Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Spiderwebs On My Face: Another Midwest Musing

 


Almost every day, sometimes twice a day, Nancy and I climb into our utility cart and go for a ride on the trails around and through our woods and prairie. We used to go for walks, but since Nancy's stroke last March that's just not possible anymore. Yet, she enjoys and wants to experience the trees, the tall grasses, the wildflowers, the glimpses of wild turkeys, deer, coyotes, beaver, groundhogs, coyotes, and more. 

So I help her up into the cart and off we go at a pace similar to that we used to walk. Up and down paths wide and narrow, bumpy and smooth. Always watching for a new seasonal wildflower, a hawk, a scurrying skunk.

One thing we always forget to watch for -- and indeed is hard to watch for -- are spiderwebs.

I hate spiders. Have since I was little kid. It's must be a genetic hate -- Grandma Bill hated them, too. With a passionate hate. One time she called my grandad to come get rid of one in their bedroom. He'd been at the kitchen table cleaning his pump action 12 gauge shotgun and arrived in their room carrying it. "Lew, get rid of that spider!" grandma demanded. "How?" "You have a gun," she shouted. "Use it if you must." And then stormed out the room. 

Of course, he didn't. Use the gun that is. But it's always made a good family story.

But back to spiderwebs and utility cart rides. 

At least once on every ride, we run, usually face first (our cart is pretty simple -- no windshield) into a spider web. Nancy is generally pretty calm and just wipes it away. I am frantic, certain that the spider, probably a black widow or brown recluse, has scampered off the web and is at that very moment working its way down the collar of my shirt and under my t-shirt looking for a place to bite me. Probably my fat belly.

After the brushing and me smacking areas on my shirt where I think the poisonous pest might have taken up residence, I step on the accelerator and we inch off down the trail. And run into another web.

Sigh.

These head on collisions with spiderwebs have left me pondering though the persistence of these creatures. I can imagine, sort of, making a web that is goes across a six foot wide windy path in the woods, but bridging one that is twelve to fifteen feet wide? How do they do that? 

Now I don't really care what the answer is -- learning how they do that is not that important to me. What is important is that they do it at all and the work that goes into it. And the ancillary fact that the same place I drive through today and run into a spiderweb may find another there tomorrow. Ambitious little arachnids -- God's creations doing what they were created to do. In the face of politics, division, war, pandemic. Oh wait, could that stuff only matter to us people who seem too often to do that which is other than what we were created to do.

In the midst of my musings, I picked up a book of Jane Tyson Clement's poems. And, in the mysterious ways the Divine teaches me, came across her poem "The Spider"

I watch the spider fling
its most improbable thread ―
from aspen limb to birch
and back again.

 

So do we fling our faith
from star to star
and under God’s eternal, watching care
the perfect orb
will come.

Now I'm still no big fan of spiders. But I'm happy for the lesson they are teaching me -- to be true to my nature as one of God's beloved creatures. 

To do the work I'm called to do. 

To trust in the Lord. 

To know it will be enough. 

Friday, September 18, 2020

The Presence in Our Midst: Christ in Commonlife

"And she gave birth to her first born son..." Luke 2:7
(top photo)
"Is this not the carpenter..." Mark 6:3
(bottom photo)

When I was in seminary, I continued my interest in photography by incorporating into various theology or Bible classes. One project I developed, in lieu of a formal paper, was for a class on the gospel of John. Based on John 1:14-18 (And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. (John bore witness to him, and cried, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me.’”) And from his fulness have we all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known. RSV, italics mine) it was a presentation on the life of Jesus as incarnate in God's people today using scripture, music, and slides projected on a screen.

That then morphed into the idea of a book project that never materialized, but which I came across the other day while cleaning out an old file cabinet. It's working title was Christ in Commonlife and was going to combine photography with scripture and some meditative thoughts. The photographs, two contact prints of which are on this post, were ones I took of people I  encountered in daily like -- including family. Like the two here -- the top one is of my son Benjamin a day after he was born and the bottom one is of my dad building his garage behind the house where I grew up.

As I wrote in the book proposal

The central concept of Christ in Commonlife is that it is in every day encounters we me Jesus. Imagination is imperative since many of the photographs contain no specific Christ figure. To find Christ -- in these images as in life, you must allow your imagination free reign. Become a dreamer. Just as you used to be, before you put away dreaming and other such childish things. It is my hope that in the uniting of word and image, you will be open to really seeing again -- and in that awakened state you will find yourself encountering Christ in places and faces fresh and new. And ordinary. Like these photographs. Like life.

