Category Archives: flowers

Tell Me a Big Story

A retreat at a Benedictine hermitage means the opportunity to plug into the daily cycle of psalms and prayers that has been going on for over fifteen hundred years. I learned five years ago as I experienced this daily cycle for the first time that something deep in me resonates with its rhythms. One June morning last summer, at a Benedictine hermitage in Big Sur bright and early at 5:30 Vigils, Psalm 5 began as a cry for someone, anyone, to listen.

6888193861_dd1dc9ea4c_z[1]To my words give ear, O Lord,

give heed to my groaning.

Attend to the sound of my cries,

my King and my God.

As so often with the psalms, the psalmist has a story to tell and insists that it be heard. And so it goes with all of us; the stories that define and shape us, that clothe the bare facts of our lives in fancy dress, are only the sound of one hand clapping unless there is someone to receive the story on the other end.

erie_pa[1]My early story was enriched by the presence of all four grandparents during my formative years. Visiting my paternal grandparents was always an event that took several days of careful and intense planning. We lived in northeastern Vermont; they lived on the outskirts of Erie, Pennsylvania, still in the house that my father grew up in. It was an almost six hundred mile trip, with the first two hundred on narrow two-lane roads before finally hitting the New York Thruway headed west, 550px-Clean-Refrigerator-Coils-Step-2[1]so some serious entertainment planning on my brother’s and my part and food packing on my mother’s part for the trip was always in order. My grandfather worked for General Electric, wrapping the coils in the back of old-time refrigerators by hand around a mold. He had forearms like popeye[1]Popeye—one of his favorite parlor tricks was to bet someone that he could make them close their hand just by squeezing their wrist in his vice-like grip. He never lost the bet.

Grandma was loving and had a great sense of humor, but also was noisy and abrupt, sort of like my Dad, and was a horrible cook. I don’t remember any item of food—meat, vegetable, fruit or starch—that my grandmother could not reduce to tasteless pulp after what seemed like endless hours sweating and complaining in the kitchen. But she sure could dish up ice cream.IMG_0853[1] Her signature dessert, usually served in the early evening in front of some mindless thing on television, was to open a half-gallon carton of vanilla ice cream, cut it in quarters with a knife so large that my brother and I were warned upon pain of serious comeuppance (one of her favorite words) to stay away from it, then serve a quarter to each person in the room with so much chocolate sauce and so many peanuts slathered on top that one would forget that it was vanilla ice cream underneath. This, of course, was before healthy eating habits were invented. A dessert designed to make one forget the less-than-palatable meal that preceded it.

The Erie homestead was nothing special, just old with creepy and creaky bedrooms upstairs. My other grandparents’ home in the Finger Lakes region of southern New York State was far more interesting and “homey,” probably because that set of grandparents was more touchy-feely and grandparently than my Dad’s folks. But the fun of going to Erie was not the house—the fun wasn’t really even my grandparents. hqdefault[1]What made Erie a favored point of destination was that my grandfather, in addition to being a blue-collar factory laborer, was also a “city farmer.” Stretched behind their house on a busy road in what served as suburbia in the early 1960s was two acres of land upon which my grandfather ran a small farm, complete with a barn, horse, cow, chickens, tons of barn cats, an outhouse, a huge vegetable garden, a dozen long rows of grape vines, and a lower field where hay always seemed to be growing unnoticed. My other grandfather was the real farmer who made a living growing fields of potatoes, but my gentleman farmer grandfather in Erie is the man of the soil I remember most clearly. When I take delight in digging around in the flower beds, pruning bushes, watering things and watching them grow, I am channeling my Grandpa Morgan.

