Where the Wild Flowers Are

            One of the greatest hardships for me during the pandemic has been the loss of our annual camping trips, both with and without children and grandchildren. The worst trial was, of course, living entirely without family gatherings, since we have no family members living in our city. Apart from that, though, I sometimes felt that my soul would shrivel into something mean and meaningless if I did not soon manage to return to our favourite hiking trails in the Rockies.

To help me find patience to wait just a little longer, I have been scrolling through my photos of wild flowers. While I love the mountain vistas and dream of standing at high altitudes again, it has often been the wild flowers up in the alpine slopes, deep in the pine forests, and along rocky shores of rivers that send rejoicing through my veins. It remains a mystery to me that the Creator should have been so recklessly generous with the sheer numbers and varieties of beauty that live mostly beyond human gaze.

            May I share some of that beauty with you all? 

Wild flowers offer two kinds of pleasure – on masse and one by one. We have, in our various mountain hikes, stumbled on acres of wild flowers, and also discovered small clusters bravely growing on a rocky slope or camouflaged in deep forest grasses. Taking good photos of entire hillsides covered with flowers or valleys likewise filled with color is a challenge, I’ve found. Nothing I’ve taken has ever duplicated my first astonishment. The above photo of a nameless valley somewhere above Taylor Lake, the destination of a trail off the highway just north of Banff, offers me equal portions of happy memory and regret – perhaps I should have tried another angle.

We discovered the meadow by accident. Our plan was to hike up to Taylor Lake, perhaps cool our feet in the water, have some lunch, and then return the way we came. It was a last hike before we departed for home, and we were already tired even before we laced up our hiking boots that morning. It’s not a particularly onerous hike; it should have been a delightful, gentle closing scene on a soul-restoring holiday. However, arrival at the lake felt like entering a combat zone, with our tiny opponents vicious and thorough. There wasn’t enough insect repellent in both our packs to make lunch here possible.

So we kept walking, past the lake and on up a slope, not knowing where the path would take us, presumably up to some ridge for which we no longer had sufficient energy. Then the trail abruptly opened out onto this meadow with more flowers in one place than we had ever seen before except for one, much longer meadow on the trail to Helen Lake, also off the Banff-Jasper Highway. Mosquitoes were forgotten! Even lunch became secondary to exploring the gifts of this place.

But to get a good photo of the whole? A real challenge for this amateur photographer. But I keep trying.

Nobody sees a flower, really. It is so small it takes time. We haven’t time and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.

Georgia O’Keefe

In my own garden in Saskatoon, there are also blue forget-me-nots. They closely resemble their alpine cousins, which means that they seem insignificant, not particularly important among the larger, showier perennials with their dominant reds and yellows. Blue flowers often seem more delicate, almost hesitant to claim space whether in gardens or in the wild.

Alpine slopes are a demanding environment. With minimal soil covering the rock and the harsh cold winds that blow most of the time, flowers grow by anchoring themselves low to the ground, offering little surface to the wind and spreading their fine roots in a net wider than themselves.

I would like to learn that from the forget-me-nots and all their other alpine friends.

Blue-eyed mountain grass is another shy flower that I admired for years in my mountain flower book before ever finding it in the wild. One has to be paying attention to spot these 1 cm. beauties in the midst of the grass and shrubbery on sub-alpine slopes. The plant itself, its leaves mere thin-bladed grass, attracts no attention. Had it not been that on the trail up to Mt. Allan in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, there happened to be a considerable cluster of them, all in bloom, I might never have learned how to spot them.

I attempted to grow a prairie version of them in my garden, with no success. Upon thinking it over, I concluded that it is not necessary to own and control what one loves. Let those gorgeous blue-purple eyes with their startling yellow centres remain in the wild where they can reward those who pay attention.

One last flower from the blue section of any flower guide – blue harebells. These, too, are not overly dramatic, do not overwhelm through sheer color and size. However, they are not shy. Indeed, it seems as if they are everywhere, having developed versions of themselves that are content in almost any habitat. The mountain harebells are smaller, shorter, and the arctic version (appearing on the higher alpine slopes) are a mere 10 cm tall or less. The distinctive bell-shaped flower is consistent in all varieties.

Their adaptability is enviable; they change only as much as circumstances require without sacrificing anything of their essence. Seeing them is a little like meeting family: maybe one didn’t expect to see them here, or there, but instant recognition brings a smile.

Just as one should not judge a book by its cover or a human being by the color of their skin, so one should not judge a flower by its name. Whoever thought of naming these gorgeous purple flowers, with tiny gold studs on their stamens, scorpion weed? It seems to have come from resemblance between the coiled leaves and the curled tail of a scorpion. Having never seen a real scorpion, I cannot comment.

Their other, less common name – silky phacelia – has the poetic music the flower absolutely requires. Scorpion weed, indeed! This is a “weed” I’d be happy to welcome in my garden, except that my prairie garden offers neither the altitude nor the open dry rocky slopes that these dramatic beauties require.

I must have taken thousands of pictures of paintbrush already. They grow everywhere, it seems, from ditches along the highways to high alpine slopes. I have photographed them against water, against rocks and old tree stumps, with dandelions, bright yellow arnica, white labrador tea, even rein orchids. They’re such friendly flowers and so at home in whatever setting that they practically beg for yet another photo, like the overly chummy uncle at a party, happy to put his arm around anyone and pose for a picture.

