Lillie Bell Goes Home

We walked with Lillie Bell as far as we could, but at the edge of the long gangplank she left us behind, walking toward the great ship alone.  I had hoped at some point she would turn and wave, but her gaze never varied and her step never faltered, she was resolute in her desire to reach the next destination.

The sun was breaking over the horizon. Brilliant shades of coral and gold defined the line between the sea and the sky. The darkness of the night fled before the piercing rays that announced a new day, a new beginning.

I shielded my eyes in an attempt to make out the details before me.  The crew that welcomed her aboard, back-lit by the rising sun, appeared to glow against the azure sky as if they had wings.

The morning breeze picked up as the sails began to unfurl. Even at this distance, I heard the snap as the canvas caught the wind, becoming taunt, straining to be on their way. The ship was ancient, but the workmanship was beyond compare. Each wood plank polished and tightly fitted against its brethren, The sails were as pure a white as I have seen. As the crew cast off the lines and the ship turned slowly toward the horizon, the stern swung around revealing the name, “ZION,” spelled out in letters of gold

Surrounded by family and friends, we exchanged hugs and smiles, unspoken was the sentiment … it was time. We watched as the ship grew smaller and smaller until it was just a white dot. When the vessel slipped over the horizon and out of our sight, we raised our hands triumphantly and cheered.

Lillie Bell’s journey had been long, her pilgrimage lasting 102 years. Through it all she had steadfastly followed her Savior. For 78 of those years she had walked alongside her other great love, Ray. She had never been without those who loved her, and she returned that love in even greater measure.

Though we could no longer see the ship, we knew it was headed for another port. There, a great multitude awaited her arrival, watching as the ship which had disappeared from our sight grew larger and larger in their field of vision.

The gangplank at the port Lillie Bell had embarked from was constructed of wood planks, rough and splintered with age, turned a weathered grey by the sun and salt spray. The gangplank the ship was turning into at this port was of white marble, gleaming under a cloudless sky. It led to a circular courtyard. In the center of the courtyard was an intricate design of three interlocked circles constructed of gem stones and defined on the outer edges by bands of gold.

On either side of the courtyard, halfway around it’s circumference, were a pair of sweeping stairs, also made of white marble. They lead to a balcony that overlooked the courtyard. Built into the wall behind the courtyard and below the balcony was an alcove containing a large marble statue of a lamb, its foreleg resting over a  slender gold cross  extending over its back.

A solitary figure stood on the balcony, his white robes gleaming under a light-source that had no definable origin. He rested his elbows on the balustrade, fingers locked together, faint scars visible on the back of each hand. Looking down at the assembled crowd on the courtyard  a smile crossed his face before he addressed his children. “Lillie Bell has fought a good fight, she has kept the faith. Today I called her home … it was time.”

Among the crowd were old friends and family. Saints who had toiled alongside Ray and Lillie Bell in the vineyard. The Morgans, the Chambers, the Boxes, the Wallaces, Roams and Yadons … too many to name, and of course members of the Boatman and Agnew families.

Standing slightly apart from the crowd was a tall man with dark wavy hair, a slight grin on his face. “It’s about time,” he said with a slow Texas drawl, “She was always running late for everything.” He laughed and started to walk toward the gangplank, “It’s about time.”

Poppy

Lillie Bell Agnew
December 25, 1915 – March 8, 2018

Brief Moments of Clarity

The windows in my kitchen face due east. I wish I could tell you that Poppy got up early enough every day to enjoy the sunrise with a leisurely cup of coffee and a well-balanced breakfast … but I don’t. I’m doing good to grab a quick mug of coffee for the morning commute. The afternoons are a different story. This is when Poppy engages in his cooking therapy. Putting on some good music, enjoying an adult beverage, creating a meal for people I love … this is when I unwind. Though my windows face east, I can always tell when the sun is setting. It’s never dramatic, a slight shift in coloration, a change in the quality of light, a feeling that has no description or definition. Sometimes I verify my instincts by walking to the front of the house, stepping out on the porch, scanning the western horizon. Yes, the sun is setting … sometimes accompanied by dramatic hues and glowing clouds, often the event is rendered in a more subdued pallette. I walk back to the kitchen, once again looking east, its vistas offering an understated beauty and a brief moment of clarity.

