Fall Tapestry

October is a month of fall festivals and breast cancer awareness.  Yesterday, both came together when I attended the Big Foot Festival near my hometown of Sanford.  I don’t know a lot about Big Foot, but I went to support my friend, Donna, who’d organized the event as a fund raiser for clean water efforts.  Walking along the food vendors, I spotted a woman in a pink baseball cap with shiny rhinestones forming a breast cancer ribbon.  Sometimes I hold back, not sure if that person wants to share, but her cap was so bold that I felt it was an invitation.

She told me about her shock when an Emergency Room doctor abruptly announced that her back pain was caused by cancer.  Through tears she relived hearing the “C word” and later learning that hers was Stage IV.  Soon she added, “God is seeing me through and I’ve been able to help others, especially women who’re now more aware.”

“I’ve had breast cancer, too,” I said.  “Now it’s been seventeen years as a survivor.”

“Thanks for telling me,” she responded.  “Some days you just need to hear that.

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She told me of her shock at hearing the “C word”

She recalled how she’d been supported by her community: cards, meals, gifts.  Her face brightened as she told me about her plans for the future.

“That’s right, look toward the future,” I encouraged her.  “While you’re taking the needed treatment steps, you’re moving on to the things that you desire.”

We hugged goodbye.  I added her to the women in my breast cancer tree, the one I pass on my morning walks that reminds me to hold them up to the light of prayer.

I took advantage of the food vendors—eating all those fair-like delicacies; hotdog with mustard, chili, and slaw; quesadillas with pork; Big Foot sugar cookies; mango and strawberry shaved ice.  Saturday was no time to stick to a healthy diet.  Eating with Donna’s family and friends, we sat in lawn chairs around her booth of merchandise, including tee shirts she designed, furry face masks of wee Big Foots, back scratchers of the mysterious creature’s paws.  How nice it was to be grafted into this group, my friend the central figure who pulled us together.

I saw a couple of women I hadn’t seen in years, one telling me I should spend more time in my hometown.  The other woman’s three children were contestants in the Big Foot hollering contest.  It occurred to me how seldom I participated in such community events—usually too busy doing something purposeful, goal-directed.  How relaxing it was to just move in the flow of this festival, no expectations, no responsibilities—just enjoying the afternoon.

As the sun was setting, casting that gloaming light over the Deep River, we listened to people tell stories of their encounters with Big Foot.  I thought back to my experiences in Scotland.  Just a few weeks before I was riding a boat out into Loch Ness, listening to accounts of Nessie in the seven- hundred- foot water.  I could see Alistair, our retreat leader in Iona, lying down on the hill of the fairies and telling about Celtic beliefs.  If felt like Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, and Celtic fairies were now being joined.

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The Deep River reminded me of the deep waters of Loch Ness

Watching the light disappear, I noticed the foundation of the bridge over the river was made of stone.  That’s like so many buildings in Scotland, I thought. The path that I’m called to follow is the same in Sanford as Scotland; be present, be myself as I encounter the people in my path.  Today there had been the woman with breast cancer, my widening circle who shared Donna’s generous friendship, and those who’d experienced realms unfamiliar to me.  All had woven a beautiful tapestry on a fall day.

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What about you?

In what ways have you seen your call in life being expressed the same way while in different places?

How can you live into that this day?

What new threads do you see in the tapestry that is your life?

Southern Drawl

I’ve encountered reactions to my Southern accent on my journeys outside the Southeast.  But I didn’t expect to when I traveled to Iona.  In an international place, I assume there’ll be many accents so that none will stand out.  That’s what I’d experienced on my trips to New York City –so many foreign tongues that mine was just one more.  That wasn’t the case at Iona.

On our first night together, we mingled over cups of tea and oatcakes.  I felt a nudge to talk with a man from Holland who was maybe ten years younger than me.  Once we started talking, he stopped and said, “Your voice, the way you talk, it’s so weird!”

I couldn’t help my knee-jerk reaction, my face responding to his comment, my first time hearing my voice labeled weird.

“I don’t mean that in a bad way,” he said, concerned that he’d offended me.  “It’s just I’ve never heard someone like you before.  Where are you from?”

“North Carolina — in the States.  I’m from the South.  That’s the region where my weird voice is from.”

north-carolina-890632_1280He chuckled then continued telling me about his life for almost an hour.  More conversation followed at points during the week—when we shared our meal duties on the Seal team and walked alongside each other on our island pilgrimage.  That man from Holland wasn’t the only one to react to my accent.  There was the man from Australia.

He was older, attending with his wife as a fiftieth wedding anniversary present.  After several days at Iona, with more conversations in small groups, he talked as easily as his wife.  He made a comment about me being from the South and attempted to imitate me, with what came out as a cowgirl, Wild West type accent.

Really, an Aussie thinking he doesn’t have an accent, I thought.  I laughed at his attempt to sound like me, and let go of my typical embarrassed, pride-hurt response.  I’d decided to just be myself and accept whatever happened at Iona.  That included my ego about being good enough, sophisticated enough, educated enough.  The father-like Aussie was teasing me and by the end of the week, I gave it back.

