Retreat

“You have no events scheduled today.”

When I see that in my Inbox, I feel as though I have been handed a gift. And I have—a gift of time, time to disengage, unwind, rest, play, or read. To walk with Ramble, to sit with Acadia purring on my lap and a cup of tea in my hand, to sketch and write. When that gift is combined with solitude and silence, I begin to find and draw forth the quieter parts of myself, the parts that slip into the background when I live with noise and the busyness of daily life and my inner compulsion to keep constantly connected with the world via the email, texts, and phone calls (thankfully I am only occasionally on social media these days, so that is less of a factor than it used to be).

I’ve set aside a few days as a retreat. While I won’t have complete solitude, much of my time will be alone, and I will see that welcome message in my Inbox each morning, if I look at my email at all. The first day of a retreat is more of a puttering day for me, as I gradually disengage from my usual responsibilities. Even though my calendar may tell me I am unscheduled, my mind takes a bit longer to let go. That’s why I try to set aside three or more days of retreat once or twice a year. So today I puttered around the house and in my garden, my mind gradually slowing down and moving into a more relaxed state.

Tomorrow I expect to be more and less focused. Less focused on “shoulds” and more focused on trees and birds and spring flowers and what they reveal about myself or about God. By day three I am usually more “in the moment” and in a more relaxed attitude of prayer and contemplation than I typically am, better able to let go of the “This is a retreat; I want to make the most of it,” frame of mind and instead just walk through the day appreciating the life I have, in a more natural connection with the quieter parts of who I am and in communion with God.

I generally find that for the first few days of an extended retreat I am withdrawing from people, cherishing the respite I feel from being over-connected and over-committed. After that I begin to look outward again, as my inner being has become rested and refreshed, and I find myself looking forward to connecting. But I’m not there yet, so now, I will step away from my computer and into the peace of my retreat.

I wrote this piece two days ago on the first day of my retreat. Below are my sketches from Days 1 & 2. And now I will once again step away from my computer and return to the refreshing rest of retreat.

Musings after spending several hours sketching an oak tree

 

A to Z April Blogging R

Questions

Someone recently asked me what I want. That question is so much bigger than it seems at first glance. What would make me happy right now? What would make me happy long-term? What would really be good for me? Or what would help me be good for someone else? Questions always seem to lead not to answers, but to more questions, at least for me.

When my son Jonathan was a child, it seemed he had nothing but questions. When I would clean his room, I’d find numerous tiny scraps of paper torn from the edges of school papers, each scrap with a question scribbled on it. In pencil, of course; ink is too definite. I gave him a small notebook. He filled it with questions. No answers, just page after page of questions.

When Jonathan was younger, the questions were relatively easy to answer: “Why is the sky blue?” “How hot is the sun?” “Why is today Friday?” As he got older the questions became more challenging, and I after a while I began to dread it when he’d come to me and ask, “Mommy, can we talk about questions?” Of course I would say yes, and we would discuss a page or two of his questions. I very rarely had answers that were deeply satisfying, but discussing his questions seemed to help.

I, too, have had both difficult and unanswerable questions. “Why do children get abused?” “How can I deal with the hurt of rejection?” “Why does a good God allow evil in the world?”

Oh, there are answers out there to all these questions, but none of those answers really gets at the deepest level of the questions. A few years ago a wise friend suggested that perhaps I could learn to make friends with unanswered questions, to see them as part of wonder and mystery, of not being God.

The story of Job is one of the “Wisdom Books” of the Bible. Interestingly, it contains more questions than answers. After he lost his children, his health, his wealth, and the respect of his friends, Job flung his very understandable questions at God. In reply he receives not answers, but a barrage of questions. But somehow those questions, all beyond Job’s ability to answer, were the answer he needed, and he responded with, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things to wonderful for me to know.” (Job 42:3) If the book of Job is indeed a Wisdom book, perhaps there is more wisdom in befriending questions than in demanding answers.

A page from Jonathan’s Question Book

A to Z April Blogging Q

Pause…

I’ve had a really hard time deciding what to write about for P. Not because of a paucity of good words beginning with P, but because of a plethora of possibilities parading through my head. All day yesterday, and then last night, after I went to bed worn out from a few very stressful days with serious parental health problems, my mind promptly perked up, with P words racing nonstop through my thoughts. I finally fell asleep and dreamed about choosing a word to focus on, and woke up with more words pouring through my mind. I pursued several potential paths, then finally decided I needed to proclaim a PAUSE

And that is what I did. I went out and planted pansies (oh dear, more P’s), and that partially cleared my head. I realized that whenever I have a stressful few days, even when I have had the margin I wrote about a few days ago, my mind does tend to get going and it acts like a runaway horse (or should I say pony) and will not slow down. I sleep poorly, I wake up groggy but wired, and my thoughts revert at the drop of a hat to whatever my mind has latched onto. Perseverance is good, but perseveration is exhausting.