When you walk past the open door of a club or bar in any entertainment district and hear the sounds of music flow out into the street, without going in, you instinctively know whether that melody is live or recorded. It’s a matter of faint audible clues that no one can explain. It’s the difference  between the pure and the duplicated. A brief moment of clarity.

To say that life is complicated would be the ultimate understatement. No matter our station in life, rich or poor, black or white, young or old, we travel a road that is always uncharted. Each morning we step out on that journey, never knowing where it will take us. The history of humanity tells us that we will have good times and bad times, sometimes within the same day, sometimes stretching over weeks, months and even years. This I know to be true. But I believe along the way, God gifts us enough little moments of grace to get us through.

These moments of clarity can bring life into focus, offering an “Aha” event, reminding us that there may actually be a plan. There are little gems of faith and grace hidden in the messiness of life and they can take many forms. Sometimes it is in the form of a sunset or piece of music. Occasionally it’s a scripture, hymn or poem that comes to mind and carries us through the day. But it can also be an overheard loving exchange between a parent and child at the grocery store, an unexpected spontaneous smile from a stranger, or the unrestrained giggles of a child. Sometimes an encouraging text from an old friend will bring the day into focus.

These micro-events will not fill the full 24 hours of your day. They will be rare, precious, brief and fleeting. Train yourself to recognize them in the most unlikely places. Learn to drop your defenses, learn to make yourself vulnerable enough to receive these tiny gifts from God, because they will not announce themselves with the fanfare of trumpets or a loud voice over a public address system, but rather in the most subtle of ways … like a gentle whisper.

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out … (1 Kings 19)

Poppy

On a Path Unknown

Mimsy and I  are pretty boring. There is not a lot of variety to our walks. We reach the end of our driveway and go left or right, maybe throw in the occasional side-street, but we stick to the familiar routes … and that’s okay. There is a comfort in traveling known paths. Mimsy knows the telephone poles and tree trunks that yield the best scents, which dogs have come and gone along this way. I think about my neighbors as we pass their houses. I know where to watch for uneven slabs of sidewalk and fallen sweet-gum balls. Everything does not have to be an adventure. For that we have life.

You don’t have to walk this planet very long before you understand that (in spite of our best intentions and plans) life just rolls our in front of you. It’s as if you have stepped on a moving sidewalk that has lost all its safety mechanisms. We wonder whose hand is on the control as the path speeds past vacations and slows to a crawl during difficult times.

We don’t move down the path as ballet dancers or figure skaters. We bumble. We stumble. We fall on our asses … a lot. But we pick ourselves up and keep going. We rinse and repeat and if we are paying attention, we learn something along the way. We learn that we have no control over the events that sweep by us, we only have control on how we respond to those events. We learn that we fail in that regard too. We learn that we are not saints, asking for forgiveness and resolving to do better the next time. Life rolls out in front of us.

It is a very messy pilgrimage.

We look at other travelers and try to gauge their journey … is it smoother than ours, is it rougher? We see people win the lottery, and others get cancer. We see bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people and vice-versa.

Our inclination is to channel our inner five-year-old, cross our arms, stamp our feet, and yell as loudly as we can, “IT’S NOT FAIR!”

Life is not fair. If you are a parent, chances are you have used that phrase with your children. Chances are, they looked at you having no perspective of what you were taking about. Give them a few years.

Life is not fair, and that’s okay.

Fairness implies justice. Justice is harsh, absolute and unforgiving. I know myself too well, I don’t want justice.

I much prefer grace and mercy.

Poppy

The Lady in the Mist

Asked to pick a color to represent this day, the most likely answer would be, “grey.”

January had washed the colors from the trees growing along Lemp avenue and Cherokee street. Banks of graphite-colored clouds obscured the sun, reducing the palette of the cityscape to almost monochromatic hues, and produced a misty precipitation that was not quite fog, not quite rain.

