Ministers of Grace

Although I love animals, I do not like calling them “furry angels”.

First, not all of them are furry. Second, although they can be sweet and helpful, I do not see them (for the most part) as powerful supernatural beings battling the forces of evil and striking fear into the hearts of all who see them. Third, if one envisions angels as plump cherubs, then I think when animals are called “furry angels” that it somehow diminishes their innate dignity and value.

They are brilliant. Each species, each individual, offers something unique. Birds, and their alert, bright eyes. Reptiles, and their cool efficiency. Fish, and their calming movements. On some level, even watching a spider spin a web is transfixing and calming. as long as it is outside and away from my home. Cats… well… cats can have that sense of when they are needed, and when they are not (which they seem to enjoy abusing). Dogs, and their ability to live NOW and to give unconditionally.

Which brings me to a year ago at the library, when I met a woman with a “shelter pedigree” golden retriever. The dog had been a stray and was found injured in a parking lot after being hit by a car. One of her front legs had been badly broken and was infected. It had to be amputated to save her life. She learned to hobble around on three legs. She did everything she could on her own, but the woman said she seemed to need a JOB.  So they found one for her. She became a certified pet therapy dog.

She goes to libraries and sits with children struggling to read.  The children, calmed by the accepting, nonjudgmental dog, begin to gain confidence with their skills and soon ask to read more. Children come in with stacks of books they have been practicing at home to read to “their” dog at the library.  The younger ones go in dreading having to read aloud but come out with enormous grins, asking if they can go back and read to the dog again next week. It’s a fabulous program.

This dog was happy.  This animal, who had been thrown away, injured, neglected, had learned all over again how to balance and walk.  She had trained to be a therapy dog. In her healing and training, she began to heal people.

Children stopped and stared as the three-legged animal hopped over to the front desk of the library to be greeted by the manager. They took the dog’s cue, though, and none of them dropped down to smother the animal with sympathy.  They respected her, and she respected them. As for the sympathy, well, she didn’t need it.

I think she loved the children. (I am projecting here, but I think she knew they were “puppies”.)  I know she loved the attention. She listened, head cocked,as they stammered through lines and sounded out words, giving reassuring licks from time to time. Her patience removed some of the stigma and fear from these children who have problems reading.

Quite a few of the children stayed behind, waiting to say good-bye to the dog, saying,   “I am glad you are brave,” and “Maybe someday I can have a three-legged dog, just like you!” One child sincerely promised to “bring an even better book next time.” They held her long soft chin in their hands, looked into her eyes, and said “thank you.” She almost looked like she was smiling back at them as she wagged her tail and gave a few small licks in return for their thanks.

I am rather humbled by the persistence of the people who would not give up on a dog who had been thrown away and damaged and by the calming way this dog gave back.  She graciously accepted; she wanted to serve.  In the process, she and the children heal a bit more. It is healing to stretch beyond old boundaries.

Even though I might not agree with their word choice, I can see why people call dogs like her “furry angels”.  That dog does not live in her difficult past, she lives in her NOW. She is patient; she is gentle and kind, an agent of healing and compassion. Grace. Unquestioning acceptance.

Webster’s includes in its definition of minister, “a person or thing thought of as serving as the agent of some power.”

Not an angel, then, but perhaps, a minister of grace.

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During my senior year, my math teacher went on a trip to New York City. He brought back little souvenirs for his students. For my class, he brought back pencils and little mugs the size of shot glasses. The mugs were white with the orange sun setting behind the outline of the buildings and the Twin Towers still standing proudly.

I loved that teacher and that class. He made derivatives and the other introductory mysteries of calculus clear and achievable. The other students in the class were my friends, and I still think highly of them. So, I love that mug, by extension.

Today, my three year old broke it.

There was no malice aforethought in his actions, only the petulant temper of a dissatisfied three year old. He was irritated that I did not instantly grant him his desires, so he threw the tiny mug across the kitchen, where it rebounded off the cabinets, the handle broken into pieces.

The pieces are clean now, sitting on the counter quietly awaiting their destiny: to be repaired or to be discarded.

I cannot do either.

To repair it should be easy, in theory. One simply goes to the junk drawer and rummages around until one finds the glue. If the glue should prove hardened into granite from years of disuse, one simply purchases a new tube, potentially grumbling about the inflated price of such a tiny amount of glue. However, I no longer have a junk drawer, and I am out of glue. I will not be buying any in the near future.

