boston in bloom

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Out of the nursery and into the garden
where it rooted and survived its first hard winter,
then a few years of freedom while it blossomed . . .
developed strange ideas about its height
and suffered the pruning of its quirks and clutters,
its self-indulgent thrusts . . .

Its oldest branches now, the survivors carved
by knife blades, rain, and wind, are sending shoots
straight up, blood red, into the light again.

—from “The Cherry Tree” by David Wagoner

It was my birthday this past weekend. Now I am 37. My husband and I were in Boston on an unrelated errand, and the morning of my birthday dawned bright and clear. From our hotel room I could see the city coming to life—teams rowing up and down the Charles River, ducks arriving and departing, cars zooming hither and thither.

After attending to our obligations, we had the late afternoon and evening to ourselves, and we spent it strolling along the river where, overnight, a profusion of blossoms had sprung up out of the veritable desert of early spring in New England to cover what seemed like every branch and every inch of earth along the riverbank.

Everywhere we went we could hear people wondering aloud, “Has that tree always been here?” while they trained their cell phones and cameras at the shocking sprays of pink petals—in spring, mother nature wants to be noticed. The beautiful weather and the beautiful flowers, and the opportunity to stroll along the riverbank at the golden hour with the man I love . . . who could ask for a better gift?

At 37 I am longing a little bit for change—I feel restless. No doubt change will come, though probably not in the form I expect. In the coming year I hope that, despite life’s constant pruning, with each new day I will endeavor—like the cherry tree—to put out fresh shoots and grow toward the light.

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welcoming (imploring! beseeching!) spring

Measure your health by your sympathy with morning and spring.
If there is no response in you to the awakening of nature,
if the prospect of an early morning walk does not banish sleep,
if the warble of the first bluebird does not thrill you,
know that the morning and spring of your life are past.
Thus may you feel your pulse.

—from the journal of Henry David Thoreau (1859)

Harsh words from Mr. Thoreau, but I will tell you this: I could not have more sympathy with morning and spring if I tried! But, my sympathy is cloaked with impatience—when will spring truly arrive? Even the plants are anxious, I can feel that. The iris and lily sprouts have popped their heads up out of the soil, but they’re unsure whether or not the time of growth has come. Most mornings they seem to huddle together in an attempt to keep warm. Even the chives are plodding.

I’ve been doing what I can during this protracted gloom, raking up the detritus of winter storms, pruning (hopefully correctly) our pear trees, checking on this, that, and the other thing in the yard. But, still, mother nature makes me wait. Perhaps the ‘early’ Easter is to blame for the dissonance I feel—the Resurrection has come but the world slumbers on, oblivious to the miracle that has transpired.

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Mandatum Novum

winter wheat

Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos ut et vos diligatis invicem.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.
—John 13:34

It is Good Friday, and the weather is enticingly warm. From underneath their shrinking blanket of snow, I can hear the plants calling to me. Without boots I trace the narrow strips of snowless earth, and find myself at the edge of the bed of winter wheat we planted in September. “Can these dry bones live?” I ask myself. I ruffle the half-grown sprouts with my hand and they feel alive, despite their worse for wear appearance. Fragile, but alive nonetheless.

Before I know it, I am fluffing up more patches of wheat, pulling out dead and decaying leaves that fell in the fall. I run and dig my rake out of a pile of bits and bobs in the garage, and scrape it gently across the surface until the whole bed shines from within with the green light of life. With each passing moment, I feel more alive myself.

In the distance I hear geese, and as they get closer I look up to watch them pass. Suddenly I am overwhelmed. I feel my throat tighten—sometimes spring does this to me. The geese are so beautiful, and seeing them return reassures me that renewal is possible in this world where it sometimes feels like everything is passing away. I feel warmth and light pouring out from me toward the geese, toward the spring, toward the plants slowly greening beneath the snow. It is laughably, joyously easy to love all of these things.

It is not so easy to love humankind—I have been painfully aware of that this week. As I prune the raspberries and claw the dead leaves from around their canes, I think about the Lord’s new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you. “But,” I protest, “I am not You. I do not know how.” I sit with that thought for awhile and then, in the stillness, the small voice says, “Love them like you love the geese.” Perhaps that is a good place to start.