I drove past her on my morning commute. A few blocks from the more traveled roads, this part of the city is a mix of small shops (some in business, many shuttered), residences, taverns and abandoned warehouses. At this hour, nothing was open. She stood alone.

Exceptional only in her ordinariness; neither old or young, fat or skinny, pretty or ugly. She could have disappeared into any crowd, in any city, her plainness granting her the gift of anonymity.

She held the handle of a two-wheeled cart,  strapped to it, a neatly packed duffel bag. Next to her on the bench was another fabric bag, smaller in size and rectangular in shape. A navy hoodie, layered over a plain grey sweatshirt was her only defense against the mist and the early winter temperatures. Long dark bangs were pulled to one side, plastered to her forehead by the dampness.

She was unusual in one respect, she was not looking down at a smart phone while she waited. Head erect, she stared straight ahead, not looking to make eye contact with anyone, her expression equal parts defiance and resignation.

What was her story? Was she running  from someone or running to someone? Did this city bus trip signal the start of a much longer journey? What life’s chapters were opening or closing?

I will never know her name or her story, it was the briefest of passings, but as I left her disappearing in the rear-view mirror, a simple three-word phrase came to mind.


On May 6, 1937, announcer, Herbert Morison and his engineer, Charlie Nelson, had been assigned by a Chicago radio station to cover the arrival of the Hindenburg in New Jersey. As the Hindenburg caught fire and crashed in front of him, Herbert did his best to control his emotions and describe the scene. This was part of his dialogue, “It’s burst into flames! Get this, Charlie; get this, Charlie! It’s fire… and it’s crashing! It’s crashing terrible! Oh, my! Get out of the way, please! It’s burning and bursting into flames and the… and it’s falling on the mooring mast.” And then a few moments later he said these three words that went down in history. “Oh the humanity.”


I’ve always wondered why Mr. Morison choose those particular words. Other choices come to my mind, but then I’ve never experienced dozens of people dying in front of me. Clearly he did not plan that phrase, it burst out of him propelled by the raw emotion of the moment.

There were no live broadcasts at that time. Charlie recorded Herbert’s coverage of the event on a 16 inch lacquer disk, which was flown back to Chicago that night to be broadcast. The next day, portions were rebroadcast by NBC. It was the first time that recordings of a news event were ever broadcast, and also the first coast-to-coast radio broadcast. Morrison’s quick professional response and accurate description combined with his own emotional reaction have made the recordings a classic of audio history.

Over time that expression has become a cliché, a meme, and I’m sure many of the people using it today could not tell you of it origin.

This morning as I passed the lady in the mist, “Oh the humanity,” came to mind. It was not born of condescension or pity, just a recognition of two of God’s children, on different paths, but passing within a few feet of each other.

Before I reached the next intersection, my thoughts jumped around like a frog hopping from one lily pad to the next. There are hundreds of us humans within a few square blocks, hundreds of thousands in this city and countless millions across the planet. Individuals all … each with a unique story, each with their own collections of hopes and dreams, experiencing triumphs and tragedies both great and small on a daily basis. What a species, … we float between Mother Theresa and Jeffery Dahmer, or to put it another way, between angels and demons, “Oh the humanity.”

I arrive at the office feeling small, but relieved that yet again, I can throw myself into the arms and grace of a loving God. A God who understands, has the capacity and desire to care about us on an individual level. The capacity to understand humanity is beyond me. Most days I struggle to understand myself. That “caring” thing? That too is a struggle as my worldview is decidedly myopic. But I sure wish I had offered a cup of coffee or hot chocolate to the lady in the mist.

Poppy

A Cartoon Monday

It was a “cartoon Monday.”

It’s a phrase I use, but frequently find myself having to explain.

If you were to draw a single frame cartoon that exemplified a “Monday,” what would it look like? Since we are dealing with clichés, this drawing would not depict a bright sunshiny day filled with singing bluebirds, beds of blooming flowers and smiling bunnies. This illustration would show grey skies, clouds, muted colors and a slight drizzle if not a steady rain.

Today was a cartoon Monday. It was not a bad day, nothing tragic occurred, but it was most certainly a cartoon Monday.