I really do need to pause, but it seems I can’t simply do a passive pause, because my thoughts snap back to their previous focus like a rubber band that’s been stretched and released. Hence my decision to get out in the fresh air, take a walk with Ramble, sketch a tree, and do some gardening. As I ponder this problem, I recognize that, though the subject differs, this is perhaps one of the more important skills I need to develop– the ability to pause my mind. I don’t know if everyone’s mind gets stuck in a permanent loop like this, but looking back, I can see that this has been my response to stress for as long as I can remember, even when I was a child.

And that makes me think that while calling a pause is a good start, I probably need to address the root of the problem, which is how I respond to stress. I suspect that this is actually a form of worrying, even though I am not specifically worrying about the issue at hand. I am going to try a three-pronged approach to Pausing:

  • Redirect my mind– Go for a walk, sketch, read.
  • Remind myself of truth– I am not God. I’m responsible for my actions but not for outcomes.
  • Receive God’s peace– “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” John 14:27

As I look ahead to tomorrow, I am thankful that there are not as many Q words!

And now I need to click “Publish”…

A to Z April Blogging P

Oaks of Righteousness

They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    a planting of the Lord
    for the display of his splendor.
Isaiah 61:3

I draw trees, or perhaps it is rather that trees draw me.  The personalities of oak trees in particular capture my attention, and I love to observe (that’s another of my favorite “O” words), study, and sketch them whenever I can. There are so many varieties and shapes of oaks, but they all speak to me of stability, strength, and perseverance. When I sit sketching or simply studying an oak, I see the ways it has stood firm through assaults of weather, disease, loss of limbs, and insidious attacks by insects, yet still it stands with branches lifted skyward- a display of God’s splendor visible in his creation. 

Our land is wooded, with many trees of various species, but when we moved here 34 years ago, there were no oaks. Our first fall here, we went hiking with our sons, then one and two years old. When we came home, their pockets were bulging with acorns, and, after the boys had played with them for a while, I tossed the acorns into our unmown field area. Apparently the deer and mice missed one acorn.

That acorn, so little it easily fit in my toddler’s hand, has grown into an oak tree that towers far taller than that boy, now a man of over six feet. My sons and the oak are now in their thirties, well-rooted, strong, and thriving. The oak lifts its upper limbs higher than our house, providing perches for finches, woodpeckers, warblers, orioles, robins, hawks, and more, and it grows its lower limbs downward to provide shelter for small creatures and once even a newborn fawn in the haven of its tangled and spreading branches.

I wasn’t familiar with Isaiah’s words about oaks of righteousness displaying God’s splendor until I was writing this piece, but I will always think of that when I sketch them in the future. And now I wonder what maples, ashes, cedars, dogwoods, and other trees are saying. I will be observing them closely to see what words of wisdom they have for me!

Lower limbs of the oak that grew up with my sons
Bedford Oak– over 500 years old
Holy Cross Monastery Oak- over 300 years old
Oak I sketched in the rain yesterday, hence the ink smudges
Sketching the Angel Oak in South Carolina with two of my grandchildren

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
    and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
    and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
    instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    a planting of the Lord
    for the display of his splendor.
                                  Isaiah 61:1-3

A to Z April Blogging O

Now

Now

The past is but a memory
that drips through my fingers
like oil when I try to hold it,
leaving no substance
but a greasy residue
that is hard to wash off.

The future is a dream
yet to be realized.
I cannot grasp it either,
anymore than I can
the morning mist that rises
in today’s sun and vanishes.

Now is all I truly have,
and yet I have it
not so much as it has me.
I cannot hold it here,
as it slides from future dream
through this moment and
into past as memory.

So how shall I now live?
I will look into this present moment
and search for what it holds
for me of life, of hope,
of a reality that exists behind the past,
beyond the future, and
solidly beneath this Now.
I shall Be and enter into life.

A to Z April Blogging N

Mammalian Meat Allergy and Margin

“Maybe it’s time to redefine 100%.”

