Thursday, September 27, 2007

Too Close for Comfort?

A few days ago, a loud grinding brought me out to the porch. The forester had been working beyond the far southwest corner of our property but on this morning, his bulldozer chugged along the stone wall that bounds our property. Rather than keeping his distance, he was rambling right by my yard, and heading deep into the woods along the paths Tasha and I love.

The forester is cutting close to home now.

These are not my woods, I tell myself. Not my lumber, nor my paths, nor my stream. Tasha and I have been blessed to have nearby for our pleasure but none of it belongs to us.

When I’m not in the throes of anxiety over losing what isn’t mine, I admire how he does his work. He wields a huge chainsaw, cutting the huge trees very close to the ground. It only takes two cuts to bring them crashing down. He cuts off the branches, then wraps a chain around the massive log that’s left. He then used the bulldozer to drag these logs back to his processing site.

It’s an amazing sight as the bulldozer goes by, dragging its log. Like a freight train that seems to go on forever, some of these logs do the same—going on and on and on, a local testament to God’s majesty.

Between the heavy equipment and the massive logs, the beaten path has been plowed under. As my friend works deeper into these woods, more of the paths that Tasha and I have trod into submission will become bulldozed and muddied.

I worry about this freshly-turned ground because I know the open soil is an invitation to bramble. I’ve seen this happen in other parts of the woods that have been forested, and it’s fearsome. I can’t help but think of the parable of the sower in Mark 4—indeed, open land is an invitation to weeds, and the fiercest of weeds in our parts is the thicket. I’d love to chase behind the forester’s bulldozer and drop grass seed in his wake to prevent anything else from coming up.

Such an effort would be futile—too much seed to sow, and only one me.

So I’ll watch the paths being turned into raw soil, and pray that Tasha and I can go out when the forester is done in a couple of months and beat that raw soil into submission.

The spiritual analogy of all this just cuts too close to home to consider further.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Ear Wax

This fall, my Bible study is doing Priscilla Shirer’s “Discerning the Voice of God.” It seems to me that, after the basic question of Does God exist, the most pressing question we ask is If God exists, does he speak to us?

Once I believe that (and I do), it seems the next big question is why can’t I hear Him? The Shirer study is all about cleaning the wax out of our spiritual ears, and reconnecting with that gracious voice that called us out of our spiritual tomb into salvation. Personally, I can be so consumed by other input—entertainment, sports, talk radio, my own stories—that my ears dull to the voice of the Holy Spirit.

Considering my own aural insensitivity got me thinking about Tasha. My ears are exquisitely fine-tuned to her every move. A rustle from the kitchen means she’s getting into the trash. A scraping noise from the pantry means she’s nosing open her bag of dog food. A click of her claws against the door indicates she wants to go out or come in.

When she was younger and more active, I was very attuned to the sound of her movement in the woods. When we first got her, she would run wide, wide circles (maybe 300 yards in diameter or more) in the brush at top speed. Depending on whether the brush was whispering, rustling, or crashing, I knew if she was near or far. The jingle of her dog-tags told me she was back on the path, and whether she was racing ahead or had turned to come back.

Marj’s dog Maddie has her own set set of sounds. When first let off her leash, she runs like thunder. As we near the water, we’ll hear a whomp, followed by a splash and know Maddie has taken the plunge. When she swims with a stick (okay, it's usually more like a small log) in her mouth, she grunts and sputters because she’s so excited. She’ll jump up on the big rock, drop the stick and shake the water in a tht-tht-tht of pure joy.

As a fishing dog, Tasha paddles smoothly, snout pointed daintily down so she can stare into the water. The silky silence of her movement is as beautiful as a rousing hallelujah. When she’s passed on, this is what I’ll remember of her, I think.

Now that Tasha’s hearing is almost gone, it’s a chore to get her attention in the woods. I have to shout with just the right pitch to my voice. She’ll finally hear me but not with enough clarity to know where I am. When I see her looking around, I jump up and down and wave my arms so she can find me.

It embarrasses me to think of that God might need to wave divine arms and shout, “Here, girl! I’m here. No, not there. Over here! Come on, right here!” I need to be as sensitive to the Spirit’s leading as I am to the jingle of Tasha’s tags.

I don’t want to have to be put on a leash.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Ticked Off

The forester has been hard at work. He’s set up his processing area by clearing a chunk of woods just beyond the front corner of our property. As painful as it seemed on the first morning, he has actually done us a mercy. He’s plowed a road up a lovely hill that has been impassable because of the underbrush. Tasha loves going up this new path, bounding as if she has been given a great gift. At her age, I imagine novelty is.

