A Narrow Path


The hillside garden

There’s just something about a garden path, isn’t there — inviting, drawing you in on a brief journey of discovery and delight. I know my littlest grand-girls love to skip off into the gardens, often pulling me along as they follow the adventure of a winding path, finding the brightest bloom, the biggest peas or the most perfect rose.

path 3I was out weeding in my gardens this morning, while the air was warming but before the sun got too hot, and I looked down along the little stone and brick walkway where I was sitting, overgrown with sedums and arched with daylilies about to burst open, and it struck me: All my little gardens have a path!

It certainly wasn’t intentional, like a grand master-plan, but perhaps more like instinct, responding to the landscape of the earth and the encounters of joy that a garden offers. Beloved JR enjoys the artistic challenge, too, and agreeably laid out for me the terraces, paths and little stone walls with old chimney brick and rocks from our brook. It is also a bit practical, I realize, as I step from the path amid the towering poppies and verbena bonariensis to nab a dandelion taking root in the mulch. Without a path, I couldn’t access the deeper parts of the perennial beds.

path 4

among the veggies

And of course pathways make square foot veggie gardening even possible!

Gardens are such a source of enjoyment, satisfaction and worship to me; anyone who knows me knows this, the constant battle against bugs and weeds notwithstanding. In fact, I think being engaged with something that is quite a bit ‘out of control’ is part of the fascination! And just now, I think all the different paths are my favorite part!

So, plunked there in the middle of the stone path, kneeling on my well-worn little green cushion, I was surrounded by the magnificent mid-summer growth on either side and all the sensations of scent, color, texture, shape. I couldn’t see around the big wild geranium (which needs dead-heading!) at the bend of the path. I couldn’t see down the meandering steps that lead to the lower yard and the trellised berries beyond, or behind me, where the steps lead up to the other end of the little walkway, up into the grass of the upper yard, into the shade of the oak tree. This narrow way hemmed me in, but I found I felt safe, secure, cradled – surrounded by loveliness; and I trusted this friendly little path to guide me home. Naturally, this got me to thinking.

path 8

pathway along the herb garden

“I am the door,” Jesus said. “I am the way….. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 10:9, 14:6) And again, “Enter through the narrow way; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14) Disciples Paul and Timothy both clarified, “There is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” (1Timothy 2:5) and “There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we are saved.” (Acts 4:12)

I know I was specifically taught, from an early age, that different people use different language to describe the way to God, and its all good. Whether you identify with Tao, or Buddha, or Gaia, or Jesus, or the Spirit of Love, it’s all the same path to Enlightenment and Eternal Wisdom. But then I met Jesus. The Person. Literally. And anyone who has encountered the Power of the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ in the face of evil simply cannot deny the Truth. I know I don’t respond to whatever name someone happens to want to call me, I have a name that belongs to me. And so does our Lord. One Name, One person, and One path through the garden of life. I’m so grateful to be on that path!

path 6

Fresh asparagus with mint.     YUM!

Fresh asparagus with mint.

I am at war. I’m fighting a mighty battle, and I’m not sure who is winning. This pernicious enemy goes underground and emerges in sneaky places, taking me by surprise. Right now I’m convinced I’m outnumbered, but there is no way of knowing for sure how far this one will go. Just when I think I’ve decidedly won a battle, I blink, and discover a new line of attack. The latest is in the asparagus bed. I’m talking about the spreading mint, of course.

When I first decided to put mint in my garden, I was aware of all the dire warnings — DON”T DO IT!   Full confession here: I think it was arrogance on my part to believe I could control it. I’ll just stay right on top of it, I thought.  I really love being able to pick tons of fresh spearmint for summer time iced tea, or special garnish or sauce flavoring, or even just for rubbing between my fingers when I’m out for a garden stroll.  I had the perfect spot in my raised bed veggie garden, all boxed in, surrounded by landscaping cloth and wood chip path.  Dear hubby Jack even put in extra deep edging all the way around.  As my mint flourished and looked contained, I grew lackadaisical about it.

Sure, I’ve had to hack back some stragglers now and then, but mostly it seemed under control.  Until this spring when lots of bright green mint began to show up along the garden path, ten feet away!  Jack and I (well, mostly Jack) undertook a fierce project to tame back this invasive — we raked back the wood chips and ripped up the hard-pack paths where the roots were growing along deep underground, and with our bare knuckles, going along inch by inch, pried out every last shred of mint root we could find.  In fact, the whole mint bed came out, I even sifted with my fingers to recover the tiniest bits of white root tips and get them gone.

The smart thing might have been to eliminate the idea of mint altogether, and simply plan on harvesting from a neighbor when I’m in the mood for tea, but , no , I insisted on burying a deep trash barrel in the same spot, drain holes in the deep, deep bottom covered with a fine wire mesh.  I have to say, Jack was a good sport the whole time, as he supplied the labor.  Okay, this may buy me a couple years of self-contained mint-pleasure before it finds a way to escape (mint roots can go down three to four feet when they’re desperate, I understand!) but I’m stubborn that way.  I want to have my mint and grow it too.

