A World Turned Upside Down, a Psalm, an Island, and a Clam.

Mrs.Poppy and I have vacationed on Sanibel Island since before we had children, now we are taking our grandchildren there. Regardless of the time of year we visit, I have a routine … a tradition that is religiously followed. After a quick run to Bailey’s or Jerry’s for provisions, I head down to the beach. It is usually late afternoon at that point. To the best of my ability, I try to mentally record everything before me, making a deposit of every sensory experience. When January or February comes in the Midwest and I’m faced with freezing rain and snow, I will need to make a withdrawal from that memory bank.


The late afternoon sun warms my back and highlights the waves with exploding sparkles. The perfume of the beach; saltwater mist, with hints of seaweed and sunscreen lotion delight my olfactory nerves.  The soundtrack provided by the breeze, waves, gulls and distant laughter of children, rise and fall in a pleasant and endless loop.

Standing at that magical spot where the gentle surf of the Gulf meets the land, I feel the sand pulled from beneath my feet with each retreating wave. At dusk or dawn, the horizon is a soft blurred line, the sea appears to bleed into the sky. At this time of day, the horizon is crisp, a razor-sharp edge of ultramarine blue.

Sitting down, I push my heels back and forth through the wet sand, creating a pair of miniature trenches. The lapping waves soon drag in sand and broken shell bits filling the gullies, leaving my feet half-buried.

I force my hands through the wet sand, lifting as much as I can hold in each palm, then flip it over to form small mounds on either side of my bent legs. Each handful exposes dozens of colorful, tiny coquina clams They lay there helpless on the beach until the next wave washes over them. That is their signal to right themselves and dig frantically back into the sand. I turned their world upside down, but the next wave restored order in their little universe.

The Coronavirus has turned our world upside down. Doubt, fear, uncertainty, and anxiety can become our constant companions if we don’t fight them off. The media provides 24/7 coverage without any answers. We worry about our families, our jobs, the economy, and we worry about toilet paper. It’s as if we were laying on the sand like the tiny coquina clams, directionless, waiting for a signal to right ourselves. We need a wave!

The wave for me was Psalm 139.

I was on a grocery run when this Psalm came to my mind. The premise of this Psalm is very simple and beautifully poetic. It does not promise a life of ease without trouble, but it lets us know that God knows us and is always present wherever we are (If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there Your hand shall lead me, And Your right hand shall hold me). It provided a much-needed wave of peace,  grace and the reminder that God is always with me.

O LORD, You have searched me and known me.
You know my sitting down and my rising up;
You understand my thought afar off.
You comprehend my path and my lying down,
And are acquainted with all my ways.
For there is not a word on my tongue,
But behold, O LORD, You know it altogether.
You have hedged me behind and before,
And laid Your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
It is high, I cannot attain it.
Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall on me,”
Even the night shall be light about me;
Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You,
But the night shines as the day;
The darkness and the light are both alike to You.

For You formed my inward parts;
You covered me in my mother’s womb.
I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Marvelous are Your works,
And that my soul knows very well.
My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.
And in Your book they all were written,
The days fashioned for me,
When as yet there were none of them.

Peace, Poppy

On the Wings of the Morning

If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. Psalm 139

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The coming dawn chases the stars from the sky as the moon retreats to another hemisphere. The predawn light begins to illuminate the island with a gentle touch. The line of the horizon, so sharp at mid-day is a blurred edge, the ocean bleeds into the sky. For a few moments before the sun takes dominance in the heavens, the world exists in cool pastel colors with softened outlines.


She has no name except in the mind of God.

Throughout the night she roosts in an Australian Pine, just a few hundred yards from where the gentle surf of the Gulf of Mexico meets the sand and the scattered shells of Sanibel Island. She stirs and pulls her long beak from beneath her left-wing. The rhythms of the tides, the moon, stars, and sun are hard-wired into her DNA, she was born to this by divine design, she does not question. She blinks once then twice. Flexing her strong wings she stretches the 7-foot wingspan parallel to the shoreline before pushing her feet against the rough bark of the tree, launching into the air. Wings beating, beating, beating, powerful strokes against the invisible air until she gains the needed altitude.