She doesn’t remember that we used to go up this hill almost every day. In fact, we went anywhere we wanted to in the woods. Who needed a path? If we wanted to go somewhere new, we’d just push into the scrub pines, hop over streams and rocks, slide through the ferns.

No more.

This part of New England is loaded with deer ticks, and they are all saturated with the bacteria that causes Lyme Disease. If you even graze a tree branch, you can come away with a deer tick. This is no exaggeration, at least in these woods.

To have to check one’s body even after a little nature walk with your dog is a necessary annoyance if you live in the Northeast. I don’t use tweezers anymore to pull the ticks out—I’m unfortunately so experienced, I can pluck even tiny ticks off with my fingernails.

More than once, it has occurred to me that I should check my soul as carefully for those hard-to-see sins as I do my skin for deer ticks. I’m not so bold at removing my barbed transgressions. In fact, I worry that I sometimes take the approach of “leave it alone until it’s so fat with blood, that it has to fall off.”

Marj and I talk about the good old days, when we could lounge in the grass and study the clouds, or push through trees to get to a sparkling stream, or climb a rocky ridge. Those good old days before the deer ticks now seem a bit like paradise.

Or maybe Eden.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Out, Out!

Yesterday Tasha left the path during our walk. This is only for ill, trust me.

She’s much too old to chase squirrels or even hear them when they mock at her. But she can still smell…and leaving the path means she has sniffed out something absolutely, disgustingly rotting.

We don't take her in the woods during deer-hunting season because apart from the obvious concern that she’ll get shot, she eats the eviscerations left behind by successful hunters. It doesn't matter how far off the path the hunter has gutted his kill--she will smell it and find it. Twice she has thrown up bloody deer liver on my office floor and I once won a contest at a church supper of the most disgusting thing someone’s dog had ever vomited. (Email if you want to know.)

Yesterday, by the time I ran back up the path after her, she was chewing some poor critter that had moldered nicely for weeks. Though wisdom (and squeamishness) decrees I never to look at what she’s consumed, I do need to anticipate the results of her unauthorized snack.

This means closing the door to my office for a day or so while whatever she’s gotten into works through her system. The rest of the downstairs is hardwood or vinyl flooring and easy to clean up. My office used to be a lovely off-white carpet but it's been oft splattered with her vomit after “straying from the path."

Of course I forgot to shut the door.

Tasha left me a couple of nice splotches of gooey poops on my office rug. I held my breath while I scrubbed and oxygenated, trying not to throw up and leave my own stains. It has occurred to me that these stains in the carpet would be here long after Tasha leaves us. Doesn’t matter how much I soak, scrub, or oxygenate—some stains can’t be completely eradicated.

When I look at these in a couple of years, will I be like MacBeth’s wife, pleading “Out, out damn spot?” Or will I smile, and miss Tasha’s various forays off the path.

Lady MacBeth was tormented by a blood guilt for which she had no remedy.
We, on the other hand, are blessed with a God who doesn’t hold His breath when he cleans up our bloody, messy guilt. Quite the opposite—He breathes life back into us.

Even when we’ve strayed far off the path.

Monday, September 17, 2007

If A Tree Falls in the Forest?

Almost two years ago, I was wandering in the woods with Tasha, singing at the top of my lungs when I came upon a man. I startled, almost shocked out of my skin because apart from hunting season, I don’t see anyone.

“Nice song,” he said. “Don’t mind me. Keep singing.”

The guy was painting blue rings around trees. He explained he was a forester and marking trees for cutting.

I went home and told Steve, “They’re going to destroy the woods!” Mind you, these are not our woods. The mile or so stretch in three directions belongs to a variety of families. The big chunk we abut is land-locked, and is owned by a family in New Hampshire. They can’t build houses so the only use for the land is lumber.

The mature part of me realized that they not only had every right but that this would be good for the woods. The selfish, childish side of me knew that the cutting would involve a mess. It took months to work through the “I can’t keep what I don’t own” attitude. And the truth is, we own nothing.

When over a year passed and the trucks and saws hadn’t come, I assumed they had decided not to forest. The blue rings around all the big, straight trunks became part of the landscape.

