My grandmother — Gladys Thelma Andrews… on her porch swing
My grandmother–Southern Baptist born and bred–didn’t cotton to folks in her church who played the judgmental-eternal-damnation- card just to feel good about themselves, or for the sake of proving a point. She understood that in her church’s “theology,” there were many kinds of people “on the outside.” (Truth be told, in her church, “most” people were “on the outside.”) But my grandmother lived by an overriding imperative: “Anybody is welcome at my dinner table, no questions asked, no matter what.”
In the latter years of her life, in the back yard of her home in northern Florida, my grandmother had a porch swing. She liked to sit, and swing, and hum old church hymns. “Rock of Ages, cleft for me…” I can still see her there, wearing a white scarf over her head, a concession to chemotherapy’s unrelenting march. When I visited her, as a young adult, she would always ask me to sit with her on the swing, for a spell. She would pat my leg and call me “darlin’.”
As long as my grandmother lived–and in spite of her pain–there was always a place for me on the swing. If I were asked to explain grace, I would paint the picture of my grandmother’s swing. There, I never had to deliberate or explain or worry regardless of the weight I carried. The swing–my grandmother’s presence–existed without conditions.
And I am here today, because of that swing.
A sanctuary is a dose of grace.
A sanctuary is a place that restores us. Renews us. Nourishes us.
In this renewal, we are reminded, once again, of what is really important.
And what is really important is that there is sufficiency: We are enough.
We live life like ill-taught piano students;
so inculcated with the flub that gets us in Dutch,
we don’t hear the music; we only play the right notes.
It’s a good reminder that finding success doesn’t necessarily mean that you gain health. We go about our merry and hectic way, accumulating and weighing, measuring and posturing, hoping that the balance sheet of life judges us with kindness. Until that one day when you look into the mirror and ask yourself, “Why?” and you decide then and there to set about reclaiming that which had been lost–namely, you.
There’s a wonderful conversation in Regarding Henry (a movie about a conscience-less lawyer who suffers brain damage from a gunshot wound and finds himself recovering in a new and strange world) during which Henry tell his physical therapist, “I tried to go back to my life. But I don’t like who I was Bradley… I don’t fit in.”
Bradley, “I got bad knees. Football, wrecked ’em both playing college football. Man, that was my life. What else was there. Safety hit me… game over, my life was over… ask me if I mind having bad knees. No way. I had to find a life. Don’t listen to nobody trying to tell you who you are. It may take awhile, but you’ll figure yourself out.”
There comes an age when the question of what you’re going to be when you grow up starts to become moot, and you find yourself needing to paint or get off the ladder with regard to this relentless pressure to arrive somewhere. This is not to say it isn’t important to take aim or set goals, or that life doesn’t change and grow; it’s just that there is no need to assume that life will suddenly kick in when we get to where we’re going at such a manic pace. We seem to think that if we try hard enough, we’ll get it right this time, all the while fueled by some smoldering resentment for life as it is. We may not like the movie of our life, but that’s no reason to ream the projectionist. And it’s even crazier if we choose to leave the theater and spend the rest of our days on the defensive.
Sanctuary is a dose of grace because its gifts–stillness, gladness, calm, mystery, delight, resilience and peacefulness–are bestowed. This is not easy or predictable, because when it comes to personal or spiritual growth, we spend our energy chasing and / or anticipating. (Like a four-year-old five minutes out of the driveway on any family trip, “Are we there yet?”)
Here’s the good news: we can’t orchestrate these gifts. Or procure them. Or magically make them appear through heroic will power. What we can do is make space to receive them.
“Well that’s too good to be true,” my mind swoops in, balance sheet in hand, to hijack the merriment, and rain on the parade of any celebration.
“Can I do anything?” I beseech (meaning “Can I do anything to deserve this?”) anyone listening in the heavens.
“Yes,” whispers a voice. “You can say thank you. You can receive the gifts. And you can live accordingly.”
My friend Jinks teaches me treasurable Hebrew words. Like the word Mashpia, derived from the word shepha, which means, “to overflow” or “to pour abundantly.” So… literally a channel or conduit. (In Kabbalistic terminology, shepha refers one who channels Divine radiant energy.) And I think of my grandmother’s porch swing.
And here’s the deal: if I let this grace take root, it spills from my life. I am a Mashpia.
I can tell you the weeks when I do not get my recommended dose of sanctuary–or in my case, garden time. And I can tell when I do; it’s a restorative, a dose of grace mainlined straight to the heart.
There are those lucky days, when the sun illuminates the translucent “bat wing” ruby thorns of the rose sericea pteracantha, or a swallow-tail butterfly provides a cabaret while sipping at a wallflower, or a rainbow arches its back through the northern sky after a morning of fateful clouds have skittered and leapt, or daffodils flow, faithful and sanguine around the maple tree, or the summer sun stays in the sky well into evening, letting you sit on the back deck listening to crickets well past bedtime, or the candied scent of a bearded iris transports you back to a high school dance when the best looking girl in town really did want to drape her arms around your neck during all the slow numbers. Yes, there are those lucky days when public opinion means something only to pollsters and politicians, when you realize that the elastic jurisdiction of what “they think cannot find you here in this little corner of the globe, and you raise your head to the stars and shout to no one in particular, “if this isn’t nice, what is?”
I once asked my analyst why I was in therapy. He told me it would make me a better gardener. Gardening can be strong medicine–an elixir that nurtures and shapes the soul. For that reason, it is a tonic seldom taken straight with no ice. Gardening has a way of seeping into your soul, and one day you find yourself, in the words of poet May Sarton in Plant Dreaming Deep, spending the first half hour of the morning “enjoying the air and watching for miracles.”
Today I chopped wood. And along the back fence I munched on blackberries. Which is another way of saying that summer is almost over here in the Pacific Northwest. And it’s easy to fill our minds with “if onlys”–a silly but somewhat comforting distraction. But if we’re lucky, we can sit still long enough to notice the crescent moon in the southeastern sky, and then tell a loved one that we’re glad to be alive… and that we’re glad they are in our life.
Today I bent the truth to be kind, and I have no regret,
for I am far surer of what is kind than I am of what is true.
POEMS AND PRAYERS
There’s a light in this world, a healing spirit more powerful than any darkness we may encounter. We sometimes lose sight of this force when there is suffering, too much pain. Then suddenly the spirit will emerge through the lives of ordinary people who hear a call, and answer in extraordinary ways.
From the film “Mother Teresa”
A Child in the Garden
When to the Garden of untroubled though
I came of late, and saw the open door,
And wished again to enter, and explore
The sweet, wild ways with stainless bloom inwrought,
And bowers of innocence with beauty fraught,
It seemed some purer voice must speak before
I dared to tread that Garden loved of yore,
That Eden lost unknown and found unsought.
Then just within the gate I saw a child,
A Stranger-child, yet to my heart most dear;
He holds his hands to me, and softly smiled
With eyes that knew no shade of sin or fear:
“Come in,” he said, “and play awhile with me;”
“I am the little child you use to be.”
Henry Van Dyke
If the light of joy is cast on the streets of my day,
give me the courage,
to bask in it,
and if possible, to dance.