We are definitely back in Indian summer here at this old house. After we installed all the permanent storm windows two weeks ago during a cold spell, temperatures soared to and stayed in the 80s. While it does cool down at night, we are back to turning on the fans in the afternoons due to the warmth with only a few windows able to be opened for ventilation. The front door must be shut at night; there was a bear cub in the stream bed behind us yesterday. With the bears feeding up to 20 hours a day, getting ready for hibernation, no smell is safe from their searching noses, including household kitchen scents. Having one stroll in through the screen door on a hot night is one story I don’t want in my repertoire.

It has also been quite dry and we are back to watering grass and outside plants. A cooler, wetter weather pattern is due in starting tomorrow night; it is late September in the Rocky Mountains, after all. The leaves are turning, albeit slowly, and fall flowers are making their appearance. I learned the hard way that sage, when it is in bloom in the fall, is highly allergenic and even toxic. I have been fighting a nasty outbreak on my arms, legs and neck from blooming sage that I bundled for smudging while in New Mexico the week before. Normally, sage is not something that bothers me but a wonderful herbalist in Taos told me that that she never harvests sage or juniper when it is in bloom. Who knew?!

It reminds me of the rhubarb we grow down the hill behind this old house. The stalks are edible but the leaves are poisonous. I find it interesting that something can be both nourishing and toxic. The word “home” can evoke both feelings of comfort and of terror. Home is familiar but, in some cases, only because the terror that manifests itself there and how to navigate it is understood, a known quality. That is what drives abused children to defend the abusing adult when interventions are staged. Better to stick with the misery one knows than risk tackling something unknown, even if that unknown leads to a better situation.

Fear has become a major focus of my thinking lately because I am coming to realize how much fear drives our reactions to life, in families, or between nations and religions. What we don’t know, we fear. What we imagine might happen, we fear. Even though we are offered something potentially good, something even better than what we have now, fear can keep us in miserable, joyless, life-draining situations for a very long time. How many of us now regret not taking an opportunity that seemed wild and risky at the time even though it made our hearts leap in excitement thinking about it? How many of us took the “safe” route in something not realizing that “life is fraught with dangers, safety among them” [source unknown]?  When we are playing it “safe,” we may be in danger of losing our creative selves in the process. By not leaping up into life, we may be missing out on the very life we were put here on earth to live. We each have to determine for ourselves what is the “nourishing” and what is the “toxic” in a given situation. Not everyone suffered an outbreak from the sage blossoms as I did!

Does that mean I will fear sage now? No but I will certainly seek to be wise about it. Sometimes, we mistake “fear” for “wisdom.” It helps us feel virtuous in saying no to something we maybe were really meant to have said yes to. It is in living fully and in community that we mature into understanding the difference between being prudent and being afraid. So enjoy that rhubarb pie but pass on a salad made with the leaves.

It is good to be home in my own bed in this old house. Last week, a friend and I led a women’s retreat at Ghost Ranch. We rented Casa del Sol, their adobe house with a courtyard that looks out on Pedernal, the mountain that Georgia O’Keeffe once claimed that God would give her if she painted it enough. Casa del Sol is about 1 1/2 miles from the main ranch, down the road where Georgia O’Keeffe lived at Ghost Ranch. Her house is still there but, unlike the one in Abiquiu she later built to winter in, it is closed to the public.

The focus of our retreat was the Desert Fathers and Mothers, those 3rd and 4th century Christians who fled to the deserts of North Africa, after the Edict of Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire. For the first time in Christian history, you could come to church without being a committed follower of Jesus Christ and these men and women wanted a deeper experience of God. They fled to the silences of the desert to listen and to learn, from nature and from each other. They left about 3000 sayings, some of which are just plain weird. We used Christine Valter Paintner’s book on the Desert Fathers and Mothers. It was useful to have some of the sayings interpreted and then commented on by someone who has worked with them for a number of years.