Last week, a grinding noise roused me from my work. I got up, went to the front porch in time to hear the first “crack” of a tree falling. My heart fell with it—I had firmly taken back what I did not own. I emailed Steve and Marj immediately. Marj was sympathetic, Steve was matter-of-fact.

When the day’s work seemed to be over, I went out to inspect the outrage. They had bulldozed a road into the woods at the northeast corner of our property. I expected more of a mess to be able to mourn but it wasn’t all that bad. I waved a cookie in front of Tasha’s nose and headed southwest on our usual route to the stream.

I ran into the forester. He said, “I remember you. You were singing church music.”

Okay, I thought. God does what God does and I’m just there to provide the music.

Without me grilling him, the forester said the work would be a mess but they’d use every part of the tree and clean up the paths when they were done. “It’s good for the forest, you know,” he said. “Take down the big ones and let more sun in so the smaller trees can have a chance to grow.”

The thing is—I do know. Spiritual pruning makes a mess, and that ‘crack’ when something is cut away is almost unbearable. Given my druthers, I’d likely choose to keep the forest of my soul for myself. I make my own paths and I don’t want anyone messing with them.

But, just like I don’t own these woods, I also don’t own my “druthers.” My life is no longer mine, so I will say okay when the Forester comes and says, “Gotta take these big ones down. It’ll be messy but I will clean up afterwards. More son will get it and that’s a good thing.”

My job is just to wander around and keep singing.

And as long as Tasha wants to follow me, she’s very welcome to.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Bilbo on Inevitability

Marj says thoughts of inevitability make her think of old Bilbo Baggins' song:

I sit beside the fire and think of all that I have seen,
of meadow-flowers and butterflies in summers that have been;

Of yellow leaves and gossamer in autumns that there were,
with morning mist and silver sun and wind upon my hair.

I sit beside the fire and think of how the world will be
When winter comes without a spring that I shall ever see.

For there are still so many things that I have never seen;
in every wood in every spring there is a different green.

I sit beside the fire and think of people long ago,
and people who will see a world that I will never know.

But all the while I sit and think of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet and voices at the door.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

One Leaf After Another

Tasha and I used to climb mountains together. She’s been up many of the four-thousand ranges in the White Mountains and amazed hikers by hustling up and down rocky ledges that we two-legged humans struggled on. My favorite climb was White Horse Ledge in North Conway. I sat on the massive mound of rock, looking out over the Mount Washington Valley and trying to count the many ways God has blessed me. Meanwhile, she’d poke around, anxious to keep walking. Always another path to explore, another height to conquer.

These days Tasha seldom is allowed beyond our local woods. She no longer chases squirrels or pokes in the underbrush while I work—she just can’t hear them and I wonder if she’s forgotten they exist. Now she sits next to me, wanting to be gone but not having the youth to go any further. This is a problem when she’s got a cloud of deer flies around her head. I usually carry elbow macaroni or a handful of dry cat food, toss it around to keep her busy and keep her cloud of pests off me.

My new favorite place is a rocky ridge in the New Hampshire woods, a few miles from my house. It’s the tiny version of White Horse Ledge, a mound of rock that juts out of the ridge and overlooks a hidden valley. It’s sheltered by pine trees so that, if I wanted to, I could nap in the moss. There’s a rock that makes a perfect seat, allowing me to bring my computer up there and work. I’ll probably bring Tasha here in a few weeks. It’ll be cool enough for her to hike the literal extra mile, and the deer flies will have retreated to whatever hellish swamp spawned them

The small valley below is all hardwoods like oaks, chestnuts, swamp maples. Last week I saw the first spot of foliage—a few red leaves tucked high in the haze of green. That splotch of color got me thinking about inevitability. It’s inevitable that in another month, the leaves will change. It’s inevitable—at least in my mind—that this ridge will be even more stunningly beautiful than it is now. And it’s amazing that nothing I can do will stop it and nothing any of us can do can make it more beautiful. This is God’s doing, God’s wonder, God’s gift to me.

Steve and I have been looking at the inevitability of Tasha’s passing for three years. She’s outlived the life expectancy of dogs her size, and astounded our notion of inevitability. Each time Tasha and I make a trip to one of the favorite places she still can manage, I wonder if this is the last time.

Death is the big and, if I'm honest, fearsome inevitability. I can see it coming in Tasha—she’s grey and lumpy and thin and sometimes gimpy. I can’t bear to look into my own inevitability though some days my body screams that I’m on the downward slope. I look at Tasha and see old—and then she hops for a cookie and the vital, energetic dog asserts herself. I look at myself and don’t linger on the wrinkles or the sags—I see the kid inside. After all, I still love cookies, too.