Then she soars … soars on the wings of the morning.

I stand with my feet planted on the sand. Watching. Earthbound. Heavy. Logically I know I am the higher creature, but I cannot help be envious.

In 1776, Carl Linnaeus gave the brown pelican her binomial name, Pelecanus occidentalis. By conventional standards she is not a thing of beauty. Until the brown pelican matures and its head feathers turn white, she is clothed in a consistent dull brown hue. She is a comical looking bird, with an over-sized bill and stubby body. Her dive into  the water to catch fish has all the grace and finesse of a falling rock. She will never be described as elegant or graceful. But she does not compare herself to other birds. The Royal Tern, the Roseate Spoonbill, the Ibis, the Great White Heron, or the Snowy Egret, she does not measure her beauty against theirs. She is comfortable in the knowledge that she is a magnificent creature of divine engineering. Her fall from the sky that we find so comical is designed to impact the water with such force that it stuns the small fish that are her prey. As she plunges into the water, her throat pouch expands to trap the fish, filling with up to 2.6 gallons of water. And oh, can she soar!

I rarely soar, mostly I plod.

Unfortunately as I trudge along, I also compare. My head has the knowledge that by almost any standard, I am blessed beyond measure. Yet I have to constantly guard that envy and discontent do not creep into my heart . I have to constantly resist the messages that my smile should be brighter, my laundry could be whiter and that I really should do something about my thinning hair. As a young teen, I had always hoped I would grow up to look like Mr. Grant. Looking in the mirror now, I see I may have gotten my wish. Unfortunately the Mr. Grant I most closely resemble is Ulysses and not Cary.

Later in the same Psalm, the writer tells us, For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful.”

After reading that, how can we doubt that we are not exactly the right height, the right size, the right color with exactly the right features? I think it’s because we are so painfully aware of all the shortcomings of our inward self. We are both perfectly made and born into sin. It is one of the ironies of Christian life, that only by acknowledging our brokenness can we truly accept our Godly perfection.

It is then that we can accept our perfect role in God’s creation.

It is then that we can soar!

 

My Wealth!

"Constellation du Bouvier" (Bootes) © Philippe DURVILLE 2001

Braided in a no frills, no-nonsense fashion, her hair style complements her work ethic … no frills, no-nonsense.  The simple gold wire rimmed glasses which frame her eyes, shine brightly against her ebony skin. A force field of experience and knowledge swirls around her as she moves swiftly and efficiently behind the customer service counter of the Shop N’ Save. In her orbit are the girls working with her, decades her junior, looking to her for orders, direction and guidance. When I suggest that it is she, not the manager, who actually runs the store, the hidden source of power, she laughs and waves her hand at me as if it’s the silliest thing she’s ever heard of, yet she is a constant force in her realm and has outlasted several managers. Two or three times a week, for years, our paths have crossed. I call her by name, I have the advantage, it’s printed on the employee badge pinned to her chest. I’m not sure she knows mine.  Our conversations run no deeper than casual chit-chat about work schedules, the weather, or wishing me luck on my most minor of vices, the purchase of a weekly lottery ticket. I don’t know or care who she voted for in the last presidential election. We are not friends on Facebook. By any measure or standard, we are the most casual of friends. Ours is the most minor of relationships.


Like a well-mannered child, who gathers up their art supplies after they are finished coloring, the sun starts to gather up all the colors it has used during the day as it descends toward the horizon. In one last grand gesture before it disappears, the sun splashes those pigments across the clouds and spills its paint on the surface of the ocean. Armed with cameras and cell phones, we gather on the beach, ready to record the event. The display only lasts for a few minutes and the crowd of photographers and observers quickly disperse. Unwilling to leave its precious pigments behind, the sun gathers them up as it starts to brighten the other side of the world. We are left with the muted shades of dusk, the light becomes soft and the crisp edges of the landscape that were so sharp during the day start to lose focus.

