Neighbors

And the second is like to it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Matthew 22:39

 There are fifteen houses on my street, all built in the 1950’s. The original owners still live in eight of them. In sixty plus years, twenty-three families have come home here. Children, parents, pets, friends, and extended family have spent time here, and still do. Today, my neighbors of ten years swept the floors of their home for the last time – a chance to say goodbye to the house and give its new owner a clean start. I’m sure I’ll see them again, but it won’t be the same. Living next door brings shared work and chance conversations, borrowings and lendings, seeing each other at our best and worst and everywhere in the middle. A new chapter begins for them, for the house, and for everyone on my street.

In the past thirty years and ten locations, my neighbors have been a blessing. I still know quite a few of them, friends that are with me in spirit if not in geography. Some are still close by, others far away, a few at rest with God. My life is far better for their presence in my life and my zip code – the gift of the unplanned real estate encounter.

Jesus said that loving my neighbor as myself is like loving God. For the most part, I’ve genuinely liked my neighbors as well as done my best to love them (meaning good things for them and making sacrifices toward that end). Have my neighbors loved and liked me and my family? Judging by the kindness they have extended to me and mine, I’d say yes. But I don’t think about it much, because I experience them on a far deeper level. Perhaps that’s why Jesus told us to love them – they are a glimpse and an encounter with God here and now. I don’t have any control over the comings and goings that bring neighbors or take them away, but I can take the time to enjoy them or lose out on the opportunity. Nothing exotic in this, just the ordinary and everyday miracle of this time, this place, and these people. I am grateful for the very particular people each home has given me. I’m pretty sure I’ll like Linda, too – her house has a history of lovely people walking its floors…

Leaving Home

Travel lightly – carrying neither weighty luggage nor burdensome preconceptions.

(Welleran Poltarnees, A Travel Blessing, Seattle, WA: Laughing Elephant Books, 2000, p4)

 After ten years living next to us, our neighbors are moving tomorrow. Our guest dog of a couple of months, Montana, left Monday afternoon. Our neighbors are staying a town away for a year, then heading to the West coast; Montana and her family move to Arkansas tomorrow.

Boxes are changing hands. Paint supplies that won’t be moving West are here, a layover on the way to creating a youth room at Christ Church. Montana’s red crate went home with her, packed with a blanket, snacks, and the line we bought for her use in the back yard. There are outgrown clothes, items for an upcoming yard sale, and books collected for the library, all set to go. Lots of things are moving to a new life elsewhere. Paring down makes traveling easier, and it also makes staying at home easier; letting go of the burden of unnecessary things is a life skill for travel and a blessing when practiced at home.

My mother says that what we own owns us. It takes time, energy, and attention to enjoy, employ, and maintain our things. Weighty luggage is weighty luggage, to go or to stay. Too many things or too many preset ideas trip us up or block our view, and our world shrinks to the size of our material and ideological stuff. There’s little room to breathe and no room to welcome others. Living lightly and traveling lightly grows our world, making room for ourselves and others. Perhaps that’s why Jesus sent his followers on their way with just their clothes and good news of God’s kingdom – light as a feather and vast as the cosmos.

Entrance

The front entrance to our home is a typical wooden door, painted red, with brick steps leading up to it. On both sides are large azalea bushes, planted long before I came to Wareham. The color is deeper than most pink azaleas and brighter than the usual red ones. Once a year, thanks to them, the entrance to my home is, for lack of a better word, entrancing – a gift from someone who loved my house and my neighbors before I did. Thank you, Alice, for the beauty you left behind. Surely this is God’s blessing to me and mine from you and yours.

Art

While my husband was away in 2011, I painted our bedroom a soft, light green. Dave had found the color, so I thought it would be a fun welcome home surprise to have the room done when he returned. My sons helped, and within a couple of days the room looked great. We rearranged the furniture, picked out a new bedspread, and bought new bedside lamps (thank you, Ikea!). Everything was fresh and clean, reconfigured to create a calm, warm, welcoming space. The only problem was the artwork; the pictures that had looked good in a white room didn’t look right with green walls. The frames were the wrong color and some of the pictures just looked awful. Thus began phase two: re-arting the room.

The pictures that looked good against the green got new black frames – Story People art and the watercolors by my friend, Maggie. A Portsmouth watercolor came out of the front room to fill one space, as did a porch scene from upstate New York. A search through my sons’ art folders along with their blessings resulted in two new pieces for the bedroom: Colin’s watercolor of our home and Jared’s stained glass tree done with art crayons, both framed in simple black wood.

I love these pictures for many reasons. They were created by my sons, illustrating literally how they saw and portrayed their world at a particular age. They are well done. I like their subjects and their colors. They work with the other pictures, and they make me happy when I look at them. They are also a two-part parenting lesson for me:

 Enjoy each age and stage, remember and give thanks for  things past.

Love the child in the particular age and stage, not the age and stage itself. Life isn’t still, so don’t try to freeze it in place. Keep the picture under glass,  but not the artist.