My friend Sally said that in the fall of 2010 when I told her I was back to normal after my concussion nine months earlier, but that as soon as I did too much I would completely crash. No warning signs of increasing fatigue or feeling like I was a bit stressed and should take a break. I would go in a matter of minutes from 100% to physically exhausted, emotionally drained, and unable to get words out coherently. It was frustrating, as I was eager to resume normal life with my usual activities and responsibilities after months of recovery.

And then Sally suggested rethinking my whole way of approaching life. That wasn’t what I had had in mind; I was of the mindset that pushing myself would help me get better, like exercising a muscle to strengthen it. That clearly wasn’t working, though, and eleven years later, it still isn’t the best approach for me. Oh, there are times I can and do push myself when there’s a need, such as with family emergencies, but I found that when I pushed myself, I needed to take little breaks whenever I could and then a longer downtime once the situation was resolved. I learned to schedule margin into my days and weeks—unscheduled time that could be a buffer when there were extenuating circumstances and that would provide a healthy rhythm of rest and work for ordinary times.

Redefining 100% by adding margin led to a different way of living, and I found I loved it!  Previously I had occupied my time with “useful” work of some sort. After my discussion with Sally, instead of packing my schedule with good and useful activities, I became more thoughtful about what I committed to and started scheduling a weekly “Quiet Day,” when I would journal, read, sketch, and sometimes hike. After some adjustment I ended up being grateful for the concussion as an odd sort of gift and was glad for the way it had changed my life.

Then last summer I was diagnosed Mammalian Meat Allergy or Alpha-gal Syndrome (AGS). I had wondered for several years why I’d sometimes wake up with hives, or why I’d frequently be inexplicably nauseous or dizzy. After a few anaphylactic reactions, I went to the doctor and tested positive for AGS, which is a tick-induced allergy to galactose-ά-1,3-galactose, a sugar found in all mammals except humans and some primates (so I suppose I could eat monkey meat-ick!). At first I was mostly relieved to know what was causing my symptoms, and since I prefer poultry and fish anyway, I figured it would be easy to manage this allergy by simply avoiding beef, lamb, and pork. Wrong!

I was amazed at how many medications, supplements, soaps, and other products contain substances made from mammalian sources. Even worse, it turns out many people with AGS react strongly to cross-contamination (think my grandmother’s wonderful cast iron frying pans that once had been used for hamburgers) and to meat cooking fumes (uh oh, the neighbor’s BBQ), and I seem to be in that category.

Suddenly my life has become significantly more constricted. I carry an Epi-pen and Benadryl wherever I go, even for a walk, in case someone is grilling burgers. Eating out isn’t an option, and I’ve mostly been home for fear of reacting to someone’s perfume (apparently some perfumes either contain a mammalian substance or cross-react somehow). Stephen has taken over the grocery shopping and other errands, at least until my system stabilizes and becomes less reactive. It’s been hard and frightening.

In the past few days, though, I’ve realized that while there are challenges, I’m already experiencing some gifts of this diagnosis. Because I’m not running errands or going many places, I have much more margin. This has given me the time and mental focus to write regularly, something I had wanted to do for a long time, and that I hope to continue after this April A to Z blogging challenge is past. I’m painting more, and I’m writing more letters (yes, even snail mail letters and cards). I’m reading a great variety of books and significantly more in the Bible. I’m exercising my brain with chess lessons and studying Spanish and loving it. I’m more at ease and better able to relax and enjoy tea with Stephen before work and when he breaks for lunch.

I still can’t quite say that I am grateful for this Mammal Meat Allergy, but, as with the concussion, I am confident that God will use it for good in my life. I’m thankful for the margin it has given me, and I’m looking forward to see how I will grow in this gift of time.

A to Z April Blogging M

This cow is safe; I won’t be eating her!

Lawn Lunch

Dandelion, ground ivy, sweet violets, garlic mustard, wild garlic, broadleaf plantain, purple dead nettle…I just harvested some delicious additions to my lunch salad from my lawn. Those who value perfectly smooth, green lawns might look askance at our lawn, but I’ll bet they can’t eat their lawn. No chemical treatments to kill off weeds here; those weeds are a salad garden I don’t have to tend! What could be better than an organic garden that grows itself despite my neglect?

Most of these “weeds” are high in nutrients such as Vitamins A, C, & K, as well as calcium and other minerals, and some of them also have medicinal qualities. As this is early in the season and the plants are small, today’s salad was partly lettuce, radishes, and blueberries, with a just handful or two of my lawn additions. Even that small amount, though, was enough to add a range of flavors that made for an especially delicious lunch.