As our hemisphere slides further and further away from the sun, the color palette on the island becomes more restrained until we are left only with hues of black, grey and deep satiny blues. The sun no longer has dominion over the sky and the stars and planets start to appear, Venus first, then Polaris the north star. They emerge almost timidly while the glow of the departing sun still lingers in the western sky. Gradually more and more stars make their entrance until the night sky becomes a dome filled with celestial celebrities, the constellations Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Cassiopeia, Draco, Orion and Pleiades the seven sisters.

Our family beach vacations are usually spent on Sanibel Island or St. George Island. These are barrier islands that sit off the coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico. They have many things in common, both underdeveloped, no high-rise buildings, no tacky tourist attractions, no stop lights and both have ordinances requiring lights on the outside of buildings be turned off during the summer months, which for sea turtles is nesting season. Female loggerheads, leatherbacks, and green sea turtles return to these islands, the place of their birth, to lay their eggs. The turtle hatchlings when they are born need to head to the sea. If they emerge at nighttime, a bright bulb will appear to them as a shining moon, potentially causing them to head off in the wrong direction. The lack of outside lights is important for baby turtles and even better for star-gazing.

I don’t exactly sneak out at night. Sometimes it’s a thinly veiled excuse like taking the dog out one last time, sometimes it’s more direct. No one in my family shares my passion for walks on the beach after dark. I understand that to a certain extent. The beach is a totally different place after dark and the pitch darkness can be a little scary. For this city boy the main attraction is the night sky. The canopy of stars that stretches from horizon to horizon is nothing like my vista back home where the view is marred by buildings, trees and light pollution. When I tilt my head back to take in this spectacle, the effect is dizzying. My mind can’t grasp the scope, the time, the distance displayed before me. I start to understand my smallness, my insignificance. For the moment I understand that the world does not revolve around  me and I am content to be one little guy in God’s great big old creation.

As I gaze at the constellations above me, I realize they don’t exist as a singular unit, whole unto themselves. Only by one star establishing a relationship with an adjacent star, then another and another until the sum of their parts is greater than any individual star do they become the constellations we know. For all its brightness, Polaris is just another star until it connects with other stars to become part of the  little dipper or the larger constellation Ursa Minor, Little Bear (yes I’m a nerd). It is that relationship of position, brightness and arrangement that make up all the constellations that we know.

I think about the people in my life. I consider the relationships, the connections, the arrangements, the distance or the closeness.

I think about my family waiting for me back in the rented condo. I imagine each family member as a star. In my limited galaxy of constellations, my family shines the brightest. In the center of that star cluster is my best friend, my love, the mother of my children. Nearby are the stars of my daughters, my grandchildren, my brother, my in-laws. Beyond that are the constellations made of old friends, never wavering, always constant, shining brightly. Circling them is the nebula of co-workers, many of whom I spend more time with them than most family members.

I’ll admit I’m not always the quickest to get things. I’m the guy that chuckles at the punchline of a joke about 10 seconds after everyone else has quit laughing (if I get it at all). But I’ve collected enough years to understand some things, or at least some things about myself.  I’ve slowly learned that my true wealth is not determined by my bank account, the car I drive, or the paintings I own. The richness of my life is in those myriad of relationships, those people formed constellations, from the most intimate (my spouse) to the most casual (the customer service lady at Shop N’ Save). Some relationships can last for decades, others come and go as quickly as a meteor that flashes across the night sky for a few seconds, then is gone. Once I learned that there is value in all those affiliations, it changed the way I view them and to some degree, how I treat them. We treat things of value differently than items of trash. I might kick a tin can down the street, but would never treat a diamond ring that way.

I’m a little bemused by all the “unfriending” that has occurred during the last presidential election. Sadly it’s not all just “cyber-friends”, the friends made just by clicking on a hyperlink on a social media site, but relationships that  have had real meaning in the past. Mrs. Poppy has experienced this personally. A former supervisor, a friend, has shunned everyone whose political and social views don’t match up with hers. I want to, at least metaphorically, drag her down to the island at night and force her to look up at the night sky. I want her to understand the quality her life has not been improved by surrounding herself only with people who think exactly as she does, that she has become poorer by discarding those other relationships. The constellations she has enjoyed in the past, no longer exist because they are missing key elements.

