Hope in the Midst of Chaos

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Back in the saddle again. Out where a friend is a friend, where the longhorn cattle feed on the lowly jimson weed, back in the saddle again.                                                                      

Out on the range once more, totin’ my old .44, where you sleep out ev’ry night and the only law is right, back in the saddle again.

The words of this old western ballad caress my ears as I rock my grandson. The music of the rocker sings along with Gene. It’s the end of a busy week and a busy day. As we rock I listen to those words, words that are foreign to the ear in these days. Few people listen to cowboy music – not country music, mind you – true western music….ballads of life in the great western parts of our nation. They are filled with the stories of men riding the range, fighting the weather, living a life in which dreams and reality collide. 

As we rock I sing along and look into the true blue eyes that are looking up at me The words of the song speak to me more deeply than they have in earlier times. In this unhappy world, full of violence and illness, with the strain of society tripping over itself to find answers, I hear the clean music, the gentle voice, the words that speak of true friendship, of the peacefulness of an agrarian life, of a time when guns were not  something to argue over but simply a tool to use and the public was thankful for the rule of law.

I don’t think it is just my age that causes me to return to the old things, the good things, though it is true, or should be, that as we grow older we learn to appreciate the goodness of the old, rather than forsaking it. In our restless society, it has become more important to be ‘woke’ than to be wise. There is a great pressure to ‘keep up’, to be savvy, as we used to say. That was when people understood language more fully, read whole books rather than this blog of 500 words. 

There is no time now to study history and read deeply. We are too busy fighting and making sure we are not pushed around by others but instead WE do the pushing. Could it be, could it just be that those simple songs and simple times that are thought of as so naive and far too innocent, lacking the reality of skepticism and full of blinding hope were actually better? 

It was not a bad way to live when people were polite, when families sat around a nicely set table laden with food made by loving hands, and talked and laughed and cherished each other. The father at one end of the table, the mother at the other. Prayer was offered and all was just as it should be. A knock at the door was not feared, rather another chair was added to the table and food was passed.  This picture actually offends so many now; the thought of anything so picturesque must be eradicated. The present age of tomfoolery has no time for beauty, preferring instead to focus on how to make the world uglier.  Would that we could return to the days of love and understanding, of affection and kindness, of politeness and respect.

These thoughts meander through my mind as I watch my grandson’s eyes flutter and close, I listen to the lilting western ballad and my heart is encouraged that there are still some who live far away from the noise and there is hope that this child will not see the destruction of our society that is going on in the false name of justice. I hope that he, a white boy, or any of our other grandchildren – black and brown included, will not be judged by the color of their skin as so many seem to think is appropriate in these progressive times. 

The world has taken a turn for the worse; what was evil is now seen as good and what was good is now evil. The beauty of life on the range is unfamiliar to the angry protesters and to much of our society.  With blinded eyes, most could not see the goodness of a life lived outside the fog of mediocrity that is all the rage, where no one can do well and all must settle for the lowest denominator. In such a society, there is no use for beauty or striving for excellence – all must be the same.

Mock me if you choose, I prefer to follow a higher calling. Yes, head in the clouds, I will cling tightly to hope.  I choose to look up and to think on things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, of good report, full of virtue, praise-worthy. It’s peculiar, I know. But who wants to follow the madding crowd? I’m happy coming out from among them, living high on a mountain, listening to beautiful music, and generally  being a peculiar person. Wow – that sounds, well, almost Biblical.

II Cor.6:17    Phil. 4:8

Today He Sent Me Bluebirds

                                                         He sees the sparrows when they fall.     

He hears the righteous when they callIMG_0303 (2)

He counts the hairs upon my head.

By Him all living things are fed.

If God so clothes the grass and flower,

He surely cares for me each hour. 

He surely cares for me each hour. 