imagesCA0SKN5LIn addition to their farm animal menagerie, my grandparents had a dog named King. King died of old age before I was ten years old, but if he actually looked like my memory picture of him, he was probably a collie/shepherd mix of some sort.lassie-face[1] We had two dogs at home, a collie named Lassie and Rex our German Shepherd; if they had ever mated (which they didn’t)germanshepherd_kearney[1], their offspring might have looked something like King. King could do two things that neither of my dogs could do. To begin with, King was the first dog I ever met who would chase a ball and bring it back to you over and over again until your arm got too tired to throw any more. At home, if you threw a ball for Lassie to chase she would look at you with a “You’re kidding, right?” sort of look as she laid down, and a ball thrown in Rex’s direction would most likely bounce off his head.dog_chase_ball[1] I thought King must be a genius with his ball retrieval abilities and should be on the Ed Sullivan show; it wasn’t until much later that I learned that ball retrieval is a normal dog activity and that my dogs at home were just strange.

King’s other trick was vocal in nature. My grandfather or my Dad would say “Tell me a big story, King, tell me a big story!” in a certain tone of voice and King would immediately raise his snout heavenward and start howling up a storm.cartoon-dog-howling[1] The story King told was sad and full of pathos, dramatic and primal, with the mournful tones of his wolf ancestors. But King was selective about who he would tell stories to. Only my grandfather or Dad would do. In response to such requests from my grandmother, my mother, my brother, me, or any of my aunts and uncles who lived in the area, King would stare in mute silence. King’s stories were meant only for the chosen few, those who knew how to ask properly.

Our best and most important stories should be, and usually are, saved for the ears of those who deserve it. Because woven into every story worth the telling is the intended listener. A story is far more than a linear reporting of facts; by fashioning facts into a narrative the storyteller reveals a great deal about who he or she is as well as about what he or she considers to be of ultimate importance. In Yann Martel’s Life of Pi,Yann Martel holding Life of Pi[1] in response to a demand for nothing but the facts about what has happened, Pi responds that “a story always has an element of invention in it. . . . Isn’t telling about something—using words, English or Japanese—already something of an invention? Isn’t just looking upon the world already something of an invention? The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?” Yes it does. And by sending his cries and groans heavenward, the psalmist is weaving a fascinating character into his story—a God who listens. This is the hope of the believer, that there is not only something greater than meKNorris1[1], but something that knows me better than I know myself, that listens, and promises a response. Sound like a fictional character, someone from mythology? I hope so, because as Kathleen Norris writes, a myth is a story that you know is true the first time you hear it. By including God in my story, I create a space in which God can show up.

Holy Manure

Last weekend I (hopefully) finished getting the yard ready for winter–raking leaves, cutting back various bushes, covering rose bush roots. While doing so I remembered the flip side of this activity, getting the yard ready for winter, and what I wrote about it last March.

Soon it will be time to start getting the yard in shape—one of my favorite times of the year. I use the word “yard” broadly, since we live in the city and our available land is postage-stamp size, comparatively speaking. That’s fine with me—we have lived here for seventeen years and I am regularly grateful that it takes no longer than twenty minutes to mow the lawn, back, front, and side. I have little interest in a luxurious, weed-free lawn.100_0920 Indeed I suspect that in the height of summer at least one-half of our lawn is covered with what those who know would call weeds. But the lawn is green, and that’s all I care about.

What I do care about is flowers. I had no idea how much pleasure there is to be found in the annual cycle of cleaning flower beds in March and early April, watching lilies, columbines, and peonies poke their heads through the dirt despite having as much as six-foot snow banks on top of them during the winter.001 (2) I keep a sharp eye out for the first leaf and flower buds on the flowering cherry tree, roses, and hydrangea bush in front, as well as the butterfly, blackberry, and lilac bushes in the back. I inspect each potential bud-producer every day and take it very personally when no progress is evident. The process has been entirely trial-and-error over the years; assorted azaleas and Hydrangeashydrangea bushes have failed to make an appearance in given springs, tulips and daffodils have tended to be a disaster, leading to digging up last year’s remains and replacing them with something that might possibly do better. The perennials and flowering bushes we presently have are survivors of Morgan’s version of natural selection—if you don’t show up when I think you should, you’re out. The plants that have survived both my impatience and incompetence over the years are hardy enough to survive nuclear holocaust.