Everything went so well: the weather was perfect with warm, even ho,t days and cool nights. The fall colors were just beginning. The group of women was eclectic in age and beliefs but blended well. We had fun excursions to the hot springs at Ojo Caliente, Santa Fe, and Christ in the Desert monastery. The mornings were devoted to teaching and personal reflection time. In the evenings, we made “crafts”: jewelry and Milagros crosses guided by my co-leader, who is a professional jeweler. She had gone to the gem show right before our retreat, so we had high quality materials to work with. Women brought home lovely pieces of jewelry they made as well as the pottery cup we hired a potter friend to make for each of them.  Another women, also a professional jeweler, fell in love with the sage that is every where down there. She made several sage bundles and taught us how to wrap them to burn (smudging) or decorate.IMG_0913 In the picture below, mine is decorated, a gift for a friend who couldn’t come.

The silence was impressive. We were in a very rural part of New Mexico and Casa del Sol is in a remote place on Ghost Ranch. There was virtually no cell phone reception or WiFi available and it was very dark at night. We could see the Milky Way. Floating in one of the pools at Ojo Caliente and looking up at a black sky filled with stars was a highlight for me.

Being a seven-hour drive from home also helped us “unhook” from the daily routines that consume us so easily. There was no possibility of coming-and-going. You were either there or not! It was two miles to the main road and then another ten to the first little store and gas station. If you will, we had to “stay in our cell,” as the desert fathers and mothers taught their disciples to do.

We laughed together and cried together. God touched each of us in different ways and most of us left resolving to live in ways that were more life-giving.We also did a hymn sing at Echo Canyon. At one point, I turned around and we had a small audience. A few had tears in their eyes. We asked them to join us, which they didn’t want to do. We asked if they had a request. One woman suggested for “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” I had not copied that for our music packets but another woman, who is an excellent singer, knew it from memory. There was not a dry eye among us when she finished. We do not realize how many people do not sing. Women who have been raped often lose their ability to sing. I sometimes wonder if our entire culture has been “raped” by violence in media and life in general such that it has lost its ability to sing. We can’t even sing our own national anthem! Singing is a healing activity as well as a gift for many who feel they “can’t sing” or have a “terrible voice.” Maybe if we all went to a place where our voices would echo back to us, we could find healing in their sound. One raven was cawing for the sheer delight of hearing its voice echo off the rock!

Deep silence and closeness with nature is missing in too many of our lives. Even though our minds created their own racket when we had times of silence, being quiett in nature for extended periods of time allowed many of us to drop down to another level of listening. Just as it takes quantities of time to have quality time with someone, so it takes extended periods of silence for silence to become fruitful. One woman shared that it took her 10 to 15 minutes to settle in to the silence. How many times have I given up after only three minutes?!

The week was a gift that none of us has fully unwrapped yet. There are memories and lessons to mull over and integrate in the days ahead. It was such a powerful time that we are already planning the next one!

It has been a week of reflection here at this old house. Not only were we remembering where we were on 9/11 but we were also reflecting on the historic floods that hit the Front Range area of Colorado a year ago on September 12th. The view out the back window will never be the same, though our house itself was not impacted (with exception of one damp corner under the sleeping porch where we store the canoe). The irony was, it rained much of this past week, just as it had done a year ago although this year, the rain was less intense and turned to snow on Thursday night. People were a bit jumpy, especially when a water main broke on a major thoroughfare during a drizzling rain. It is interesting how once a path of anxiety or trauma has been tread in our minds, we can so easily and quickly return to that path.

The media has been writing all week about both the tragic 9/11 events as well as the state of the Front Range one year after the flood. With all disasters, it is easy to assume that once they aren’t reported on any more, life has returned to normal in the affected area. Yet, even some areas affected by Hurricane Katrina, which hit in 2005, are still waiting for restoration. Driving through the 9th Ward a year and a half ago proved that to me personally. Here in the Front Range, there are still people displaced. Many lost not only their homes but the ground that their home sat on. How do you continue to pay on a mortgage for a home that is gone and for property that is now a river bed? Some may never recover from the financial loss or emotional trauma they suffered.

Last weekend, John officiated at a wedding at a venue in Lyons, about 30 minutes from this old house. During the flood, the St. Vrain river decided to make a left turn through the property. Last weekend, with a few noticeable changes to the river bank, you would never know that the property had been devastated. The river had been forced back into its original channel and the grassy lawn had been restored. Just a mile up the road from there, highway crews are having to blast out sections of rock to move the road over as the river now runs where parts of the highway once did.

There are trails that have been re-opened but need a lot of restoration work. In Longmont, about 30 minutes east of us, there are still two bridges that have not been fixed. The road up Flagstaff mountain behind us is undergoing major work. Each day, it is closed from 8:30 AM to 3:30 PM, impacting hundreds of residents who live up there. The road was so close against the side of the mountain that when part of it washed away, all they could do was blast out more of the mountain, pour caissons for a bridge, and rebuild in a way that future water will run safely  under the road. A lot of houses are for sale that were near creeks or up in the mountain communities surrounding us. I know one family that lived by a creek and barely got out with the kids and the clothes on their back as the flood waters rose. They can’t even hear the sound of water in their new house, nor do they ever want to again.

In the midst of all this, I bought a new German bronze. This one is a simple cross that says “Be Not Afraid.” That phrase is found throughout Scripture but seems to be forgotten by many Christ-followers. What with the anniversary of 9/11 and the floods as well as the current news coming out of Africa and the Middle East, the pathway of fear is one many of us tread regularly. How are we to live such that we are not afraid but yet also are not Pollyanna-like about the realities of the world we live in? That is a question we each must answer for ourselves. For some, it will be answered through creative pursuits, making beauty in the face of evil and ugliness. For others, it will be putting ourselves in the midst of the maelstrom,  trying to bring order and relief to those affected by Ebola or war. For others, it is intentionally meditating on the last chapter of Revelation, trusting that goodness will ultimately triumph. God does bat last!2014-09-06 16.03.22

Tomorrow, in church, we will be singing the wonderful hymn, “Goodness is Stronger than Evil,” a song that came out of the South African apartheid struggles. Desmond Tutu wrote these words during some of that country’s darkest days:

Goodness is stronger than evil;
love is stronger than hate;
light is stronger than darkness;
life is stronger than death.
Victory is ours, victory is ours
through him who loved us.
Victory is ours, victory is ours
through him who loved us.

Maybe it is a song more of us need to sing regularly. Or, as Ronald Klug’s third stanza in “Rise, Shine, You People,” says:

Come, celebrate; your banners high unfurling,
Your songs and prayers against the darkness hurling.

What song or prayer do you have to hurl against the darkness?

This morning, the furnace went on for the first time this season here at this old house. It was 47 degrees and foggy. Now, it is sunny and in the mid-70s. Wednesday, it had hit 93 degrees and tomorrow is supposed to be 83 degrees. We are in that wild swing of temperatures where the windows are opened and then shut and then re-opened again each day. Half of the windows in this old house are original. That means they either have screens in or are covered permanently in storm glass. When the screens are in, there is a significant gap between the top of the window and the frame. Also, the original windows are not square, they slope to fit the way the house was sinking before we shored it up. (Remember, it has no foundation!) That means there is always a breeze, even when the window itself is shut; we will never die from carbon monoxide poisoning due to the constant air circulation. Running the furnace when the screens are still on means that a lot of hot air escapes but it still takes the chill off and dries out the damp. Living in Colorado where the humidity is usually pretty low, I can always tell when we have been in a damp spell as linens don’t dry overnight.

Sometimes, I try to imagine what it would be like to have to get up and make a fire when it is cold. I fear I would have been a very bad pioneer! I so appreciate the thermostat that ignites the central heating in this old house. A few years ago, when we had to replace the furnace, we added a humidifier to it so that moister air would come through in the winter to help the sound board of the piano not dry out and crack. We have a Knight studio piano  in a rosewood case. It had been in Colorado for twelve years when we bought it so we knew that the sound board was OK and that the rest of the wood in the piano had acclimatized as well. Musicians who play wooden instruments, like pianos, violins or recorders, need to keep them moist or at least oiled in dry climates. Cracks can effect the integrity of the sound. They can also be expensive to fix and so humidifiers are not luxuries. In the summer, sometimes our humidity is in the single digits. I can hang a load of clothes up outside and, if it is hot enough and the humidity is low enough, some of the clothes are dry in 20 minutes. In the winters, we get lovely dry, powdery snows. In the spring, our early rains come in the form of heavy, wet snows. Our snow days from school usually happened in March or April when a 30- inch heavy wet snow would shut the city down for a day, taking out tree limbs and even power lines. But the powder in winter is what makes the skiing so good.