Jesus rides the subways today -- and the county school bus. He puts in his time in factories, office buildings, farms, and homes across the planet. He is wherever people are -- doing the things they do; eating, sleeping, laughing, crying, working, living, dying. 

Well, as I said, the project never came to fruition as a published book. But still it helped me to put into daily practice the Quaker concept of looking for that of God in every person that I encounter. Some days I'm better at it that others. But still, I try.

The book was to end with a poem. Now I've never claimed to be a poet -- I know my limitations. But this one still feels good and true and seeking to me:

Looking into faces

young or old

we catch glimpses of

ourselves, or

the people we could be.

Then we

stop, reflecting on

the beauty that lies

within.

Wonderment.

It may be

We should spend more

moments

gazing at

God in

us all. Finally

free. Ourselves. Are

you there,

Jesus?


 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Cleaning House and Enjoying It: Another Midwest Musing

 
Today I cleaned my office. Since the pandemic hit, it has gotten dustier and more cluttered than I usually let it get. Books on the floor. Notebooks leaning again the baseboard. CDs strewn across the desk. Yikes!

So today was the time to bring some order to this space where I spend so much time. It is a lovely place to be -- up on the second floor of our house, looking out over the woods that overlooks the prairie. And when it's neater and cleaner, I enjoy it more because I am sort of a neat freak. 

What I enjoyed most, though, beside the lack of dust and newly restored order, was looking over the eclectic collection that fills this room.

There are the books, of course, as evidenced by the photos. And some of them are ones I didn't write. Ha. There are books of poetry, humor, history, theology, fiction, comic books (old -- and I mean old! -- Mad magazines and DC comics), and more. 

There's a whole collection of ancient Wittenburg Doors. There's a whole section of shelves containing autographed books by friends and authors I've met over the years. 

But the shelves also hold a bottles of Winomycin Elixir (looks a lot like Sutter Home Chardonnay) prescribed to me by my late friend Dr. Phil Ball and some wild Guatemalan booze sent by Donna Higgins Smith. There's my collection of "Jesus Junk" ("Jeez-It's" sticky notes, "Messiah Mints -- Save Your Breath", etc.) and Quaker Crap (Fighting Quaker Puppet, Quaker Boy Moose Mate Call, Old Quaker Wiskey, and so on), along with assorted other goofy things. And memorabilia from my misspent youth in Columbus, Ohio. Oh, and a screaming flying monkey that soars across the room. 

Sitting on the shelves are various Snoopys, models I've built of British sportscars (including a replica of the 1966 Austin-Healey Sprite I once owned), awards I've won exhibiting my 1955 MGTF 1500 at various car shows, and old cameras -- including my dad's 35mm Vivitar and its lenses. Unlikely for a Quaker, there are also old cast iron tanks, a cannon, and a grenade cigarette light -- relics of time I spent with my beloved great-uncle Johnny Clemmens. Some of his Army medals hang on a wall.

The walls are covered with all sorts of photos and certificates. The old Ohio title to the MG from when 

dad gave it to me, a leaf from an early 17th John Bill Bible (a printer relative of mine), a 1973 National Lampoon Map of the World (very unpollitically correct, framed book covers, a painting of Quaker Mary Dyer by my friend Lil Copan. 

In the corner, tucked alongside two file cabinets topped by my dad's old chart chest, is my desk. I had it made almost 20 years ago and still love its aging oak patina. It hold my large format photo printer, laser printer, scanner, stereo speakers and computer. It's where I do almost all of my writing and thinking. 

When I was a kid growing up in Columbus, I dreamt of being a writer and having a space like this. I also was intrigued by the collections various adults in my life had -- Dad and his stuff, including fake business cards that said things such as "If I give you a going away present, will you go away?", Uncle Johnny and his model tanks and record collections, Mom and her books and boxes of family photos. For the past almost 20 years, I've been lucky to have had the writing space I always dreamed of and a place to put my weird collection of stuff. It's been a haven -- a little bit of normal (or abnormal in my case) -- in this scary, dangerous time. 

And a place to further reinforce their grandfather's craziness to my grandchildren. Though they do seem to enjoy playing with the toy cars, Woodstock and Snoopy, the marshmallow shooting air gun, et al. 

"See you 'round like a donut," they say when they leave. Wonder where they got that?


Thursday, September 10, 2020

Time of the Signs: More Midwest Musings

Yesterday morning dawned sunny and coolish for a day when later it turned 90 and humid. So, I thought, I'd better get out and do some work around the farm early.  