I’ve learned a few things over the years, of course—loosening the flower beds and working in bags of shit from 757854410188[1]Lowe’s (really—they contain manure), then covering with a layer of mulch is a stimulant for growth and a deterrent for weeds. I’m particularly attracted to mulch, whose odor is reminiscent of either a pristine forest or an overpowering car_photo_211930_7[1]air freshener hanging from the rear view mirror in the car, depending on the quality of mulch purchased. I never seem to buy enough bags, though, and always have to make another trip to purchase three or four more bags.

I was encouraged a few Sundays ago to hear in Luke’s gospel about a land owner who had as little patience with his plants as I do.

Then he told this parable: 19cuaresmaC3[1]“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”

Jesus must have had a bad experience with fig trees as a child; we will discover during Holy Week that he kills a poor, random fig tree on Jesus and the Fig Tree[1]Holy Week Monday for failing to bear fruit, even though it is not even the season for fig-bearing. But I understand the impatience of the fig tree owner. There is no room for fruitless and flowerless plants in my yard—no slackers allowed. But the fascinating part of the parable is the remedy suggested by the gardener, the resident expert, for the figless tree. He says “Let me disturb it at its roots, throw some crap in there, and I’ll bet it will start producing!” That’s generally the suggested solution for any recalcitrant plant. Cut it back to the ground, lop its branches indiscriminately—in short, do things to the plant that any sensible person fears will kill it, then wait and see what happens.

It seems to be a truism, in almost all everything I’ve ever read about spiritual growth, that such growth is impossible without conflict, pain, suffering, and violence. Even the great and extraordinarily difficult philosopher Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel250px-Hegel_portrait_by_Schlesinger_1831[1] wrote that “periods of peace are blank pages in the book of history.” I want to know why. Of course, the classic expression of this problem is “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and, more problematically, “Why do good things happen to bad people?” But I’m not that concerned about why human beings have to suffer and struggle—this is such an obvious feature of the human landscape that it hardly seems worth asking about. I’m more interested in what to make of a creating being who presumably had infinite options when choosing the guiding principles and template for the world to be created, and chose to do it in the most open-ended and messy fashion imaginable. This is not a world created with efficiency in mind.

In her fascinating and eclectic memoir Wild Harmonies, classical pianist and dedicated environmentalist Hélène Grimaud1594489270[1] writes that “we can be essential only when we are suffering. It encourages us to remain honest.” I think most of us would appreciate being given a shot at living essentially and honestly without suffering, but we don’t get that chance. Instead we get to do it as plants do it, through productive seasons and dormant, through times when even we are astounded by our beauty as well as those times when even the most generous observer would swear that we are dead.

In a charismatic church I attended many years ago in a previous lifetime, we often would start the morning service with an annoying song based on Psalm 52:8.

Like a tree, like a tree, I’m like a green olive tree

In the house, in the house of the Lord.

I will trust in the mercies of God forever,figtree-new[1]

I will trust in the mercies of God.

It’s interesting that I’ve never heard such a song about being a fig tree.

Oaks of Righteousness

9780307266934_custom-121987fc3e24ad1855e5ca5bea349c60d1328a48-s6-c10[1]There are times when I just cannot believe what I get myself into. Latest example: I joined a reading group and committed to reading War and Peace over the summer at a pace of 150 pages or so per week. As if I don’t have enough to read with teaching two brand new courses during the next academic year, as well as the 24-7 demands of running a big academic program that never stop, blah, blah, blah. Actually, I’m having a lot of fun rediscovering Tolstoy through this 1350 page novel that I have not read since my undergraduate days. The philosopher in me prefers Dostoevsky’s depth, darkness, and weirdness, but the reader and novel lover in me resonates with Tolstoy. It’s just that I’m not getting anything else done. I’m reading Tolstoy on the elliptical machine at the gym, Tolstoy on campus when I should be writing important emails and attending important meetings, Tolstoy at home when I should be staying current with “The Voice” and Mad-men-title-card[1]“Mad Men.” On my silent retreat this coming week, during which I’m planning to write at least eighty-three new essays for my blog, I’m sure I’ll be reading Tolstoy instead.