Paintbrush flowers come in so many shades of red and orange and pink and yellow that I keep taking more photos. As if I needed another reason to love them, I learned that paintbrush flowers, with their loosely clustered and sturdy petals and abundant sweet nectar, probably evolved together with hummingbirds (Plants of the Rocky Mountains). Now that’s just perfect.

Nothing in my farming background taught me to love thistles. They were a weed, a noxious weed to be eradicated by whatever method was available, and damn the torpedos. Not until I’d been away from the farm for many years did I discover that thistles often have a beautiful scent, and they are exquisite on the avalanche slopes, as wonderfully made as any wild flower.

It is the special gift of a wild flower to demonstrate clearly that there is a place for every one of them, in its chosen place. Each has unique beauty, special ways of attracting bees and other insects, the right kind of root to establish itself where it belongs – in community with a host of friends. That I needed to be reminded of these days.

The earth laughs in flowers.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Christmas Contradictions

Remembering my oldest brother who died on December 23, 2019

 To say or write something new about Christmas is impossible. We have heard it all already: the sentimental, the devout, the reverent, the irreverent, the beautiful, the profound, the cynical, the gloriously happy, and the bitter. Words and songs, candles and cookies, gifts and slights, mutters of “humbug” and shouts of “Merry Christmas!” This year, with every tradition upended and every once-joyous occasion attenuated with “distancing,” all of the above now have an undertone of loss. What is there to say? Not much, I suppose. But there is much to remember.

Our Christmas tree this year, decorated with all our favorite ornaments gathered over the years, but with no gifts underneath. Gifts have all been already mailed.

 Like most families, we have known many kinds of Christmases: some suffused with grief over recent loss (funeral flowers were part of the decorations in 1990 and again in 2019); some marred by minor illnesses (extra supplies of Kleenex and toilet paper required); some made awkward with tension (either individual or collective or both); some filled with joy (a long absent family member home again, a new baby whose presence makes everything new and wonderful, food traditions carried on in blissfully busy kitchens). Actually, separating all my Christmases into categories like that is foolish—Christmas embodies hope above all else, and hope keeps company with all manner of disappointments and losses, as well as with deep happiness when hope is proved true.

Both of the primary narratives of Christmas in our culture have space aplenty for the full range of human experience. Both raise expectations to mythical levels; both also point to reality in its greatest rawness. The Christian narrative is of new birth, a miraculous birth that will save an entire people from violent occupation and brutal economic conditions. Some tellings of the story look forward to the redemption of all humankind. However, as a prophet informs the baby’s mother, “a sword will pierce your own soul.”

.. . . . I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different: this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

(T.S. Eliot, “The Journey of the Magi”)

The Christian narrative requires us to think about our role in the miseries of now and in the future of the world that is ever unfolding.

The narrative of St. Nicholas, with its delightful magic of one man giving gifts to the whole world in a single night, seems less demanding, warmer. It invites us to generosity, not only to our families but also to those who would gladly be generous to their families yet have not the wherewithal to do so. The deep human pain in this story of expectations is implied, not often spoken. The contradictions are there, nevertheless. Underneath the story of filled stockings and too many cookies are economic realities that demand attention.

Christmas display in the conservatory next to the former Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, SK. A combination of natural plants, natural stones, and the beauty created by human design of those elements, this place has been a refuge for me in many difficult times.

 Nevertheless—and I insist on this “nevertheless”—there is beauty to be found in all levels of both Christmas narratives. The beauty that is given, for which we need only eyes to see and hearts to attend; and the beauty that we create through imagination and ingenuity. In all those forms of beauty, remembered from previous years, I take refuge in this year of the pandemic.  

 The photos contain no people, no food (which seems appropriate for this year). What I have included is the memory of the last time that all my siblings and I were together, evoked only through what we saw together, and other memories of quiet moments that were simply given and gratefully received.

Muttart Conservatory in Edmonton, AB. Photo taken in 2011

Poinsettias are everywhere at Christmas, never mind that they are a tropical plant that couldn’t survive outdoors in the Canadian prairies. Usually they are red, brilliant deep red, framed with dark green leaves. Red and green, the colors of Christmas. This display, though, was definitely white and blue, human skills turning natural beauty into magical beauty in an ice palace.

Three photos taken of blue-tinged poinsettias in the Christmas display in the Muttart Conservatory in Edmonton.
A serendipitous photo.

I remember that at the time I thought this icy display of artificially blue poinsettias verged on kitsch. I was charmed, though, despite myself, by various shades of blue and fascinated with the play of sunlight through the high glass ceilings of the conservatory. Still all that added paint (who knows what the designers used) and glitter, of all things, seemed a sin against natural beauty. I am less critical now. When I see the three reflected figures in the dark blue globe in the center, I am grateful that we were together.

And after all, the entire Christmas experience, in our culture, is artificial. It is a cessation of the usual rhythm of work and school; we bring trees indoors, for goodness’ sake; we import tropical plants; we spend lavishly on gifts and food; we welcome dreams of a better world. So let our homes and our celebrations be nostalgic and extravagant. Let their beauty enrich our souls and then make us aware of how we might change our world to make it beautiful for all, not just the privileged.

Stone and flowers – how could I resist this photo? Also from the Muttart Conservatory.
Once again, a photo makes us see that shadows are an intrinsic element in beauty.

I want to conclude this reflection on Christmas themed beauty with a return to the outdoors, the unadorned beauty that is given to us so generously everywhere we look.