My first task was replace the old farm sign. Sixteen years ago, I had a nice handmade wooden sign welcoming people to Ploughshares Farm, the name of our place. Originally, it was a nice stained piece of wood with letting and a picture of a ploughshare on it. Over the years the finish wore off and the wood began to age in not good ways, so we painted the background, repainted the lettering and logo, and edged it in green. 

That worked well for a while, but time, weather, and some wood chewing insects took their toll and as you can see from the top photo the sign was falling apart. Pieces fell off it it regularly and had to propped back into place. So the time came for a new sign. 

I picked the new sign, done by a local shop, up earlier in the week. I loaded up my tools and new the sign in my little utility cart and headed out to the road. Removing the old rotted sign was easy at first. Pieces fell off. But the sign's mounting board proved a bit more difficult. I'd mounted that sign with four 4" deck screws. And they were still holding tight. Besides that, they didn't want to let go. One battery on the drill/screwdriver went dead on the top screw. And some doofus had failed to charge the back up battery. Doh. So I took the batteries back to garage to charge, and picked up a screw driver to get the screws out. 

Twenty minutes and a few breaks later (old men with heart conditions take lots of breaks) the four screws were finally free. And one of the batteries was charged just in time to install the new sign. I figured, after measuring twice (my father's voice in my head) that 3" screws would be plenty long enough. A few more measurements and pencil marks and use of a level, the new sign (bottom picture) was up.

A vast improvement. As I stood there, I looked down the long lane admiring my work and also the work of others at Ploughshares Farm over the years. The east side tree line along the lane had once been a scrum of bushes and trees and old farm fence that my dad, son-in-law Michael, son Tim, and I had chain sawed, hand sawed, and more to clean out and leave about 30 good trees (it's a long lane!). On the west side I saw another almost 30 trees and bushes -- these all planted by Nancy and me fourteen years ago, except two maple trees that had sprouted in Dad and Mom's flower garden. Dad dug them up and brought them 210 miles to our place and planted them. They're now over twenty feet tall. 

The two tree lines form a nice canopy over the lane, a shady (most of the time), pleasant view that leads back into another woods (the lane takes a sharp eastward turn toward our house a third of a mile away. The house can't been seen from the main part of the lane). Though a lot of human labor went into that view, mostly it was nature at work. Trees and bushes did what trees and bushes should do and grew and grew. And I was the beneficiary of their work that day. And, indeed, I am almost every day.  

While I was sad to take the pieces of the old sign down to the burn pile, I was grateful for the way it stood as welcome for a decade and half. It was an invitation to many folks to visit the farm, stay awhile, see its transformation from farmland to prairie and woodland, and enjoy the trails and wildflowers and tall grasses and butterflies and birds and occasional fox, wild turkeys, bunnies, and deer. What they may not have seen is the slow transformation of my soul and life that comes from living and working here. And ike that old sign, I'm older, too. And falling apart a bit more each day -- at least physically. 

But I'm not quite ready for the burn pile!

Now a new stands out by the road. The invitation is still there -- just a bit easier to see with its new paint. It's an invitation I hope you'll take advantage of if you're ever out this way.
 

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Celebrating a "Recital of Love"

Today is the release of Recital of Love by Keren Dibbens-Wyatt. I've been enjoying my advance review copy of this wonderful book. I thought you might enjoy these thoughts about the book from Keren, a true modern day mystic. 

******

People have been asking me lately about where my new book, Recital of Love, came from. Thinking about this, I have to conclude that it has its roots in failure, sickness, and purposelessness. As Christians, we are not always told that good can come from such things, but given to God, any kind of suffering can bring about wonders. Just as a rosebush needs a good layer of manure to feed it, maybe sometimes we don’t come into full bloom until we’ve spent a while on the dungheap. That’s certainly true of my life.

Twenty-five years ago I got very sick with myalgic encephalomyelitis (M.E.) and had to stop working. My whole life fell apart and the faith which had been little more than a kind of emergency prop for some years (at least on the surface) suddenly had a great deal of work to do to keep me afloat.

This neurological illness plays havoc with all physical systems and damages your ability to produce energy. The more I pushed against it, the worse I got. The more I fought, the less I had left to fight with. I ended up using a wheelchair, relying on caregivers, and spending most of the day resting in bed. I still do, all this time later. For the last two years I’ve simply not had the strength to leave the house and my wonderful husband Rowan takes care of me.