When I read a great work of literature, and they don’t come any greater than War and Peace, I always find myself resonating with a particular character, more or the less the character I would be if I were to jump into the novel. 389px-Bem_postcard_7[1]About five hundred pages into War and Peace (a chapter or so past the Introduction, in other words), that character is Prince Andrei Nikolaevich Bolkonsky. I find Natasha, the main female character, annoying and PierreBezukhov[1]Pierre, the main male character, needs a good kick in the ass, but I get Andrei. This morning on the stationary bicycle at the gym, Andrei went through an experience so familiar to me that it was scary. As a young twenty-something Andrei joined the Russian army as an officer and fought against the forces of Napoleon at Austerlitz. Wounded in battle and presumed dead, Andrei finds his way home to his family just in time for his wife to die in giving birth to their first child. Now, two years later, tve4703-19721028-622[1]Andrei is depressed, cynical, and finding it difficult to find joy or meaning in anything. Travelling in early spring to one of his estates, Pyotr his footman comments on the beauty of the April morning, the flowers, and the new leaves on the birch trees. Andrei’s attention is drawn instead to a stand of stagnant fir trees, then to an apparently dead oak tree. “With its huge ungainly limbs sprawling unsymmetrically, and its gnarled hands and fingers, it stood an aged, stern, and scornful monster among the smiling birch-trees.”

“Spring, love, happiness!” this oak seems to say. “Are you not weary of that stupid, meaningless, constantly repeated fraud? Always the same, and always a fraud! There is no spring, no sun, no happiness! Look at those cramped dead firs, ever the same, and at me too, sticking out my broken and barked fingers just where they have grown, whether from my back or my sides: as they have grown so I stand, and I do not believe in your hopes and your lies.”

And Andrei’s mood and recent experiences are confirmed. “Let others—the young—yield afresh to that fraud, but we know life, our life is finished!”

Andrei’s oak reminds me of another oak, the massive one a hundred feet or so outside the front door of my Collegeville Institute apartment door where I spent four sabbatical months a few years ago. Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbHI arrived in the middle of a Minnesota winter; although I am not prone to depression as Andrei was, I realize in retrospect that I carried deep within me a spiritual malaise and ennui that had been festering for years. My Collegeville oak looked as I felt inwardly that January—bare, cold, snow-covered, with few signs of life. Over the succeeding weeks, this oak became an inescapable presence in my life (it was the first thing I saw as I stepped out of my front door) and a metaphor for what was happening to me.

As the snow piled up, then slowly melted over the first couple of months, I found an accompanying inner thaw occurring, facilitated by the warmth of daily forays into the liturgy of the hours with the monks at St. John’s Abbey a half mile or so up the road. Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbHOne March morning as I stumbled back from the common area at the Institute with my morning Keurig coffee in tow, I walked up on a dozen or so deer hanging out under the oak. They apparently had also been there right under my nose ten minutes earlier as I emerged from my apartment half-asleep and oblivious to the world on my way to the common area. As they noticed me noticing them, they gave me their unique white-assed salute as they sauntered away. Signs of spring under the oak, which was still naked.

100_0004As April came and other trees budded into their springtime growth, my oak remained apparently lifeless. Then one morning as I walked past it taking my usual shortcut to the road up to the Abbey for 7:00 morning prayer, I noticed that on the ends of its lowest and smallest twigs signs of new growth were first emerging. “So you’re alive after all, huh?” I muttered as I continued on, the same observation I had been making more and more frequently about 100_0238myself as deeper and deeper spaces cracked open after a lifetime of neglect. I regularly took pictures from my front doorstep to track the oak’s emergence into life and wrote essays to track my parallel inner emergence.

