Sunflowers-Their Gift

Black-capped Chickadee, Poecile atricapillus

The Chickadees are back.  They come back every Autumn when our hedgerow of sunflowers begin to go to seed.  Their sweet, lilting “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” is heard just beyond our kitchen windows and we all stop mid-whatever to catch a glimpse of their stealth seed-gathering as Chickadees seldom remain anywhere long.

I have thought it actually quite smart, being the mother that I am, to arrange the kitchen table in such a way that the children face the windows in the morning while eating their breakfast.  What would normally be somewhat of a hectic pre-school-send-off dining affair turns into quiet contemplation as they witness these tiny birds swoop and swoon for their food.  While I watch this particular bunch munch on their meal, I too am stopped.  I am staggered.  I am held by a lesson from which I continue to learn every Autumn when the sunflower seeds I diligently plant in the early summer–so to enjoy the heady vibrancy of their yellow faces while picking from the veggie patch at their feet–continue to feed in beauty not only my soul, but the neighborhood collective of Chickadees.

And the lesson is simply this: GIVING. Relentless, unconditional, No-matter-what, giving. And it comes by way of the sunflowers.  And it really is quite simple.  I plant these little seeds (and I always plant way more than I need at weekly intervals as the early summer bird-types love these seeds) for their beauty: for their yellow-splash of sunshine in my Northwest-green yard, and because they are now my children’s mutual annual favorite.  And they never fail me.  Their thick, fibrous stalks always shock me; how can this strength come from such smallness?  And, of course-as it always is with the natural world-there is a whole other homily! And then there is the budding heads; these tightly wrapped packages of summer-essence, waiting to open and sway over the tended gardens below.  I just love it!  Every time, which in the summer is all the time, I walk beside my sun flowers I slow my pace, I gaze, I wonder, I receive the gift that their simple existence provides.

But their giving doesn’t stop there.  Once our shadows begin to lengthen towards the north and the sun just doesn’t quite crest the southern hill behind our home, these lusty heads of summer begin to transform to a smorgasbord of seed.  They become somewhat bedraggled looking and I have had more than one visitor ask when I will cut them down to “clean up my garden for the Autumn.”  Their lost lustre (petal-less, drooping and dismal) is but a facade for this is the season of their true crowning glory; this is when they give!

While I know many who harvest their sunflowers at these signs, I choose to let them continue their stand.  These silent sentinels quietly call out to the local Chickadees (its always the Chickadees; and we have birds of prey and many other woodland birds in our neighborhood) that their seasonal feast has been prepared.  And they get plucked!  Oh, my!  How they are plucked, prodded and put away!  And yet they stand there…in our darkening days, dampened by our autumnal rains, offering their essence, giving back to the great community of life to which we all belong.

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And while my children clank their spoons against their cereal bowls and begin the mad-dash towards shoes, packed lunches and back packs, I stand–back against counter, facing these truth-telling windows–plumbed with the question of how am I giving of myself? I mean, truly, really, in-the-most-authentic-ways offering who I am to the world? I am myself a seed…and one with particular characteristics and genetical properties, a product the result of my mother (and father) “plant”.  I have an intended purpose for which I was created, right?  *long, sip of hazelnut-flavored coffee*  I am created to be more than just a burst of seasonal summer color.  I am called to be more than just the beautiful backdrop to the hard and glorious efforts of the produce growing at my feet.  My seed, my quintessence, is to continue to feed other populations by virtue of my life and my energy.

Those who hang out with me long enough know that this is the dropping-in point to highly passionate talks around gift-sets and vocational callings.  And *sip-of-coffee* truly, this is the heart of the matter: we were given life so that our lives might enable LIFE for others.  We are called and challenged to live our lives on behalf of something other and greater than ourselves.  There are populations that need us to make ourselves available to them, whether through advocacy, voting-lines, or straight-up presence.  Our beauty and external prowesses will fade, most certainly.  And ironically enough, it is in the quiet, brown, dry, almost wilted, seasons of life when our offering is at its best.