I need to be getting ready for church but the bluebirds are flying and I must stop and watch them. I wasn’t expecting this. Years ago, when our family moved to the great Navajo reservation, I met my first bluebird. In a little settlement in the Pine Springs area, in a small hogan church, we sang songs and taught Bible stories to beautiful little children attending the nearby boarding school. They were there out of choice. The families lived a distance from the day school and so had chosen to send their children to the boarding school each week. And it was here, among the juniper trees that I saw my first bluebird, the color of turquoise flitting in and out of sight, beautiful and bright and capturing my heart.  

There is no falsity about a bluebird. Their color stands out boldly against the brown of the desert or the green of the juniper trees. They do not hide. They cannot.  God has made them bright and blue as if to say, ‘There, see now what I have done. I have given you a thing of beauty.’ 

I have been waiting for the bluebirds for six months, ever since I moved back to the high country. In the quietness of my mind, I have thought of them and hoped to see them, for they remind me that God deals with us individually, not simply in general terms. There are those who view God with a faraway understanding. They see Him as an impersonal God who directs things from afar and has no time to minister to the individual. But God is not like that. 

 Many times, as I ran down the cinder road, these past months, I would ask God to show me a bluebird. It was not just for a pleasant memory, but a sort of reassurance that in this chaotic world certain things remain untouched, that bluebirds still fly in the high country, and God still ‘deals in the affairs of men’. It’s the knowing that in our greatest joys and our deepest sorrows, God remains. 

And then, in the quietness of a Sunday morning,  he sent me bluebirds, flocks of bluebirds, flying about and perching on the water trough. I stood and rejoiced and knew that yes, my God cares. He sees me, standing alone in the desert and He sent me bluebirds. 

“Oh yes! Thank you!”  I spoke it aloud and tears ran down my cheeks. I thought of the happy blessings He bestows and was thankful and I thought of the sad times  He allows and was thankful. I thought of the people I rejoice to see daily and those I long for, of those I am privileged to hold tight and of those I yearn to hold. I stood, near the corral, looking at all the bluebirds, thanking God for every one.

Walking to the house, I mulled over the goodness of God in ministering to me on this beautiful Sunday morning. Into the kitchen I went and poured myself some coffee. I was alone this Sunday morning which was unusual. Usually my husband and I are getting ready together and chatting as we do. But he was spending special time hunting with our son and I was happy for them. I walked to the kitchen door which leads to the back verandah. I would look out on the Painted Desert this morning.  I opened the door wide to let in the morning sunshine—–and there he was.

Standing outside my door, preening in the light, was my very own bluebird. I could hardly believe my eyes. God surprised me again. He gives so generously – ‘in good measure, pressed down and shaken together and running over’. My heart swelled with gratitude. My Heavenly Father loves me. Today He sent me bluebirds.

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Behold, the fowls of the air, they sow not neither do they reap, nor gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? …Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin. Yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall He not clothe you, O ye of little faith?

Talk to Strangers

Her name is Mary and she is my welcome home committee when I return from my travels. I remember the first time I met her, climbing into the airport shuttle after leaving my car in East Economy.  I waited at the curb and she pulled up, swung open the door, and welcomed me with her bright smile.

“I’ll get that for you.”

She reached down and firmly took my suitcase from me, placing it in the holding rack.  Yes, that was the first time I met Mary and I’ve been meeting her ever since.

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Society says we shouldn’t talk to strangers and does everything it can to promote a distrust of those we don’t know. Children are raised to avert their eyes from others, unless they are acquainted with them. But not Mary. Mary talks to strangers and sees her job as shuttle driver as a way to visit with people. She does not know that her work in the world is important, that people need to be welcomed. She has no agenda. 

For almost three years now, Mary’s been welcoming me, a friendly face when I return from places where there are lots of strangers. We are different and we are alike. She is in her seventies, African-American, raised in Texas. I am me – a fair skinned, Italian/Norwegian, grandchild of immigrants, raised in upstate New York. Mary has no family here in the heat of Phoenix. She lives alone but she likes to go on cruises and tell me about her latest trip in our short rides around East Economy parking. I have children and grandchildren and am often surrounded by family, but I like cruises too and we meet at that point. 