This illness has put me in a cell. At first, it felt like a prison cell, but over the years, I developed a deeper prayer practice, and it has come to often feel more like a monastic cell. I felt God calling me to spend more and more time with him, and as many loved ones distanced themselves, and more physical function left me, well, let’s just say there wasn’t really much else I was able to do. God was waiting for me in the gap created by loss.

I began to practice daily contemplation. Stillness and silence gradually became precious to me and once I’d learnt to let my busy mind chatter away above the more important things that were taking place in my spirit, I found God taking me to new places and showing me new things, and even speaking wonderful words into my heart.

I wrote them down in my journals, and a few years later, started to collate them into documents on the computer. I had no idea then, of these things becoming a book, but rather, wanted to keep a record for myself of the time God and I were spending together, and the dear things he was showing me.

And then, nine years ago, before I was housebound, my parents bought me a few days’ retreat at Aylesford Priory for my fortieth birthday. Whilst I was there, I sat in the Relic Chapel, in awe at the sense of God’s presence that manifested through the prayerful atmosphere, and through the beautiful ceramics, woodwork and stained glass. God spoke to my heart very clearly. He told me he was commissioning me to be a writer.

From that point on I set myself to the task of making the gifts I was being given into pieces that would bless others. There has been an outpouring of understandings, seeings, poems and stories, as well as of artwork. My hope is that as I continue to share this flow of creativity, readers will be drawn into deeper relationship with God, who is love, and all that I weave with God’s help and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, will be an encouragement and joy to my fellow Christians, and perhaps even to those who have yet to be still, and begin to know God.

Keren Dibbens-Wyatt is a contemplative in the Christian tradition. She writes to encourage others, to know the Lord more intimately, and to share the poetic ponderings of her heart. She lives in southeast England with her husband.

Copyright ©2020 by Keren Dibbens-Wyatt. Shared by permission.

Recital of Love: Sacred Receivings by Keren Dibbens-Wyatt
ISBN 978-1-64060-406-3│September 8, 2020│Hardcover│$16.99

 

Sunday, September 06, 2020

Midwest Morning Musings

 A young deer leapt out onto the two lane road that stretched out before me. I applied the pickup truck brakes, slowly bringing the truck to a complete stop. The deer was lit with mid-morning sun that was behind me. It just looked at me. I looked down the road -- no cars were were coming from the other direction. I checked my mirror. No vehicles were approaching from behind. I inched forward, willing the little deer to move. It did, so that it was right in front of me. And then another appeared from the same direction the first had come and the both scampered across the road and down the sloping roadside into the woods. I eased off the brake and resumed my meandering drive through west Central Ohio.

I hadn't been to my home state since January. On March 1, Nancy had a stroke and then shortly after that the pandemic shut everything down. Now things were well enough all the way around that I could make a quick trip and visit some family and enjoy being back in Ohio. Mys sister Linda is selling her house and had my mother's small secretary desk and rocking chair from the home we grew up in on Eureka Avenue in Columbus, Ohio for me to bring back to Indiana. So I gassed up my little GMC and headed east on the interstate early on Friday morning.

After a nice lunch with Linda and my sister Kathleen and her husband Paul, I loaded the truck with the desk and rocker, along with some boxes of tools that were Dad's, and some other miscellaneous memorabilia. Then Linda, Kathleen, Paul, and I retired to Linda's screen porch and chatted for hours. Sister Julie called from her home on top of a mesa in Colorado. It was a wonderful time of memories and family.

At 8:15 Saturday morning, I fired up the Canyon and headed out. It was a crisp, cool almost autumn morn, so I decided to take backroads at least part of the way home. I turned onto Orange Road, which when I was a kid on the Hilltop area of Columbus seemed terribly far away when we would travel up to Orange Road Friends Church for Quarterly Meeting or other services. It's all of twenty miles. Orange Road now is lined by houses and tall trees and was very peaceful with the shade covering the road. Then north on Liberty Road, west on Herriott, south on Ohio 42, southwest on 161, southwest on 4. "I know Ohio like the back of my hand," to quote a line from a song by Over the Rhine

I reveled in the feel of familiar roads under the truck tires. Roads I'd traveled over many times since I was child. Towns, small and smaller. New California. Plain City. Irwin. Mechanicsburg. Winding byways, gentle hills, woods, farmsteads, soybeans starting their change from deep green to yellow, cornstalks likewise losing their vibrant green. The sun taking on a more autumnal slant, lengthening the shadows. And me, tooling along in my truck, my payload of family in the bed.

