Category Archives: Musings

When all else fails, try nature

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Marin Headlands, Marin County, CA

Like many of you, I’ve been spending the last two weeks looking desperately for peace and a quiet mind.  I’ve found a few things that help. Writing is one; wine is another. And getting outdoors into the beauty of creation has a healing power like nothing else.

I’d like to share with you two places I’ve found God lately.

One is a county park not far from where I work.  It’s the place where Scott proposed to me lo these fifteen (!) years ago.   And while the hillsides are light brown most of the year, we’ve been fortunate enough to have rain this fall, and everything is a brilliant spring green.

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There are oaks here, and bay trees which give out a wonderful fragrance.  There is poison oak turning a beautiful red and lots of deer, who graze unconcernedly as you walk by.  Off in the distance you can see Silicon Valley and the bay.

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It’s a place so dear to my heart, and on a crystal-blue day like this, with the earth still soft from the recent rain and the air smelling so sweetly of oak and bay, it’s much easier to breathe here than anywhere else.

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The next place is in the Marin Headlands, north of San Francisco.  The boys went there on a Cub Scout Hike, and it was the kind of day where rain gave way to wonderfully dramatic skies, with clouds over the ocean and fog hugging the hills.

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We hiked from the estuary to the coast, then up a rather significant hill to a WWII bunker up on the top (a hit with the Scouts).  Along the way we passed an honest-to-goodness cove far, far down below, in which water was churning and roiling about and moving a log as if it were a toothpick.  The whole setting was all very Poldark. I half expected to see Cornish smugglers unloading a ship down below.

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Channeling my inner Demelza

Channeling my inner Demelza

It was balm for the spirit: being out by the water, seeing impossibly large waves form and crash onto the beach, smelling salt and soil and the cleanness that only comes from a good rain, seeing the birds wheel and glide over the estuary and the hills.  At every turn there was a view that makes you think about the Being that made all this, in its glorious splendor, for the rest of us to live on and with.

I’m home now, with sore legs and good memories and a renewed conviction that time outside is always the best choice.

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Hummingbird happiness

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There’s something about a hummingbird. They are quicksilver fast, sprightly, colorful; their little rapidly-beating wings are marvels of aerodynamics.  The sight of one always raises my spirits.

I always used to catch glimpses of them in the backyard, but not nearly often enough.  So I asked for a hummingbird feeder for my birthday, and my husband obligingly picked out a beautiful one and hung it outside the small deck in the backyard.

And I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

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Not once did I see a hummingbird come to the feeder.  The line of red liquid stayed at the same height, never decreasing.

I felt depressed, like a restaurant owner with no customers.  Were we doing something wrong?  Was there some stray cat lurking about the yard, scaring away potential guests?  Throughout the spring, I wondered and looked wistfully at the glass globe I could see just outside the window.

Then – two weeks ago – I was sitting and reading on the deck and all of a sudden I saw it: a small movement up near the feeder.  I froze.

A tiny bird landed on the perch.  It seemed to see me, but didn’t fly off.  I stayed immobile, almost afraid to breathe. It seemed so scrawny and thin, somehow, seeing it up close and not in motion.

As I watched it bent its head and drank.  I was thrilled, even more thrilled than I’d expected I would be.

It buzzed off into the blue sky, and I watched it go.  If it were human, I’d have called, “Thank you for coming! Tell all your friends!”   It was astonishing how happy I felt at seeing my gift enjoyed.  That close contact with the little creature was such a blessing, pure and simple.

It may not have been the first bird to drink there; it’s very possible that others had been there without my seeing them.  But there was such joy in being part of that moment, and in seeing the bird come confidently to the feeder, even with me sitting right there, to drink up.

Maybe this is how God reacts when we stop and drink in his gifts.  Does he feel the same kind of joy when we pause in our busy lives, when we stop flapping long enough to sit down and savor the sweetness of his creation – a summer evening, a bank of honeysuckle, a rainbow, a hummingbird?

I like to think so. I like to think that maybe my own gleeful reaction is a little taste of the delight that God feels when we accept what he offers.  “Thanks for coming,” I imagine God calling as we buzz away refreshed.  “And tell all your friends.”

Chutes and ladders and the spiritual life

 

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This has to be one of the simplest games ever invented.  You spin, move your token, and if you land on good action (like rescuing a kitten from a tree), you go up the ladder; if you land on a bad action (like stealing a cookie), you go down the chute.