A small park near our home in Saskatoon, taken shortly after a heavy snowfall. No people, no tracks. Just the warmth of stark black and white, life in dormancy, waiting.
A sweet little chickadee that eventually sat on my hand and helped itself to the peanuts I offered. Taken on the grounds of St. Peter’s Abbey, Muenster, SK.

When I run after what I think I want,

my days are a furnace of stress and anxiety;

if I sit in my own place of patience,

what I need flows to me,

       and without pain.

                                                (Rumi)

A Lamp in the Night

            It had to be: five days and four nights in a ward of 4 people – 3 besides me. I hadn’t been a hospital patient for 3 decades, for which I’d been grateful. Now I was just grateful that COVID-19 restrictions had eased enough that I could be there. Medical details are irrelevant for this posting (albeit obviously not for me). What matters here are the stories I heard and what I might now do with them.

“The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed.”

B. Lopez, Crow and Weasel

            Hospital wards offer little privacy (or modesty, but that’s another issue). Curtains are sometimes drawn around beds, especially at night, but soundproof they are most definitely not. Night times are the vulnerable times, too, when pain or fear or usually both simply must be given voice somehow—to the darkness at least, if not to the gentle night nurse who quietly appears in response to the call button.

            Friendships form quickly in such emotional places, if we can call such brief connections friendships. Intimacy might be a better word, an involuntary intimacy that comes from bearing silent witness. Subject as we all were to varying degrees of helplessness, bearing witness was all we could do for one another, for the one or few days that we shared the room.

            It took only one day for me to grasp my relative privilege. I had someone who visited, as much as COVID-19 allowed (the other patients came from all over the province), I had someone to whom I would go home when the time came (I would not travel by taxi or return to a solitary residence), I had enough financial security for that not to be a factor in how the healing process would unfold, I had begun from a baseline of good health and stable routines. For me, matters unfolded as they should in a competent health care system, and complications did not arise.

            That, I discovered, should not be taken for granted. I had known, intellectually, about worrisome gaps in our social safety net, such as inadequate welfare resources, unmanageable case loads, too much bureaucracy, insufficient finances for all the possible treatment plans that could be helpful, and persistent negative lifestyle choices (if indeed they are genuine choices, which is debatable). On a scale necessary for drawing up budgets and making policy decisions, the gaps could be, and have been, discussed and sometimes ameliorated—or exacerbated, as has also happened.

            How those policies play out for any given individual is entirely different. The stories that I heard, whether directly during daylight hours when curtains were opened and sunshine gleamed across the floor and conversation eased the awkwardness of sharing space—or overheard as doctors’ instructions and therapists’ questions, or as half-stifled sobs in the night. I did not know what to do with those stories, how to grant them the dignity the story-tellers deserved, how to hold the suffering honestly, without looking away.

            I asked a friend who, as a staff member, dropped in for quick chats now and then, “how can you keep working here, with all the heartache and all the stubborn dysfunction that you must observe?” Her reply was simple: bear witness and give whatever assistance possible because both would make a difference to each patient.

            Bearing witness. The phrase has haunted my quiet hours ever since, especially at night when distractions are not there and I feel most vulnerable. Bearing witness. To open one’s mind and heart and imagination and feel pain that is not one’s own yet hurts almost as if it was.

            My last night in the hospital had some long wakeful spells. It was not the quietest night on the ward, although the room I was in remained peaceful enough. I lay there, thinking about the woman directly across from me who had, earlier in the day, told me amidst tears of her loneliness, isolation, separation from family and everything familiar. Social safety nets had not kept her secure—all seemed wrong and unhelpful and impossible. I had wanted to cry with her and chafed at my helplessness, at the seemingly intransigent province-wide problems that denied her any hope of change or return to her beloved community. Bearing witness was hard.

            Then, in the semi-darkness, as I looked at the outline of her body relaxed now in sleep, I saw something else: beside her bed, hovering above her bedside cabinet, a dark human form, smaller than an actual person, like a statue perhaps, visible only to the waist, with head bent toward the bed, a hand holding a tiny light. As if someone were quietly keeping watch at her side. The head, with its longer hair, had a faint resemblance to Jesus figures but could also have been a woman. Only the silhouette was there, no discernible facial features. As if “bearing witness” had taken on actual physicality.

            For several long breaths, I stared. That wasn’t possible, couldn’t be real. I am not a see-er of visions, although I don’t discount the supernatural, having had experiences of something More than materiality. In that moment of suspended time, disbelief and unease gave way to warmth and comfort. She was not alone after all, that fellow patient who had so little control over her life and so little prospect of improvement. Someone cared, someone was watching, offering a little light to see by.  

            Then another patient in the room shuffled out from behind her curtain and headed for the bathroom. In the brief illumination of the bathroom light, before the door closed, the nameless Witness became instead the silhouette of the IV apparatus standing just close enough to the wall shelves where a dark plastic bag had been stuffed in to create a seeming statue of a human being; the light in the outstretched hand was the glow of the IV monitor. The illusion of a tender watcher was at once dispelled.

            Yet not entirely. When the room returned to its semi-darkness, I could “see” the figure again. And I pondered it, until I fell asleep.

            The following morning, as daylight lit the room, I awoke and smiled to myself to think how simple objects can reshape themselves in the darkness. The woman who had been “watched over in the night” was now absent for treatment, and before she returned, I was discharged and on my way home. Would I have told her of my “vision” if she had been there? I don’t know. Likely not. As it was, I could not even say good-bye. Such is the transience of meetings in a hospital, and in many other places where vulnerable people come together briefly, hear one another’s stories, then go their separate ways.