And that is why I cannot throw the mug away.

Glue. Just a simple tube of glue.

Glue is the reason I cannot throw the mug away. It isn’t on my shopping list because it is not in my carefully constructed budget. I cannot throw away that tiny mug with the Twin Towers rising above the New York City skyline. I might not have room for broken things, but I cannot afford to toss that tiny mug.

I loved that class. I wasn’t the best or smartest at derivatives by any means, but I felt successful there. I felt accepted. I believed I could accomplish great things, and I knew that the others believed I could as well. It was the faith in a future of challenges I could meet and master, a future in which I could succeed. It was hope.

I cannot throw away that cup, shattered though the handle may be.

Glue might not be in my budget now, but that is only temporary. I will not discard that cup. I will not lose those remnants of hope. I will find a space in a cabinet for the tiny mug, the fragments of the handle safely kept inside.

Someday, I will repair it.

I will.

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Like I Said…

A few months ago, we had a really impressive thunder and hail storm. I had never seen hail that large before. I determined that I needed to get a good picture of the hail, to show off for friends and family out of state. So, once the hail ceased, the buckets of rain slowed to a drizzle, and the lightning stopped, I stepped out to gather some of the ice off the ground. I heard a strange, high pitched crying. I looked around and saw a writhing mound of newborn kittens, crying piteously in the dirt under my kitchen window. I suspect that Mama Cat had been frightened by the cracks of thunder that were sharp enough to rattle the windows, and she had run off.

Now, I know some people would be able to do so, but I simply could not leave five newborn kittens out in a hailstorm, wet, cold and covered in mud and wood chips. I brought them inside. We dried them off and warmed them up. I put the dry and warm kittens in a snug box, back where I found them. Long story short (See? I can do that!) the Mama Cat eventually returned and took three of them, leaving the two tiniest in our care.

Five kittens in a box

I understand caring for newborns. For some reason, though, these kittens seemed more exhausting than my babies ever did. At 2.4 and 2.6 ounces (well below the 3.5 – 5 ounce weight they were supposed to be), they needed all kinds of care around the clock, and it was simply draining.  Every two hours, start to start, each one had to be fed and given a cleaning, which took about twenty minutes per kitten. The temperature in the cat carrier had to be exactly so high. I had to keep the toddler from squishing them and the mean ol’ cat from eating them.  My girls took care of them as much as they could during the day, and I had the unenviable night shift.

Around week three of this, about when the kittens had started going three – some nights even four! – hours between feedings, were squinting and their ears were opening, making it slightly more rewarding to take care of them because they were beginning to be cute, a friend called and asked if I would like to meet for coffee.  My husband said yes on my behalf, reassuring me that he and the older kids could care for the kitties without my help. (He was right.)

So, I found myself at a coffee shop, where I figured that since I was going to be up all hours anyway, I ought to go ahead with the biggest cup of coffee I could get.  Approaching the counter, I pulled out my husband’s frequent flier coffee card and asked for the giant cup.

“Would you like milk in that?” the alert young man behind the counter asked.

“Milk? Yes, wait, no!” I said, deciding to celebrate and go for broke, even if it did cost an extra fifty cents. “Do you have fat?”

“Fat?”  He seemed confused.  Odd. I had been quite clear.

“Yes, fat.  I mean to put in the coffee.  Not milk. You know.” (Clearly he did not.) “Fat.”

“You mean… Fat?” he asked again.  “Not… soy?”

This was when I started rambling. “No, no, no. I can’t have soy. I mean fat. Well, no, I mean cow fat.  But not tallow.  Tallow is just rendered suet.  And not lard. ‘Cause that is from a pig. I don’t want pig fat. That would be gross.”

The young man seemed confused.  How could he be? I knew I had been quite clear.  “It comes out of the cow, you know, when it is still alive.  Not like suet, that’s not when it is still alive. You know.  It’s white.  The fat, not the cow.”

The barista who was handing the blended flavored coffee to the woman with the headset turned towards us.  I think I saw her mouth twitch. The young man still looked hopelessly lost.

“The other stuff.  That you put in coffee,” I clarified, helpfully.  “You know. It’s not half-n-half, it’s fat.”

“Do you mean… cream?” the barista asked.

Ah, that was the word! “Oh, yes.  That’s what it’s called! Yes, cream.”

“Cream. Okay.” The young man had an odd look on his face as he abruptly turned away for a moment before fixing my coffee.