I looked in the mirror and saw the rocker, on its side, safely bungeed in the back. I thought of all us kids, and grandkids, and great-grandkids who had rocked in it. How Kathleen had stood on one of the runners and broken it and how careful craftsman hands had crafted an identical runner that has now been a part of the rocker for so long you can't tell (well, we kids can because we remember) which is original and which is the "new" one. I wondered who in the family would have it and Mom's desk after me. 

I also thought of our old MG that Dad and Mom had driven over some of those roads. Just out for a ride. It was resting in my garage in Indiana -- a 1955 (the same age as the MG) Ohio road map in the glove box. The roads I was driving were all on that map. Not so for the interstates I traveled over yesterday.

As I drove, the sun rising, the pale fullish moon fading in the western sky, the country smells wafting in through the slightly open window, I was at peace. Grateful. For young deer who caused me to stop. For family that embraces me physically and emotionally. For roads to wander and enjoy. For being a person of this place. A Midwestern man.  

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Black Day in May

I have watched what I'll call the murder of George Floyd a number of times and my anger and sadness continue to grow. This should not happen "in the land of free." Just three years ago in the same metro area, Philando Castile was shot, while sitting in his car after being stopped, and killed by a police officer. I could list a number of other names of men of color who died at the hands of the police.

Such behavior by some police officers (notice I said some, not all) cannot be tolerated. It must be stopped. Why the other police officers did not tell Officer Derek Chauvin to remove his knee for George Floyd's neck, when he was in obvious distress (and already restrained) is beyond me. Such actions should be prosecuted. If I did to anybody what Officer Derek Chauvin did to George Floyd, I would be in jail.

I understand the rage that people of color in Minneapolis feel at this killing. I don't condone the violence, but that's me writing from my white Quaker perspective. I believe in non-violent protest as the best, most productive way. But I do understand that such oppressive actions such as the killing of George Floyd can cause righteous anger to boil over and erupt.

I'm old enough to remember the "long hot summer" of 1967 when almost 160 race riots happened across the United States. For a white sixteen year old, it was a scary, bewildering time. For the many African Americans I went to high school with I imagine it was less bewildering and even scarier. And here I am at age 69. I'm not bewildered. I'm scared... but for my friends and other people of color. And sad for a country that seems to be sliding further back into racial polarization than I could imagine. And so the violence does not bewilder me.

After the summer of 1967, Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot wrote "Black Day In July" with a jarring arrangement much different than his usual gentler songs and these lyrics:

Black day in July
Motor City madness has touched the countryside
And through the smoke and cinders
You can hear it far and wide
The doors are quickly bolted
And the children locked inside

Black day in July
Black day in July

And the soul of Motor City is bared across the land
As the book of law and order is taken in the hands
Of the sons of the fathers who were carried to this land

Black day in July
Black day in July

In the streets of Motor City is a deadly silent sound
And the body of a dead youth lies stretched upon the ground
Upon the filthy pavement
No reason can be found

Black day in July
Black day in July

Motor City madness has touched the countryside
And the people rise in anger
And the streets begin to fill
And there's gunfire from the rooftops
And the blood begins to spill

Black day in July

In the mansion of the governor
There's nothing that is known for sure
The telephone is ringing
And the pendulum is swinging
And they wonder how it happened
And they really know the reason
And it wasn't just the temperature
And it wasn't just the season

Black day in July
Black day in July

Motor City's burning and the flames are running wild
They reflect upon the waters of the river and the lake
And everyone is listening
And everyone's awake

Black day in July
Black day in July

The printing press is turning
And the news is quickly flashed
And you read your morning paper
And you sip your cup of tea
And you wonder just in passing
Is it him or is it me

Black day in July

In the office of the President
The deed is done the troops are sent
There's really not much choice you see
It looks to us like anarchy
And then the tanks go rolling in
To patch things up as best they can
There is no time to hesitate
The speech is made the dues can wait

Black day in July
Black day in July

The streets of Motor City now are quiet and serene
But the shapes of gutted buildings
Strike terror to the heart
And you say how did it happen
And you say how did it start
Why can't we all be brothers
Why can't we live in peace
But the hands of the have-nots
Keep falling out of reach

Black day in July
Black day in July

Motor City madness has touched the countryside
And through the smoke and cinders
You can hear it far and wide
The doors are quickly bolted
And the children locked inside

Two sections of those lyrics especially haunt me:

"And they wonder how it happened
And they really know the reason"

"And you say how did it happen
And you say how did it start
Why can't we all be brothers
Why can't we live in peace
But the hands of the have-nots
Keep falling out of reach"

We do know how it happened. We do know how it started.

Justice must be served. Injustice must end.

God help us.