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Following is great advice for what to do with your sunflowers if you don’t intend to leave them for the birds!

Drying Sunflowers – On the Stem

You can easily let nature take its course when it comes to drying sunflowers, and allow the drying process to occur naturally on the stem. If you are drying sunflowers this way you should keep an eye out for when the backside of the sunflower’s head turns yellow and the petals have fallen off. Once this has happened you need to act fast if you do not wish to lose all of your sunflower seeds to the ground! Use a brown paper bag to cover the head and this will also protect it from birds, squirrels and other critters that are interested in the sunflower seeds too. The paper bag helps the sunflower head still “breathe” and prevents moisture from accumulating in the bag and turning the seeds moldy. (If it rains, you may need to replace the bag with another in case the bag gets soggy or tears.) Dry your sunflowers like this until their heads turn brown on the backside – then it is time for harvesting. Simply collect the head by cutting the sunflower off one foot down on the stem, making sure you don’t lose the paper bag off the top in the process!

Drying Sunflowers – Early Harvesting

If you do not want to struggle against birds, squirrels and other critters competing to get a taste of your sunflower seeds before you do, there is another way to dry your sunflowers. When you see the signs of the yellowing of the backside of the sunflower head you simply harvest them right at that point. Cut the heads down leaving about one foot of stem below the head. You can then dry your sunflowers where ever you want to, as long as it is warm and dry with good ventilation to prevent molding. A small shed might be perfect, or even in your house. You may still want to cover the seed heads with paper bags, especially if drying in an outdoor shed! But primarily, as long the sunflowers are kept warm, dry and sheltered, you’ll be able to successfully harvest the seeds. Simply run your hand over the sunflower head and the seeds will pop right out.

(from the online resource, Sunflower Guide)

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Redemptive Booms

ImageLast night I joined the throngs of millions of Americans in celebration of our nation’s democratic birth.  I pawed through our vacation-packed luggage for semblances of the requisite red-white-and-blue for my children’s ensembles and reflected on the greatest reasons why I love my country, and my deepest hopes for it as well.  While speeding luxuriously across a hot, muggy Midwestern lake towards a fine meal of steaks and wine, I was acutely aware of the great privileges surrounding my life to make this scenario remotely possible.  I supped and sipped in humble gratitude for the legacy of lost lives and the litany of wars whose cumulative effect is for me to live in relative peace and to seek after opportunities for justice to be extended to all.

As our celebratory crew later lit off firecrackers and, in inky darkness, listened for the deep bellowing booms that heralded the commencement of the community’s firework show, I was struck that these blasts weren’t sending us for cover.  Rather, these blasts joyfully invited us to lift our faces up to the beauty of the night sky.  These sounds of siege and ominous glows on surrounding horizon lines, in any other decade and/or war-torn country on our earth, would have seen us screaming towards safety and huddled close to those with whom we share our homes.  But instead of these reverberating blasts delivering demolition and death, the fire created a coordinated display of artistry, which resulted in a corporate sense of joy.  People’s laughter and festive shouts, along with affirming honks of speedboat’s horns, all mixed together with the echoing screams and blasts of the fireworks was a seasonal picture of redemption and reclamation.  Even these sounds that are historically rooted in war can instead, be used for festive joy and community celebration.  These are the sounds of redemption.

The proclaiming words of the Psalmist, that there will be a time when the God of the Universe will break and shatter weapons of war and make them into instruments of peace (Psalm 46:9), bellowed in my heart as I witnessed the peaceful explosions lighting up the sky.  And my thoughts have since gone to my musician friend, Trace Bundy, who is a world renowned guitarist, and was deeply moved by the account of an Agros village in El Salvador called San Diego de Tenango, so much so that he wrote a song in response to their story.

