods were deep and still. The sun made the pine needles almost too bright to look at, up where the wind rocked. The cones dropped as light as feathers. Down in the hollow was the mourning dove—it was not too late for him.
The path ran up a hill. “Seem like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far,” she said, in the voice of argument old people keep to use with themselves. “Something always take a hold of me on this hill— pleads I should stay.”
After she got to the top she turned and gave a full, severe look behind her where she had come. “Up through pines,” she said at length. “Now down through oaks.”
Her eyes opened their widest, and she started down gently. But before she got to the bottom of the hill a bush caught her dress.
Her fingers were busy and intent, but her skirts were full and long, so that before she could pull them free in one place they were caught in another. It was not possible to allow the dress to tear. “I in the thorny bush,” she said. “Thorns, you doing your appointed work. Never want to let folks pass, no sir. Old eyes thought you was a pretty little green bush.”
Finally, trembling all over, she stood free, and after a moment dared to stoop for her cane.
“Sun so high!” she cried, leaning back and looking, while the thick tears went over her eyes. “The time getting all gone here.”
At the foot of this hill was a place where a log was laid across the creek.
“Now comes the trial,” said Phoenix.
Putting her right foot out, she mounted the log and shut her eyes. Lifting her skirt, leveling her cane fiercely before her, like a festival figure in some parade, she began to march across. Then she opened her eyes and she was safe on the other side.
“I wasn’t as old as I thought,” she said.
But she sat down to rest. She spread her skirts on the bank around her and folded her hands over her knees. Up above her was a tree in a pearly cloud of mistletoe. She did not dare to close her eyes, and when a little boy brought her a plate with a slice of marble-cake on it she spoke to him. “That would be acceptable,” she said. But when she went to take it there was just her own hand in the air.
So she left that tree, and had to go through a barbed-wire fence. There she had to creep and crawl, spreading her knees and stretching her fingers like a baby trying to climb the steps. But she talked loudly to herself: she could not let her dress be torn now, so late in the day, and she could not pay for having her arm or her leg sawed off if she got caught fast where she was.
At last she was safe through the fence and risen up out in the clearing. Big dead trees, like black men with one arm, were standing in the purple stalks of the withered cotton field. There sat a buzzard.
“Who you watching?”
In the furrow she made her way along.
“Glad this not the season for bulls,” she said, looking sideways, “and the good Lord made his snakes to curl up and sleep in the winter. A pleasure I don’t see no two-headed snake coming around that tree, where it come once. It took a while to get by him, back in the summer.”
She passed through the old cotton and went into a field of dead corn. It whispered and shook and was taller than her head. “Through the maze now,” she said, for there was no path.
Then there was something tall, black, and skinny there, moving before her.
At first she took it for a man. It could have been a man dancing in the field. But she stood still and listened, and it did not make a sound. It was as silent as a ghost.
“Ghost,” she said sharply, “who be you the ghost of? For I have heard of nary death close by.”
But there was no answer–only the ragged dancing in the wind.
She shut her eyes, reached out her hand, and touched a sleeve. She found a coat and inside that an emptiness, cold as ice.
“You scarecrow,” she said. Her face lighted. “I ought to be shut up for good,” she said with laughter. “My senses is gone. I too old. I the oldest people I ever know. Dance, old scarecrow,” she said, “while I dancing with you.”
She kicked her foot over the furrow, and with mouth drawn down, shook her head once or twice in a little strutting way. Some husks blew down and whirled in streamers about her skirts.
Then she went on, parting her way from side to side with the cane, through the whispering field. At last she came to the end, to a wagon track where the silver grass blew between the red ruts. The quail were walking around like pullets, seeming all dainty and unseen.
“Walk pretty,” she said. “This the easy place. This the easy going.”
She followed the track, swaying through the quiet bare fields, through the little strings of trees silver in their dead leaves, past cabins silver from weather, with the doors and windows boarded shut, all like old women under a spell sitting there. “I walking in their sleep,” she said, nodding her head vigorously.
In a ravine she went where a spring was silently flowing through a hollow log. Old Phoenix bent and drank. “Sweet-gum makes the water sweet,” she said, and drank more. “Nobody know who made this well, for it was here when I was born.”
The track crossed a swampy part where the moss hung as white as lace from every limb. “Sleep on, alligators, and blow your bubbles.” Then the track went into the road.