Some of these and other plants in my lawn apparently make good drinks, though I haven’t tried them yet. Mullein, dead nettle, and plantain are tea candidates, and of course, dandelions can be made into wine. I remember picking many quarts of dandelion flowers for my father to make into wine. It was a delicious, sweet wine that packed a stronger punch than one might have expected.

There is one tiny plant blooming all over in my lawn that I wasn’t able to identify, so didn’t know if it was edible, despite consulting an app on my phone. I was frustrated; aren’t apps and phones supposed to hold all the wisdom of this age?

My mother happened to call after lunch and was telling me about a paper she’s writing for her Herb Society meeting about a plant so tiny she had to use a jeweler’s loop to study its blossoms. That got my attention, and I asked what it’s called. “Hairy bittercress,” she said.

I looked up hairy bittercress, and saw the tiny plant I had been unable to identify, which turns out to be edible! Tomorrow hairy bittercress will join the other weeds in my lawn lunch salad. And perhaps next time I have a plant ID question, I will consult my mother’s 91 years of wisdom instead of my phone and its apps.

I wrote this slightly later in the season a few years ago:

My lawn is not a proper lawn
It has more other plants than grass.
Some people call them weeds, I know
But here I welcome them as friends.

Dandelions, Buttercups, Speedwell, Violets
dot the earth and add bright color.
Clover grows rich and dark,
feels cool and soft beneath my toes.

Ground Ivy spreads her purple robe
under trees, throughout the shade;
Blackseed Plantain and other “weeds”
Are lush and green through summer’s heat.

My lawn has life and shape and color
Always changing, ever bright.
I like it just the way it is
And never want a proper lawn.

Wild garlic, dandelion, and a sweet violet peeking out
Ground ivy, purple dead nettle, and dandelion
Hairy bittercress
Soon the speedwell will be turning our lawn a beautiful light blue

A to Z April Blogging L

Katydids

“What is that awful sound?” a friend asked as we stepped outside one summer evening. I stopped to listen.

“What awful sound?”

“That loud, repetitious noise coming from all around!”

Ahhh… that sound… “Katy-did, Katy-didn’t, Katy-did, Katy-didn’t…” One of my favorite sounds of the summer nights, now louder, now softer, filling the dark with the musical speech of hundreds of katydids proclaiming their love.

Every summer the katydids start their singing the last week of July- the week of my birthday, so I think of it as nature’s birthday song for me. I step outside with anticipation every evening, listening for the first, hesitant “Katy did, Katy did, Katy did,” as the chorus tunes up. Within minutes there are singers from several directions trying out their new voices (which are actually more like violins than voices, since the sound is made by rubbing wings together) and soon the night is filled with the throbbing music of many katydids. Katy-did, Katy-didn’t, Katy-did, Katy-didn’t…

On a another summer night our two oldest grandchildren sat on our front steps with me, excited but a bit nervous, being outside in the dark after their bedtime. Their concern quickly turned to rapt attention as katydids called from the field in front of us, with an echoing answer from beyond the stream behind us. Surrounded by the soft dark of the night, we watched the stars, listened to the song of the katydid, and sat in silent wonder.

Katydid watercolor

A to Z April Blogging K

Artist Friends

I know the title of this post doesn’t begin with “J,” which is the letter of the day for April A to Z Blogging, but that’s because I couldn’t find any synonyms for “artist” that begin with J, and I am featuring several artist friends whose names begin with J who have inspired me and encouraged me.

While I am a fairly extreme introvert, I value relationships deeply and very much appreciate my friends. As I was thinking about artists who have helped me grow, I was surprised at how many of their names begin with J, hence the idea for this post. Of course, there are other artists who have had an impact on me, and I appreciate them just as much, but today is for J.

Jennifer is the one I have known the longest, for… well perhaps I won’t say for how long, but I’ve known her since she was a few days old. She’s my younger sister, but I’ve always looked up to her as an artist, and I have learned a great deal from her. Jennifer and I often text or email our paintings to each other for feedback, critique, and suggestions, and I always know I can count on her for honest feedback. Once when I emailed her a painting, her feedback was straightforward and to the point– “Paper shredder,” so I am confident when she gives me positive feedback that she really means it. Jennifer often paints much larger than I do and in oils, but we also share a love for watercolor and for sketching; we have identical “Sisters’ Sketchbooks” that we use when we are together, and I treasure those times. If you’d like to see Jennifer’s work, her website is Jennifer Thompson Art.