            Now that I am home and once again sheltering in place, more or less, until recovery is complete, I have more than enough time to ponder the meaning of the illusory watcher in the night. I had briefly wished that the figure had been real, had been an actual manifestation of godly caring. If only we could somehow summon divine intervention! make medical centres magically appear in our northern regions, transform all care homes into beautiful, fully staffed, loving places, make poverty a thing of the past! I know divine intervention is believed possible by many, in more than one religious tradition.

Photo of single small votive candle with a Celtic wooden cross.

            What I now also recognize, with gratitude, is that my ward-mate was being cared for: repeatedly, I watched various medical staff talk to her, provide the necessary attention, schedule treatments, bring meals, etc. Over and over again, in those days, I saw competent and gentle care given to others and to me. There had been social workers doing their best to work out solutions, physiotherapists and occupational health therapists teaching necessary skills and making sure that the return to outside life would be feasible. Phone numbers were given, tender hands placed on shoulders in comfort, encouragement offered.

            What I also want to carry forward from here is the necessary knowledge that every person I meet has stories to tell, stories that will change my initial impressions and evoke compassion and admiration for the courage that is there. I need to go into the community, when the time comes, with the willingness to see in every face, both the vulnerable sleeper in the bed and the loving generosity of a potential care-giver.

The Lure of (maybe the cure for) Second-Hand Book Sales

            Always the tables groan with their load of books: books that once graced the bookshelves of some elderly professor or erudite bibliophile, books that are no longer relevant for students; books that libraries have culled to make room for new books; books that were once bought by someone who loved books and now can’t keep them all. 

They may or may not be organized, in these sales for charity. Sometimes all that has been achieved is a careless division by genre or age or physical appearance: “children’s books,” “coffee-table books,” “classics,” “hard cover books,” “paperback books.” Other times, volunteers have had time and patience enough to sort books into more specific categories—“religion,” “philosophy,” “politics,” “mysteries,” “literature,” “poetry,” “romance”—or even alphabetize them by author.

The lure of such sales, besides the incredible bargains (a bag full of books for $2??), is the joy of finding something that one had long been looking for (the first volume of an out-of-print fantasy trilogy, the first edition of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style), or the delighted surprise of stumbling over something that one hadn’t even known until that moment was absolutely necessary. For those who love reading and dread nothing more than being without books, the cornucopia of a second-hand book sale is insurance for an unknowable future (see COVID-19 and closed libraries).

In another post – “The Company of My Book Friends” – I wrote about building my libraries by visiting massive book sales, such as the annual Saskatoon Symphony Book Sale, known for its astonishing ability to raise funds for the SSO, and the University Women’s Auxiliary Book Sale held in fall, just when university students need cheap textbooks.

I can’t always explain what impulses dictated my purchases at these favourite sales. Necessity perhaps, since I was always looking for possible new texts and further research material. Personal curiosity, too, since I wanted to follow up recommendations given to me by students and colleagues. I also confess to a love of books as objects; libraries have been safe places for me and I wanted the pleasure of my own.

My office in St. Thomas More College, ca 2010

So the books accumulated. Many evoke complicated memories. Some, I know, I will never read. Now that the obligations and expectations of academia no longer touch me, I feel no compulsion to read all of the classics. I can admit, without shame, that I think Don Quixote is vastly over-rated. I can go to my grave quite content that I have never read The Decameron of Boccachio. If Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy fails to console me in any way, I do not have to finish reading it, nor does it have to sit on my shelf as an advertisement of my eclectic and erudite reading habits.

A scattering of books on my desk.

Yes, I confess – my ego was partly responsible for my collection of books and is still responsible for their continued presence. Long ago, I had revised a biblical maxim to become “by the books on their bookshelves, you will know them.” Just as I scan bookshelves when I enter someone else’s home in order to gain some sense of who they are, so I assume others will gain a greater understanding of me as they sort through my books after my death.

Some books I find easy to give away, e.g. “airport fiction”—page-turners whose plots are predictable and whose characters are one-dimensional and equally predictable, in other words, absolutely perfect for whiling away hours in airports and planes. But not only for that. I’m convinced there’s a need in everyone’s reading life for escape fiction, just as there is a need, sometimes, for dessert or an immense bowl of popcorn.

Other books I cannot part with: The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Jacques Ellul’s The Humiliation of the Word, Alan Jacobs’ A Theology of Reading, Martha Nussbaum’s Cultivating Humanity, T.S. Eliot’s Selected Poetry and Four Quartets. While some highly acclaimed books ended up on my shelves as ego-gratification, these I have just listed, almost randomly (there are many others), have profoundly influenced my perceptions of the world and have drawn me into spheres of thought I would not relinquish. These books need to stay on my shelves—to anchor me, as it were.

A larger view of the desk with books on two or three levels. The volume of  Shakespeare is open.

Nevertheless . . . . . . . .

This question arises against my will: can I still tell the difference between buying books (or keeping them) because I cannot help myself and buying books because I want to read them or need to read them or wish to have them in order to consult them or give them away at the right time? In other words, when does a collector become a hoarder? I suspect the line between those identities is thinner than one might imagine.

In recent months, I have been horrified to see the number of huge garbage bins required to clean out one house in the neighborhood. The owner is no longer able to live there; others now deal with the consequences of unrestrained buying and the inability to discard anything, especially books – mountains of books, heaps and heaps of books, more than any one human being can possibly look through, let alone read. Towers of books now mouse-nibbled and mouldy.

