Be the gift.

“Be a gift to everyone who enters your life, and to everyone whose life you enter.  Be careful not to enter another’s life if you cannot be a gift.”

These lines were written by Neale Donald Walsch in “Conversations With God:  An Uncommon Dialogue.”  They spoke to my heart, my memories, my imagination.  They are the kind of words I clip out and file away and think about from time-to-time when contemplation is good company.  The kind of words that come back to me sometimes at the oddest moments.

Such was the case a few days ago when Quincy the dog stepped in my eye.  All 72 pounds of him.  

I was lying on my back on the floor, easing a persistent, rather painful, especially frustrating ache that starts in my back and tortures the rest of my body.  Ever the compassionate companion and free-thinker, Q has taken to helping me through these times by carefully backing up to my side (in classic dump-truck fashion), aligning his rump somewhere between my knees and my ribcage, and sitting on me.

The first few times he did this, I didn’t see it coming.  It startled me – not only for the action itself, but because it rather helped with the pain.  The pressure felt good, as did the laughing that followed.  I was touched by the absurdity of it, the look of it.  His deliberation and intentionality.  It was an obvious expression of his trying to help, but I could not imagine the thought process or even the instinct that brought him to this conclusion.

Perhaps it was nothing more than his attempt to protect me while I was in such an obviously vulnerable state and position.  I suspect that this was the reason why, when cat Tuppence decided to join us unannounced, and climbed on top of me too, Q reacted with alarm.  Jumping up and turning around quickly, he came down with his entire weight and one hind paw squarely on my left eye.

Sudden movements just aggravate the pain in my body, of course; and there were plenty of sudden movements at that point.  Paws and tails and arms and legs went flailing about.  Bursts of pain, barks of accusations, scramblings under the sofa.

How like that quote this moment became.  With all the best intentions, even with the most caring hearts and motives, more harm than good was done all around.  And no one felt very gifted.

“Be a gift to everyone who enters your life, and to everyone’s life you enter.”  A wise and compassionate philosophy, in perfect mindfulness, a loving practice.  But how much more wise and compassionate, perfect and loving is that flip side:  “Be careful not to enter another’s life if you cannot be a gift.”

And so, after all was calmed and settled with ice packs, and everyone was coaxed back out from under the furniture, it did become a moment of forgiveness and humor and hugs and understanding.  It was a gift.  Just like the lines from the Walsch writing continue by explaining that we can always be a gift to others … we ourselves are the gift … if we only let ourselves know and remember that.  

And yet, in the end I suspect that it may be just as important to remember this bit as well:  ask first, sit gently, watch where you step.

Remnants of a life at the side of the road.

I saw the thin black ties of the apron first.  They were draped rather languidly along the edge of the road.  The apron itself was nearly hidden in a grassy dip in the ground off to the side, leading into the mouth of a drain pipe.  The all-black color of the apron helped to disguise it.  Even the dog had not noticed it as we walked the small neighborhood street. 

With a closer look, the apron was easily recognized as a restaurant-style server’s apron – smallish, oblong, with pockets sewn all across its lap for holding pens and order slips, notes about specials, and tips paid in cash.  Picking it up, I discovered the apron pockets were still filled with pens – at least a dozen of them.  

And then, just a few steps farther on, there lay a black plastic restaurant check folder.  Within the folder was a nearly full pad of order forms; two of which still contained orders.  

Both the apron and the check folder seemed new, barely used, stiff and unworn.  The handwriting appeared young.  Yet it seemed there was some experience there, too, with the orders taken down in a sort of practiced, specialized, food-service shorthand.

And so I carried the items home with me, with care and consideration.  Because it seemed that this was a glimpse into a life.  A life that had been cast off at the side of the road – like an outgrown shell of a sea creature or bird hatchling, the cocoon of some young insect or butterfly, the hull of a seedling.

I’m sorry that the value of the items had not been respected and returned.  But perhaps the impulse had been too strong, the symbolism too compelling.  I suspect most of us have performed such a ritual in our own lives, as we have thrown off a self-image, cast away old ideas, changed directions, broken out, walked away, moved on.  I hope we have all had such courage and curiosity to do so.

