When the best present is presence

The last of the 2017 Christmas gifts to be given has been delivered and the last of those received has been unwrapped.  In dealing with both, I’ve been reflecting on one of the sweetest Christmas offerings my father-in-law, who has dementia, received during this season of giving. It came from Dan, one of the “boys” from the old neighborhood – a kid who lived on the next block over, but hung out with Pops’ sons and was something of a fixture at their house.

Dan is one of the few people outside the family who has continued to visit Pops since he moved to a memory-care residence two years ago. Just before Christmas, he simply did what he does from time to time. He stopped by to say hello. Whenever Dan visits, Pops lights up and bellows a cheery, “What the heck are you doing here?” IMG_3700This is partly because Dan conjures up happy memories for a 92-year-old guy who doesn’t always remember what he did five minutes ago, but recalls the name or face of someone who has been kind to him, who remembers to thank him on Veterans Day for his Navy service, or who once fixed his leaky faucet.

But Dan’s visits also bring joy because he has the right idea about giving to people like Pops. When he shows up, he does so with empty hands and a full heart. He seems to know intuitively that his presence and his time are the best things he has to offer, and the reception he gets says it’s so.

During the Christmas season, various veterans and church groups left several one-size-fits-all gifts in Pops’ room – a basket of toiletries with a small crocheted afghan, a Poinsettia, and a box with treats and a small religious statue. These were thoughtful gestures and welcome, comforting signs that Pops has not been forgotten. But when I see him respond to someone like Dan, I know that often the best gifts we can give a person in Pops’ circumstances are not necessarily material things, but time and quiet care.

Just as Pops has been giving us lessons through this dementia journey on how to be, he has been teaching us to let go of our ideas about gifts and learn a new form of generosity. Sadly, we can no longer give him the restaurant gift certificates and other material things that delighted him in years past, but we can reach inside ourselves and pull out our patient attentiveness and reassurance.

Sometimes, that doesn’t seem sufficient, and frankly, it can be a little unsettling. We wonder, “Can it really be enough?” Dan would say yes. When he visits Pops, he says, he leaves with as much as – or more than – he gave, knowing he gladdened a heart with the best present of all – his presence.

 

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When open spaces become dumping places

The “Welcome Birders” signs are up and our little community is ready for an influx of people with binoculars and cameras slung around their necks.

Soon, all eyes will be on the stars of the spring migration – the tiny warblers who stop along Lake Erie’s shores on their way north.

This year, however, birders here for the Biggest Week in American Birding will be seeing a plethora of signs other than those welcoming them. These bright-yellow placards are promoting our community’s effort to stop the dumping of spent lime sludge in a local limestone quarry. Those of us engaged in this David-versus-Goliath fight are hoping to build awareness and elicit additional support from the birding community.

The threat that the quarry dumping poses is something no one in Ottawa County’s Benton Township ever expected to face. Most residents here are occupied with farming, other work, and maintaining their property, even as they enjoy their bucolic location near one of the prime birding spots in the country. Still, because people here are responsible for their own water and sewage via private wells and septic systems, they know what it takes to maintain them. Hence, local conversations of late have been peppered with talk of “the aquifer” that feeds our wells and what effect the dumping of spent lime might have on it, given the sludge contains copper, lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium and other metals and substances. Lacking a municipal  department that manages our water supply, we have banded together, driven by concern for our wells and a love of the area once known as the Great Black Swamp.

Interestingly, the problem we face involves drinking water in another community – an urban one. The city of Toledo in neighboring Lucas County made national headlines nearly three years ago when toxins from the algae bloom on Lake Erie compromised the city’s water, leading to the temporary shutdown of the municipal water-treatment plant.

To prevent a recurrence, Toledo began making changes that included removing from lined lagoons the spent lime used to clean its drinking water and relocating it elsewhere.  Enter an enterprising company, which bought a quarry in Ottawa County and arranged for one of its affiliates to haul and dump the sludge under terms of a multi-million-dollar contract.

Rural Benton Township must have seemed the ideal setting for this operation. Unlike in the city, the proceedings of the governing trustees are not reported in detail by local news outlets. Also, unlike more densely populated suburban neighborhoods, where people take note of everything from the grass-cutting habits of their neighbors to a for-sale sign going up, rural dwellers are more likely to look out their windows and notice an eagle or Northern Harrier soaring over a fallow field.

So it happened that few of us even realized what was going on at the quarry until last year when the persistent efforts of a neighbor who had observed the activity  and tried to raise the alarm finally captured everyone’s attention.  Since then, residents have organized and educated themselves about what exactly the dumping of spent lime sludge in and around the quarry could mean to these environs and most especially the drinking water.

They’ve learned what the state Environmental Protection Agency can and cannot do, what local zoning laws mean, about other communities that have faced and successfully fought similar threats, and how to get the message out to news organizations. They’ve had signs made and set up a Facebook group and a website that includes a link for donations to help pay the hefty legal bills the township has had to absorb to counter the dumping.

Along the way, people have gotten to know each other a little better, setting aside what differences they might have for a unified effort to protect their water. They’ve discovered that many of their neighbors share an interest in the birds that draw visitors to this area each spring and that they want to do what they can to ensure Benton Township continues to provide a friendly habitat for wildlife as well as people.

In listening to the commentary at township meetings over the last months and interacting with our neighbors, it often has struck me how those of us who live in rural areas value the peace, spaciousness, and proximity to the natural world we find outside the city. Yet, these very qualities make our environs vulnerable to outside forces that would exploit what we treasure. It is a good reminder to all of us to keep watch and stay vigilant, even — and perhaps especially —  in the quiet.

To learn more about the Benton Township quarry dumping, visit http://www.stopquarrydumping.com

 

 

 

On the way of the nothing

“It’s often necessary in life to do nothing, but so few people do it nicely.” – From City of Bells by Elizabeth Goudge

The barrenness of winter has always held a certain appeal for me. Perhaps that’s why, as a northerner, I have little desire to flee to a warmer climate as so many of my peers do at this time of year.

Why that is, I’m not certain, but it may have something to do with relishing the opportunity to do nothing for a season. Not literally doing nothing, of course, but I do love that sense of repose that comes each January after the Christmas rush when we settle in for a long winter of reading, evenings by the fire, and a break from the frenzied activity that foists itself upon us with the onset of milder weather.

These days, as I look out on the stark, gray landscape, I can smile at the cheery messages I receive from friends and family waxing on about the sunny, warm weather and what they are doing in Florida or other snowbird destinations. Deep within, I take a kind of secret delight in being able to stay put and enter into the fallowness of this season and its hidden gifts.

A northern winter forces us into a kind of nothingness that can be maddening. But if we are willing to endure long enough to pass through its portal, we can encounter a place of stillness where we know that under or just ahead of the seeming nothingness lies something precious.

I saw that clearly on a recent weekend when I made my way to Magee Marsh, where I go to watch warblers and other migratory birds each spring. I expected nothing in the way of bird sightings, but merely wanted to walk and experience the landscape in its unadorned winter raiment.

Even so, I was happily surprised by the presence of two Northern Saw-whet Owls that other birders had spied in a stand of pine trees at the marsh’s bird center. Farther in, I was treated to splendid views of a Bald Eagle perched near its nest.

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Blogger Kim Clair Smith captured this view of a Northern Saw-whet Owl in 2013 and her sighting was just as happily unexpected as mine. Read about it here.

But what has stayed with me most prominently since that day was the incredibly austere setting of the birders’ boardwalk, bereft of any sign of life. As I walked by the places where I have seen Prothonotary Warblers, Baltimore Orioles, Gray Catbirds, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Northern Parulas, and Red-eyed Vireos, I was mostly struck by the utter nothingness of my surroundings. Aside from two birders I encountered on the way out, I saw no one and nothing but barren and felled trees. The contrast to what I see in the spring was almost breathtaking. In May, I am elbow-to-elbow with birders and nature photographers walking under leafy branches and straining to see Wilson’s or Orange-crowned warblers.  There is a hum of excitement and activity as birders from around the world converge in groups to train their binoculars, scopes, or cameras on a particularly sought-after bird or share the news of a good sighting “at the loop” or “by the east entrance.” Could this be the same place? Indeed, it was.

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The Magee Marsh boardwalk in its winter raiment.

That day, I loved the marsh and the boardwalk for their essence, revealed by the absence of foliage, people, and birds. There seemed to be nothing, but there was something. It was much as I had come to love the frail frame of my aging mother before she died because it reflected the graceful serenity that remained as she was taken down to her bare branches.

By detaching from my desire for and memories of spring and facing the nothingness of the landscape, I received something new, as we do in the spiritual life when we abstain or fast from our pleasures so as to hear and see more deeply things eternal.

In the spring, I will love the marsh even more for having seen it in its barren state. But for now, I will treasure the memory of its frame, consoled by its beauty and anticipating the joy of seeing it transformed from its state of seeming nothingness into one teeming with life.

 

 

Learning to be

“There are seasons when to be still demands immeasurably higher strength than to act.”              

— Margaret Bottome

As students head back to classes on campuses around the country, I have been thinking about the school our family has been enrolled in for the last few years. It’s one we didn’t choose to attend and the curriculum is a bit erratic.

I call it the School of Being, because it describes what we are learning about one of our family members who has dementia.

Although like most people in our culture, we want to “do” something in the face of any suffering or loss, in this instance we are finding that often our greatest act of kindness is to “be” with Pops.

Sometimes, he requires action: a shave, help in the bathroom, his glasses cleaned, or hearing aid located. But the focus when we visit him in the memory-care unit where he now lives cannot be on these acts. It has to be on him and where he happens to be at the moment.P1000218

Early in this journey with dementia, someone told us, “You have to enter their world.” And so we do.

That usually means a simple and cheerful greeting and then waiting for a signal. Often, we simply pass through the looking glass with him and see what he is seeing, hear what he is hearing, ponder with him what he is thinking. This can involve answering the same question multiple times as if we are responding for the first time. Or, it can mean summoning our imaginations and indulging in flights of fancy and even a bit of nonsensical speech, the kind we use with little children.

Frequently, Pops reveals a kind of idee fixe that sets the tone for our time with him. It could be “Where’s Mom?” meaning his deceased mother or his very-much-alive wife, or maybe both because he’s mixed them up in his head. Or, if we find him just waking up, we might be treated to some spirited, repetitive commentary on how well he had been sleeping.

One day, while seated at a table in the dining room, he lasered in on several chairs in the next room, saying he was going to sit in one. He remained where he was, however, continuing to talk about his plan to get up and relocate. We encouraged him, reviewed the choices of chairs, and which seats were available, all without any action on his part. Finally, the locus moved to a woman who was sitting – and sleeping – in one of the chairs, so we talked about her and the various aspects of her state of slumber. “She’s really snoozing.” “I think she’s catching some flies.” “Yep, she’s out like a light.”

Another day, Pops told me he had been on an airplane the night before. I learned that he and his wife had been separated so that each was on a different plane. “I bet you didn’t like that,” I said, to which he replied, “No, I didn’t!” And so we were off, chatting about this as if it had really happened, because for him, it had. Whatever the source or reason, it didn’t matter. He was where he was and I was right there with him.

At still other times, Pops becomes agitated if there is too much activity around him or if he sees that we are conversing with an aide, another resident, or visitor, and we are reminded once again of the importance of being with him and being present to him.

P1030986So it is that we are all learning new lessons in this school that has no vacation or seasonal breaks. “Being” is not easy to master in our action-oriented, instant-response world, one in which all our minds are racing toward doing something. It requires slowing down, stilling our thoughts, and, in our encounters, trying to sense where the other person is before we speak or act.

For my part, I’m discovering that I’m still too absorbed in a jumble of thoughts when alone and too quick to jump in and share my own opinions, stories, or ideas when with another. Typically, my own experience or state of mind springs to the fore when someone is talking and, instead of listening, I plunge in with advice or a “that’s just like when” comparison. Or worse, I don’t listen at all.

Being with someone whose cognitive functions are compromised is forcing me to stop, look, and listen because I’m clearly on unfamiliar ground and need to find my way.

As a creature of our active and materialistic society, I am learning from someone whose life has been reduced to the essentials that the most important gift I can give is a quiet and receptive presence, one that waits to see where the other person is and then remains there for a while. Sometimes that means saying nothing and just being there, and accepting that it is enough. The late Fulton J. Sheen once said, “The world’s greatest need is . . . someone who will realize that the real worth is achieved not so much by activity, as by silence.” I think Pops would agree.

Rest for the word-weary

“Thanks for giving me your email address. I will keep it on file for use in case of an urgent need for correspondence with you, as I consider it best if we stay away from the continuous contact so overwhelming in our digital era.”

Those lines from a letter I received via post last month were balm to a spirit wearied by words. The weeks since I wrote my last blog entry have been filled with myriad duties requiring much oral and written communication, some of which has produced seemingly little fruit for the energy expended. So it was that the message cited above was a welcome one, not only because it recognized the exhausting nature of communication in this age, but also because it was a rare voice of restraint in a milieu where “can” means “do.”

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Letting the words speak for themselves: Destiny and Decision, Sermon Nuggets, and More Sermon Nuggets, by Fred Zimmerman.

The writer of my letter is Fred Zimmerman, a retired minister and author who has been around long enough to remember a different sort of life than the one to which we all have become sadly accustomed. He uses electronic communication sparingly, as indicated above, and still takes the time to write and send letters on paper. In publishing his books – a memoir and collections of excerpts from his sermons – he employed a similar strategy, deciding to let the words speak for themselves instead of seeking to advance them through interviews and social media posts.

Although some might consider his style anachronistic in our media age, I love its bold, yet gentle, countercultural stance. And I think it explains why he is able to pierce the clutter of words and images inundating us today with his incisive insights.

From his writings, I know that he values solitude as a time to commune with God. Without it, he writes in his second volume of sermon excerpts, “we cannot hope to live a meaningful life and perform meaningful work.” He goes on to quote William Wordsworth: “The world is too much with us . . . getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”

In our day, the world that is “too much with us” is one peppered with words, images, and opportunities to interact with each another, all vying for attention day and night on our computers and smart phones. Unlike the characters in Jane Austen’s novels who take time to write and read their letters, carefully discerning and reflecting on the meaning of the words, we have no leisure to process our missives. The instant – and insistent – nature of text-messaging and email urges us to read and respond immediately so that sometimes we miss or misinterpret our correspondent’s meaning. Or we get so many messages that some are lost or forgotten as we deal with what seems most urgent.

This has affected us in ways I suspect we do not even realize. Our thoughts and conversations are scattered, and our preoccupations often trivial. Our minds are noisy and crowded, with scarcely any room for or recognition of a profound thought should one float by, and our speech frequently is a sad reflection of this disorder. It is no wonder that many of us seek solace in nature, where we can quietly gaze on birds and sunsets, P1010498for only there can we escape the barrage of words and digital images that constantly bombard us – provided a cell phone doesn’t beep or buzz.

Quite simply, we are talking too much and taking in too much. Although it’s tempting to simply withdraw from the digital world for a time, as some do as a means of fasting during this season of Lent, I prefer my minister friend’s approach of moderation, making use of technology’s gifts without letting them rule our lives.

Other friends have done similarly. Some only answer emails at certain times, rather than whenever they happen to get a message. Another friend removed the Facebook app from her phone so that she does not check it as frequently. One method I use is to mute my phone so that I’m not prompted to look at it every time it announces a text, email, or call.

Although all these are helpful in setting boundaries for interfacing with the electronic world, they are mere steps to something greater and worth pursuing — what the spiritual classic Divine Intimacy calls exterior and interior silence. These do not mean we never speak or think, but that we avoid idle chatter, prolonged conversations, and talkativeness and keep watch over the imagination, feelings, and thoughts in the interest of preserving a state of receptivity to what is most important. The author of Divine Intimacy, Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, lived from 1893 to 1953, well before the Internet’s entry into our communal space, but his words – and those of my minister friend – are timeless. They speak to every person’s sense of restlessness and yearning for peace, one that is universal, regardless of the times and circumstances in which we live.

Loving the least of spring’s gifts

In the swampy region where I live, spring doesn’t exactly arrive on the doorstep with a bouquet of daffodils. More precisely, it announces itself with a sump-pump alarm going off in the middle of the night, in adjustments to toilet-flushing, showering, and laundry routines, and, in general, the presence of mud and water outside.

P1020533While those who reside on higher, dryer ground seize the first mild day marking the end of winter to enjoy a walk or a trip to the park, we rural swamp dwellers laser in on what the spring thaw is doing to our drainage systems. We monitor sumps, septic systems, and fields, and hope for a favorable wind direction and a return to normalcy.

This is not to say that we miss spring’s kinder side. In fact, I think we may enjoy the smallest, most humble harbingers of the season more fully than others do its splendor. Just as my religious tradition’s Lenten practices of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer cleanse the senses so that we hear and see more clearly, so a little bit of water-related discomfort and deprivation goes a long way toward enhancing our appreciation of the least of the season’s gifts.

A friend’s email informing me that her snowdrops, which in the past have bloomed as early as January, finally had opened gave me a surge of joy, as did the sight in my own garden of a patch of lemon thyme that had survived the winter. P1020544I felt the same excitement in discovering dianthus foliage, still surrounded by snow, and a spray of leaves at the base of the rue plant that last summer had been a host for Giant Swallowtail caterpillars.

Although little else was growing amid the matted remnants of last year’s garden, I could delight in observing the state of transition everything was in – the melting snow receding to reveal moss-covered paths and clusters of leaves P1020554under water looking as if they had been arranged beneath glass. In other places, trees reflecting on the standing water formed a striking backdrop for the sounds of blackbirds announcing their return, adding their voices to those of the nuthatches and black-capped chickadees who have been here all winter.

These scenes, stripped as they were of the lushness we witness in late spring and summer, nonetheless contained a kernel of hope that something unseen was in the air and about to materialize.

Those of us for whom spring intersects with the 40 days of Lent experience something similar as we use this time of year to detach ourselves from that to which we have become attached. In the decluttering of our souls, we gaze at a barren landscape and sense what has been hidden from us in our hurriedness and preoccupation with doing and achieving. We begin to hear, taste, see, and know that something is coming – and that it will be good.

‘Tis the season to be . . . quiet

While everyone seems to be pulling Christmas ornaments out of storage, hanging wreaths, and stringing lights outside, I am following my own holiday tradition by resisting the impulse to join them.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, my seasonal decoration of choice is a simple arrangement of evergreens and candles that will remain on the dining room table until just bP1010437efore Dec. 25.

I understand completely the desire to drive out the dark by infusing our surroundings with Christmas cheer as soon as the Thanksgiving dishes are done. This year especially, when our region has had an early blast of winter weather well before the solstice, it has been tempting to try to shake off the specter of increasingly shorter days with a liberal application of light and color.

But I am choosing again to experience the stillness and darkness of the season leading up to the holiday by holding off on the big decorating and engaging in a time of quiet waiting.

In delaying some of the gratification of Christmas, I am following the practice observed by my mother and father, who likely learned it from their immigrant Eastern European parents. As a child anxious for Christmas and living in a world that jump-started the holiday earlier each year, I didn’t necessarily like that we put up our Christmas tree later than everyone else. As an adult, however, I have come to see the wisdom in waiting, difficult as that can be while the Christmas whirlwind swirls around me and threatens to sweep me into its vortex.

It helps in all this to have the support of a spiritual tradition that observes the season of Advent, which means an arrival or coming. During it, we light one candle, then two, then three, and finally four, on the Sundays leading up to Christmas as we mark the time and think about what – and whom – we await. Our scripture readings for this period talk about being on watch, something we know we cannot do if we are distracted and busy. They also urge us to do some interior house-cleaning, sweeping out the dust of old thought patterns and clearing the clutter of corrosive habits. Stopping to light a candle, pray, and reflect week by week, it seems, slows down the pre-Christmas rush, refreshes our spirits, and helps us turn our eyes away from the material aspects of the holiday, making room for its deeper meaning.

So, even as I buy gifts, write cards, bake, plan food for Christmas gatherings, and try to meet that last writing deadline before Dec. 25, I have a template to follow, a kind of rule that keeps calling me back to where I want to be, in and out of this festive season. It’s not that I don’t get rattled or overwhelmed by all the things that must be done in this busiest of times, but I have a visual reminder – my simple Advent wreath – that summons me to a place of peace and invites me to linger there to consider what is really important and what matters most.