Anyway, we thought we had it licked, and I went on about the zillion other spring chores in the gardens, like trying to get my carrot seeds in and pry dandelions out from among the daylilies.  And then the mint began cropping up in the middle of the raised asparagus bed!  Now, asparagus grows from deep, deep roots, buried about a foot down.  The only way for the mint to get in is from underneath the twelve-foot path, under the high side of the tiered asparagus bed, and we’re talking here about eighteen inches deep!  How do I dig down to find the bottom of the mint without destroying my asparagus?  And the roots are spreading everywhere!  AARGH!

Oh Father, my Creator, and the Gardener of my soul, facing and weeding out the tenaciousness of sin in my own heart is a truly impossible task.  I’m unaware of the roots until some meanness or selfishness in me pokes up, and I hurt the one I love.  You alone can reach my depths, and root out the nature of my sin from its very source, and even then, only as I rely on You and sincerely yield to your loving conviction.

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me and know my anxious thoughts;
See if there be any hurtful way in me,
And lead me in the way of everlasting truth.

cuteness [SUMMER]

[I wrote this post last summer but didn’t feel brave enough to post it then.  My friend is visiting again soon, and I’m posting now in happy anticipation of her visit.)


Every girl wants to be Beautiful.
wine & candlesThere have been two or three times in my life when I’ve actually felt “pretty”.   And I’ve been called, more than once, “cute’.   Now, cute may be flattering when you’re eight years old, and maybe again when you’re 80, but when you’re in your middle years, mature and lovely, “cute” is not what you want to hear.

We had a dinner party here the other evening.  Aromatic reds and chilled white wines and sparkling crystal were set on white linen out on the table in the garden, bright flowers all around, and avocado-spread toasted rounds, tequila-glazed grilled chicken, creamy risotto, and arugula salad.  A friend who travels the world, volunteering with service and education projects in unlikely locations, returns to Vermont about once a year and spends some time with us.  She also happens to have a Masters  degree (from an Ivy League School) in French Bread (honest!!), and when she visits, loves to put on a dinner party.  I simply offer to help cut vegetables and set the table.

The air was clean and warm and laughter flowed, well into the night after the stars and bugs came out.  After the second mosquito, we  took our wine glasses and meandered inside, and at some point, I think after I dribbled some wine onto my chin as my Palsy side doesn’t work so well and sometimes drinking without a straw is a challenge, anyway, somebody said “ah you’re so cute”.

I know it was meant as a sincere compliment, but I worked at a smile and a laugh  through my trembling lips and ducked into the potty room.  I sat on the edge of the tub and had a good 4-minute cry.  Then I splashed some cool water on my face, holding my palsy-side eye closed with my finger of course.  And then I looked in the mirror.

I so long to be composed and sure and beautiful, able to sip a simple wine without concentrating on how my mouth is working; and feel instead awkward, lopsided and disfigured.  The face looking back at me wasn’t me at all — I’m still unfamiliar with this palsied face, even though it has been three years.  I don’t know who this person is, that looks so unattractive to me, with her twisted smile.  The threshold to this pathway of thinking is wide and strong, and there alone in the bathroom, with sounds of laughter and conversation coming through from the room on the other side of the door, there at that moment I had a choice to make.  “I am NOT my face,”  I chose to remind myself.  Inside, my life is full of fun and joy and strength and dignity and, yes, beauty.  My life and love can still shine through my one good eye.  And these people here are all friends, which means they know I love them, and enjoy them, as they do me – and they see past my face.  Way past my face.  I stood there, and chose to smile at myself in the mirror.  And half of my face smiled back, and my eye was full of joy, and it was a beautiful smile.

“I’ve learned my face is an incredible gift,” said Mr. Roche…”Not the kind of gift I was excited about, but it’s a gift because I’ve been forced to find my inner beauty….And I’ve learned that my experiences are universal experiences. Everybody feels disfigured, whether it’s on the inside or the outside. When you step out of the shower in the morning and look at yourself in the mirror, you know what I’m talking about.”

[Quote from a 90-minute program on ‘Inner Beauty’ with Post-Gazette executive editor David Shribman serving as moderator]


You can see my other posts on living with facial palsy:

“What’s in Your Smile?”

“Smiles, souls and Zinnias”

“Til We Have Faces”



It IS a New Year!!

amaryllisbulbIsaiah 43:19

 “Behold, I am doing something new,
Now it will spring forth;
Will you not be aware of it?
I will make a roadway into the wilderness,
and rivers in the dry desert.”

2 Corinthians 5:17

“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old has passed away; behold, new things have come.”