I hadn’t played this game in decades, until my kids spotted it in the closet at my parents’ house and wanted to get it out.  So lately, we’ve had a few Chutes and Ladders tournaments chez Moyer.  I will admit that it’s not the most intellectually gripping game — perhaps only CandyLand exceeds it for its totally stultifying lack of strategy — but it is strangely addictive.

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And I’m grateful for it, because it has given me a little spiritual food for thought.

As my summer vacation gets under way, and now that I’m not spending hours teaching, planning, and grading, I find I’m thinking more deeply about my daily habits.  What are the things I do that make me grounded, more mindful, more healthy?  What are the things I do that don’t?

The whole point of the game is that our actions have consequences.  Obviously, this is a point that kids need to learn – you lie to your teacher, you miss recess; you help your mom without asking, she rewards you with a huge hug and maybe an extra dessert.  But I’m embarrassed to admit that at the age of 43, I still struggle at times to accept that my actions lead to effects that I may not want.  I often know what I should do to reach my goals, but — due to inertia, or lethargy, or stubbornness – I choose the opposite.

What does my own personal Chutes and Ladders board look like?  Well, much like this:

Spend too much time on social media rather than reading a good book: slide down the chute and go to bed with the niggling feeling that I’ve wasted the evening.

Get up early to exercise: climb the ladder and feel healthy and energized all day

Stay up way too late watching Netflix: slide down the chute and feel like death warmed over the next morning

Make time for writing or prayer, or writing AS prayer: climb the ladder and stay in touch with the core of  who I am (with the added bonus of finding a gem of an idea for the next writing project)

I know, of course, that life isn’t quite as easy as a board game.  There are plenty of situations where I make thoughtful choices and end up taking bad tumbles just the same, through no fault of my own.  Likewise, we’ve probably all had that experience of suddenly getting a huge blessing or gift that we’ve done nothing to earn (in the biz, I believe that’s called “grace”).   Sometimes, there is no cause/effect we can control. Period.

But often there is, especially when it comes to the daily routines and habits that define me.   And that’s why this summer, with a lot more free and thinking time on my hands, I’m going to do some extra discernment about which things lift me up, and which drag me down.

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Because don’t we all want that good feeling of rescuing the kitten from the tree and climbing up to the sky, our new best friend by our side?

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An ordinary extraordinary life

Once upon a time there was a little girl named Ruth.  She was born in 1919 in Brooklyn; when she was seven, her family  moved cross-country for her father’s job (he was a cinematographer for early Hollywood).

Ruthie on the left, with her father, mother, and sister Jessamyn, 1926

Ruthie on the left, with her father, mother, and sister Jessamyn, 1926.

It was a job that involved travel but also risk.  He died when Ruth was eleven, of illness contracted while filming a movie in Borneo.

Though Ruthie grew up without a father, she had a devoted mother and sister, and many happy childhood memories.  As a teenager, she met a fellow student, Baxter, and they became high school sweethearts.

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Baxter, a gifted artist, taught himself how to make cameos so he could make one of Ruth’s profile (I will pause while you swoon).  He wanted to give it to her as a ring but her mother thought a high school girl was too young to accept a ring from a boy, so he made it into a necklace for her instead.

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A few years later, they got engaged.  They were married in 1941.

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They loved squaredancing and boats.  They loved family, and created one of their own:  one girl and three boys.

Squaredancing, 1950

Squaredancing, 1950

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Eventually they settled in Santa Barbara, in a small tract home.  Their two older children married; grandchildren came into their lives.  Then, in 1973, Baxter died suddenly of a heart attack while on a Boy Scout hike with his two youngest sons.  In her early fifties, Ruth was a widow, navigating life without her beloved soulmate.  Always a homemaker, she suddenly had to enter the workforce (she worked as a baker in the  local junior high school cafeteria) while raising two teenage boys.

And that was what she was doing when I first was old enough to know her: Ruth Elizabeth Stuart Adams Wolf, my grandmother.

Grandma and me, March 2016.

Grandma and me, March 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve been wanting to write this post for the past two weeks, ever since Grandma died on April 13th.  It’s felt a bit daunting, though, because I want more than anything to do my grandma justice.  And since she passed away, I’ve spent so much time reviewing her life and my experiences of it, and trying to put into words just why she was such a special lady, beloved by many.

In the process, I’ve been thinking about what just it means to live a meaningful life.  What sort of impact do we leave on the world?  When we die, what is taken out of the world?   When we go, what do people remember and miss?