A photo of an attached greenhouse filled with stuff, mostly books.

The lure of second-hand books is relatively easy to explain – and to succumb to. But how shall we find a cure when the lure has become irresistible and irrational? As I reluctantly face the need to begin sorting and culling, I have given myself some mental homework and some practical steps, which might also be useful to you, my friends and readers, when you visit the next book sale, whether in reality or virtually:  

Imagine the faces and minds of those who will someday have to clean up after you. For those who have already had the honor (sometimes a dubious one) of dealing with an estate, this will not require much imaginative effort.

Consider simply donating to the charity that is hosting the book sale and do not visit the sale at all. Why should we “reward” ourselves for giving to good causes?

If the pleasure of seeing and handling books, maybe even reading signatures and messages on the front pages, is great enough that not visiting the sale is impossible, then conclude your happy exploration by buying some books that clearly have little value for you or anyone else (choose a genre you know well so you can judge this more readily) and consign them to the recycle bin yourself. Volunteers at these sales will be grateful! Remember that the world is not big enough to hold all books forever.

Promise yourself—and keep that promise!—that you will cull from your bookshelves exactly as many books (plus one or two) as you have just purchased. That will prompt you to ask yourself at each possible purchase, “is this book of more value to me than those I already own?”

Contemplate, regularly, the reality that life is never long enough to read everything you wish to read. And the satisfaction of owning a book simply for the sake of owning it needs to be examined carefully, preferably in conversation with trusted friends.

Sometimes, I have learned, the memories of pleasures past are sufficient. I do not have to try to repeat those pleasures, for there is some kind of law of diminishing returns that operates here. Furthermore, memories do not require the objects connected with them. I can let go of the objects and still remember.

It is impossible to receive new gifts if one’s hands are already full. The principle of grasp is always less satisfying in the end than the principle of gift.

The three books mentioned in the text - an anthology of short stories and two novels by Somerset Maugham

Postscript: No sooner had I formulated the above pieces of advice for myself when a friend emailed about a well-known British author, asking if I’d read his works and making intriguing comments about style. I went to my library, found first a short story in a very old anthology and then two novels (total cost of acquiring those books? less than $5), and have begun reading one of them, delighted to discover my own marginal comments written long ago in my student days. All of that advice above? Now much harder to follow.

The Language of Flowers

 When it comes to flowers, the world has pictures aplenty: calendars, seed catalogues, seed and bulb packages, entire websites devoted to flowers, Facebook pages, artists’ canvasses, greeting cards, bookmarks, art galleries, t-shirts and sweat shirts, dresses, even jewelry—everyone who has ever had a camera in hand has taken pictures of flowers.

In preparation for a recent PowerPoint presentation, I went to the internet for garden photos and was promptly overwhelmed. I should have anticipated that: I have never walked through a public garden or conservatory without seeing at least one dedicated photographer equipped with tripod and several lenses.

Photo of outdoor gardens in Winnipeg, with a photographer about to take a picture.

 As anyone who has read this blog knows, I also carry my camera into gardens, and assiduously grow my own flowers.

Who would not want to appreciate the abundant gift of the Creator, whether or not we understand the complex roles that flowers play in all the divergent ecologies on Earth?

 What astounds me most of all, though, is the sheer, undisciplined abundance of wild flowers, many growing where human feet rarely tread, some in climates so harsh that some never grow taller than an inch or two, and flowers are measured in millimeters. While I can admire a dinner-plate dahlia or tea rose with all the awe it demands, my deepest respect is given to tiny wild flowers, such as moss campion and Western spring beauty, both native to the higher altitudes of the Rocky Mountains, and requiring a better camera than what I have.

Yes, the Rockies again. Get used to it. I haven’t spent over 40 summer holidays camping and hiking in the Rockies without having been forever changed by the thin air and the thin places where the soul is called beyond itself into worship.

Early in that history of following trails in the national and provincial parks, I wanted to call the wild flowers by name. I bought books on Rocky Mountain flowers, and for decades now, I’ve been teaching myself their names (their common ones, that is, not the Latin ones), trying to distinguish different varieties of the same flower, practicing my identification skills for the benefit of family members.

 It would be appropriate here to insert some photos of those various flowers who have become my friends. As it happens, even the close-up photos that succeeded often leave the individual flowers looking bereft, even uninteresting, as if color has been leached out or the background badly chosen.

The more time I spent this week browsing through my photo folders, the more dissatisfied with my efforts I became, until I realized I was missing the most important point here: flowers, like people, like animals, like birds, belong somewhere. None lives alone. If hiking the backwoods trails can teach us anything, and if reading the now ubiquitous articles on climate change can likewise teach us anything, it is that habitat is everything.

Just as who I am and how I present myself depends on where I am and with whom I keep company and how I live, so flowers are themselves in their habitat, which they share with other flowers and grasses and birds and animals. I had not understood the subconscious knowing that informed my better flower photos: flowers are loveliest and most themselves in the company of of other flowers, of stones and grasses and fallen trees and running water.

Herewith some of my favourite flower photos taken on mountain trails:

Lady’s Slipper, with bunchberry plants around them and possibly a false Solomon’s seal.
Lance-leaved stonecrop, a gorgeous bright yellow, here keeping company with purple asters, not yet opened, and white mountain avens.
Yellow arnica, rose-red Indian paintbrush, purple self-heal, and a whitish yellow flower at the top left that I haven’t been able to identify.
Sometimes I think I should have chosen this photo of wild strawberries for my home page: stones, flowers, and the promise of deliciousness.