I rarely talk about my work trips to Mary, answering only where I’m returning from. I like to listen to her. Last time I climbed aboard Mary’s chariot, she had both good and bad news for me. She had just returned from visiting her dying brother. He had had a long battle with cancer. Mary was philosophical about it. He had been sick for a long time and though she hated to say goodbye, she also hated his suffering. She had said her goodbyes an

d returned to Phoenix. This is how Mary sees life – one must do what must be done. 

She came home and was now waiting to see if she would receive the loan she needs to buy a small home in Sun City. I hope she does. Mary’s a worker. She asks for nothing and smiles at the hardships of life. She greets everyone with a smile and offers friendly conversation to all. When she moves to her new home, she’ll cut back on her work days. Selfishly, I hope she won’t cut back too much. It will be lonely to climb on board and see a different face.

Sometimes I miss Mary’s shift and a man with a memorized talk tells me about the airport. I know about the airport and I turn my mind off and sit with a frozen look on my face while my mind goes to other places. I can’t wait to get to my stop, then. All I can think is that he’s not Mary and now I have a long drive home without the pleasure of our short visit. Mary always makes the drive better.

We need more Marys in this world – more people to greet us with a smile and ask how our trip went, to make us realize the world is not always frightening and that an airport shuttle can be a place of comfort.  In the busyness of life, we tend to overlook the importance of lifting one’s face from the downward looking at the phone and smiling at others. We need more Marys to show us it’s okay to talk to strangers.

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Walk in Beauty

IMG_1859My husband and I often talk of the lives we’ve lived. Yes, I meant lives, plural, for we have journeyed much and been allowed the experience of learning different people and places. There is a distinct culture to every place. Each person has a tribe, not just those we think of as tribal peoples. We are all tribal to a certain extent, for we know our ways and our family’s ways and we find comfort in the familiar.  We know this, my husband and I, and we have talked of the differences and similarities of cultures. We have learned that people are different and people are the same. Some behaviors are everywhere and some behaviors are particular to certain places.  It is the nature of humanity.

Years ago, we began our foray into other cultures on the grand Navajo reservation. Our hearts were captured by this gentle and beautiful people. We delighted to see the sheep herder and to sit in a hogan drinking coffee while shi’ma spun her wool, spindle on her leg rolling back and forth, or shuttle sliding quickly on the loom.

It was years ago, full of child, that our good friend set up a loom for me and I sat cross-legged on the porch overlooking the Rio Puerco wash, weaving. My rug was rough, boring by Navajo standards, no Grey Mountain design for me,  simple stripes running across it, not evenly woven as the master weavers in their simple homes. I was the student and I learned to respect their art.

When our baby was born, the neighbor women arrived at our door, cradleboard in hand, and he was soon swaddled and safe in the leather thongs, wound firmly to keep him comforted. It was their tradition and we knew this was good.

That was a long time ago, and we wondered, when we moved near the reservation again, if things had changed, if the old ways still held true, if the culture we loved had vanished, if cell phones and technology had claimed another tribe as it has claimed ours. And so, we found ourselves, on a Sunday morning, headed out to the reservation just a few miles away, to join our people in worship. The road wound out into the desert and I gazed at the wide open country.

Was it? It was. It was true. A beautiful sight met my eyes – a man herding his sheep and goats – and though others will not understand, to our eyes, it was a beautiful sight. It was our first gift of the day and we did not know that God had a plan and our cup would overflow with His goodness to us.

For fifteen miles we drove, until we came to a small town and found a simple church. Climbing out of our car, we looked at each other. It had been many years, but we wanted the simpleness of this place. We have been in many churches and heard many speakers. We have listened to men with many letters after their name. And along the way, we have wondered if somehow, there has been a puffing up with knowledge and a loss of wisdom.