As the oak grew into full-blown spring splendor over the succeeding weeks, it more and more became my daily touchstone. 100_0326“Hey there,” I would say as I walked by three or four times a day coming or going, and I imagined that if I were able to live in tree time rather than human time, I would have heard a deep, rumbling, ponderous, Tolkien Ent-like “Hey yourself” in return. The oak’s stability and lack of hurry became my own goal as I practiced slowing down and plugging into the rhythms of the newly discovered energies within me.

Four years later, when I think of Collegeville the first image that invariably comes to mind is my oak. Growth, stability, silence, fortitude, rootedness—it represents all of the things that I hope to have carried at least a bit from my months in Minnesota. 100_0374On the half-dozen or so return visits I have made, a visit to the oak with more pictures has always been a “must-do.” I have never been at Collegeville during the autumn, so I do not know what Minnesota foliage is like nor what colors the oak wears in late September and early October. I was raised in northern Vermont, the fall foliage capital of the universe, and in my imagination I see the oak garbed in brilliant orange, my favorite fall foliage color. Yellow or red would be okay, but I’ll bet it’s orange.

After Andrei encounters his oak tree in War and Peace, he spends several days inspecting his large land holdings, and then heads back toward his home outside of Moscow. 006Looking for the oak where he remembered first seeing it, he is at first confused.

Without recognizing it he looked with admiration at the very oak he sought. The old oak, quite transfigured, spreading out a canopy of sappy dark-green foliage, stood rapt and slightly trembling in the rays of the evening sun. Neither gnarled fingers nor old scars nor old doubts and sorrows were in evidence now. Through the hard century-old bark, even where there were no twigs, leaves had sprouted such as one could hardly believe the old veteran could have produced.

“’Yes, it is the same oak,’ thought Prince Andrei,Oaks-of-Righteousness-Logo[1] and all at once he was seized by an unreasoning spring-time feeling of joy and renewal.” Over the next eight hundred and fifty pages, I’m sure that Andrei will grapple more than once with depression and sorrow. But an encounter with what Isaiah would have called an “oak of righteousness” has changed him for good. I know exactly how you feel, Andrei.

They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.


The Dawn From On High

blockisland1[1]It has been a beautiful spring in Rhode Island (so far). After more than a week of consecutive sunny days in the fifties and sixties, followed by two or three days of the sort of showers that humans grumble about but flowers and grass love, all of the growing things in the yard were smiling when I left for campus this morning. This all reminds me of my first Minnesota spring four years ago as I entered my last few weeks of sabbatical.

Leave it to me to go on sabbatical to central Minnesota, arriving in the middle of January. But after many bone-chilling and ass-freezing weeks, spring finally arrived. Autumn has always been my favorite season and probably will remain so, but I must admit I’ve never really given spring a chance. Spring comes slowly and late to northern Vermont where I grew up (sort of like it does to Minnesota), accompanied by lots of mud.mud[1] The real problem with spring, though, is that shortly after its arrival my allergies arrive. From late April to late May, basically the amount of time it takes all of the various trees to get with it and produce some leaves, my body has a fit. I remember some Vermont springs when my eyes reacted so violently to tree pollen that the inside lining of my eyelids began to peel away. Fortunately, there are allergy medicines available now that no one had even thought of fifty years ago, medicines that make it possible for me to function reasonably well during allergy season.

The arrival of Minnesota spring coincided with my finally pulling the trigger on a purchase Jeanne and I had talked about for a while—a digital camera. We are both the world’s worst picture takers. Well I guess we can’t both be the worst—let’s just say that we are the world’s worst picture-taking couple (although we are photogenic)481938_348335001913100_1730429546_n[1]. It’s not that we take bad pictures. It’s that we don’t take any pictures at all. On many occasions we’ve at least remembered to throw a disposable camera into the car or my backpack (Jeanne doesn’t carry a purse), swearing to God that this time the trip, wedding, birthday celebration, whatever, is going to be memorialized forever with disposable camera pictures. And every time we return with the camera in the same place we originally put it, having forgotten that we had it with us. Fortunately neither of my sons has ever showed much interest in seeing pictures of what’s happened in the past twenty years, because judging from the amount of pictures recording those years, nothing happened.