 The language of flowers is spoken through color and texture. It is always brief, spoken on the wind, as it were, since no flower remains in bloom for long. Yet their brief presence echoes off rocks, reverberates in moss, accompanies the slow and fruitful rot of logs, remains in the tangled roots of the fallen trees. What solo parts they might be offered here and there, perhaps in a single spot of sunlight in the forest, are still performed in a theater created by other living things, not least of which is the deep, dark soil that other flowers, shrubs, and trees have died to create.

We who have been chosen to speak more articulate, distinctive languages, which carry heavy responsibilities—“words are for those with promises to keep” (W.H. Auden)—could benefit from spending more time with the seemingly silent whisperers of color. Gentleness and beauty in the midst of harsh winds, rhythms of life and death, laughter of resurrections from the humus of the earth: who would not feel comfort and gain courage from those?  

and I think of each life as a flower, as common / as a field daisy, and as singular, / and each name a comfortable music in the mouth, / tending, as all music does, toward silence, / and each body a lion of courage, and something / precious to the earth.

Mary Oliver “When death comes

The Temporality of Angels and Friends

I dropped the angel on the floor as I was dusting my dresser. The chunka-ka-chunk stopped my breath—“please, no, don’t break!”

Conscious or not, the prayer was answered. Not so much as a chipped wing. Yet even in that beat or two of unknowing, I was aware of an unwelcome “so what?” I was tempted yet again to discount the possibility of continuing my friendship with the giver of the angel.

Dusty angel in hand, I was lost in memories, contemplating also another figurine on the other end of the dresser—two women seated, forever turned to one another in intimate, silent conversation. That too was a gift from another country, which I had interpreted as a promise that distance wouldn’t matter.

But it did.

The two ornaments - the angel and the two seated women - are placed on a dark blue pedestal against a white wall.

Suppressing an impulse to toss both ornaments into the trash, I returned to the dusting, still brooding on inevitable comings and goings of friends, the joy and pain of finding and then losing what Anne of Green Gables called “bosom friends.” In the giver of the angel and the two clay women, I had found, despite a startling disparity in backgrounds and experiences, a bosom friend. That particular bleak day, I concluded reluctantly that only in novels of yesteryear, or as clay statuettes, do bosom friends last a lifetime.

Or perhaps other women, with more propitious histories and better friendship making skills, managed what I seemingly could not.

Still life with two red roses in a vase, the two-women statuette on two books, on a simple kitchen stool.

I have written, in an earlier post, about the uncanny way books have of falling off shelves into our hands precisely when we need them. In between such incognito epiphanies, habitual readers will, of course, choose many other books, some for delight, some for profit, some out of obligation, some never finished. Of the books destined to be read, some become beloved companions, each rereading another gift.

Yet there are also books, once truly life-altering, that disappoint when picked up again years later. The right moment for the reading has passed and will not come again; the reader has herself changed in ways that have left those once necessary books behind.

So, too, I have come to believe that the universe conspires to bring together friends as designated angels for one another. Just as books can be pleasurable temporary companions while others speak to our souls at the deepest level, so friends are not all alike. Wayne Booth, in The Company We Keep, distinguishes three kinds of friendships (actual or book-friends) based on the gifts they offer—pleasure, profit, and “shared aspirations and loves of a kind that make life together worth having as an end in itself” (174).

Still life with the two-women statuette on top of two books on a stool. Beside the books are two tiny succulent plants.

In other words, some friends we keep company with because they’re entertaining or they make a given social context—dance clubs, schools, cooking classes, community groups—more comfortable. When graduation has passed or the club membership is dropped, so too do the friendships end. Friends are also useful; we collaborate with colleagues, learn from teammates, share child care, carpool with neighbours. Both these kinds of friendship—pleasure and profit—end naturally, and painlessly, when circumstances change. Unless the friendships have advanced to another level, they do not last beyond the boundaries of their making.

The third kind of friendship is qualitatively different, whether having begun that way or having developed into it. With these friends, we can “be ourselves,” yet we also know that we are, in their company, becoming better people. The interaction feels supportive, even transformative; life seems richer, more worthwhile. Abstract language here inevitably fails because what happens between “bosom friends” is warmly specific and the friendship changes as it deepens.  

The giver of the angel—let me call her Cara—and I were just getting to know one another when the aftermath of family grief and an increasing anger over my church experiences pushed me into spiritual crisis and depression. How was it that she, a colleague and an ordained minister, just “happened” to be there? That we “happened” to have grown up in similar family dynamics with equally fraught relationships with our mothers? That even early conversations rarely needed superficial hallway talk before moving into riskier, soul-baring territory?  

The friendship was not one-sided; I also took my turns to listen and comfort. There was between us a meeting of minds and hearts that neither of us had known before in quite that way (although we had, and still have, other friends whom we treasure and with whom we can share ourselves). Without Cara’s presence in precisely those years, I would not be who I am today. That I cannot, and will not, ever forget.

And then she moved to a different country. She was not a letter-writer.   

Rare visits have revealed that ours was a friendship that could be renewed in the first half hour,  the only sign of prolonged separation being the need to catch up on family news. Nevertheless, a subtle, unnameable change was underway.

photo of two red roses, one already drooping and other just reaching for full bloom.