Quietly, we stepped into the sparse room and found a spot to sit on the side. The pastor, an elderly Navajo gentleman, was just finishing his Sunday School lesson and the sound of the beautiful Navajo language fell soothingly on our ears. Smiles came our way and a woman showed us where the teacher was in the book of Romans. Another came and whispered that there was water, lemonade, coffee, and cookies in the back on the table. Help ourselves as we wished. A man came and asked my husband who we were and he replied we lived on a nearby ranch.

Soon it was time to sing and a beautiful elderly lady stepped forward to lead the singing.

“We’re going to sing in Navajo.” she told us. “You can join us.”

We were given a Navajo songbook. Our hearts lifted with the goodness of God. It had been years since we sang in Navajo, back in that little mission church so like this one. I found myself gulping back tears as we lifted our voices to sing.

Of course, our fellow worshipers noticed our singing and when it was time for testimonies, they called us forward.

“Come! Share a testimony with us!” and we stepped to the front and briefly shared our history – that we were so happy to be with them and we delighted to sing with them and that it felt like we had come home. They rejoiced with us and the pastor claimed us as one of their own.

Then he preached – going from Navajo to English and back for our benefit. The simple words of a man who trusts, who gets up every morning and simply trusts. These people do not have the luxury of going off to some school of higher education and it sometimes seems as if they, knowing they must rely on God for everything, humbly begging for His wisdom, are less full of themselves and more full of Him. I work in a world of educators, but I am not foolish enough to think these gentle, beautiful people cannot teach me many things.

As the service closed, one of the ladies motioned to me, asking if I could play the long unused piano. I stepped forward and as I stepped to the piano, the years fell away and I was back on that reservation of old, back with God’s blessed people, worshiping in spirit and in truth.  As two women prepared the frybread for the following potluck, my husband’s voice rang with joy as he joined the small group of believers in the last song.

The Navajo are known for hozho naasha – the belief that it is important to Walk in Beauty. There is much to this, including traditional worship. However, there is a respect for God’s creation and for His goodness that I believe is easily understood and exhibited by these gentle people because of this and is brought to fullness in their understanding of God. Their very view and expectation of life directs them to look for truth, for goodness, and for beauty….and that is found in Christ.

Last Sunday, we went to church and walked in beauty in a special place with special people.

 

The Story Of The Blanket

It was hot, very hot, in the northern Arizona desert. The traveler wandered slowly along, serape draped over his shoulders, bare feet blistered and burning. The intense heat of the IMG_1168(2)sun had surprised him. He never expected the Navajo reservation, located so far north in the state, to be as inhospitable in its temperatures. The Navajo had taken pity on him and offered him butter for his burnt feet and a blanket to throw over his reddened shoulders.  Foolishly, he had slathered the butter on and now paid the price as the heat of the burn drove inward.  

His stomach ached with hunger and he looked for a place to find some food. There wasn’t much in this remote area, but he’d been told by the natives he met, that the missionaries at the house up ahead might help him.  Shading his eyes with his hand, he gazed toward the mission house. It stood tall, its red porch standing out among the white rocks of the mountain behind it. He readjusted his blanket, a gift given by strangers to a stranger.  His heart overflowed with gratefulness as he thought of the goodness he had encountered in this lonely place.

Heading toward the house, he stumbled up the steps of the red porch and threw himself on one of the empty benches by the porch railing, his buttered feet leaving oily footprints. The door opened and a tall man stepped out. His face showing his surprise at the source of the sound on the porch.

“Do you need help?”

Was there more goodness in this place? His heart leapt. If only he could get to the nearest city where he might find a rescue mission, get some food, some sleep, some  hope to begin again.

“I need help, yes. I need to get to Flagstaff.” He might as well put it out there and ask; he had no choice.