Given that the St. John’s University campus where I was spending sabbatical as a supposed scholar is located in the middle of a wildlife refuge with miles of walking trailsbest_buy_store-jc-home[1], I figured that perhaps this was a good time to finally purchase a digital camera. I went into Best Buy, headed for the digital camera section, and soon was joined by a very helpful young saleswoman. She offered to help me choose between the several camera specimens priced above $500, and I cut her off short. “You’ll never meet anyone more ignorant about digital cameras,” I confessed. “I need something $150 or under, preferably something that a trained monkey could take pictures with.” She smiled as she thought “I’ve heard this one before—you can’t be that ignorant about picture-taking,” but when I added “Here’s how behind the times I am with cameras; my wife and I have been using disposable cameras,” she looked at me as if I was either from Pluto or was a well-groomed Cro-Magnon man. I walked out of Best Buy in less than fifteen minutes having spent $171 (including tax) for a camera, carrying bag, and a super-duper memory card (she even had to explain to me what that is). I spent that evening at my ecumenical institute apartment charging the camera battery, reading a bit of the user’s manual, practicing taking pictures of the TV, my foot as I reclined in my chair, and a couple of accidental ones of the ceiling, and I was all set.

100_0116The next morning, and virtually every morning for my remaining Minnesota weeks, I walked for an hour or so on one of the many hiking trails through the swamps, prairie, and forests surrounding the university with my new purchase, just to see what I could see; I also was hoping that such walks would replace my daily torture session at the gym (they didn’t—I gained weight). 100_0313And I still can’t believe what I saw, both in quantity and quality. The various living things in the area must have had a meeting and decided to have mercy on the stupid fifty-three year old guy armed with a real camera for the first time. “Let’s all go out and pose for him for a few days, just so he doesn’t get discouraged.”100_0261 In no particular order, I saw and took excellent pictures of a bald eagle, loons, wood ducks, blue herons, brown herons, egrets, various deer who posed for me as if it was Oscars night, a red-winged blackbird, and all of my institute colleagues eating split-pea soup and drinking wine at an evening get together100_0032 (just another bunch of wild animals) . One morning as I walked behind the Abbey after morning prayer, I took great pictures of Canadian geese honking in annoyance that I had discovered their secret pond, eight or nine turtles piled on top of each other on a log trying to get a tan, and a gray squirrel.100_0183 I also took pictures of the large soaring birds that always were circling over the water tower close by the Abbey, and was bummed when a monk told me that they were turkey vultures. According to the picture organizing program that came with the camera, I downloaded over 250 pictures in the past week. For a few weeks, at least, I was a picture-taking fool.100_0360

Next Sunday’s Pentecost psalm is Psalm 104, a beautiful celebration of and tribute to the incredible, out-of-control exuberance expressed by the Creator through the various living things in our world. Wild asses, storks, rock badgers, lions, Leviathan—I didn’t see any of these in Minnesota, but I did see a lot of creatures the Psalmist doesn’t mention. The Psalmist raves about the earth “with its living things too many to number, creatures both small and great,” just what I’d been taking pictures of the past few days. As I read morning prayer this morning, the sun rose and cast its unique “Look at me, I just got up” dawn light on the back yard.dawn[1] The canticle for the morning, as it is for every morning prayer, was a setting of “The Song of Zechariah,” which concludes with “In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break open us.” Yes, I know that Zechariah is referring to the Messiah for whom baby John the Baptist will prepare the way, but this morning I chose to take some textual license. One of the ways the Creator shows love and mercy for us is by creating over and over and over again, every morning, every season, every year, in the intricacies of all creatures small and great. And I don’t even care if my eyes are itching and my nose is running a bit.