Tenango’s history is one of horrific hardship and despairing displacement. During a season of civil war, the villagers fled the country, surviving the war by finding safe keeping in Honduran refugee camps. The villagers returned years later to find their homeland ravaged and occupied.  With the aid and assistance of Agros International, the original families were able to purchase back the land and start a new life again together as a community.  Out of gratitude for their story and with a deep sense of faith, this group decided to postpone the building of their own homes and instead erect a church and join together in a service of joyful gratitude.  To make the church complete, these villagers wanted a church bell.  Due to limited supplies and resources, they went searching and discovered an old missile casing laying in a nearby field left over from the war.  While this very token could have been that which destroyed their village, the families instead saw the peaceful possibility and quickly hoisted it up on a rope, thus transforming the casing into their melodious church bell.

This missile-turned-to-bell speaks of the transformative power of redemption: the old becomes new, what was of war turns to peace, what brought demolition can bring beauty and joy.  This El Salvadorian bell now rings in praise, just as the Fourth of July booms and blasts now proclaim peace.  There is great hope in this ancient paradox and one that continues to call to us, even while living in privileged peace.

What is warring about you in your life today?  Is there something that threatens and seeks to destroy?  Our call is to come to that place and redeem it, restore it, reclaim it.  Believe in the beauty that is inherent in all of creation and begin to witness the transformation.  It will be better than any firework show you’ve ever seen!

Quote

“We touch this strength–our power, who we are in the world–when we are most fully in touch with one another and with the world.”  –Carter Heyward

On this Valentine’s Day, I would like to imagine that our “power” is truly our ability to LOVE. And the ability to access this incredible strength occurs when we are engaging others and the world within which we live.  We engage, we experience, we come to KNOW and out of this comes understanding, respect and love.

Who do you love?  Who lives within the soft places of your heart?  Today, as you exchange tokens of affections with close family and friends, ponder how the lines of love can be extended to include more.  We are apart of a great community of things that need us to know of them, need us to love them, need us speak on behalf of them.  When we are fully engaged with the host of living creatures with whom we live, we turn on our power.

We turn on our love.

Living in Fear

We all live in fear to some extent or another.  There is a spectrum of this emotional response and absolutely, there are situations and contexts that warrant this self-preserving stance.  If we were to do a broad-stroke generalization though, what is the typical object of this fear?  I daresay that the average common characteristic of these fiends is difference.  Think about it: when someone or something is different than you, something inside bristles a bit and puts you on defense.  And perhaps there is a good evolutionary reason for this.  Because, very likely, a million years ago difference would have denoted danger and you could’ve tried to eat my kids or kill my clan!

Please understand, I am not making light of very real, very tragic events and circumstances that absolutely generate fear.  My heart cries with what I read about in the news and cringes when I hear gunshots and wailing sirens in my neighborhood.  These situations should spur us to live with vigilance and a keen eye for safety. To a very real degree, our lives and the lives of our children, depend on it.  But what I am interested in exploring is the kind of fear that causes us to dig our chin deep into our chest when passing a stranger on the sidewalk, that compels us to close our curtains to the chaos of our community and has us not knowing the very name of our next door neighbor.  I think it has everything to do with difference and those unknown, misunderstood behaviors of Other that cause consternation instead of a courageous, compassionate response.

One day, not so long ago, I was playing in front of our house with our children.  While they think nothing of this (to them the front of the house is appealing because we live on a hill and they love to take anything with wheels down our front sidewalk), this has always been an act of resistance for me.  For good reason, there were times when I hid behind our curtains, double bolted every lock and wished that everyone on our block was like ME.  But I’ve found over the years that this kind of hiding response doesn’t necessarily increase safety; it feeds the fear and kills the community.  And so we play out front of the house.  I’ve intentionally planted curb-side gardens so that I have to be outside, out front, present to my neighbors and praying for opportunities to engage those who are unknown and different than me.