“Variety is the spice of life”, may be a cliché, but it is also true. I can’t imagine eating only one type of food, listening to only one genre of music or associating only with people who look and think exactly as I do.

I am hardly perfect in this regard. I have my share of fading stars, friendships that I have neglected. Too busy, too lazy, too self-absorbed, too distant, the excuses and reasons are endless. My New Year’s resolutions may come early this season. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some emails to send, some phone calls to make.

Merry Christmas, Poppy

 

 

 

 


Captiva and Sanibel Island gifts, souvenirs and t-shirts  http://www.cafepress.com/sanibelslacker

 

The Fine Art of Being Still

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The sun has already dropped below the horizon and the moon is just a sliver in the night sky. Venus shines brightly directly below the waxing crescent, as if suspended by an invisible thread attached to the arc of its celestial neighbor.

With the help of some nocturnal insects, the gentle surf from the Gulf of Mexico provides the soundtrack for the evening. The reverie is interrupted only briefly by the sound of a distant power boat returning to the marina, its pursuit of fish done for the day. On plane, the drone of the outboard engine is joined by the slap of its hull as it pounds against the offshore chop.

I’m writing this from my version of paradise … the lanai of a condo rented on Sanibel Island. Sanibel has no high-rises, no traffic lights, no fast food restaurants, the only exceptions being a Subway and Dairy Queen, grandfathered in after the strict building ordinances passed in 1974. It is as peaceful as it gets in this crazy state of Florida.

Why then is it so hard for me to quiet my mind? Continue reading “The Fine Art of Being Still”

Of Guns, Manatees and J.S. Bach

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Driving cross-country gives you plenty of time to think. Maybe too much time.

The second and final leg of our journey home started just south of Chattanooga.   We were on the road by 7:30 Eastern time. Somehow, knowing that we were on the cusp of gaining an hour, moving from the Eastern to the Central Time Zone, felt like we had gotten an earlier start. The family, or at least the members that were with us (1 wife, 1 daughter out of 2, 1 grandchild out of 2, and 2 dogs out of 3) quickly settled into their traveling routines of napping, reading, and checking phones and iPads, leaving me alone with my thoughts.

I rewound the events of the last week and played them back. We over-ate in moderation at a myriad of good restaurants, caught lots of sun but avoided any burns, and collected a fair amount of shells without turning it into a job. One night I introduced my grandson to “The Princess Bride.” By any measure, our week on Sanibel Island, was a success. The highlight being a guided fishing excursion in pursuit of snook. The bonus part of that expedition came as we waited on the docks of Jensen’s Marina for our guide. A large group (herd?) of manatee was frolicking at the marina. Having never been a manatee, I don’t know what was going on, but my best guess would be that they were intent on perpetuating their species. In any case they were more active than any manatees I had seen before.

Unfortunately, my rewind of last week’s events included much less pleasant events: the killing of a young singer, the slaughter at the Orlando nightclub, and a the death of a 2 year-old at Disney. Any one of those events is cause for dismay, but coupled together in the span of a week they were downright depressing. Continue reading “Of Guns, Manatees and J.S. Bach”

Letting Gramma do the cooking … Gramma Dots that is

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Poppy’s family is vacationing this week on the Sanibel-Captiva Islands off the Gulf coast of Florida, so I’m taking a break from cooking and letting other people do it for me. We have been coming down to these islands since the 70’s when it was just Mrs. Poppy and I. Now we travel with multiple generations and it’s better than ever.

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One of our must-do stops is Gramma Dots Seaside Saloon at the Sanibel Marina. Fresh seafood, tropical setting and surrounded by beautiful boats … it doesn’t get any better!

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Today’s lunch special was a blackened swordfish sandwich with pineapple salsa, served with homemade chips, fruit and their signature edible orchid. The pineapple salsa provided just the right amount of sweetness to balance the blackened seasoning. Combine that with a cold draft beer, blue skies, gentle breezes and being surrounded by people you love … Poppy is in heaven!

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Mrs. Poppy photo-bombs family!

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After lunch we walk around the marina and play the “If I won the lottery, which boat would I buy” game. Then its back to reality and we drive off, banking another good memory and already anticipating our next lunch at Gramma Dots.

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