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Our meeting room

On Wednesday evening by the fire, we shared songs, stories, and other talents.  I read one of my personal essays about taking Mama to eat with her brother.  It’s a bittersweet story, filled with pathos about the changes in Mama from dementia, and joy at the richness of being with family.  After my reading, several people told me how my story had touched their hearts.  One woman, from Oxford, England said that what made the difference was my voice, me reading the story.  The next day, she told me she’d been thinking about places where it might be published and then added, “You should read it on the radio.”

My voice, my Southern accent on the radio, recommended by a woman from Oxford.  My, oh My!

That afternoon, when I went to the nearby hotel to use the Wifi, I ran into the Aussie man and his wife.  He told me he was unclear about the location of my story.  He said he knew it was in the South, and did a bit of a Connie impersonation.  I would miss him when we parted the next day.  I couldn’t resist a comeback. 

After I answered his question with a quick North Carolina geography lesson, I said, “You know, I would have liked to talk with you more this week.  But I just couldn’t understand your accent!”

He and his wife laughed.  I would remember their warm smiles and the weird way they talked, those Aussies in Iona.

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What about you?

In what area of your life do you feel vulnerable?

How are you able to let go of that in order to be open to the experience of that moment?

How would it change your life if you let go of that vulnerability and accepted your whole self?

 

 

 

 

Some of Our People

The last time I took Mama to see her brother, we passed a car pulled over by a state trooper, blue lights flashing.  Mama focused on the loaded down Honda with the officer talking to the driver.   “I hope that’s none of our people in that kind of trouble,” she said.  Our people could have been any of a gazillion cousins in Harnett County.

Mama is like her mother, my Grandma Smith, and has always been very close to her large family and their extended family.  When I was planning my pilgrimage to Iona, I researched my grandmother’s maiden name, Gilchrist.  Not only had I found that it meant servant of Christ (see post, Packing Grandma for Pilgrimage), I learned that name was special to Iona.

Iona possesses the remains of five ancient High Crosses.  Only one, St Martin’s Cross that’s stood for over a thousand years, is complete and in its original site.  According to an internet reference on the Gilchrist surname, there was an inscription on that cross that read, “A prayer for Gilchrist who made this cross.”

Last January when I read that, I was amazed and saw it as another sign that I should journey to Iona.  When I was there, I had my picture taken holding Grandma to the cross that could have been made by our ancestor.

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She would have been pleased by the craftsmanship of the carving; in the center, the Virgin and Child; on the shaft, several Old Testament scenes; the east face, ornamental with prominent jewel-like bosses.  I assume that if there was an inscription about Gilchrist, it had worn off over the years.  I was disappointed.  In my mind’s eye, I’d seen it clearly carved across the base of the cross, but on close examination, there was no such inscription.

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I think about my question of how I would pay tribute to Grandma while I was at Iona.  I remember how she listened and her thoughtful responses.  I hope I did that with my community that week at the Abbey.  One woman that I had some deep conversations with was from Scotland.  She looked like some of Mama’s people—with red hair and fair skin.  She was very friendly and talkative.  I felt like I was at one of Mama’s family reunions, talking with one of her Gilchrist cousins.

During our worship services in the drafty stone chapel, I looked at the windows and thought about all the people who’d journeyed to Iona over the centuries.  Would one of my ancestors have traveled to Iona, set out on a pilgrimage like Grandma wanted to take to the Holy Land?  Probably not, I thought.  They would have likely been crofters or artisans and like Grandma’s farm-girl roots, could’t take time away from the daily chores of life.

Setting out, I didn’t know how I would experience the ‘thin veil’ of Iona, where heaven and earth are close together, a mystical place of pre-Christian fairies and Christian angels.  I didn’t have any mystical experience but rather a strong sense of belonging, of being on the right spiritual path for me in a place that felt like home.

I hope I paid tribute to Grandma by listening to others as she listened to me, that I posed questions in our deep conversations that helped to get at truth.  I believe I took Grandma with me to Iona.  We returned to our homeland and reconnected with ‘some of our people’ on that Scottish isle in a place deeply rooted in faith.

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What about you?

Have you been in a place that felt like you’d arrived home, a place that’s unfamiliar yet very familiar?

In what ways have you seen your ancestors in yourself?

At this point in your life, how would you like to honor your ancestors?

 

 

Catch the Early Ferry

The winds on the western isles of Scotland are relentless.  I viewed their impact on the Sound of Iona from the dining room of Seaview B & B, my accommodations in the village of Fionnphort.  The owner, John, had previously been a fisherman and was expert at judging the wind and the sea.  Knowing I had to check in at the Abbey on the following day he advised me, “I’d catch the early ferry.  They might close it down.”

He was right.  A group of those in our community of forty-one were caught when the ferry stopped after the second run.  They arrived the following day when the ferry re-opened.   At the end of our week, I remembered John’s words when I heard high winds were predicted.  A small group of us walked to the landing through the blowing rain in the early morning darkness instead of waiting until the 9:00 run—that allowed for more sleep, a less rushed breakfast, and lengthier goodbyes.