It almost makes me want to paint another room…

Thermometer

A few years back, I got a Galileo thermometer for my birthday. It’s called a Galileo thermometer because Galileo discovered the principle that makes it work – that the density of liquids changes with the temperature. It’s a clear glass tube of liquid with small glass orbs in it. The orbs vary in color, and each has a temperature label hanging from its bottom. The glass orbs float or sink, depending on the temperature of the room. The one floating lowest is the one that tells you the temperature.  When Galileo created it in the early 1600’s, he called it a thermoscope. Whatever it’s called, it’s beautiful, useful, and truth bearing – my three reasons for keeping things. 64 degrees looks a lot better on the Galileo thermometer than my thermostat, and it works without batteries or electricity.

When my sons were younger, I’d let them hold my Galileo thermometer. The warmth of their hands did what no amount of turning or gentle shaking could do: get the orbs to move. If they both put their hands on it, the orbs moved faster – an early lesson in scientific method and in the advantages of cooperation. It’s not a direct action that moves the glass orbs, but an indirect one: hands create warmth, warmth creates movement. Understanding and honoring the principle behind the thermoscope, working with its nature, bring about change without harm. It’s a lot more fun, a lot less frustrating, and nothing gets broken in the process.

It’s a good metaphor as well as a functioning thermometer: understanding and honoring something, working respectfully and gently, first doing no harm, are the best ways to bring about change. Even better, such effort reveals a truth – we change whatever we touch.

Closet Space

In my bathroom is a narrow, unnaturally deep closet with no light. When we bought the house, there were three removable shelves in it. One was placed so low that it made using the floor space nearly impossible and one so high I couldn’t reach anything on it without a step stool. There’s small door to access the bathtub plumbing, with a good view of pipes and a glimpse of the basement below.

After two years of losing items to the back of the closet, I cut the shelves in half. This made it easier to see and reach things on the shelves, and gave me room for tall items – mops and buckets, squeegees, measuring sticks, etc. It was the best I could do with such an oddly sized closet. I’ve often wondered why this one awkward space was included in an otherwise thoughtful floor plan.

A few days ago, I finally figured it out. My neighbors are selling their home and mentioned that the new owner was going to use the ground floor laundry hook-up rather than the one they were using in the basement. Access to plumbing, deep space: that awkward closet is for a stackable laundry unit – just the right dimensions, with water pipes conveniently located through an access door. The space is well suited for its intended purpose, part of a floor plan for convenient one floor living.

How often do I misjudge things in this world because their purposes aren’t my own? I wasn’t around when my house was built, and I certainly wasn’t around when the universe came into being. People lived in my house and on this earth before I arrived, and they will do so long after I am gone. I could do with a little more humility as well as greater respect for purposes and plans of those who came before and those who will follow. Who knows what epiphanies await?

Quilts

Jane, Sophie, & Fred

Bassets to keep Colin happy and warm

December 1997

Aleph, Briar, & Shadow

Cats to keep Jared cosy company

January, 2002

 

One quilt has three bassets, profiled from the right side and left side. Jane first – Elizabeth’s dog and our favorite four legged neighbor. Second came Sophie, who lived around the block; my father’s dog Fred completed the set. On the second quilt are the three cats that were a big part of our lives when my younger son was born – our cat Aleph, along with two barn cats, Shadow and Briar. Elizabeth had moved to Indiana by then, but had taken a picture of the cats on a visit. On the next visit came the cat quilt, complete with a blue ribbon from an Indiana fair.

Both quilts were given to infants, but made big enough for beds as well as cribs. They remain favorites, still on top of their beds and in constant use for a dozen and more years. Elizabeth’s sewing is as beautiful as it is precise, and her quilts are art as much as bedding. The bassets and cats are done freehand, cut from fabrics that match the unique coloring of each. This was difficult for each animal, but especially so for Aleph, a tri-color tiger cat with a ring around the end of her tail. Elizabeth has such an eye for detail that anyone who knows the cats and dogs can tell which one is which. Even the cats’ eyes look realistic, shiny and reflective. I don’t know how she knew what fabric would look just right, but it makes me think there’s a visual equivalent to someone with absolute musical pitch: absolute color?

Colin doesn’t remember the bassets on his quilt, but he remembers the cats. Jared remembers Aleph, but not Shadow and Briar. We moved away from their barn when he was fourteen months old. Elizabeth never met Fred in real life. I’m the only one who knew all six, so I tell their tales to the others. When I see the quilts, I remember each cat and dog, giving thanks for the joy and amusement they brought to this world.

The quilt backs are beautiful as well. On the basset quilt, black paw prints on white; on the cat quilt, playful cats on black. The bindings on both are just right, too. Both quilts look like they were meant to be exactly what they are, as if these many patterns, shapes, and stitches were destined to be united with great skill and care.