My sister-in-law gave me an ugly amaryllis bulb for Christmas.  It is in a moss-covered pot, with an inch of green sprout showing.  Like all bulbs, the dull, dry, brown, flaky mass beneath the soil isn’t very attractive or promising.  But the thick green leaf just beginning to stretch up into the light is full of glory and things-hoped-for.  A magnificent amaryllis bloom is a stunning sight, and blesses my senses, and my home.  But this resurrection requires a healthy, nourishing soil, and Light.

Our little congregation has been going through the arduous process of a pastoral search.  It has been almost 2 years, and not even an interim on the horizon.  It seems not many qualified individuals are interested in uprooting to the hinter-winterland of Vermont.  Our last go-round left many among us hurting and confused, as the candidate process nearly split us apart.  We hadn’t realized we were so divided, and we don’t even yet know what we’re divided about.  But we are all discouraged and tired.  We are sort of like a dry, brown lump just now.

So, JR and I will bring our skills and experience as mediation counselors, and begin the journey toward resurrection and healing.  As we talk with individuals, and eventually with the whole congregation, we will discover each one of us has our fears, our hopes, our stories, and we will once again learn to know and to trust each other.  That is my hope and my prayer.

As we start to listen to each other, as Truth comes into the Light, growth and healing can begin.  We know that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is Life. This tender life will need to be nurtured by the soil of honesty, humility, commitment, confession and prayer; then our tired root can again begin to stir.  It will take courageous work on everyone’s part, and a willingness to be a living and active part of a community of faith on a journey together, but growth and healing will come.  By hearing  and knowing each other, unity and trust will again take root, and in its time we can expect to embrace a glorious bloom, strengthened and vigorous.  We will be ready to embark on a new search for our new pastor, and be ready to bless our world!

Heading out onto this unmarked and uncertain pathway, I am glad to have my little amaryllis pot on the window sill.  It reminds me of the quiet promise of the steadfast journey toward resurrection and newness of LIFE.


PS:  Would you please do me a favor and let me know if you see an advertisement on this site….  WordPress has started randomly posting ads…

The GOOD Guys

Great Golden Digger Wasp

The happiest sound in the garden, I think, is the lusty and industrious buzzing of the bees.  Strolling among the raspberries, I’m picking off destructive beetles as I go, and gathering a teeming bowl full of luscious, juicy, sweet, fat red berries.  And I’m accompanied by this animated concert that drowns out the birdsong.

There is such a variety of bees, hornets and wasps – I know I can’t identify most of them, but can recognize some families, like the fluffy black and yellow bumble bees that come in all shapes and sizes.  Others range from the large amber and black ‘Great Golden Digger’ wasp to the tiny black Mason bees.

One wasp in particular was fun to watch this morning:   It had bright yellow legs and a large striped abdomen of mahogany & yellow and was intently working on a soft, gooey yellow mass – like rolling it into a ball or something.  It was clinging to the raspberry leaf, working on this glob of jelly with its front legs and jaws – rolling, packing, patting.  I stood and watched, wishing I had my camera, when suddenly it took the glob up in its mouth and flew away with it.  I learned later that I had witnessed a paper wasp preparing food to take back to the nest.  This species will ‘pre-chew’ a caterpillar to feed to the larvae.  I found it fascinating!

I hope we all know that bees and wasps are essential for fruitful plant life through pollination, and that their presence means good things for the garden.  But they are helpful in other ways, too.  Almost every pest insect species has at least one wasp species that preys upon it or parasitzes it, making wasps critically important in natural pest control.  Sadly, for some of my friends the sound of bees buzzing in the garden is a warning, as they are deathly allergic to bee stings, and picking berries requires great vigilance.  I’m glad they take extra care when they’re harvesting with me.  But for me, it’s a happy sound, and I don’t give a bee’s presence on the fruit a second thought  -I’m glad to share the bounty with them.  Besides, they’re always gracious and give me plenty of room when I gently go after a berry they’ve had their eye on.

When I’m elbow deep in dispatching Goldsmith Rose Chafers which have decimated  the roses or have turned a pristine iris patch into brown rags overnight, or I’m pulling up the wilted summer squash plants that have succumbed to the Squash Vine Borer, and the battle seems endless and impossible, it’s good for me to remember that not all bugs are evil.  I love the little lady bugs, feeding on aphids by the thousands.  I love the cheery presence of the butterflies, flitting like sparks of light in the sunshine among the flowers.  So, while I’m “bugged” by bugs, I know some bugs are beneficial.

Great Swallowtail on the verbena bonarensis

Great Swallowtail on the verbena bonarensis

Great Spangled Fritillary on the echinacea

Great Spangled Fritillary on the echinacea

My beloved JR and I have been distressed lately by a seemingly insurmountable burden.  It is evident there are certain changes we need to make in our lives and we cannot seem to find our way through to the other side.  The “right” choices are not coming clear.  It is easy for me to get focused on the impossible “enemy”, and lose sight of the whole picture.