Deep, deep the road went down between the high green-colored banks. Overhead the live-oaks met, and it was as dark as a cave.
A black dog with a lolling tongue came up out of the weeds by the ditch. She was meditating, and not ready, and when he came at her she only hit him a little with her cane. Over she went in the ditch, like a little puff of milkweed.
Down there, her senses drifted away. A dream visited her, and she reached her hand up, but nothing reached down and gave her a pull. So she lay there and presently went to talking. “Old woman,” she said to herself, “that black dog come up out of the weeds to stall you off, and now there he sitting on his fine tail, smiling at you.”
A white man finally came along and found her—a hunter, a young man, with his dog on a chain.
“Well, Granny!” he laughed. “What are you doing there?”
“Lying on my back like a June-bug waiting to be fumed over, mister,” she said, reaching up her hand.
He lifted her up, gave her a swing in the air, and set her down. “Anything broken, Granny?”
“No sir, them old dead weeds is springy enough,” said Phoenix, when she had got her breath. “I thank you for your trouble.”
“Where do you live, Granny?” he asked, while the two dogs were growling at each other.
“Away back yonder, sir, behind the ridge. You can’t even see it from here.”
“On your way home?”
“No sir, I going to town.”
“Why, that’s too far! That’s as far as I walk when I come out myself, and I get something for my trouble.” He patted the stuffed bag he carried, and there hung down a little closed claw. It was one of the bob-whites, with its beak hooked bitterly to show it was dead. “Now you go on home, Granny!”
“I bound to go to town, mister,” said Phoenix. “The time come around.”
He gave another laugh, filling the whole landscape. “I know you old colored people! Wouldn’t miss going to town to see Santa Claus!”
But something held old Phoenix very still. The deep lines in her face went into a fierce and different radiation. Without warning, she had seen with her own eyes a flashing nickel fall out of the man’s pocket onto the ground.
“How old are you, Granny?” he was saying.
“There is no telling, mister,” she said, “no telling.”
Then she gave a little cry and clapped her hands and said, “Git on away from here, dog! Look! Look at that dog!” She laughed as if in admiration. “He ain’t scared of nobody. He a big black dog.” She whispered, “Sic him!”
“Watch me get rid of that cur,” said the man. “Sic him, Pete! Sic him!”
Phoenix heard the dogs fighting, and heard the man running and throwing sticks. She even heard a gunshot. But she was slowly bending forward by that time, further and further forward, the lids stretched down over her eyes, as if she were doing this in her sleep. Her chin was lowered almost to her knees. The yellow palm of her hand came out from the fold of her apron. Her fingers slid down and along the ground under the piece of money with the grace and care they would have in lifting an egg from under a setting hen. Then she slowly straightened up, she stood erect, and the nickel was in her apron pocket. A bird flew by. Her lips moved. “God watching me the whole time. I come to stealing.”
The man came back, and his own dog panted about them. “Well, I scared him off that time,” he said, and then he laughed and lifted his gun and pointed it at Phoenix.
She stood straight and faced him.
“Doesn’t the gun scare you?” he said, still pointing it.
“No, sir, I seen plenty go off closer by, in my day, and for less than what I done,” she said, holding utterly still.
He smiled, and shouldered the gun. “Well, Granny,” he said, “you must be a hundred years old, and scared of nothing. I’d give you a dime if I had any money with me. But you take my advice and stay home, and nothing will happen to you.”
“I bound to go on my way, mister,” said Phoenix. She inclined her head in the red rag. Then they went in different directions, but she could hear the gun shooting again and again over the hill.
She walked on. The shadows hung from the oak trees to the road like curtains. Then she smelled wood-smoke, and smelled the river, and she saw a steeple and the cabins on their steep steps. Dozens of little black children whirled around her. There ahead was Natchez shining. Bells were ringing. She walked on.
In the paved city it was Christmas time. There were red and green electric lights strung and crisscrossed everywhere, and all turned on in the daytime. Old Phoenix would have been lost if she had not distrusted her eyesight and depended on her feet to know where to take her.
She paused quietly on the sidewalk where people were passing by. A lady came along in the crowd, carrying an armful of red-, green- and silver-wrapped presents; she gave off perfume like the red roses in hot summer, and Phoenix stopped her.
“Please, missy, will you lace up my shoe?” She held up her foot.
“What do you want, Grandma?”
“See my shoe,” said Phoenix. “Do all right for out in the country, but wouldn’t look right to go in a big building.” “Stand still then, Grandma,” said the lady. She put her packages down on the sidewalk beside her and laced and tied both shoes tightly.
“Can’t lace ’em with a cane,” said Phoenix. “Thank you, missy. I doesn’t mind asking a nice lady to tie up my shoe, when I gets out on the street.”
Moving slowly and from side to side, she went into the big building, and into a tower of steps, where she walked up and around and around until her feet knew to stop.
She entered a door, and there she saw nailed up on the wall the document that had been stamped with the gold seal and framed in the gold frame, which matched the dream that was hung up in her head.
“Here I be,” she said. There was a fixed and ceremonial stiffness over her body.
“A charity case, I suppose,” said an attendant who sat at the desk before her.
But Phoenix only looked above her head. There was sweat on her face, the wrinkles in her skin shone like a bright net.
“Speak up, Grandma,” the woman said. “What’s your name? We must have your history, you know. Have you been here before? What seems to be the trouble with you?”
Old Phoenix only gave a twitch to her face as if a fly were bothering her.
“Are you deaf?” cried the attendant.
But then the nurse came in.
“Oh, that’s just old Aunt Phoenix,” she said. “She doesn’t come for herself—she has a little grandson. She makes these trips just as regular as clockwork. She lives away back off the Old Natchez Trace.” She bent down. “Well, Aunt Phoenix, why don’t you just take a seat? We won’t keep you standing after your long trip.” She pointed.
The old woman sat down, bolt upright in the chair.
“Now, how is the boy?” asked the nurse.
Old Phoenix did not speak.
“I said, how is the boy?”
But Phoenix only waited and stared straight ahead, her face very solemn and withdrawn into rigidity.
“Is his throat any better?” asked the nurse. “Aunt Phoenix, don’t you hear me? Is your grandson’s throat any better since the last time you came for the medicine?”
With her hands on her knees, the old woman waited, silent, erect and motionless, just as if she were in armor.
“You mustn’t take up our time this way, Aunt Phoenix,” the nurse said. “Tell us quickly about your grandson, and get it over. He isn’t dead, is he?’
At last there came a flicker and then a flame of comprehension across her face, and she spoke.
“My grandson. It was my memory had left me. There I sat and forgot why I made my long trip.”
“Forgot?” The nurse frowned. “After you came so far?”
Then Phoenix was like an old woman begging a dignified forgiveness for waking up frightened in the night. “I never did go to school, I was too old at the Surrender,” she said in a soft voice. “I’m an old woman without an education. It was my memory fail me. My little grandson, he is just the same, and I forgot it in the coming.”
“Throat never heals, does it?” said the nurse, speaking in a loud, sure voice to old Phoenix. By now she had a card with something written on it, a little list. “Yes. Swallowed lye. When was it?—January—two, three years ago—”
Phoenix spoke unasked now. “No, missy, he not dead, he just the same. Every little while his throat begin to close up again, and he not able to swallow. He not get his breath. He not able to help himself. So the time come around, and I go on another trip for the soothing medicine.”
“All right. The doctor said as long as you came to get it, you could have it,” said the nurse. “But it’s an obstinate case.”
“My little grandson, he sit up there in the house all wrapped up, waiting by himself,” Phoenix went on. “We is the only two left in the world. He suffer and it don’t seem to put him back at all. He got a sweet look. He going to last. He wear a little patch quilt and peep out holding his mouth open like a little bird. I remembers so plain now. I not going to forget him again, no, the whole enduring time. I could tell him from all the others in creation.”
“All right.” The nurse was trying to hush her now. She brought her a bottle of medicine. “Charity,” she said, making a check mark in a book.
Old Phoenix held the bottle close to her eyes, and then carefully put it into her pocket.
“I thank you,” she said.
“It’s Christmas time, Grandma,” said the attendant. “Could I give you a few pennies out of my purse?”
“Five pennies is a nickel,” said Phoenix stiffly.
“Here’s a nickel,” said the attendant.
Phoenix rose carefully and held out her hand. She received the nickel and then fished the other nickel out of her pocket and laid it beside the new one. She stared at her palm closely, with her head on one side.
Then she gave a tap with her cane on the floor.
“This is what come to me to do,” she said. “I going to the store and buy my child a little windmill they sells, made out of paper. He going to find it hard to believe there such a thing in the world. I’ll march myself back where he waiting, holding it straight up in this hand.”
She lifted her free hand, gave a little nod, turned around, and walked out of the doctor’s office. Then her slow step began on the stairs, going down.
Last night I sat in the classroom at a local county jail with a man who is close to being released. We talked about many things but mostly of our conversation was centered around the plan he has for getting his life in order, re-establishing his relationship with his children and how to live one day, one good choice at a time.
He was hopeful, a rare mindset for those incarcerated. He had his plan memorized and as he laid out the path he wants to follow I sensed in him genuine excitement at what his future holds. Part of mentoring men who are in jail is helping them not only formulate a post-incarceration strategy but also a second and a third option. After all, life has a way of not working out the way we anticipate. As we conversed the different possibilities his hope wasn’t dissipated and his determination, motivation was inspiring. I was careful not to dampen his enthusiasm too much while assisting him in making adjustments to his proposals. When our time was up he was not deterred. He believed in his plans, his ability to choose well and that he wouldn’t squander his regained freedom and sense of purpose.
Thinking on our conversation I believe it would be good for each of us to carve out spaces in our lives to remember our hope, purpose and reason for being. Life has a way of trapping us in the mundane minutiae of everyday living. Refocusing on our purpose, our hope, frees us from just passing one day to the next and allows us to truly live, not just exist.
This morning my Daily Office Reading had two sections dealing with focus. One was from the Old Testament, one from the New;
“When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. 3 The company of the prophets at Bethel came out to Elisha and asked, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?” “Yes, I know,” Elisha replied, “so be quiet.” 4 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here, Elisha; the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” And he replied, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So they went to Jericho. 5 The company of the prophets at Jericho went up to Elisha and asked him, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?” “Yes, I know,” he replied, “so be quiet.” 6 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” And he replied, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them walked on. 7 Fifty men from the company of the prophets went and stood at a distance, facing the place where Elijah and Elisha had stopped at the Jordan. 8 Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up and struck the water with it. The water divided to the right and to the left, and the two of them crossed over on dry ground. 9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?” “Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,” Elisha replied. 10 “You have asked a difficult thing,” Elijah said, “yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours—otherwise, it will not.” 11 As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. 12 Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his garment and tore it in two. 13 Elisha then picked up Elijah’s cloak that had fallen from him and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14 He took the cloak that had fallen from Elijah and struck the water with it. “Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” he asked. When he struck the water, it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over.” Book of Second Kings, Chapter 2
“Then the disciples gathered around Jesus and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. 10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 1
As I reflected upon these texts I thought about what we keep our eyes trained on also determines what slips by us as we watch other things. Knowing where not to look is just as important as knowing on what and where to keep our focus. Elisha was waiting, anticipating, looking for something predicted and present to happen. The disciples were staring at what once was and had now passed. To keep ourselves facing forward, living in trust that our purpose and passion are before us, never behind, we make sure what we’re looking for is worth seeing.
There are those days when you; “hit the nail on the head,” and others when you hit the finger instead.
Yesterday evening I finished building two doors for an outdoor lean-to we use for firewood and other misc objects. Critters have been messing around in it and I needed something to keep them out. The project wasn’t hard but my focus was off and in a relatively short amount of time I smashed my finger and hand with a hammer. I was becoming frustrated both by being off target and the pain which was shooting up my arm. Finally, doors in place, I went inside, washed and looked at my damaged digit and hand. Each one had already begun to turn purple and I rolled my eyes at my incompetence. This morning I looked again at the doors and at my bruises. The doors looked nice and will last, hopefully, longer than the damage to my hand. I also thought about all the nails that I hit on the head, drove into the wood without any problem at all.
The path we travel will have it shares of twists and turns, bumps and bruises, obstacles and heartaches. The temptation when we encounter these is to close our eyes to all the good, what’s going right, the blessings and focus solely on what’s not working, hurting us, the negative, impeding our way. The choice to look around and see the fuller picture can be the difference between keep going or giving up, hoping or despairing, living or just existing.