The words above are neatly written on cloth ovals, sewn onto the backs of the quilts. There are a few more words as well. Considering the time and effort it took to create these quilts, I would have known even without seeing them. But I’m so glad they are there, true in word as well as deed:

 

Made with love by Elizabeth

 

 

Dinner Table

Our dining table has been moved many times in the nineteen years we’ve had it, in the larger sense (state to state, house to house) and in the smaller one (within a room). In years past, it was in the front room, at one end or the other, parallel to a side wall or angled to make room for the Christmas tree. It stands in the near center now. My son Colin suggested we move the table there. The table is the gathering point for meals, so why not have it as the focal point of the room?

Colin wanted a more balanced room, so he applied feng shui principles to the furniture placement. After dinner, I helped him move a couple of book cases, the sofa, and a side board. The rug was rolled up for storage, and the table moved to the room’s center, parallel to the long walls of the room. But it didn’t work. In the exact center, it didn’t line up with the front windows. Off center, it didn’t line up with the book cases. No way to center the table that would work for the room as a whole.

Colin looked around for a minute, then moved one end of the table a few inches to the left. No longer aligned with the walls, the angled table brought the room into harmony. A couple of inches brought a sense of movement to the room that I cannot explain. The furniture, windows, and doorways complement each other now, and the space is warm and peaceful.

I experience this complementarity every night at dinner. I feel it now, seated at the table, typing these words on my laptop. Just a matter of angle and inches, no new furniture or construction necessary. It’s a life lesson I continue to learn every day. What I need for a life lived in harmony is at hand – I just need the eyes to see it, and a willingness to adjust accordingly.

Dali Clock

My son Colin bought it at the Museum of Science, this silver-framed melting clock straight out of Salvador Dali’s time bending work, The Persistence of Memory (oil on canvas, 1931). Except for the Roman numerals on the face, it looks just like the timepiece draped over the oozing self portrait Dali put in the center of his painting. Right now, it hangs off the side of a tall bookcase, just over a floor lamp. It’s been moved several times over the past few years, and I’m sure it will find itself spending time in another location in years to come.

The thing about this clock, it doesn’t work anymore. It’s been knocked off shelves so many times by people, cats, and Nerf balls that it’s always 10:20. Even when it worked, it was hard to tell time by it; the silver frame and curved plastic front reflect light back, often obscuring the numbers and hands. XI, XII, and I are folded, resting on top of the shelf and partially hanging down. VI and VII are slightly flared to the front, and the whole thing is off center – not a straight edge anywhere on the face or circumference.

As a rule, I have two reasons for keeping things: beauty and function. If someone here finds it beautiful or useful, then its presence adds to the quality of life. If something doesn’t work or isn’t beautiful, then it needs to find a life elsewhere. This clock isn’t beautiful and doesn’t function anymore, but it’s here to stay because it’s in a category of its own: truth bearing.

Time isn’t separate from reality, it’s part of the created universe. It bends with gravity and is affected by life experience. It’s part of life’s fabric. Awareness of measured clock time doesn’t guarantee a life well lived; preoccupation with the passing hours leads to getting through life, not experiencing life as God given and God held. When time in my front room is perpetually 10:20, I remember it is also perpetually and eternally God’s. Perhaps a bit hard to see, but it is a beautiful and way beyond useful truth.

Sofa Bed

We have a canine guest right now. Montana’s owners needed a place for her to live while one of their other dogs had puppies – an extended vacation for Montana, and a chance for us to care for a friendly, happy, low maintenance golden retriever. We have two cats, but Montana is our first dog. Even though it’s only for a few weeks, we will miss her when she goes home.

Montana loves to snuggle up with someone when it’s bed time, and makes sad sounds if left alone at night. My son Jared loves having her with him, but she’s sizable and doesn’t share bed space well, so he’s been sleeping on the flip-out sofa. It’s queen size, with enough room for Montana at the bottom and Jared in the upper half. There’s even space for our cats; the two of them like to study Montana while she’s sleeping. Everyone is happy, everyone has plenty of room, and no one loses sleep.

We have no spare bedroom, so we got this sofa from LLBean a dozen years ago.  It’s in the room where our Christmas tree goes, so overnight visitors during the holidays have a twinkly eight foot night light. Friends and relatives, acquaintances and a few strangers have found rest on it. My husband and I have spent a few nights on it, making sure it’s comfortable enough for guests. When they were younger, my sons made forts with it and used it for indoor camping – good weather year round, and a good place to play flashlight tag.

Usually, the flip-out is in its Clark Kent sofa form, only the Superman bed when needed. It’s a good place to read a book or have a glass of wine with friends. It’s seen its share of tears and smiles from guests of all ages. It’s been moved around a few times, changing place to fit the season and need. There’s nothing fancy about it, but it’s comfortable and sturdy. It is a hospitable presence in my home, making comfortable my family and those who visit.

I hope the same can be said of me and my family – that we are comfortable here, and we make others feel comfortable as well. Hospitality is a virtue appreciated by guests and strangers, but rarely given a thought by those who practice it. Angels disguised as strangers, friends, and family are everywhere. Let’s hope I have the good sense to invite them in – now that my sofa is Montana approved…

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Hebrews 13:2

Be hospitable to one another without complaining. I Peter 4:9

NRSV translation