“I can do that. I can take you to where you can catch a bus and I’ll buy you a ticket to Flagstaff. Sit right there, I’ll be back in a minute.”

The traveler leaned back against the porch and rested.

“Would you like a drink and something to eat?”

Opening his eyes with surprise, the traveler looked up into the face of a woman. It must be the man’s wife. He found a cold drink placed in his hand and looked down as a thick sandwich was handed to him.  What was this? Another kindness? He drank the drink thirstily and quickly gulped down the sandwich.

The tall man was his hero now as he eagerly scrambled into the waiting truck. Together, they headed down the highway and the traveler soon found himself settled comfortably on the Greyhound bus headed for Flagstaff. He reached to pull his blanket around his shoulders. Wait! Where was it? Where could he have left it? His gift from the reservation was gone! Ah! The porch. In his excitement, he must have left it on the porch. Well, alright.  The tall man could have it. Maybe he could use it. It felt good to be the giver for once. Bless that blanket. It had been a long time since he’d given a gift.

As her husband headed off in the truck with their latest visitor, the woman sighed. Living just off I-40 with only a few curio shops and truck stops nearby, she was used to having travelers stop in. There weren’t many places to go for help when stranded in this part of the country.  She’d fed other weary travelers, people finding their way. Picking up the plate and glass left on the porch, she noted the footprints left by their recent visitor. That was odd. It looked as if he must have had some sort of oil on his feet. Well, she’d seen all sorts here.  Something flapped in the wind, and she noticed a striped Mexican blanket laying on the porch seat. She picked it up. After a good washing, it would be pretty handy and the colors were pretty too. 

Over the next few years, the family — the man and woman had six children in the span of time — moved from the Navajo reservation in the northeast corner of the state to the northwestern side of the state, living now in a little town, still far from cities and the rush of life. The blanket moved with them. Sometimes it wrapped toddlers and kept them warm while swinging on the new porch’s swing. Sometimes it laid decoratively on the back of the couch, reminding all who came that they were in the great Southwest. The blanket traveled with them wherever they went, stored in a cupboard or used on a daily basis. Few knew its story, a story of giving from one person to the next, but the tall man and the woman remembered.

When one of the last daughters married, the woman gave her the blanket to take to her new home. Blankets are always needed and indeed this one had weathered the storms of life very well, and still looked almost new. The daughter took the blanket to her new home and settled in.  It was put away for just a little while as the couple prepared for a baby. Along the way, the daughter was given a gift of a rocker. Purchased at a thrift store, it lacked pillows. Someday, she decided, I’ll make pillows for that rocker.

And then one day the daughter had an idea. She opened her wooden chest and took out the blanket.

“Perfect!” she said to herself, and smiled quietly. This was her project for the day. Without hesitation, she cut and sewed and hummed as she worked. When her project was finished, joy filled her heart as she looked at her handiwork. Yes, yes it was just as it should be. That old blanket looked as good as new. The rocker was ready and she picked up her little boy and sat him in it. He looked just right. Now to tell her mother of her accomplishment…..

“Mom, you know that blanket you gave me? Let me send you a picture of it now.”

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“Do you know the story of the blanket?” said the woman. “Let me tell you….”

And so, the blanket continues its work, begun on a remote reservation by generous people who did not know the journey the blanket would take, protecting a weary soul, making homes more welcoming, holding sleeping babies, and providing comfort for a new mother. Hope revived is precious, a kindness is never too small and goodness is never out of fashion.

 

 

 

 

Tonight I Ate A Cannoli

The house is brimming with boxes. The rooms are looking bare. Closets have been emptied and my body is worn. The emotions of leavinCannolo_siciliano_with_chocolate_squaresg this house of memories insist on rising to the surface and my eyes overflow at the slightest provocation. Change, they say, is good, but I find as I grow older that it is also hard.