And, I suppose, it seems a youthful thing to do.  Perhaps because it claims a certain energy to say:  I choose to go this other way now – to travel the road with the unknown curves and bends ahead.  The road with the mysterious outcome.  The road where there will be strangers and stillness, and shadows as well as sunshine. 

But regardless of our actual age in time and life, we all do seem to embrace new beginnings – if not always the idea of change for change sake.  Every New Year’s resolution is a witness to our penchant for it, our intentionality of reinventing something about ourselves, of repurposing our lives, or reinterpreting our experience of life.  I believe it is carefully imbedded in our humanity – our souls and psyche – to be driven to explore new places and possibilities.

I suspect many of us may even be haunted by what writer Cheryl Strayed calls “the ghost ship that didn’t carry us.”  That shadowy idea of another life that was not ours because we did not choose it.  I would hope we would not be stalked by it, but would be able to ponder it at those particular times in the night or walking in the woods when such thoughts are nearby and good company.

And I hope that in some aspects of our lives we are all misfits and rebels.  The ones who stand up for others and sing out loud.  The makers of paths and peace.  Those who have messy hair and leave muddy footprints.  The ones who think about things. The ones who are kind beyond reason.  The ones who make choices according to their hearts.

Nelson Mandela gave us this encouraging thought:  “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.”  I also find it encouraging to consider our choices as not being all in the past – leading us to where we are in this moment.  But that there are an abundance of choices yet to be made – leading us to futures of new moments yet to be celebrated.

For the present, I have chosen to keep the black apron and check folder sitting at the side of my desk.  I consider them from time to time – as the life found at the side of a road.  And I hope they were cast aside, not out of fear or frustration or a tragic heart, but with anticipation.  That it was a choice made out of hope and expectations for a life yet to be.  A life that will be filled with brilliant experiences and ever new choices all along the way.

May it be so for us all.

Scraps of peace, hope, and possibilities.

It began in the mid-1800s – when Christmas trees were capturing imaginations and holiday spirits throughout all of England, and catching hold with equal enthusiasm in America.  

All manner of pine trees were being harvested from their native woods and carried homeward – hauled behind horses or by hand, dragged up front steps, and stuffed through the doorways of castles and cottages alike.  They were being joyfully thrust into the very heart and hearth of family traditions.  And, once inside, they were placed just so – to delight and be decorated and danced around.  They transported the beauty of the natural world into a sort of happy collision with civilized interiors.

Depending on the size and shape of the room where the tree was to stand as the center of the family Christmas festivities, its branches were cut and pruned and trimmed and shaped to fit the surrounding space – branch by branch, side to side, top to bottom.  

It was, of course, an age that was much less disposable, much more mindful of a “reuse, recycle, repurpose” approach to things, than our culture would later become (a consciousness we seem to believe we only recently invented).  And so, the clipped-off branches of the trees were duly saved and set aside.  Rather than being discarded, they were gathered together and woven into holiday fancies and swags – but primarily into the shape of wreaths – for hanging on chimneys and walls, on doors and fences, on bedposts and lampposts, even in horse stables.  They were artfully crafted into decorative messages of Christmas joy throughout the house and grounds, into the very streets of the town.

The idea that Christmas wreaths were originally nothing more than “leftovers” – mere bits and pieces of Christmas trees, simple scraps trimmed away – greatly intrigues and pleases me.  Out of “leftover scraps” came some of our most beautiful, meaningful, enduring seasonal emblems.  

Historically, wreaths of ivy and laurel recognized victory and rewarded excellence; but the Christmas wreath is wholly unique and singularly symbolic – both humble and grand, natural as well as spiritual.  

The very shape of the wreath reminds us of the eternity of faith, the circle of life, the returning of seasons.  The open space at its center is there to welcome the Holy Family and embrace all travelers and visitors.  Embellished with holly berries and pinecones and ribbons, it speaks of hospitality, bounty, gratitude, forgiveness, fidelity, faith, hope. 

I suspect the Christmas wreath seems especially poignant in the context of “time” – with the nearing conclusion of an old year and the coming of a new one – because it reminds us to reclaim all the bits and pieces of the year just past, the bits of life and pieces of each other that we’ve experienced and shared through it all.  And to hold fast, and value them in all their ordinary significance.

Wreaths seem to example to us that when all the small “scraps” of life – the kindnesses and compassion, the thin twigs of peace and empathy, the branchy bits of affection and laughter and remembrance – are cobbled together, even when they are intertwined with all the mistakes and missed opportunities, fears and forgetfulness, the pain and misperceptions of the year – we are, somehow, stronger; we are bound together in a more cohesive form, a kind of solidarity of collective wisdom and experience.

In my own past year, you and I have shared together through my columns a mixed collection of tiny bits and pieces – scraps in time – of singing wolves and human voices, opossums on the loose and fences in our lives, the inherent promises of chocolate, and the messages of hearts, and many many lessons from dogs.

In the end, I suspect it is always the small and scruffy scraps of life that are the most meaningful.  And, when woven together, they carry a particular tensile strength and resiliency.   

May you celebrate this Christmastime with your own special wreath of remembrances; may it be full of all the best bits and pieces, scraps and leftovers; and may it be ever green with peace, hope, and possibilities.

One hundred and five Christmases.

Once upon a time, Christmas sparkled.  It glittered like new snow and winter stars.  It whispered with secrets, and sang out with joy to the world, and smelled of pinecones and wood fires.  It was as brilliant as red ribbons curling around unopened paper-wrapped packages.  And it was filled with grace and truth, vulnerability and hope.

When I was perhaps eight or nine years old, I was lying in bed on Christmas Eve, with too many sweets and sweet anticipation tossing me about, and I began to calculate the Christmases that I would be able to celebrate in my lifetime.  I must have only recently come to the conscious understanding that I was not an infinite being – although my family typically enjoys birthdays well into our nineties, often beyond.

That night, I happily decided I would live to be one hundred and five years old.  And so, I would celebrate one hundred and five Christmases (with the great majority of them yet to come).

One hundred and five Christmases, I counted.  And I was devastated.  Only one hundred and five Christmases … in my entire lifetime!  I wanted at least a thousand.  How could a person be limited to just one hundred and five Christmas experiences?  How could one truly appreciate all of the thrill and pure magic and wondrous love that Christmas had to offer – with a mere one hundred and five of them to celebrate?

Regardless of my concerns, year-after-year, Christmases came and went and came again – with slowly and subtly shifting joys and priorities and treasured remembrances woven throughout each of them.

The intertwining of the secular with the spiritual messages of Christmas also ebbed and flowed over the years in my experiences.  There were years of sharing and years of solitude.  Times of joy and those of loss.  Yet each held its own particular sense of grace and wonder and awe – and belief in the unopened gifts of possibility and purpose of the season. 

But there is one Christmas in particular – that happened long before I was even born – that forever humbles me and always fills me with great hope.  It is the year of the historical Christmas truce of 1914, during WWI.  All along the Western Front, French, German and British soldiers laid down their guns.  And they crossed the trenches.  And they shared their pitiful rations, their sympathies, their humanity, with each other.  It had been suggested by the Pope, and it had been rejected by the Generals.  But the men themselves spontaneously made it happen.  They celebrated this holy time of peace, with peace, in peace – regardless of the consequences.  

I suspect this remarkable act of Christmas was not simply out of an aching tiredness, but out of an aching hope for the future, and trust in the inherent goodness in humanity, and faith in each other – and something greater than each other. 

I also suspect that I’m not alone in an increasing need to grasp hold of such good-will-to-all threads of Christmas.  To want to hold them fast and wind them around and through the hearts of all the world.  I want to celebrate the Christmas spirit that has at times defined love and created kindness among strangers. That has the power to feed the hungry and wrap blankets around the cold.  That spirit that sings songs to one another and hopes all things are possible.  That spirit that forgives.  That spirit that once even stopped a war – if only for a few hours – when we as human beings brought Christmas to one another in the middle of a battlefield.  

Perhaps that historic act of peace and grace and wisdom whispers to my own heart and soul with special significance this year.  Perhaps it is because it took place exactly one hundred and five years ago this December.  It happened one hundred and five Christmases ago.  

Once upon a time, Christmas sparkled.

Wipe your feet and look for hearts.

The woman stopped and wiped her feet on the tufted mat at the door.  Then she hesitated another moment longer before entering the church.  She was older, dressed in plain dark clothing, wearing her Sunday shoes.  It was a fair day.  So the wiping of her feet seemed less necessary than it was symbolic.  

She was attending a funeral.  And I began to suspect that, more than any dirt or dust from the soles of her shoes, she was somehow also wiping off any bits of worldliness clinging to the underside of her thoughts and heart – leaving it outside, shuffling it off at the door.  So that she would be open to the experience at hand.  It seemed an incredibly respectful gesture.  Terribly mindful and meaningful and tender. more “Wipe your feet and look for hearts.”

Speaking with authentic voices.

It was an old book.  Not rare or antique, but rather vintage.  Just old enough to smell of aging library glue and dried damp, and to have sepia-toned edges and dog-eared corners that marked passages now long-forgotten, in spite of the inspiration they must have once incited.

It was a book my father had given to me, but I don’t remember why.  It is titled:  “Change Your Voice, Change Your Life.” more “Speaking with authentic voices.”

Traveling with chocolate – in planes, cars, and life.

Nobody wants to travel by air with a cranky flight crew. 

Our plane had already been delayed by various unrelated circumstances when one passenger suddenly realized her laptop computer was in her plane-side-loaded luggage (lithium battery and all), and so it had to be found, taken out, and brought into the cabin with us for safety reasons.  So the flight attendant made an announcement to that effect, again.  And two more passengers came forward, exchanging their chagrin for our safety, and their bags were duly located, unloaded, and unpacked.  Happily, nothing exploded, nothing caught fire, nobody got hurt; although we were by then about 45 minutes delayed, and the flight crew was getting rather irked.  (I think the rest of us were just sitting quietly cringing with the thought:  “Yipes … those batteries are in everything … it’s hard to remember them all … that could have been me.”) more “Traveling with chocolate – in planes, cars, and life.”

Living like dandelions.

If childhood had a flower all its own, I think it would be the dandelion.  From the first time we’re plopped down onto a blanket on the lawn one happy spring day, dandelions appear at just the right height and brightness for a young, curious gaze.  They nod and dance for us, invite us to touch and play, looking like a thousand round golden faces wearing lions’ manes and green scarves. more “Living like dandelions.”

A treat for Quincy the dog.

It was intended to be a treat for him.  A play date.  One of my neighbors and I had considered the possibility of Quincy the dog staying at their house while I traveled later in the month.  

They live just down the street, and there are four dogs in their family.  The dogs all greet and interact with us everyday as Quincy and I walk past their house in the mornings.

The leader of their pack is bossy and smart and owns the entire corner inside his fence; he and Quincy trash-talk a great deal through the chainlink fence, but it’s done in good spirit and with mutual understanding.  The newest member of their troupe is a girl dog that Quincy has a tremendous crush on; she’s a flirt and adorable and knows it.  The third is a misfit who gets by on his personality; he and Quincy have hit it off since he moved in a few years back, tails wagging til they almost fall apart as soon as they see each other (perhaps that accounts for why this guy has only half a tail).  The fourth is a Corgi; the oldest, the slowest, the wisest, the real brains of the group.

So we thought it would be a treat for Quincy to be one of the gang – playing with the cool kids, sitting in with the band.  At first it was.  And then it wasn’t. more “A treat for Quincy the dog.”

Looking back … living forward.

I remember dog Sophie was full-grown but still quite young at the time.  Sophie was of mixed heritage, carrying the genes of some sort of shepherding breed, which created and crafted her reality primarily through the perception of sight.  She navigated the world with her eyes – bush to bush, brick by brick, trees to rocks to houses, between fence lines and lampposts.  

When Sophie was very young, and experiencing each new season for the first time, she used to bark and coax me from my desk to follow her outside for something startlingly new, of which she felt I should be made aware – often simply a new blossom on an old camellia bush, or a fallen branch from the great oak tree.  After I had been alerted to this newness, she would accept the alteration to the landscape of her life – until the next season (or a new day) brought fresh changes and shifts to the truth of her world.

But this particular day in my memory, when Sophie was perhaps a year and a half into her life, I took her to the grounds of the Aiken County Historical Museum. more “Looking back … living forward.”