How like a complex garden is my soul!  It is not all black or white, good or bad.  One comes mixed with the other.

Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.  And let endurance have its perfect way in you, so that you may be complete, and lack nothing.” (James 1:2-4)

In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested,may be found to result in praise a glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”  (I Peter 1:6-7)

“…we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”  (Romans 5:3-5)

After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.”  (I Peter 5:10)

monarch chrysallis late stagemonarch butterfly

Monarch butterfly emerging from chrysallis


Japanese Beetle on my raspberries

Well, they’ve arrived.  The Japanese beetles, right on schedule.  Now, the trick with these guys is to go after them when they’re sluggish, before the sun gets hot or in the cool of the evening.  Warmed up by the heat of the sun they are very feisty and quick,  and able to out maneuver you.

Everybody has their favorite garden tool — the one you always take with you, and can’t really go about gardening your way without it.  Mine is my little weeding fork.  And my trusty ‘bug bucket’, which is actually a gallon milk jug cut down on one side, leaving the jug handle intact.  About the middle of July I begin taking this with me into the garden each morning, making my rounds.  I pick the few remaining lily beetles, and the one or two plump potato bugs and any of their larvae I see — IMG_0277plop! into the jug.  Here is my jug this morning, sitting on the potting bench behind the barn.

A little squeeze of dish soap and filled half full with sudsy water, the beetles can’t climb out of the soap film and are doomed. However slugs, I’ve found, manage to slink  out of the soapy water and make their way up and over the side when I’m not looking.  Yuck.  If I expect to be working in the flower beds where I’ll find nests of these guys hiding around the daylilies, for example, I toss a dash of vinegar or lemon juice into the soapy water, and this neutralizes the slugs and they drown.  OK, speaking of slugs – UGH! ICK! YUCK! – another handy tool for dealing with these slimy critters is an old teaspoon.  I keep this tucked into my pocket, and I much prefer scooping these little amorphous squishy things with the cold spoon and dropping them (they slide right off, with just a little help) into the bucket rather than touching them. (Did I say ICK!??)  It works like a charm.

beetle collageAnyway, the beetles.  I know I’ll find them on my roses and in the raspberry patch.  So, as I stroll through the gardens in the morning, I keep my eyes out for them, usually in orgies of two or more, reveling in the rosebuds and newly ripening berries.  Like most insects, they are going after the sweet, juicy reproductive parts, though they do plenty of damage to the leaves as well.   Some go gently – I position the jug underneath and merely touch the leaf – they fall into oblivion.  Some go with a valiant struggle — they flail about and cling harder, to the leaf, or to each other, whatever is at hand.  Here, I usually win.  Some try to escape, but the thing about Jap beetles is, they tend to drop down before they take wing and fly off.  Some insects, like cucumber beetles, fly straight up and are nearly impossible to trick into the bucket.  But Japanese beetles drop down, and if you have your bucket just right, they’ll drop, try to take off, but bump into the tall side of the jug and plop instead into their soapy grave.

So, why do I do this?  Since I choose not to spray generic bug-killer on my plants, hand-picking is part of my routine. Day after day,  about one hour out of each glorious day,  I go about the irises, roses, lilies, raspberries, asparagus, dropping bugs into my jug of soapy water.  I’ve seen what one bug can do in short order – stripping a leaf bare overnight.  So, I take notice of all the dead bugs I dispense everyday, and add up all the leaves I saved!  I feel pretty saucy, ridding my precious raspberries of these pernicious ravagers, and I saunter away, swinging my jug, and fling the murky contents out among the pine needles behind the garden shed; and then I look up, into the birch tree, and there, on every curling leaf, clusters of mating bugs, up, up as far as I can see.  There’s no end to it.  So, why do I do this?  Well, the birch tree looks impossible, and I can’t rid the universe of bugs, but maybe I will have enough berries for savoring in the sunshine as my bare feet burrow into the cool grass between the rows and the sweet warm flavor of a ripe berry bursts on my tongue; for every breakfast;  for jam in December, when the hours spent tending my little garden have been long forgotten.  I trust that God, too, knowing all of me, is patiently tending the garden of my soul, one small bug at a time.  And that the endless chore that is my heart doesn’t diminish His eternal delight.  In that I keep my hope.