When we are young, we jump into new challenges with the fierceness of a young tiger, and that’s as it should be. It is the time for such things.  But when we grow a little older, when life has tempered us a bit with it ups and it downs, its hurts and its helps, its joys and its judgments, we become a little more hesitant. It is at these times that we hearken back to our youth, to the parents we miss and the comforts of the known.

And so, this morning, while on my early morning trip to U-Haul for a few more boxes, I found myself stopping off at the bakery to pick up a cannoli. When all the packing was done for the day, I would sit down and have a cup of nice, hot coffee and enjoy a cannoli as I thought of mom and dad and life in general —- of changes and growth and not letting one’s self become stagnant. Of stepping out of our comfort zone and seeing what comes up on the other side of that.

I thought of my parents, of their adventurous move to the country, leaving their known for the snowy winters of upstate New York, the comforts of the city for the discomfort of the country. Many considered it a poor trade, but I don’t think they did —-no, I don’t think they ever did. They taught us so much with their adventurous spirits and as I sit here, drinking my coffee and eating my cannoli, I am still learning from them.

Josef Pieper, in his little book of essays, Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation, states that ‘man’s ability to see is in decline’. He is right and he made this statement over sixty years ago. It is the price of a culture full of so many ‘advantages’ that we are unable or unwilling to step off the precipice and let God catch us. We fool ourselves into thinking we must be and always are in control.

Tonight I ate a cannoli and as I did, I stepped off the precipice, following my parents and other adventurers into the world of the unknown, the world of change, leaving the familiar to step delicately and carefully into new experiences, new surroundings, new challenges, not because I needed to, but because I chose to, falling headlong into the future and whatever it brings.

 

Once Upon An Evening

Here we are, all together in one place, sitting on my niece’s bed which she has so kindly provided for this weekend. I am looking at my older sister and listening to her talk.  My brother sits next to me as our little sister leans against the pillows.  It is late and we have traveled far. We are friends, borne of family and choice and we are savoring every moment of this night as we laugh and talk and catch up on each other’s lives. We are children grown up, laughing and talking and chiding as children do.

There was no plan for this late-nigrockwell parents with childrenht meeting.  It is a serendipitous moment seldom found in the rush of adulthood. We were unaware when we stepped off our planes and hugged each other, that after all the chatter of the evening we would drift into this room to renew our acquaintance with the past.

Years ago we ran together through the fields of upstate New York, towheaded and barefooted, skin the color of gently roasted marshmallows. We climbed up high in the barn for the tomboy contest and swam in our old pond, murky as it was. In winter, we dragged our trusty toboggan up the big hill to come flying quickly down, piled one behind the other, screaming with fear and enjoyment. We walked through tunnels of snow, dug from our house to the road, to climb on the school bus during those cold, dark winters, and picked apples in the back field at the end of beautifully sunny summers. We picnicked at the creek and picked out Christmas trees from our own fields.  We savored wild strawberries, their tiny size betraying nothing of their enormous flavor. We delighted in our own names for our own fields – the flat, the hill, the harp, the knoll, the pool table, the lane – we knew them all. We knew the best place for blackberries and became experts at stringing raspberries on tall Timothy grass.

We learned to state our opinions at our kitchen table where our parents encouraged us to think and talk. We learned to sing around the piano and did not fear the sound of our own voices. We grew strong and confident never realizing the depth of relationship developed over those glorious years. And, as most children, never noticing the great work our parents were doing in our lives every day. Now, as parents ourselves, we are kinder and more understanding of our own parents and we love them even more as we understand their lives and their decisions.  We are now them. They are seen in us.

We have gathered in the middle of the country to celebrate many things, our parents, our connection to one another, a triumph of health…..there is a gratefulness to us in this meeting. We have learned, over the years, that our gatherings are never to be taken for granted and so we treasure every moment together.

Yes, here we are, thankful children, talking late into the night, with no mother to scold us or father to direct us. Yet we know, if there is a way to see us from that heaven up above, they are smiling and enjoying their children gathered together under one roof again.