Mimsy was not in the least bit upset with the weather. For the first time in days, it was above freezing and unlike last night, she did not balk at going outside. In the spirit of full disclosure, Mimsy can be a little prissy. Bred to be a companion dog, all she wants is to be with her humans … as long as her humans are in a warm, dry location. Last night this human had to take her out in a very cold and persistent rain. Mimsy can’t speak in the traditional sense, but she can make her feelings known. We negotiated about walking in the freezing rain. She communicated that this journey was unnecessary, she would be willing to stay inside, spare both of us from getting wet, and just pee on the carpet. I told her, while I was not keen about going out in the rain, peeing on the carpet was not an option. Since Mimsy weighs all of 12 pounds, I won that debate.

Tonight though, she had no such qualms. It was a very pleasant walk.

I could see my breath hanging in the air, but it was not the bitter cold from the previous week. It’s this time of year that I promise myself never to complain about the heat in July and August. Those months can be sweltering and hot, but they don’t hurt. When it gets down to 0°, it just plain hurts. But that was not the case tonight. After the prior week, 36° felt positively balmy.

We ambled down the side-streets near our house. There was a slight mist in the air, not quite fog, maybe fog-light would be the best description. It softened the edges of everything it touched, placing a slight glow around the street lamps, creating a nocturnal impressionistic streetscape.

Mimsy and I have experienced better and worse strolls. As with most things in life, it’s a matter of perspective. It was a cartoon Monday, but that’s not always bad.

Mimsy and I Get Our Wish

Mimsy and I are in agreement about most things, admittedly we don’t talk politics much, though I would value her opinion over some humans I know.  Our point of contention the last two days has been the recent snowfall. I thought it just about the perfect kind of snow, it stuck to the ground, but not the streets. But the best part, from my perspective, it provided us with a “White Christmas.”

Mimsy is not concerned with “atmosphere” or Christmas tradition, all she knows is that she has to go out and wade through the cold stuff to do her business. I guess I understand her viewpoint, 3 inches of snow is 1/4th her height, that would be like me going out barefoot in snow up to my knees. And as she reminds me, I get to stay inside where it’s warm to do my business. Fair enough.

Mimsy and I did share one common Christmas wish though, and it had nothing to do with snow.

Mrs. Poppy and myself host Christmas dinner. We have the room, Mrs. Poppy can do Christmas decorations suitable for a Norman Rockwell painting, and I love to cook. It’s an arrangement that no one has complained about. This year our entire family (plus) was in attendance, two daughters, two grand-kids, one son-in-law, one boyfriend and two parents belonging to the boyfriend.

We tried to institute a new rule about gift-giving this year. The terms were simple and easy to understand, or at least I thought so; No presents were to be exchanged between adults, only the grand-kids would receive presents. I thought this was a swell idea. It would save everyone money and shopping hassles. I certainly didn’t need anything and I’m pretty sure neither did any of the other adults. My plan did have a massive loop-hole that I didn’t foresee.  Playing by the rules, my daughters should not have been able to get me or Mrs. Poppy any gifts, but that did not stop them from having the grand-kids from buying presents for us. No grandchildren have ever given so many gifts that they were so blissfully unaware of.

In spite of the loop-hole (I will tighten that up next year), it was a wonderful Christmas.

Banished to Mrs. Poppy’s studio during dinner, Mimsy did not think it so wonderful, and she let her displeasure be known. Weighing all of twelve pounds, she does not have the lung capacity of a German Shepherd, something we and our guests were thankful for. Still she managed to be heard. Mimsy is the lowest maintenance dog we have ever owned, but the breed is known for having separation anxiety, and she has that in spades. We received Mimsy as a rescue, she was only two when we adopted her, but she had already had two families, plus the foster parents. Perhaps that plays a part in her anxiety, I need to talk to her about that.

Half-way through dinner we decided to liberate her. She flew down the stairs, made a few laps around the dining room table, did a little sniffing and snuffling, bounced around like a wind-up toy for a few moments, then settled down. She was content.

Loop-holes or temporary banishment to an upstairs room, Mimsy and I received our one Christmas wish. It’s simple and it’s perfect … just being with family.