There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that God, who started this great work in you, will keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.  (Phil 1:6, from The Message)

red lily beetle 1

In my flower beds it happens exactly the same way every year, like an advancing army from the old movies.   First, in the early spring, it’s the hatching red lily beetles, which I pluck off by hand, one at a time.  Then, just as that invasion is winding down, the ravaging iris bud fly worms advance and I swoop in and dispatch them to a plastic zip-lock baggie in the trash, never even having to lay eyes on the actual critters anymore.  I know where they are hiding!  Next, the icky, sticky gold bugs (maybe they’re actually rose chafers) arrive in hoards and maraud and plunder, destroying what’s left of the blooming iris and infesting the raspberry patch – these I sweep into oblivion, into my sudsy ‘bug bucket’ (I’ll tell you about this in an upcoming post, I promise!), and do the same with the japanese beetles which follow in close order as the straggling few gold bugs who remain are waning in their old age.  The japanese beetles bury their little heads into the rose buds, you can almost see happy little hineys wiggling as they work their way in. *Plop* into the trusty bug bucket they go, as I make my daily rounds. In this way I control insects in my organic perennial gardens.

I first discovered the red lily beetle quite by accident, and was calling it “that little scarlet lily beetle” before I knew what it was. My lilies – both the glowing asiatics and the fragrant orientals, as well as the big patch of tiger lilies – had been growing strong, healthy and abundantly for years. Then, I was given a glorious Madonna Lily for my birthday one year, and cheerily planted in among the others. The following season in early spring I began to notice something terribly wrong with the leaves on several of my established lilies. ‘Drought’ I thought, or, maybe, ‘too much water’. Or perhaps ‘not enough fertilizer’ or maybe ‘too much fertilizer’.  At any rate, I had a poor display of lilies, and the following year it was even worse – by the fall, some of my beautiful plants had became completely denuded!  In danger of losing my treasured lilies, the next year I really began to pay attention.  At the first sign of a leaf in distress, I looked closer.  I couldn’t see anything.  I looked closer still.  I turned the leaf over, and there hiding underneath I found a smeary, slimy mass of black goo, right where the green of the leaf was disappearing into thin brown paper.  What??

scarlet beetle larvae

Destruction on a lily leaf.  What's with the black globs!!?

Destruction on a lily leaf. What’s with the black globs!!?

I took the leaf off, and dipped it into my bucket of water, and swished it around a little.  The black goo washed away, and there was a teeny tiny little brown grub.  Ugh!  I found more leaves, then more, all with the icky globs, some grubs of different sizes.  I had no idea what I was dealing with, but I knew they were destroying my lilies – so, the bug lady that I am, I set up my laboratory on the kitchen counter and kept the grubs fed and happy until they demolished all the leaves I could give them and ended up in the soil at the bottom of the jar.  Two weeks later, there he was, a little scarlet beetle crawling around and around inside the glass.  Aha!

garden journal

From my garden journal

Now I had something to google – my little scarlet lily beetle – and voila! there was his name (Lilioceris lilii), life story and history of invasion of New England lily gardens, first coming in on lilies from Asia in the 1990’s.  Apparently my Birthday lily brought me some unwelcome guests. And, as it turns out, the black icky goo is the larva’s own excrement (a ‘fecal shield’) to protect it from predators, and from squeamish gardeners.  Knowing what I was looking for, I began to find the little red adult beetles, and would pick them off and give a good squish. If I missed, I found they dropped to the ground and disappeared into the soil.  Giving the soil a little dusting usually will make them stir, and I have to be pretty quick and pretty careful, but they are doomed.   I found, too, that nearly all the lily patches were infested, totally, making an icky, icky mess of their leaves.  I observed that neat little lines of tiny florescent orange eggs were the first sign, and while feeding on the leaves these would grow rapidly into the brown slugs that eventually eat their fill and drop to the ground to become bright orange pupae, and emerge as adults, ready to start the cycle over again.  I found that the simplest thing was to remove the entire blemished leaf, larvae and all, and seal them up in the trash.  I’ve been diligently doing this for the last four years – daily inspecting  every lily patch, squishing all adults and destroying all infested leaves, and this year (!) by jove, I think I’ve got it!!  I know, it only takes overlooking just two, and the whole thing starts over again.  But I am determined and formidable when it comes to battling the bugs in my garden!

Standing there among my lilies, bent over from the waist, peering at the underside of every stalk and leaf to to find and nab the tiny beasties before they can grow up and make more, I find myself pondering another invader that is as unwelcome and full of messiness as these little bugs.  This is an invasion of my peace of mind and disruption of a dear friendship.

Recently, something happened that has left me confused, angry, sad and leaning on prayer.  Dear, dear friends, long-time friends that we have shared secrets and hardships and travels together with, heard something that my beloved JR said in a public meeting, and are convinced that it was a betrayal and a slur on our relationship.  I don’t want to go into the details here, but maybe you know the feeling.  The feeling of being completely misheard, misunderstood, accused, judged and condemned.  I am bewildered why they would believe this —  first of all, haven’t they known us better than this?  Wouldn’t they want to give the benefit of doubt, check it out and hear what JR has to say about it? What is really going on underneath, that they are suddenly so devastated and unreachable?