Colorado has over 300 days with sun or partial sun so I have memories of standing in boots and a sweater, hanging clothes outside to dry in a winter sun. Amazingly, the clothes would be about 80% dry when the sun went behind the mountains and I brought them in to finish drying inside. Winters in Colorado are lovely. Rarely do we have two gray days in a row and when we get to three consecutive gray days, everyone is cranky. Even though it can be quite cold out and the furnace is running continuously, the sun makes it feel warmer than it really is.

Meanwhile, a few leaves have turned color up on the meas and the hummingbirds are beginning to head south. While fewer in number each week, they are still active at the feeder, stocking up for the long flight ahead. The apples lying on the ground will be bringing the bears into the neighborhood soon. Bear scat has been showing up here and there on the trails as the chokecherries are now fully ripe.

A corner has been turned. Nature is beginning to shift into winter through the preparatory season we call autumn. We humans will adjust to her shift, uneven as it will be.

It is Labor Day weekend here at this old house. There will be some labor, some fun, and some labor that is fun! Cooking falls into the latter category for me. I got a new recipe that I am making for tomorrow. It is my turn to host the neighborhood Mah Jongg group and that is a good place to try out new recipes. This recipe requires me to make four eight-inch meringues and a whipped-cream infused lemon curd filling. After making an alternating tower with those two things, it is now in the freezer overnight. Tomorrow, I will pull it out shortly before everyone gathers for the game and pour a lemon syrup over it. It sounds wonderful though I have been mulling how one might cut such a creation into pieces. Meringues don’t slice easily like a cake; they tend to break and crumble. Maybe the lemon curd filling coupled with the lemon syrup will soften the meringues enough to allow the them to slice more easily. I will have to see. Fortunately, the neighborhood Mah Jongg gang is a forgiving group who likes (most of) my experiments.

Labor Day is meant to celebrate work and workers, the gift given by God at the beginning of Creation. Through the Fall (see Genesis 3), work and pleasure have not always been synonymous as they were intended to be. The ability to labor creatively is not a gift that everyone has. Some people have no work. Some have work that is drudgery or demeaning. Some have work but not enough compensation for the long hours they sacrifice doing it. The ability to have both united is a real gift.

Fr. Jim Martin writes about this in “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything”:

  1. Vocation is different from work or a job or even a career. You could say that work is the labor required to do a task. A job is the situation in which you do it. A career is the long-term trajectory or pattern of many jobs. But   vocation is deeper than each of those concepts…Vocation overarches our work, jobs, and career and extends to the kind of person we hope to become. It is what we are called to do, and who we are called to be.

             2. Clearly some people are able to find God in their work. But what if you’re stuck in a career that feels stale, a job that doesn’t seem like a vocation, or work you don’t enjoy? [In the Ignatian tradition, you can find God in difficult  or boring work] through the people you work with [celebrating life with them, being community with each other], by understanding that your job is directed toward a larger goal [caring for your family and others], by working as leaven in unhealthy work situations [seeking to do what you can in small ways to change the work environment].

In other words, we may not always have control over our situation but we do have control over our attitude. Maybe your joy and purpose in life is not found in your job but in the things you do outside of your working hours: volunteer situations, spending time with family, teaching through your Church community, singing in a choir or doing community theater, taking art classes, traveling. If your vocation is to be a disciple of Christ, then that cuts across all lines of duty and pleasure. That can happen in any circumstance of living and working!

As we mark the end of summer with the three-day weekend, consider spending a few minutes reflecting on what is your vocation and how it is or is not being lived out in your work, job, and/or career. And may you find some moments of joy and pleasure in this holiday weekend.



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