I first connected with my friend Jamie when a mutual friend in Florida commented on a painting Jamie had posted on Facebook. I saw the painting and immediately recognized it as a spot I knew locally! It turned out Jamie doesn’t live too far from me, and since then we’ve painted together often. Jamie has been incredibly inspiring to me and has, by her example, encouraged me to try new approaches and mediums that I might not have otherwise considered. In addition to her beautiful painting and calligraphy, Jamie excels at testing new materials and she keeps careful and beautifully presented notes about them in her sketchbooks, which I often refer to on her blog, Hudson Valley Sketches.

I met Jana during my first artist residency at Acadia National Park, and we hit it off right away. She had been Artist-in-Residence there several times and knew all sorts of fabulous tips about little-known places to paint. We worked together a year and a half later to lead the Acadia Artists’ Retreat, and also rented a cabin together for several days of hiking and painting on the quiet side of Mount Desert Island. Unlike the small watercolor sketches I usually do when painting on location, Jana’s plein air landscapes tend to be fairly large acrylic paintings; even though the medium and format are different, I always learn from studying her work. I could happily lose myself in Jana’s paintings of rocks, water, and various landforms for hours. You can enjoy them, as well as her delightful animal paintings, on her blog, Jana Matusz on Site.

Janice paints with words, rather than a brush. It was she who inspired me to do this A to Z blogging, which I have been greatly enjoying. Janice blogs about healthy living, food, and books, as well as some fiction and motivational writing, and we share all those interests (well, so far I haven’t written any fiction, but I do enjoy reading it). I’ve enjoyed reading her posts during this challenge, and I hope more friends will join in for the remainder of this month or next year. Last year Janice posted 26 reviews of memoirs during April A to Z blogging. You also can be motivated by her blog, Janice Dimmock.

So I was about to wrap up this piece, when Jesus’ words to his disciples in John 15:15 came to mind: “I have called you friends.” And he is the Master Artist, and of course his name begins with J! How could I not have thought of him when planning this post?! As I mulled that over, I realized I think of Jesus as God, Lord, Savior, Comforter, Teacher, but not often as friend. I’m not sure why that is, as his word, the Bible, is replete with images and teaching about friendship, but I will be pondering that. Jesus inspires me every day with the beauty of his artwork. You can see Jesus’ work by looking out your window.

A to Z April Blogging J

Idols

A few years ago someone gave me a little stone statue that they had bought while traveling in another country. It was a somewhat squat figure, like a person with exaggerated features and an odd expression on the face. My first thought was that it was interesting, though not really my type of art. Then the person who gave it to me said that it was an idol from an older culture from where they had been visiting. The first two of the Ten Commandments came to mind:

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery

 “You shall have no other gods before me.

 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them… Exodus 20: 1-5

It was awkward, but I felt I had to give it back, because we didn’t feel comfortable having an idol in our home, especially when we’d been clearly told it was an idol. I didn’t want a carved idol in my home then, and I’m certainly not in inclined to buy or carve myself a stone or wood statue to bow down to now. I don’t worship idols… or do I?

Stone statues or golden calves might be obvious idols, and it’s pretty easy to see that money or food could become idols, but it’s possible to make an idol of anything if we give it the place or power in our life that is rightfully God’s and that is only safe in God’s hands.

One common idol of our time is busyness. Not that being busy is always bad, but I think too often our busyness determines how we feel about who we are. Do we get our self-esteem, a feeling of being good or adequate or important, from being busy, rather than from the knowledge that we are created in God’s image, created to live in relationship with God and loved by him? And if we suddenly get slowed down, say by a pandemic, does our self-esteem topple?

Or what about reputation? That’s a tough one for me. I want people to like me, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting that, but what about when I let my concern about other people’s opinion determine what I do or say? Ultimately my goal and purpose is to live for God, but if I’m letting concern about my reputation determine what I do, I am making an idol of reputation. And that’s when I see that it’s only safe to give that power to God.

God made me who I am, and there’s nothing so freeing as growing into who he has made me with my unique personality and interests, and nothing so fulfilling as using my strengths and abilities to live for him. But if I give the power to determine what I do or who I am to other people, I end up becoming captive to the need to please others. That’s why I really like how the Ten Commandments start: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of … slavery.” God wants me to be free, but I find myself tempted in numerous ways to make an idol of something, and then I risk becoming captive to that. By his grace, though, I am becoming freer as I recognize my idols and give them up.

What idols do you see in our society or in your own life? Let’s get rid of our idols and be free!

A to Z April Blogging I