I think of my bugs.  I go after them with care and with diligence. I want to eradicate the source of the destruction, to save my lilies.  Aren’t my friends more precious than flowers in my garden?  Well, of course they are.  But how do I go about bringing this kind of bug into the light without provoking further?  How do I reach into the ucky messiness, which may get worse before it gets better?

We are off this morning to have breakfast with our friends — they are willing to talk with us about this.  Please pray for loving patience and grace, for open hearts and minds for all of us, for the power of the Holy Spirit to reveal Truth, and for authentic reconciliation.  It takes only two little ugly grubs, not dealt with, to start the whole mess over again next season.

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar.  First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”  Matthew 5:23-24

red lily 3

red star gazer lily

compost dig 2

I know some women think diamonds are beautiful, and would swoon  over a big sparkling gift from their lover.  My lover gave me compost.  This is a GOOD thing!  Sinking my hands into rich cool black earth is my idea of bling and maybe I don’t swoon, exactly, but I do get very silly with excitement!  And when I think that this gorgeous soil was created from JUNK, my recycling genes just kick into triple euphoria.  Beloved JR layers on the yard clippings, chopped autumn leaves, ash from the woodstoves, manure from the neighbors, and then Roscoe goes to work.  Roscoe is our herd of 500 red worms imported a decade ago to chew up the junk and turn it into fine, rich black dirt.

Digging this beautiful soil into my vegetable beds this spring got me to thinking.  Into the bin goes all the waste.  The dead leaves.  The uprooted dandelions.  The rhubarb tops.  The dug up, out-of-bounds perennials.  The mowed grass.  The sh*t.  The ugly, useless, unwanted, unwelcome parts of the garden.  And, as it decays, it is transformed.  There in the dark, a miracle happens.

I’ve discovered that God, the Master Gardener, does the same thing.  In the compost bin of my soul.  He takes the rotten parts of me, and transforms them into something rich and useful.  The important factor, of course, is that I have to be willing to be pruned, and to have my ugly taproots dug out into the light, and to long to be renewed.  Then He kindly and patiently takes – my fear, for example, of everything, and shows me the pride hiding at the base of that fear – he takes the fear and pride into the depths of His mercy and grace, and transforms it into a powerful kind of trust that can become, in turn, a place for seeds of goodness to grow.  I can almost feel it, the Holy Spirit, like Roscoe, working down in the dark, replacing old lies with His marvelous Truth.  Isn’t this the very best recycling of all??!!?

spring boxes

It was a colorful day, with blue and white sky and hillsides dappled red and gold.  The sun was bright and warm, the black dirt cool and damp.  There were potatoes and carrots still in the ground, the last of the vegetable garden, and it was a day in between the rains – a day to finally finish the garden for the year and put it to bed.  I love square foot gardening – I can plant exactly 9 seed potatoes in my 3-foot square, and harvest just enough to last us through a winter’s worth of fennel-roasted or garlic-mashed potatoes.  And if I’m lucky, I’ll have a few left by the first of June which are just starting to sprout long leggy things from their eyes (ooh, try to picture that!) and I can use those to start my new crop.

I use a small garden fork to get me started, but end up sifting through the dirt with my bare fingers, it feels so earthy, and love to pop out those spuds, gently brush off most of the clinging soil and place them in my bucket.  I remember planting that piece of budded eye last spring, ignored it all summer except to pick off an occasional potato beetle and now find it solidly fascinating to harvest the miracle of growth and know I can put a pile of produce in our little root cellar.

The carrots also fill an entire square, and I actually thinned them pretty well this year so they have grown nice and straight without too many tiny ones.   Kneeling or sitting next to the box, I can take hold of a green carrot top with one hand, rock it back and forth just a bit with my other hand as I shove my fingers down into that cool dark soil and pop up the carrot.  In one motion I swipe off most of the dirt while twisting off the green tops with the other hand.  The tops will go into the compost pile, and the carrot root goes into my cart.  One after another, grab, pop, swipe, twist, I am like a machine.  Pretty soon I am not even thinking about what I am doing, and realize I am working like in a frenzy.  There are a lot of carrots here, and I want to be done already.  The clouds are moving in.  My back hurts, and the tendonitis in my elbow is screaming.

Funny, but in one instant I am reminded of an old monk I once watched harvesting carrots.  I don’t remember exactly when, or why, but many, many years ago, it must have been in the early fall, I was visiting a Benedictine monastery, the beautiful Weston Priory in Vermont.  While strolling through the lovely grounds, I came upon the large, tidy, fenced-in vegetable garden.  There in the middle of the garden, kneeling in the straw, was an old monk in a rough brown robe.  I watched as he unearthed each carrot, one by one, and reverently laid it out in front of him, creating a straight row of orange and green against the soil.  He worked in a rocking motion, back and forth, and from where I stood, it looked like he bobbed in prayer over each carrot.   The whole scene was filled with an astonishing peace and completeness.