By one measure, my grandma’s life wasn’t  notable.  She never had more than a high school education.  She did not have an impressive resume.  She never made a large salary.  Her world was very small; it was a big, BIG deal when we took her on a trip to England in 1996 (her ancestral homeland).  But she was perfectly happy with what she did have.  Few things gave her more pleasure than her little house, surrounded by garden. She was a fantastic baker and an accomplished seamstress and knitter.  I have homemade scarves, needlepoint, dolls that she has made for me over the years.

As small as her world was, though, her death has been felt like an earthquake by her family.  We all feel like the ground has come out from underneath us.

Because Grandma was always there: a rock that didn’t move even when everything around her did.  Her home, the home in which she was still living at the age of ninety-seven, was the place you went back to for holidays or for family get-togethers.  She’d have the Snickerdoodles baked for you, would serve you tamale pie.  For breakfast she’d have these Swedish coffeecakes that were like heaven in your mouth.  She was always glad to see you.

Grandma's snickerdoodle recipe

Grandma’s snickerdoodle recipe

At various points over the years, when family members were in transition or crisis of one kind or another, she’d give up the spare room and welcome them home.  Coming home was like entering a museum of your own life; the walls of her home were plasted with framed photos, and she created volume upon volume of photo albums, carefully documenting the lives of her four kids and grandkids and great-grandkids.    And in her own quiet, understated way, she had your back – always.  It was a family joke that if you said anything critical of Grandma’s kids, she would never forget. Her kids and their kids were her raison  d’être.  She believed in them – us – fiercely, always seeing potential.

Grandma and her kids, 2008

Grandma and her kids, 2008

Others were the recipient of her kindness, too.  Every Christmas, she’d put together baggies of homemade cookies for the Arrowhead water delivery man, the postal carrier, the men who picked up her garbage.  At her celebration of life last weekend, I met her next door neighbors, who moved in last year from out-of-state.  They told me that Grandma had come over and said she wanted to host a coffee for them, so they could get to know the neighbors.   “We were so touched,” said the wife.  “No one does that kind of thing anymore, but your grandmother did.”   At age ninety-six, she was still spreading the welcome in the way she knew best: with homemade cookies and an open door.

And Grandma had a great sense of humor too.  She was a huge fan of the Martha Stewart show years ago and watched it religiously.  When Martha was arrested for insider trading, Grandma was indignant.  She proudly wore an apron my uncle had bought her:   FREE MARTHA it said on the front.  Seeing that slogan on my gray-haired eighty-something grandmother was a sight that will always make me smile.

But though Grandma was so many things to so many people, she was the most modest person you can imagine.  And I’ve been thinking about how she represented the polar opposite of the selfie culture of today, in which we put ourselves out there constantly, hungry for recognition and approval and likes.  Grandma didn’t need recognition and approval and likes. The doing of a thing was its own reward.  She lived quietly, happy with her home and garden and family.  She didn’t need or want anything more.  It strikes me that this is an increasingly rare quality.

Moving into the house, 1961

Moving into her new house, 1961

To see everyone who gathered last weekend was quite something.  More than eighty-five people came to her home, the small happy home in which she lived for fifty-five years, the home in which she died.  We shared food and stories and memories and laughs and tears.  And Grandma’s spirit was so very much there; alive, actually, in all the people who were shaped by her example and absorbed the lessons she quietly taught.

So no: she didn’t make a lot of money or have an impressive degree or a long resume.  But she did make a home that, for decades, has been a place of peace and welcome.   She had four children whose devotion to her knew no bounds and grandchildren and great-grandchildren who loved her more than they could put into words.  And in a changing world where image is often valued over substance, she showed everyone the power of quiet dignity and concrete acts of kindness, done simply because they are the right thing to do.

I love you, Grandma.  Thank you.

On Grandma's fridge, in her writing: "When God measure a man he puts the tape around the heart not the head."

On Grandma’s fridge, in her writing: “When God measures a man he puts the tape around the heart —  not the head.”

 

Six reasons to love coffee

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Gift from a friend who knows me well

I’ve heard it said that the traditional Irish name for whiskey is “the water of life.” With all due respect to whiskey, I don’t think it deserves that name.  I can think of another drink that, in my opinion, is far more life-giving.

That drink is coffee.

I say this not just because coffee is responsible for the daily resurrection of Ginny from the sleep of the dead. It’s for a whole host of reasons, actually.  In ways that are big and small and delicious, coffee has enhanced my life.  And — because I’m on spring break and I have time to systematically ponder these things — I’m going to share them here.