Holy Week, Embroidery, and Bank Mergers

pascha basket cover

It is Holy Week and I am desperately trying to finish embroidering a Pascha basket cover in time for Easter Sunday. This is my first embroidery project, and it shows. Still, I believe the final piece will be a bit like God’s creation: Individual stitches may be crooked and ugly, but when you take a step back you can see that the whole image is good and beautiful. Working on this project stitch by stitch has helped me to engage with Lent in a way that I haven’t before. It has also given my mind respite from a situation that has been troubling my family for the past three months, namely that our town’s small community bank is being merged into a large mutual savings bank headquartered elsewhere.

Before you think I’m being unnecessarily dramatic, I should disclose that the bank’s death may be more powerful and meaningful for my family because of our close connection to it: My husband has worked there for ten years, and his father before him poured twenty-five years of his life into it. My sister-in-law also worked there for a period of time. Altogether, members of my family have worked at this wonderful little bank for more years than I have been alive, and the bank is the reason we moved to the beautiful town we now call home. I grieve for what my family and my community has lost.

It is perhaps fitting that the bell should toll for our bank during Holy Week. Just as the narrative of Christ’s Passion shows us the nadir of human behavior, this merger has also illuminated a host of sins: Avarice, deception, and fear come readily to mind. This merger has brought out the whole cast of characters, from the Judases who rationalize their financial gains, to the Pilates who recognize injustice, and have the power to stop it, but fear to do so. This merger has brought out the worst in me, too. It has caused me to think less of people I genuinely like and respect. Again and again I’ve had to restrain my sinful impulse to judge harshly; to remind myself that He makes his sun rise on the just and the unjust. We have been, all of us, wandering in our wildernesses.

This merger has also impelled extraordinary virtue. It has been so moving to witness the few brave souls willing to stand up, publicly, and to risk the consequences of speaking the truth as they saw it. They are the heroes of this story, though I’m sure they don’t think of themselves that way, and we should all aspire to that level of personal integrity when facing the challenges our lives bring to us.

Some people say the Bible is just a collection of myths; I say it’s a mirror. If we look carefully, we will see both our great capacity for goodness and our great capacity for evil reflected back from every page. We might all be Judas or Pilate at one point or another.

The loss of the bank and what it represented is a tragedy, largely because it didn’t have to happen. At the same time, it seems that it was inevitable. To believe that somehow we are evolving into better versions of ourselves is to deny what any historian or theologian could tell you: Human nature doesn’t change. Wealth and ambition will always tempt us. When we feel fear we tend to let it guide us. For every new virtue we manage to establish, a new vice comes with it. If we put our faith in created beings, we will always be disappointed.

The last thing I will embroider this week are the words at the top of design: Christ is Risen. The pattern calls for satin stitch, a simple stitch used for filling in larger shapes. Yet even in its humility, the satin stitch is very much like Christ’s love, which enters the barren places in our lives and fills them with beauty. It is good to remember that our human institutions—no matter how beloved—come and go, but God’s Word supersedes them all. Christ is Risen, Christ is King, world without end.

And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed, nor shall its sovereignty be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand for ever . . . (Daniel 2:44)

in the woods // quadragesima

There are things you can’t reach. But you can reach out to them, and all day long.
Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around as though with your arms open.
And thinking: maybe something will come, some shining coil of wind, or a few leaves from any old tree—
And now I will tell you the truth. Everything in the world comes. At least, closer.

—from “Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End?” by Mary Oliver

It is February. It is Lent. We walk through the white woods, and the winter does not bite. The snow sags and melts, forming clear pools ringed with ice. A vole, running low, slips between two worlds and descends. Remnants of beech leaves curl inward and turn slightly in the breeze, resembling tiny wings when they meet. The bones of the world are heaped around us. The skeleton trees stretch up and out, hatching the gray sky with their dark branches as their roots tangle and sink deeper . . . into the dust from whence all creatures come.

And, yet, a voice on the wind is singing: Behold, I make all things new.

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