I actually stood and watched the monk for quite a while.  It seemed to me an inviting example of what Brother Lawrence calls “practicing the presence of God”.  I was captivated by his deliberateness, alone there in the garden, cultivating discipline.  I don’t think he ever noticed me.  The image was very vivid, and I did nothing more with it at the time than tuck it away.

Here then, years later in my own garden one late fall afternoon, I considered the discipline of harvesting carrots, and decided to give it a go.  Each carrot, a singular gift.  Each root, from a tiny seed placed in the soil months ago.  Each one, unique and unlike all the others.  I tried to slow down enough to consider each carrot as I pulled it from the earth.  I laid it down, tops and all, along the edge of the planting box, instead of tossing it right into the cart.  I noticed the gentle softness of the leafy greens. I noticed the heady aroma of fresh carrots, its own perfume. I noticed the sweetness of the rich soil.  I noticed beauty, simplicity.  One single carrot after another.  I noticed quietness, peace.  God was there.  I imagined Him enjoying each carrot, even as I did. Time slowed.  I slowed. I actually started to listen.  For a short while anyway.

Then I’d had enough.  After about four dozen carrots, which, at maybe 5 seconds each, is only 4 minutes, I was ready to be done.  I was ready to finish the carrots, rake the garden out, empty the compost, clean up and go inside and make myself a cup of tea.  The last section of carrots went grab, twist, plop, and the chore was finished.  But when I straightened up and brushed the dirt off my hands and black-kneed levis, and looked down and saw the pretty row of colorful carrots serenely lying there, I realized what I’d missed.  A powerful truth of spiritual discipline nearly bowled me over:  “That’s why it’s called Discipline!”  I couldn’t pull it off, not without concentration and disciplined effort anyway.  I managed only four minutes of patience, then I couldn’t do it any longer.  How much practice would it take to maintain that presence for an entire carrot crop??!  And what a harvest of peace and grace that could be, indeed.

After I’d given my nails a good scrub and as I sipped my steaming cup of blueberry tea, I pulled Richard Foster’s book down off the shelf.  It has been decades since I read Spiritual Disciplines.   But there was something I wanted to be reminded of, and I found it, underlined:  “Instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem…The classical disciplines of the spiritual life call us to move beyond surface living into the depths.”  And that’s where I do want to live, really, in the depths.  In the presence of God.  And a brief four minutes is no measure.  But something has stirred in me, and I sort of wonder if I may give it another go.  Maybe not with carrots, at least not this year, but maybe I’ll go about my morning reading a little bit differently.  Or, maybe I will need to join a monastery.

I’m gently encouraged as I remember that Jesus understood (Matthew 26:41) :

 Couldn’t you stay awake even one hour?  The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. 

and sometimes carrots just turn out like this

The day after, Vermont residents watch in shock as water threatens the dam in Windsor

Every American who was alive at the time remembers where they were and what they were doing on November 22, 1963.  We remember, too,  exactly where we were on September 11, 2001.  And for Vermonters, we remember the day Irene came to town.

One year ago today, we were hauling in deck chairs and taking down dead trees in our little wood, preparing for the high winds that were predicted to be heading our way as Hurricane Irene barreled up the east coast.  The big winds never really amounted to much, but it rained.  and rained.
Vermont is  small state with a big body of water on either side: Lake Champlain to the west and the mighty Connecticut River to the east.  The lovely Green Mountains run down the middle of the state, and hundreds of beautiful streams flow down the mountains in all directions, draining away snowmelt and rainwater into the larger rivers and out to the ocean.  Vermont’s 250 towns lie along these streams, roads following the natural course of the green valleys.  When the rains of Irene hit, our already soaked landscape couldn’t absorb another drop, and the streams were overwhelmed with the torrential run-off that tore through every village and took away roads, forests, bridges, houses, farmland and the face of Vermont.  On August 28, one year ago, we were aware of the rain pelting outside, but had no idea of the magnitude of the destruction that was going on down the road.

Water Rising

Residents watch as their home washes away in Killington

Hillary Mullins, a writer from Bethel, VT, posted an article in an online local newsletter, Seven Days, describing her Irene experience.  I’ve shortened her essay for my post; you can read her full essay here.


When Irene first arrived — not as a hurricane but as a tropical storm — she didn’t seem so significant after all. The rain started Saturday night, and, yes, it came steady, but around here we’ve all seen rain like that before.  A thunderstorm hits, creating a flash flood in one area.

But even though we knew all this, even though we knew the land here is all ridges and river valley, brooks and streams pouring down from everywhere to merge, uniting in the river that runs through our village, we didn’t know the power of what was running at the level of our feet. We didn’t know what could happen if all those little waters — not just some here or there — began to rise….

A cubic foot of water weighs a little over 60 pounds, and 60 pounds on 60 pounds countless times meant the beast was unleashed and the waters were going where they wanted. Two miles up Gilead, the brook was the size of a river by noon, and what once was road became river, and what once was meadow became gully, 30 feet wide, all churning water and torn-up trees.