1.  Coffee is proof that God wants us to take pleasure in the senses.  Seriously, is there any more fabulous taste than a really good cup of coffee (in my case, laced with half and half)?  It is one of the few drinks that can render me speechless with delight.  No matter how early the alarm, that first sip makes me actually glad that I am no longer asleep.  That’s some serious magic.

And it’s not just taste, either – the mere smell of coffee is intoxicating.  Even people who don’t drink coffee will speak fondly of the dark, delicious scent of freshly-roasted or -ground beans.  Ahhhh.

2.  Coffee is a good companion for both the alone times and the social times.  I always sneak my cup of coffee back to my bedroom in the morning and close the door.  The kids think I’m getting dressed for the day, and I do, eventually — but first I sit at my prayer desk for a brief session of morning prayer, just me and my coffee and God.  It’s a quiet ritual that gets my day off to a good start.

But coffee has also traditionally and historically been a social beverage.  The first coffeehouse in Paris was a major magnet for the thinkers of the Enlightenment to meet and discuss Big Things with their pals.  Nowadays, we meet friends at Peet’s or Starbucks to catch up over a latte or an espresso.  Growing up, coffee always made an appearance at family dinners; my mom or grandma or aunt would brew a pot and pour mugs to share over the dinner table conversation.  A drink that brings people together and doesn’t result in a barfight: that’s one of the virtues of coffee.

The Coffee Bearer by John  Frederick Lewis

The Coffee Bearer by John Frederick Lewis

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


3. Coffee is evidence (if such is needed) that I am a grownup.
As a kid, I hated it.  In college, I discovered a taste for it, and there was no going back. It was a rite of passage akin to getting my own checking account.

It also figured prominently in an important college lesson. One morning in the dining hall after staying up most of the night studying for a midterm, I was desperate to wake up.  I thought, in my hazy fog, that drinking two large glasses (not cups, mind: glasses) would make me alert for the test.  In fact, the coffee made me so manic and jittery that it was a struggle to restrain myself from running circles around around the classroom like a cartoon character with puffs of smoke at her heels.  It was a good lesson: Do all things in moderation.  From then on, I drank much less, and enjoyed it much more.

4. Coffee has given my husband a new hobby.  A few years back, looking for a cheaper way to fuel our daily coffee habit, Scott started researching places to purchase beans online.  That led him to websites that talked about roasting your own coffee.  That led him to try roasting beans with a popcorn popper, which led him to set off the smoke alarm, which led him to move the popper to the garage.  That, finally, led him to tell me that he wanted to buy a $300 coffee roasting machine.

“I seem to recall,” I told him, “that we started this whole thing as a way to cut costs.”

He patiently explained that he still had some birthday money left over, and that he had crunched the  numbers and it would start paying for itself within a not-so-distant date, and I gritted my teeth and said okay, and he embarked on a hobby that he loves to this day.  He buys green beans through the mail, and once a week or so he goes out to the garage and roasts. He has experimented with different kinds of beans from different places (my favorite: Ethiopian), and he has a log book where he records it all, and his coffee is hotly (ha! unintentional pun) in demand among our family and friends.  Because believe me, if you think coffee is good, coffee that is freshly-roasted is even better.

So it’s a hobby that has enriched my own life immeasurably.  And now we always have a Christmas gift for those hard-to-shop for folks!  What’s not to love?

5.  Coffee makes the world a little smaller.  I’m of the generation that remembers the commercials with Juan Valdez and his donkey.  As a kid seeing those ads, you knew that the coffee your parents brewed did not grow down the street but in some faraway place called Colombia.  In its own small way, it helped foster a fledgling global consciousness.  And now, with the emergence of the fair trade movement, the purchase of coffee can actively promote better lifestyles for people around the world.  That’s a pretty great thing.

6. It has a really cool and obscure patron saint.  At LA Congress the year after Scott started his roasting hobby, I found this magnet for sale.

St Drogo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had never heard of Saint Drogo before and frankly I was skeptical, because it sounds like a name invented by someone who has read too much Tolkein.  A little research, however,  proved that he is actually a legitimate Flemish saint of the twelfth century.  He is not only the saint of coffeehouse keepers, but also of deaf people, shepherds, gallstones, and (I quote) “people whom others find repulsive.”  He also apparently had the ability to bilocate, which in his bio is not specifically attributed to coffee consumption but which nonetheless seems like the kind of superpower you’d expect from the drink.

So that’s a sampling of reasons why I love coffee: the water of life, the nectar of the gods, the drink I can’t do without.