Merry Christmas

 

I Live on a Big Round Ball

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.

Mimsy and I stepped out for our evening walk. For the first time this season, I noticed my breath coming out in whispy, white vapors. I had already grabbed a coat, one that hadn’t been worn for eight months. At least for now Mimsy was going to have to do with her natural fur coat. She didn’t mind. The crisp air seemed to invigorate her, she sniffed deeply before jumping and prancing around, crashing noisily through the fallen leaves. A month earlier, the dominant sounds would have been of crickets, katydids, cicadas and tree frogs. They are dormant, silent now, waiting patiently as our planet makes its yearly circuit around the sun.

It’s a transitional season. The trees around us are in the process of a wardrobe change. The lawn is still green and what little can be seen of it contrasts sharply against the fallen leaves. Most of the leaves are of brilliant hues. Even on this cloudy day at dusk they seem to glow as if powered by leftover energy from the sun, gathered throughout the summer and saved for this moment.

Our house is 127 years old, ancient by some standards, young by other standards. Much like myself. My grandchildren consider me old, while my mother considers me young. My aging is different from the trees, we both add a little girth each year, but my body doesn’t change with the seasons. Regardless of their age, and many are older than our house, the trees follow an ordained sequence as our planet circles and tilts closer and further from the sun. In a few weeks most of the leaves will have fallen, leaving the tree limbs bare against the ultramarine winter skies. But they are not dead, they are resting, waiting until our globe circles a little further around the sun.

The next season will bring new life, the trees will be maids again, donning brilliant, fresh spring greens. They will call to the birds, “Come build your nests in my branches, as your parents and the parents before them have done.” The tree frogs will find crevices and nooks, safe places, shaded from the sun in the same trees. New generations of cicadas and katydids will join them and again fill the neighborhood with joyful choruses.

A few months later, the maids will become dowagers. They will wear clothes of dark green, sliding toward browns before autumn calls once again and they shed their garments in luminous shades of yellow and gold.

Mimsy and I walk down the sidewalk. I think of seasons, of cycles, of rhythms. Mimsy thinks mostly of squirrels and of scents hidden under the fallen leaves, the origins of which I prefer to be left undiscovered.

I think again of turnings and rotations. In just a few weeks we will celebrate another cycle around the sun. We will throw parties. We will look backward and recall the events of the past year. We will raise a glass in memory of those we have lost. For some we will say, “Good riddance,” and to others we will say, “How will we go on without them,” and we resolve to one day be in the latter group. We will attempt to look forward, wondering what the new year will bring. And we will make grand resolutions.

These turnings are a part of our existence. They bring new life and death. The cycles will continue, I have no say in the matter. I am just along for the ride, an observer. We have the big ones, the yearly circle around the sun, but we also have ones that occur every day.

Every twenty-four hours we have a cycle, a turning. It is so common that we forget its miracle. Each day we have a new beginning, a new opportunity. An opportunity to be that person of whom it will be said, “How will we go on without them.”

For some reason we save our resolutions for the big, once-a-year rotation. We make New Year’s resolutions based on grand, ambitious, but often un-achievable goals.

What if instead, we made 365 micro-resolutions. A daily declaration to do something small but attainable.  Learning a new word, walking past the food-table at the office without picking up a cookie, making the effort to show an unexpected kindness.

Mimsy and I head home. I’m pretty sure she is focused on the treat that awaits her upon our return. I’m focused on my micro-resolution. Let’s see if I can get through my commute tomorrow without hitting the horn … not even once. That seems doable. Check back later.

Poppy

I live on a big round ball
I never do dream I may fall
And even one day if I do
Well, I’ll jump off and smile back at you.

I don’t even know where we are
They tell you we’re circling a star
Well, I’ll take their word, I don’t know
But I’m dizzy so it may be so.

I’m riding a big round ball
I never do dream I may fall
And even the high must lay low
But when I do fall I’ll be glad to go
Yeah, when I do fall I’ll be glad to go.

 
Songwriter: Jesse Winchester
Defying Gravity lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc