"C" is for "Choice."


"C" is for "Choice."

Art has always been a healing measure in my life. This goes back to my Mother and her Mother, and my Mimi's house - full of beautiful things, carefully arranged. These women have engaged life's biggest questions in paint, song, garden, prose, poetry, and pastry. They have looked difficulty square in the eye through the lens of creativity. I am from them. I have learned at their elbows and knees by listening, watching, and mimicking - the wise way of the child's boundless exploration.

But we cannot, any of us, hope to engage all of life's questions alone. Even with the help of Art we crave the greater help of Community. 

Alice Parker describes a circular relationship between music, its makers, and its other participants. She writes, 

The circle begins when a song is sung - newly created or recreated . . . The circle is complete when the creator, performer, and listener are made one through the song. - Pg. 189 "The Anatomy of Melody"

Before meeting Ms. Parker I'd read these words and had carried them dutifully around in my mind, trying to engage myself in the out-working of their truth. It was easy enough to see in my life as a music teacher. It was easy enough to understand in the context of hymnody and church music. It was more difficult to understand at the songwriting desk or at midnight, wrestling with a composition at the piano. It was harder, still, to engage as I faced my own weariness of voice - both physical and spiritual.

Oh, but my Mothers have gone before me and have made a way in the desert. Desert Mothers, whose truths come to me in pithy sayings:

I hear Grandma, "A watercolor wash can be worked with wet or dry. If you want to paint more realistically over it you need to let it dry. If you want to splatter it and play with the mess, you need to work with it quickly while it's still wet."

I hear Mimi, "You've got to give the cookies time to cool before you ice them or they won't be able to set properly."

I hear Mom, "Watch the way the sun moves over the land for a year or so, then make a few choices about how to plant. Watch how the first few things do, then make a few more choices."

Years ago another voice got in the way of the voices of my mothers. This happens to so many of us, and we often don't know how to describe what has happened. It was a voice I trusted and it told me that while it loved me, other people probably would not. It told me that while it could see the good in me, other people probably never would. It told me that it didn't like how I played the piano or how I spent my time. It told me I didn't know how to sing. It told me so many things. Lies with sharp teeth.

The circle was broken, during that time, between myself and the community. It was a subtle divorce and I couldn't see it, and nobody around me seemed to be aware that it had taken place.

We can travel far and not know we've lost our way.

We can come back season after season and not know we'd fare better in a different corner of the garden. 


This is my little hydrangea. I planted her last year with high hopes and was so sad when she hardly grew. As it happens, she was growing in a place with too much afternoon sun. She needed partial shade. 

She woke up early this spring in her old plot, and leaves sprang from those old brown branches. But a late frost came and stunted that first growth, and then another soon followed, and she was silent again. Worried about her, I did some reading on the subject and made the choice to move her to a new home.

This is a picture of her in her new home. It has better light for her and her leaves have begun to thrive once more . . . but do you see the bare branches? Even when we are re-rooted safely we might go a season or several bearing evidence of our past hurts. 

I learn from this precious green sister in my garden. I learn about resilience and tenacity, and also about self compassion. The old branches are bare, yes, but they have not fallen away. And although she tried to grow again from them and was not immediately successful, she has not stopped coming back to life. I look at her and know she'll thrive when her roots are all settled. It's easier to look at her and feel this assurance than to look at myself and feel the same. 

Yes, I've walked a long time in the desert, carrying a great sadness all by myself. And when I first opened my mouth and allowed the dust and ashes to pour out, I thought I might not breathe again. But I did breathe - once, twice, three times. I went on breathing, and I think someday soon I'll even sing.


Jesus Christ lives in my heart and in the hearts of other people in my carefully chosen circle. He is the "other self" in all situations. We are to love ourselves as He loves us. We are to love each other as He loves us.

It has been very difficult, here in this desert, to love myself as Jesus loves me. But my circle, full of the love of Christ, has patiently connected with me time and again to reestablish this love and to encourage self acceptance and compassion.

I take another lesson from my garden. 

Last year a friend of mine asked me how I kept my sunflowers from falling over. I told her I believed it was due to their sheltered location, near the corner between our house and our porch. That very night a storm came and knocked five of them flat.

The next morning I stood over these tall, flat sunflowers, thinking, "How can I help them stand up again?"

I enlisted an army of little flowerpots to prop them up, and so they stood for the rest of the season - propped up at the base by flower pots, which they were not planted in. Propped up by circles.

Black Elk, a Lakota shaman and medicine man, has been credited with saying, "Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours." and Meister Eckhart has said, "the heart is active constantly in a circular manner...The spring of life is placed in the heart." 

Yesterday I sat with a friend of mine (a teacher of mine), with whom I shared a conversation about circles a number of years ago. Upon our first meeting I noticed a little piece of handmade art covered in circles and said, "Oh my! I have been thinking a great deal about circles lately." at which point she responded, "It's a synchronicity, then!" I knew instantly I'd grow to learn from her, though I couldn't have guessed how.

As we sat across from each other yesterday I entrusted my dust and ashes to her, and also my hope for future growth. As we shared that time and space she gave me something to think about, which calls me closer to the idea of the circle of community we all need so much. She looked me right in the eye and said, "Your choice was taken from you at that time, and here are some choices you can have back." 

On my way to reconnecting all of my circles, which involves choosing people and chances and other things, I've never once stopped to consider the fact that the word "choice" and its inherent power have been missing . . . what a great disconnect. When we describe vocation in faith-filled language we often talk about being "chosen" for certain work. This desert journey has taken me back to a younger self, who I must have compassion on, and who was robbed of a precious choice. 

Today I wrote her name on a piece of paper and searched for "choice" in that name. Was it anywhere?


None of my associations led me to the letter "C," and therefore, none of them led me to "choice."

But they did lead me here:


"C" for "Choice"

I waited for the letter "C" 

To come and change the tide for me.

"C" for "Choice" and

"C" for "Chance" and 

"C" for "Clear" and 


I wrote my name

And searched it there,

And found no Choice

Or Chance, but fair

And bright, 

I found my "Right"

And gave myself

The "burden light" - 

Forgiveness for that awful night

When letter "C"

Was not in sight.

Jesus has said, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." - Matthew 11:28-30

Christ within me was there when Choice was not. And although I know I've still got a long way to go on the road to wholeness, I know no better traveling companion or witness than Him. When we find our circles broken, dear ones, and our compassion inaccessible, He is there for us to "learn from." The phrase "learn from me" in this passage doesn't seem to be emphasized overmuch by pastors . . . but, boy, does it ever preach. "Learn from me" has within it the great power of "yet" and the absolute grace of "process." It's not a "hurry up and" anything sort of statement.

Thanks be to God - there are now days when I can hear my Mothers' voices again . . . and there are days when the circle is intact. There will be more and more. Just as I hope in my little hydrangea, I now begin to hope in my own roots. My prayer will always be that you might be able to do the same.





And it Wouldn't Catch Fire.


And it Wouldn't Catch Fire.

When real love sets something on fire the something doesn't burn up. It's like the burning bush or the pillar of fire leading the Israelites through the desert at night. It's like the warmth of my late grandmother's kitchen. It's like the sincerity of my father's smile. It's like the perfect light filtered through the trees in my mother's garden. It's like the heat of my infant son curled against my chest exactly three years ago today. Our lives catch fire from love and are not consumed. Renewable energy at its best.

I have a story about fire. Sometimes stories take a long time to unfold, don't they? Especially if they are stories we've buried in the ground. Roots take a long time to grow. This story has been buried in the ground for nearly 12 years. Several days ago it sprouted.

Last week I was in church on a Wednesday evening learning about liturgical practices in the Episcopal tradition. We'd been going over terms and definitions for a few weeks in our study and had come to the setting of the communion table. Our priest asked us if we knew what would happen if a consecrated item (a blessed item) were worn out or broken. Would it be thrown away? A cloth used in the serving of communion, for example? None of us knew. She explained to us that there were two options. Such an item could either be burned or buried in the ground. 

Burned or buried.

I've always known about the leftover communion elements. They go straight to the ground or they are consumed. But altar cloths and blessed chalices? This was surprising to a Methodist-raised girl. I found myself thinking of an old story from my own life. A story of matches that wouldn't light and a piece of paper and the love of a good friend.

We were just beginning our junior year of college. My heart was broken. I'd suffered a loss. Something had been taken from me and I knew I'd never ever get it back. Something holy had been mishandled in my life. I didn't have the vocabulary to name my experience at that time. I didn't understand it enough to verbalize it. But I could list the facts, and so I did. I wrote my story on a few pieces of lined paper, front and back, folded them, and left my house with my best friend.

We walked off campus, down a gravel road we knew, and through the woods. We had a bottle of water and some old matches I'd found in a road side emergency kit. I intended to burn the story as a sort of symbolic healing ritual. We walked until the gravel became dirt. At a bend in the road, sheltered from view, I said, "This is the place." We made a little groove in the dirt and I pulled a match out of the little box. I struck the match.



I struck the match again.


I struck another match.


And another.


There were only 4 matches. 

When we go into the wilderness with our pain, intending to burn it away, and find that our matches will not light a heavy blindness settles over us. Maybe our pain isn't a true enough pain to be burned away, we think. Maybe we should just go home and accept a muffled life.

My best friend rescued me that day.

Forgive me, dear friend, if my memory isn't perfect . . . but this is how I remember it: She stood up and dusted herself off. She said something like, "We need a big stick. We're going to rip this story into a million pieces and drown it. Then we're going to bury it." She found a stick and started digging. I found a stick and dug, too. Then the paper was ripped up and the whole bottle of water poured over it. Then we buried it. And we walked home.

All these years later, long since a wife and a mother and many other things, I found myself sitting in an Episcopal church hearing about the validity of my former experience. Something holy in my life was broken, and the broken thing couldn't be burned . . . but it could be buried, and it was. 


Fast forward a few days. I sat in the back of a room full of women at an IF: gathering in a United Methodist church. I'd been leading worship for these women and they were being asked to write some of their personal challenges down on a piece of paper - some of the things that caused each of them to feel somehow "disqualified" from service to their fellow human beings . . . things that whispered doubt into their lives and discouraged them from engaging their doubt in a productive way. I knew immediately what to write on my paper. 12 years ago I wrote the facts, but not the name. This Friday night I named my old loss. One word. I folded my paper and carried it to the sanctuary.

Before my sisters took communion I took a moment to share with them the story of the matches that would not light. I shared with them about the love of my friend, who helped me bury my brokenness in the earth. I shared with them the love of my priest, who took time to explain to me what could be done with our broken holiness. And I shared with them about the love of God, who works constantly under cover of the ground, growing the roots of our lives in the midst of a mystery. I told them what they could do with their challenges and disqualifiers: keep them until you understand them better, wrap them in the word of God, put them on the altar, burn them, or bury them in a garden. I shared with them that I'd be taking my one word - my biggest, most difficult disqualifier - home to my garden, where it would be buried in the dirt with special intentions for new things to grow from it.

After worship was concluded and everybody was sent home I stood alone in the dark for a few minutes and said to God, "Thank you, God, for Love. Thank you, God, for never withdrawing holiness from my life though sometimes holy things get broken. Thank you, God, for my garden." 

Then I went home and walked straight from the front door to the back door. I flipped on the deck light and got my gardening shovel. Right behind my beautiful purple asters, between dozens of hollyhock sprouts, I planted my one word, written in gold ink, and gave thanks again for the fact that my life had not been ended 12 years ago by the force of my loss.

It's impossible for me to know about your losses. It's also impossible for me to understand all of the things that seek to disqualify you from a life of love and service. But it is perfectly possible for me to understand the love of God, which sets our lives on fire and yet does not consume them. 

My paper would not catch fire, but as I planted my pain in the ground a life of great compassion and service began to grow. The roots, stretching down and out, took 12 years to grow. What will spring from these roots, I can't tell yet, but I I can tell you that I trust it to be good.

Dearest Child of God, you are loved with an everlasting love. Even if your paper won't catch fire, you are not disqualified. Nothing can disqualify you from the love of God, which also means that you cannot be disqualified from the calling of God. All people are called by God. You are loved and called. You are seen and needed. Plant your paper, Dear One, and see what grows from it - it will be a brightness like you've never seen, and it will not burn you up or burn you out. It will simply shine.