People, unlike books, are not static, and while we may, decades later, understand and interpret a book very differently than we did at first, the book itself responds—if one may use such an active verb for paper and ink—out of its unchanging soul. Not so our friends. As our bodies’ cells are sloughed off and regrown, so we, too, change through our experiences, our decisions with their consequences, our losses, and our other friends.

There is a time to laugh and to mourn, to embrace and to refrain from embracing, says the philosopher-writer of Ecclesiastes. It follows that there is a time to laugh and weep together, and a time to laugh and weep apart. As deep as the grief may be, there is a time to let go as well. The gift that was given – and I speak not of clay statuettes, but the expansion of soul that happened in her presence – has not been withdrawn. For that, and for all the friends who have walked with me, whether for a mere mile or two or for a thousand, I am grateful.

I remind myself every now and then, such as when a dusty angel reawakens loss, to remember that a clenched hand can accept nothing besides its own tension. To receive new gifts, one’s hands and heart must be open. For the divine benevolence that grants us books and friends is always generous.

photo of angel up against a mirror that it seems as if two angels are there, back to back.

Meditation on Peppernuts

    It was time, definitely. There are those who begin their Christmas planning in July, their shopping in early October, and their baking in early November. Not I. Thanks to many years of teaching—and other reasons, of which more later—my family knew that Christmas didn’t begin in our house until exams were graded or urgency demanded it, whichever came first. The habit still lingers. But last week, as of this writing, it was time to begin baking.

Among my people, and in my immediate family, peppernuts are essential. Peppernuts (aka pfeffernüsse {German} or päpanät {Low German} or pebernodden {Danish}, etc.) are tiny, crisp, spicy – and addictive; eating only one is impossible. They’re wonderfully dunk-able in tea or coffee and perfect for keeping small children occupied in church.

photo of teapot, mug, oranges and bowl of peppernuts
Peppernuts and oranges and tea – all you need for Christmas entertaining, according to Doris Longacre, editor of More with Less Cookbook

 Making peppernuts is both labor-intensive and child-friendly. The dough itself is simple enough; its special character derives from added spices, which are variously decreed by traditional family recipes. It’s once the dough is mixed that children can be invited to roll the soft dough into thin snakes—hey, it’s like playing with playdough! After being solidly frozen, the dough-snakes are thinly sliced, and each small round placed on cookie sheets.  More fun for children. Then wait for the smell of warm spices all through the house.

 No longer having any young children around to conscript for help, I began alone, braced for inevitable memories. First, though, the pleasure of the work. Oh, I’ve heard about efforts (probably by men) to adapt a sausage machine into a dough slicer so that the work could be done more quickly. As if work is, by definition, onerous. But if I offer up the tactile pleasures of cookie dough to the god of efficiency, to what shall I give that “redeemed” time? To other work that I might likewise construe as onerous?

photo of recipe book, baking pan, snakes of dough, and the bowl with dough.
I’m still using the recipe I got from my mother-in-law almost 50 years ago, but now I’ve made it gluten- and egg-free. It still works.

 On the contrary, I would rather enter the task and make it beautiful, something of which I had already learned when I happened across Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindful distinction between “washing the dishes to get them done” and “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” I’m not a complete Luddite; arthritic hands make me glad for a hand mixer, although I still miss the satisfaction of creaming butter using a wooden spoon. I’m just grateful that I can still roll out the dough, make even slices, and line them up on the cookie sheet, precisely the right distance apart.

 Then there’s the bits of raw cookie dough from the ends of snakes (I say fie on those who would rob me of that delight with talk of unsafe food practices), a taste of many Christmases past. And, yes, here come the memories, all of them, like a series of snapshots, from “tolerable—even warm and fuzzy” to “unbearable.”  

 Am I really the only one who anticipates Christmas with dread and joy? The season is so hyped, so elongated (it begins already with the snuffing out of Hallowe’en jack-o-lanterns and even appears, in places, in July), so stuffed with stories of plentitude and sentimentality that it raises anticipation to ridiculous levels, and provokes in me a curmudgeonly wish that Christmas be outlawed.

Then those who dwell purposefully within the sacred narrative could celebrate in secret, pondering what it means that divinity has been embodied in fallible humanity, while the rest of the population could find some other pretext for an orgy of buying more stuff and putting up more decorations. The advertising-fuelled expectations of Martha Stewart-style fabulous dinners and parties could then be held separate from the spiritual longing for redemption from pointlessness and violence and heartache.

Sure, the carols—or rather the Christmas-themed songs—do sometimes acknowledge that someone might not come home for Christmas, or that money might be too scarce for gift-giving. That’s but a token gesture for those whose families are too dysfunctional to gather over a turkey (if there is one) without some kind of bad ending. Or for those who mourn losses too painful to celebrate anything. And I don’t even want to imagine what this season of jolly commercial goodwill means in the midst of a war zone or in refugee camps or in slums.

 It’s not popular to speak of such stories at Christmastime. Try changing the conversation to world conflicts or poverty when someone in a store asks yet again, “Are you ready for Christmas?” Always I want to retort, “What do you mean by ready? Who is ever ready for the drastic upending that it would take to bring about ‘peace and good will to all’?” Indeed, what would we do if glory did reveal itself to our harried minds?

 Even as I take the first pan of peppernuts out of the oven, browned to perfection, I know that railing about Christmas demands will not solve either the vexing problems of the world or more particular family stresses. Nevertheless, I will make peppernuts—every year—and share them, with the family, with friends. I will make other favorite cookies, and, if it’s my turn to host, will cook the turkey and all the other dishes that surround it on the carefully set table with its lit candles.

a table set with good china, wine glasses, candles and decorations
Not our usual family setting, which is definitely more than four – this was, as I recall, a meeting of friends.