Finally, around midafternoon, I heard the news that Gilead was flooded and that, over on the other side of the River Street Bridge, they were flooded, too. But still I didn’t understand… I called my brother. He was working a long weekend shift at a milk plant up in St. Albans. His road home, he said, was supposed to flood later on that night.

“I’m on ’til nine,” he said, “but guess I’ll leave at eight, seven-thirty if I can.”

“Why not leave now?” I asked. “It’s only milk.”

Then I called to check on my two friends who live in a house this side of the River Street Bridge, the town side. When they didn’t pick up, I worried, but I didn’t panic. I decided I would do some cooking and try them again in a little while. I didn’t know that already, just a few miles down the road, a husband and wife had been running through their barn, desperately trying to unhitch their cows as the river came pouring in, trying to move the animals — many of which they’d raised from calves — to safety. Twenty-five were swept away by the water. Somebody downriver saw one go by.

I didn’t know, but all over town, all over whole swaths of Vermont, the same thing was happening: streams and brooks and rivers swelling to huge and terrible dimensions, churning like furies through the landscape and taking everything in their path: trees, roads, houses, trucks. Toys, tires, sofas, stoves.

Me, I was making ratatouille. Slice the eggplant, salt it, let it stand…I tried my friends over on River Street a second time. No answer. I sliced the squash, the onions, the garlic. Put in basil. And then, just as it was getting dark, the power went out.

I brought the emergency candles out, made sure I had matches on hand. I called my brother. “Just pulling into the driveway!” he said. “I’m home.” I went out.  This is when I began to know. But it was just a start. A few hundred yards down the sidewalk, I looked north through the trees, down onto … the kids’ playing fields, a large stretch of land. The ball and soccer fields weren’t there. Only lake was there. And I could not see where that lake ended…But, those fields were not a lake: They now were part of the river, and all the river was moving, and, though I didn’t know this because I couldn’t see it from where I stood, over on the main road north of my house, that river was running through the place we call the Dented Can Store and running through the plumber’s shop behind it, and running through the house of the woman who manages our post office; the river running a quarter of a mile beyond its usual banks through the fields and over the road and onto the other side, coursing through house after house, overtaking even the front row of the trailer park, shoving people’s trailers right off their moorings. And those people were lucky. Somebody else’s trailer washed away. Folks over on the other side of town saw it go under the River Street Bridge.

The next morning, the morning after the flood, was strangely lovely, a perfectly sunny and soft, end-of-summer day. All over our town, people were waking up and seeing what would have to be done. Roads and sidewalks and driveways were gone, entire fields layered under two feet of mud. This side of the River Street Bridge, their house thankfully spared, my friends were shoveling soggy bedding up out of the goat pen. On the other side of the River Street Bridge, neighbors were lining up to help the people whose places were wrecked, carrying out chairs and tables, armfuls of coats and books.

So far, the recovery bill is $733 million.  And we’re still rebounding, all over the state.  There are still many in temporary housing, farmers who have lost their livelihood, some roads still unpassable.  Repairs on both of our local covered bridges won’t be completed for another 12 months.  We have to drive a long way around to get into certain parts of town.  But one of the things that made the tragedy of Irene remarkable was the way that communities, in every part of the state, pulled together.

Our Covered Bridge


There were many towns completely cut-off from the outside world; isolated islands, every road in or out was washed away, power and phone lines gone.  One such town tells its story, as Marion Adams, an Emmy nominated videographer and resident of the little town of Pittsfield,  reveals how the tragedy changed her home town and the people in it, in her documentary entitled Flood Bound.    Along with 36 residents of Pittsfield, she tells the story of rallying to overcome adversity, the building up of a community, of how isolation and ancient grudges were healed in the aftermath of the storm.  It is a very personal, compelling story — the result of a community pulling together, described as “the best kind of disaster you could have”.  As neighbor unselfconsciously helps neighbor, the final comment on the tragedy, in the words of one local resident,

If humanity could be like this, there would be nothing wrong with this world.”   Indeed.


((The documentary FLOOD BOUND was aired last weekend on Vermont Public Television,and is currently only available on DVD,   but THESE CLIPS are certainly worth watching!))

ONE YEAR LATER, and now another hurricane, Isaac, is bearing down on New Orleans, having already lashed Haiti, leaving devastation in its wake.  I struggle, maybe like many of us, with the images of the horror of so many tragedies on our planet.  And struggle, too, maybe like many other Vermonters, who might just be a little bit self-congratulatory about our own heroic response to our own flood trauma, and squirm when we must ask ourselves “Who, really, is my neighbor?”

 “What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied, “How do you read it?” 

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”    But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Tent City in Port-au-Prince after Isaac

Who is my Neighbor?