And then she walked up the hill.  Lunging is likely a more accurate description-all the same, coming towards us was a stranger, someone unfamiliar and not at all like me.  I shielded a shy smile with my shoulder.  My boys, called out to her in a vigorous greeting and asked her for her name.  She slowed her pace to a stop. There was a very strong something in me that immediately wanted to hush them, to swoop them under my wings and whisk them away from this now pending encounter with this foreigner…because…I was afraid.  I inhaled.  I exhaled. And I reminded myself of something I firmly believe: The Spirit resides in (I would say even thrives in) that grace-filled gap between being afraid and being known.  That is a space that only the Holy can handle, hold and heal.  It is a place that, while scary as hell, I want to be; I’m challenged here to see, to hear and to know Other.

Her name is Manichanh and she is an immigrant from Laos*.  I’ve never seen her before because she rarely leaves her home, which is just five down from my own.  She occasionally does exercises on our dead-end street when most people are at work and the roads are quieter.  She lives with her six year old grandson, Alexander, who also doesn’t play outside; indoors, TV and video games offer safety once he returns home from school.  I ask her if she ever goes walking in our neighborhood woods, “There are trails in there now, you know,” I gently offer.  Manichanh emphatically shakes her head no, points to the woods and firmly states, “Bad. Scary.”  I take a deep breath knowing that I’m about to step into the gap: “Want to take a walk with me in the forest?” I ask.

Two strangers stare at one another.  We have nothing to rationalize an excursion such as this other than the fact that, plain and simple, we are neighbors and I’m struck with the value that that still holds even in our isolated, urban existences.   And I believe that our woods are healing and are active participants in a great agenda for God’s common good.  So, this seems as good a place as any to engage my new neighbor.  For a reason greater than us, she agreed.

We-Manichanh, myself and the children-approached our woodland trailhead.  She grasped my arm.  I laid my hand over hers.  This time I didn’t hide my smile, and as we entered the woods together, these woods that once truly were a place of which to be legitimately afraid, she exhaled.  We walked for a time in silence largely due to our language barrier, the children ran ahead and about, bird song lilted in the leaves of the waving trees.  We clasped hands and completed our walk, a walk that took us so much farther than simply through the woods, it took us through the gap and to the beautiful place of being known.

When we made to depart from one another, Manichanh brought her palms together at her chest and bowed deeply, while murmuring a phrase repeatedly.  I asked her what she was saying and she said it was like a ‘thank you’ but her native words carried a depth of gratitude that our mere thanks simply cannot touch.  I knew she wasn’t just thanking me.  With her words and gestures, she was responding to me and the woods and The One who upholds us all, with a deep seat of gratitude.  Both of our fears were relieved and in its place stood relationship.

The next morning I discovered home-made Lao cuisine on my porch.  Manichanh’s grandson, Alexander came over later for a play-date and a romp through the woods with my boys.  These are the kinds of blessings that arise from living in fear, living close enough to the edge of what is known that reliance on the Spirit is critical to get through to the other side.  And the other side is where the goodness resides, folks–therein lies the beloved community, where all are known, all are welcomed, and all are gloriously different.

The Spirit is calling: “Come!  Step into the gap with Me!”  Will you go?

*Mentioning Manichanh’s ethnicity is important to describe the dynamic of this story.  In this context she represents Other to me and I, and the forest, are Other to her.

Other and the Future

Woodcut of a pilgrimage (c.1490)

This post initiates me into the blogosphere universe and I find that I am both excited and apprehensive.  Like that of any new journey, the excitement comes from a seat of knowing that there has been much preparation and direction to get to this point and the time has now come to cross the threshold (into the blogging world, that is).  The tension to the thrill is held by trepidation; I mean, what if these words, thoughts and stories mean nothing to all of you who inhabit these virtual landscapes?  This nagging fear of the unknown, quite honestly, slows my poised fingers as they hover over the keyboard.  There is great risk when one travels with transparency and journeys out from places of comfort.  But, I have a strong sense of solace knowing that without these steps away from what is known and familiar, that which is HOME to me will never expand and challenge me to continue to become all who I am intended to be.