I tried to explain that I really knew the difference, that I really knew what cream was, but I began to falter. So, I tried to explain about the kittens. I knew I could blame this on too many nights up feeding the abandoned kittens of a feral cat.

The young man looked at me seriously as he handed my coffee over the tall counter and asked, “Are you sure you don’t need an extra shot in that coffee?”

That was my cue, I think, that I had said enough. I said “No, thank you,” and sheepishly took my big paper cup over to the overstuffed chair next to my friend.

I dunno.  Maybe I should have had the extra shot.

Like I said, sometimes, there’s just NOT enough coffee.

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Last Saturday I went for a walk.  By myself.  Just me, in the woods.

The past few weeks had been rough, and I felt cold and wintery inside, cramped and small, like even my words were frozen.  It might have been cold and wintery outside still, but at least the sun was shining.  I called home and made sure no one needed me right away (they didn’t), then I headed out to a local park.  I needed to go to the woods.

I will confess that I stepped off the marked trail to escape the mud. And to just, well, to get off the trail. I followed the slight paths, perhaps deer trails, perhaps blazed by summer hikers as short cuts to the river, zigzagging over logs and along the riverbank.

A thick sycamore, covered with moss, leaned over the river.  I had to touch it.  I had to lean up against the soft, emerald green moss and listen to the woodpeckers staking claim to one side of the river or the other.  I heard one tapping first, then I saw him, high up on a trunk, pausing to jeer at another woodpecker on the other side of the river.  I rested a minute,  and the sounds of the woods on  a February afternoon were healing: the  river – slightly swollen from the melted snow – rushing over rocks; the tapping of the birds; cardinals and jays, practicing their calls for spring; the clicking of the bare branches in a breeze; the rustle of the dead leaves as the squirrels scampered along the forest floor, perhaps looking for hidden food, perhaps just glad to see the sun.

There was a shelf of ice at the base of another tree, like shattered  glass, where the underlying water had drained away leaving the ice several inches above the brown black mud to crack as the sun warmed it. There were logs I would never see in the summer when the jewel weed grows so tall and hides the forest floor behind it, logs like steps, fallen almost parallel to each other, each covered with that brilliant green moss.

Back on the trail and up what felt like a hundred steps, I reached the hilltop. In spite of the sunlight, there was still ice in the middle of the trail and delicate crystals across last year’s fallen leaves. On the east side of the hill were fresh deer prints and the tiny hand-like prints of a raccoon.  The largest flock of robins I had ever seen in my life was hunting for food in the fallen leaves.

I stood alone in the woods, the sunshine warm on the back of my neck, and it was like waking up.  The tightness in my heart loosened: there is something cleansing about walking through the woods, letting the sounds of God’s creation clean out my mind. I think He made the sound of running water almost as cleansing as the water itself.

I needed to go down to the woods, to see spring as it begins to stretch and reach its way past the ice. I am grateful for last Saturday. I am thankful for the sunlight and the woods. I needed them. I was in need of a thaw.

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Sliced Tomatoes

This morning, a tomato made me cry.

I was fixing the vegetables for soup, and while I sliced the tomato, I thought of breakfast at my grandparents’ house.  My grandmother made fantastic breakfasts: eggs, crispy bacon, crunchy toast, sliced summer peaches with just enough sugar to make the juice run sweetly down like syrup, and plates of her ubiquitous summer tomatoes.  The tomatoes would be sliced in thick red steaks, and I would have a couple of slices with my eggs, lavishly dosed with salt and pepper. Like a fresh tomato should be, the juice was almost thick, worthy of being sopped up with the last bit of crunchy crust.

Then I thought of sitting on the front porch swing with Grandmommy, and she would stroke my hair as I cuddled beside her in the humidity of a southern summer evening watching the magical fireflies.  I remembered the time I was sad about something, and she sat at my bedside, held my hand and hummed to me.  She was always humming or singing.  I remembered finally learning the words to “Mairzy Doats” and thinking them outrageousely funny.  I remembered her trying to convince me that okra was not actually poisonous, not that I actually believed her. I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that she loved me. And she made everything better.

I haven’t been able to see her for years, and this morning I learned that I have missed my chance.

I am thankful for her.  I was blessed to have her as my grandmother. If I have even a small measure of her character, beauty and spunk, I am luckier than I deserve.

So, this morning it wasn’t the onion that made me cry.

It was a tomato.