 We will also bring such gifts as the family has agreed upon, whether it be an in-house exchange or a charitable donation on behalf of the family. There will be pleasure in the doing and the making and the buying, if I choose to be mindful and to acknowledge the sources of my anxiety over all of the above. Familiar rituals give birth also to good memories. Neither ritual nor memories of whatever sort should be ignored.

 From the very first Christmas I can remember—during which I watched it all from my sick bed—to other Christmases, including one in which funeral flowers became the living-room decorations and no cookies at all were baked, I can choose to welcome the beautiful even as I learn to accept the reality of messy human experiences. Just as we revel in the diamonds of hoarfrost in the midst of bitter cold, finding warmth where possible, and giving thanks.

It’s all of a piece, isn’t it? Memories and fresh peppernuts.  

photo of teapot, napkin, full coffee mug, and bowl of peppernuts.

Wearable Prayers

Twice within as many weeks, family members asked me, “What’s a prayer shawl?” I had been working on something vividly red, and my family assumed that I was crocheting another baby blanket or larger afghan, my usual projects for those times when my hands require repetitive motion while our mouths and minds catch up on family news. I hadn’t anticipated the question, nor did I have a ready answer.

I should have. After all, I had never heard of prayer shawls until just over a decade ago, some years after joining the church we still attend. In one service, an older woman who chaired a ladies group explained to the congregation that they were crocheting/knitting prayer shawls for people connected to the church who were ill or recently bereaved. She had brought several shawls with her and our pastor prayed a blessing on the shawls.

For me, this was an entirely new practice, yet it made immediate sense. All my life, I had heard prayers spoken for others. The particular Christian milieu in which I had spent my childhood and early adult years was characterized by a strong belief in the efficacy of prayers. The prompt response to any story of grief, loss, and illness was “we’ll be praying for you,” and that was not a reflexive, clichéd “our thoughts and prayers are with you.” No, the promise of direct prayer was sincere and literal, based on the conviction that God expects such prayers and will respond to them, albeit not always in the ways that we might wish.

Connecting intercessory prayer, as it is named in devotional language, with a physical object seemed intuitively right—grief and fear often do leave the body cold. So, I thought, in this church, prayers come with hugs, some actual, some embodied in yarn. And I also began making prayer shawls, not many and, at first, designed for specific persons whom I knew well and loved.

rocking chair, shawl, cushion, plant
The first prayer shawl I made – Photo by Helma Voth

The question “what’s a prayer shawl?” asked by two different people made me rethink the whole project. Why should a shawl be linked to prayer? And if such a gift matters, why should it? It was time for research.

The seemingly recent practice of making prayer shawls was begun by Janet Severi Bristow and Victoria Galo in 1998, with the following purpose: “Prayer shawl. Peace shawl. Comfort shawl. Mantle. . . . . These are a wearable hug crafted with love and intent from maker to recipient.”

“Shawls . . . made for centuries universal and embracing,

symbolic of an inclusive, unconditionally loving God.

They wrap, enfold, comfort, cover, give solace,

mother, hug, shelter and beautify.”

(Janet Severi Bristow) http://www.shawlministry.com/

            So that explained all the pattern books for making prayer shawls—and the one I bought includes several blessings to accompany the gift of a prayer shawl.

red shawl in process, pattern book

But where did the idea for a prayer shawl come from? Was there a longer history here? Vaguely familiar with Judaism’s use of specific garments for prayer, I began my research in the Bible.

And yes, in Numbers 15, the prophet Moses instructs the people: “Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel. You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commandments of the LORD, that you may obey them.” Hence the tallit, which is a “large rectangular shawl made of wool, cotton, or synthetic fibers. In each of the four corners of the shawl are strings tied in a particular pattern, called tzitzit.” Before putting on the tallit, a specific Hebrew blessing is spoken, and particular actions are prescribed for the handling of the shawl. Thus, the prayer shawl is simultaneously a garment of ritual worship and a personal submission to the care of God. 

The belief that ultimate comfort comes through divine care is made real by a simple gesture of gift and warmth. Grief and illness leave most of us helpless: we cannot restore the dead to life nor can we make illness miraculously go away. Time is needed—long days of feeling lonely, managing pain, being helpless—to process irrevocable change (even should the illness be eventually healed, one does not return to what was). Hence, the prayer shawl.

It is a physical, touchable thing, made by hand, a slow, deliberate process. Every stitch has been made out of love, giving comfort and solidity to the one who wields the hook or needles, and then giving the same to the one who receives the shawl.

I shall make more prayer shawls.

“For it is the love and kindness of human hearts through which the divine reality comes home to us, whether we name it or not.”

George Merriam

Postscript: It seems that not only books, but objects fall into the right hands at the right time. I had given the red prayer shawl pictured above to our church’s supply—to be given out as need arose.  Months later, it so “happened” that our pastors gave the shawl to someone who had just been admitted to the local hospital’s palliative care ward. They did know that the individual was a dear friend of mine; they had not known that I was the shawl’s maker.

Now, in the mysterious fashion in which objects exert their influence even at a distance, I am also comforted by that red shawl, knowing on whose shoulders it rests. My fingers recall the tension of the yarn as it curled over the hook and slid through the next loop—compassion weaving itself through ache and loss toward comfort and healing.