And that is really quite it; that is what I have been thinking about, reading about and talking about for years: in what ways are we intentionally living (for the sake of metaphor, insert ‘journeying’) out our lives so that when the pilgrimage cycles commence and begin again, we are engaging in this dynamic cycle of calling, departure, arrival, to—ultimately—Home again. It is this sense of Home that is compelling to me.  Of course we have our structural residences, but I’m talking about the conceptual framework of this internal habitat. What is it that is so familiar and comfortable that it is like home to us? What does it look like?  Who are the neighbors?  Who lives and visits within the walls?  What meals are shared?  Who do we encounter on our Journey that is brought into the hearth of our Home and how does this simple act of hospitality create a culture of common good?

One of the ancient principals of pilgrimage was that the pilgrim was journeying on behalf of something.  Whether that was a prayer, a petition, in penitence or even traveling in place of someone who couldn’t make the trek themselves, there was an elemental understanding that the journey was taking place on account of something, or someone, far greater.  This positioned the pilgrim to travel in such a way that employed a keen eye and an astute ear; no longer were there such things as trivial events and random people.  The value of fellow pilgrims and strangers alike was considered great, so much so that every encounter was acknowledged as a source of wisdom and possible enlightenment.  The significance of ‘the Other’ was recognized as a sacred way marker and seen as a critical component to a journey well made.

So here it is, and this is the hopeful intention of Waymarkers: the blog.  Our lives are a pilgrimage.  Each of us has been called to journey thoughtfully and intentionally through our days.  We are asked to see the sacred all around us, but specifically in those other than ourselves.  What exactly does this mean?  It really is as simple as it sounds: anyone OTHER than you.  This includes those that don’t look like you, act like you, live like you, or think like you.  We are called to see them, travel with them, and yes, even live on BEHALF of them.  This process of linking Other to our self begins the transformational unfolding of Other becoming Neighbor, and ultimately, in practicing the universal command of “Love your neighbor as yourself”, becoming your self.  For when this conversion occurs, we suddenly cannot look away from the injustices and pain experienced by those other than ourselves, for it is now happening to US.  We now journey forward on behalf of a common good for ALL.

And how does the Future fit into all this?  The Future isn’t now and it certainly isn’t what was, so why concern our self with it at all?  Well, in a very real sense, the Future is Other to us. Our modern Western culture certainly has made great strides in our era, but a monumental failure was its inability to assimilate indigenous people’s capacity to see forward and understand their behaviors had long-term implications.  This ‘seven-generation sustainability’ concept has its origins with the Iroquois people. This ‘Great Law of the Iroquois’ maintained one should think seven generations ahead (a couple hundred years into the future) and decide whether the decisions and actions they made would benefit their children, and children’s children, seven generations into the future.  This is a call and a challenge that we need to heed today; this view transmutes the Future, and our ecological concerns, into today and makes it a ready companion to our every action.  It becomes our neighbor.  It becomes our self.  It becomes our HOME.

There it is folks.  These are the foundational themes to this blog.  Am I excited about thinking aloud with you all around these topics?  Absolutely!  Am I scared that I may not get it right and my own personal stories of living on behalf of Other and the Future might not be your version of virtue?  Yes.  There is that tension mentioned earlier again…but my hope supersedes this.  I pray that by inviting you into my HOME you too will help hone me. That by saddling up together on this journey of life, we will see one another and our stories as sacred.  That by living forward in ways that see the Future as important as today, we will all seek out that which is the common good for us all.  And we will get lost; one most certainly does on a trek that carries with it much treasure.  In these times of uncertainty, in these straying seasons, may we return to our God-given travel mates—Other and the Future—and ask them for guidance.  May they be our way markers that point us all towards HOME.