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Later, when I boarded the noon train in Oban, I saw the empty seats of those that should have been on that second ferry.  I hated it for my new friends—their inconvenience and costs with changing travel plans, and felt grateful for John’s wise counsel that had helped me avoid those complications.

Since childhood, I’ve cut things close in my life, waiting until the last minute in order to accomplish more, seeing that as being efficient.  I’d weed one more row in the garden, do one more load of clothes, add on another household chore—work up until the last minute before leaving for a scheduled activity.  But what I was beginning to see, was that giving myself the space that left room for error, was a more gracious way to live.

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The view of the sound from Seaview B & B

Years ago, when going through radiation treatment, I also found that giving myself more time and space worked to my benefit.  I scheduled the thirty-two treatments in one of the first appointment slots of the day.  I dreaded having to start my morning with the reminded of cancer.  I’d learned from my oncology visits that it helped to ‘pair the bitter with the sweet.’  Following my office visits, I’d do something enjoyable, like go shopping, get a manicure, or have a decadent treat.  What if I applied that same principle to the radiation visits—pair that distasteful daily reminder with something enjoyable?

I decided to arrive for my appointment fifteen minutes early and write.  I never took that time on a usual morning—always too busy getting myself and my family going for the day.  Over those thirty-two mornings, I came into the radiation department equipped with a mug of dark roast and my notebook.  By the end of the sessions, I’d written a short story and reframed the time as something I could partially look forward to– time for me.

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John Noddings, gracious host and weather advisor

Catching the first ferry and getting to radiation early come together for me now.  They are ways of opening up time and space with more grace—not pushing up to the limit with no room to maneuver.

I’ll keep John’s advice, spoken in his lovely Scottish accent, “Catch the Early Ferry” as the voice in my head that reminds me to allow myself enough room for the uncertainty, not knowing if the waters may turn rough and catch me unaware.

What about you?

Do you allow yourself the time and space to live life with grace?

How could you let go of the need to accomplish more and give yourself the extra time that allows for interruptions or delays?

Are there areas of your life where you could pair the bitter with something sweet?

Walk Across Iona

I approached my week at the Abbey wondering how I would fit in.  Now I look back at all our activities together and see glimpses of myself.  One of the things I’d looked forward to was our pilgrimage across the island to places of historical and religious significance. We all dressed in waterproofs and hiking boots– knowing that sections would be steep and sometimes boggy.  We were blessed with a beautiful sunny day.

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Setting out on our journey together

At times I walked by myself, enjoying quiet moments to gather my thoughts and have my morning prayer walk like I’d have at home– remembering my family and friends who’d be sleeping– five hours behind in the States.  I enjoyed being out in nature, always renewing no matter the landscape or the types of animals that I encountered.  As far as I could see was grass-covered rolling land with rocky outcroppings dotted with sheep and some Highland cows, or “coos” as they’re called in Scotland.

These cows were comical looking to me with their triple coats and long hair growing down between their horns, almost covering their eyes.  We’d been told that they were gentle– for the most part, and I wanted to rub one.  I’ve loved cows since my childhood on a farm.

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The cow wasn’t interested in me rubbing him

We climbed steep and rocky paths.  I was especially careful, thinking of David and his knee, imagining how difficult an injury would be so far from the Abbey.  At different points along our journey, I talked to whoever was close by, seeing them as the people in my path, not seeking out a specific person with an agenda for conversation.  For me, it felt like that was my call to being present, to letting go of trying to control the journey.

Getting close to mid-hike, we arrived at the southern tip of the island at St Columba’s Bay.  The beach was covered in pebbles and small stones.  This was the place where Columba is said to have arrived from Ireland on the Day of Pentecost in 563.  The staff member who led our walk, Ursula from Latvia, encouraged us to find a rock to cast into the water that represented what we’d carried that we wanted to be free of.  I thought of how my pride had made me hesitant to try new things for fear of making mistakes, for fear of looking foolish.  I chunked a large rock into the surf, hoping to leave that behind, at least more than I’d been able to do in the past.

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St Columba’s Bay

I found a sheltered spot in the cleft of the rock, sitting in the sand to eat my packed sandwiches and orange.  A woman, whom I hadn’t talked with, sat beside me and shared about the rock she’d thrown into the sea, the pain she’d experienced that was being reworked at Iona.  We would have other conversations that week and walk in the group to the ferry landing on that dark Friday morning.

Continuing on, we traveled down through the common grazing land, the machair, and to the sea, the Atlantic dazzling before us, with tropical-appearing waters that were green and blue.  I felt my breath catch as I realized how God had opened up my life, this wider space that had been provided in this pilgrimage to Iona.

I was ‘fitting in’ by being myself, letting go of defensive pride that said I should be more than I am.

What about you?

Have you ever hesitated to try something new because you wondered how you’d fit in?

How did you manage that situation?

What did you bring away from that experience?  In retrospect, would you like to have handled it differently?