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A Brain Storm During a Snow Storm

Today it snowed sporadically.  At one point it was snowing hard enough that one child asked, “Is that a BLIZZARD outside?”  I think the answer was no (not enough wind), but it was difficult to see the neighbor’s yard.  And the forecast indicates a rather chilly couple of days, with overnights being below 0 Fahrenheit.  Today it was in the teens, with a windchill of 7 degrees.  (I know, I know.  Everyone in Wyoming and Alaska is chuckling at my thin skin…)  7?  That’s -13.889 C!  Even the feral cats who live under the shed next door didn’t come out often.  That is cold.

BUT. That was about when I had my Brilliant Idea. I mean, it seemed like a brilliant idea, except from a decorating point of view, perhaps.

I thought:  Why don’t I go outside (in the 7 degree Fahrenheit wind chill) and take apart the plastic playground with a slide, carry it in (over the thin layer of snow and mud), bring it into the house, clean it, and assemble it in the front room?  

I hurried through putting today’s dinner in the slow cooker. (We had three bean and beef chili, and those of us who were able to do so had cheese. The rest of us had avocados.  Oh, the sacrifices.) I enlisted the help of my middle schooler. We bundled up and headed out. I even made him wear gloves and a hat. You know it’s cold when a middle school boy will wear gloves, a hat, and a jacket.

It was cold. Honestly, though, it was lovely outside. Snow fell in large clumpy flakes. The light was a soft misty gray. Everything was hushed until a crow appeared out of nowhere.  It called out three times, then it disappeared, fading like magic into the clouds and snow over the neighbor’s house.

It didn’t take that long, although it took quite a bit of effort to remove the crawling tube from one wall so the wall can come out of the cold. My poor kid was perched on the slide, hanging on in an attempt to anchor the beast as I tried to twist it apart. Piece by piece he shuffled the whole thing inside.  Meanwhile, another kid scrubbed off most of the grime as the pieces came in. (Still another one pretended to help, but really danced around, opening the door to ask questions about when breakfast would be. I think he meant dinner.)  It was almost like an assembly line. Almost.

The playground is assembled. I was right: the baby loves having it inside. He climbed up and slid down and climbed up and slid down. He was tired later. Who knows? He might even sleep well tonight.  The older kids loved it too.  I foresee arguments about reading nooks and clubhouses.

It really isn’t the peaceful, serene atmosphere I would usually go for. There isn’t much restful about large, faded plastic play equipment with a slide, unless perhaps, it is in a small bit of quiet because a tiny boy with cabin fever finally is tired out and napping. It could happen. Really.  I know it could.

Maybe this actually was a good idea. Maybe everyone will have plastic playgrounds in the front room in the near future. Maybe we’ve started a trend.

But I would recommend waiting until it gets a tad warmer.

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An Ode To A Dead Fly

Occasionally. the Muse visits us.

More frequently, we think it was the muse, but it turns out to merely be a result of poor digestion. Or too little sleep. Or kids. Or all of the above.

My fifth grade math teacher spoke of one such time, when he awoke inspired in the wee hours and wrote a sonnet worthy of Donne or Spencer. However, in the clear and harsh light of day, the barely legible scribbles were a dismal poem about a dead fly. This story stuck with me for years.

Nonetheless, as I said, the Muse does visit…

I was in college, avoiding something, I am sure, if only research for some paper, when the Muse visited me. I remember sitting on my bunk – the bottom one, on the north side of the room, up against a cinder block wall painted in one of the most hideous murals known on campus. Possibly ever. I think it was a scene from the book of Daniel. At any rate, suddenly, the words came whispering in, tumbling down my pencil onto the lined notebook paper. With very little editing, I had my Masterpiece.

So, in honor of my roommates (who may wish to remain anonymous after this), AND since there is not enough coffee (which might have been the original problem, now that I think about it), here it is.

Ode to a Dead Fly

O Fly! That had been used to buzz
Around my ears, so loud! So bold!
O Fly! Thy wings art still because
Now thou art in Dark Pluto’s hold.
The mournful whine thy wings didst make
Is heard no more. Now thy still form
Lies in the stairwell of my dorm.
Thy one time haunts thou dost forsake.
And sunshine shall thy corpse soon bake.
Now silence rules: A quiet storm.
Thy beady multi-color’d eyes
Shall see no more, I realize.
O Fly, no more! my poor heart cries.
Lone skeleton! O! Sad demise!

Yes. The Muse had come.

(And gone…)

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