I’m not so deluded that I don’t understand life's inevitabilities. The question is—will I recognize them when they come? It is inevitable that I will someday throw and catch my last baseball--but will I know that moment? Or will I look back a year later and say, I can't anymore and I wish I had known to say good-bye. When will I be too old to give a dog the kind of active life he or she deserves? When will I be too housebound to go to church? What story will be my last?

It is inevitable that the tiny valley will flame with color in October but it’s not a given that I’ll be there to behold their beauty. That death can be unexpected is one of the truths I’d rather not acknowledge. Yet how can I hide on this night when we remember a terror that came on us from the sky and ripped away 3000 souls. Some wiser than me said that was an inevitability and yet it tore our hearts from us because who could consider such a thing?

If I were wise, I’d appreciate each opportunity that God gives me. But like Tasha, I don’t always understand that someday the ridge may be too high or the path too long. As a Christian, I long for the good courage to embrace the inevitably of death and the promise of glory. But honestly, I’d rather just sit on the ridge, watch the leaves as they turn to blazing glory—and not remember that it is inevitable that they will crumble and fall.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Tasha on the Juice

Our friends Rick, Beth, and Marj took care of Tasha while we traveled in the Midwest. Marj stopped by during the day a couple of times to walk her. She sent me an email, saying “Hope Tasha doesn't wear you out with all her new-found energy. Yesterday she ran - RAN, mind you - for most of our walk. Couldn't believe it. Then she hopped around and wanted to play in the yard when we got back. Rick or Beth must have slipped her some steroids over the weekend.”

Interestingly, Marj sent this email day that Patriot nation learned Rodney Harrison would be suspended for the first four games of the season for taking steroids (HGH).

While Boston boo-ed vociferously when Barry Bonds came to Fenway this summer, the news about Rodney Harrison struck a different chord. We’re disappointed (and somewhat scared) because the Patriots will start the season without their sparkplug safety but none of us are grousing about the steroid use. Why is Rodney is getting a “free pass” on this whole thing, analysts wonder.

Because Rodney Harrison is one of ours. And in a very odd way, he shares this with Tasha.

Marj stopped by during the day to walk her because, if left alone for too long, Tasha will poop on the floor. The beauty of being a writer is that I can walk her during the day and avoid these accidents. When I misfire on timing, she’ll leave a present on her blanket. She can’t help it—she’s simply ancient and needs to get out every few hours.

My friends Rick, Marj, and Beth will pick up her poops off her blanket or the kitchen floor because they love us and love Tasha. Should they—or I—have to pick up poops off someone else’s floor, no doubt the task would be horrendously offensive. For Tasha, it’s just another aspect of care.

Because—like Rodney Harrison—she’s one of ours.

This puts me in mind of Romans 5:7. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.

With Rodney Harrison or Tasha, we’ll suspend our judgment because they are one of ours. We wouldn’t do this for Barry Bonds or some other dog. We pick and choose whose poop we either ignore (Rodney) or scoop without judgment (Tasha).

God doesn’t discriminate, nor does he wait until we’re either off the juice or pooped out to come in and clean us up. Romans 5:8 says this: But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Nothing more to say.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Put Me In, Coach

We spent a nice afternoon on Monday at the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati watching the Reds play the Mets. Pedro Martinez made his season debut after over a year away because of shoulder surgery. We still love him from his days with the Red Sox and were thrilled to cheer him on to his 3000th strikeout and his 1st win of 2007. We had great seats and the opportunity to become part of Mets-Nation-on-the-road, getting soundly booed every time we cheered for the Mets.

The Cincinnati Reds know how to make fans welcome. The park is beautiful, with wide promenades overlooking the Ohio river, a playground for toddlers, clean bathrooms (hear that, Fenway?), and misters to cool people off. But it seems to me that they’ve gone to absurd lengths to get people into the seats.

On September 12th, the Reds and Iam’s Pet foods are sponsoring a “bring your dog to the game” day. If you don’t believe me, check out:

Iam’s and the Reds will award prizes for best dog tricks, for best-dressed Reds dog and for largest and smallest dogs. There will be a fetch contest and, craziest of all, a pet parade on the warning track. Mind you—this is the warning track that the great Ken Griffey, Jr. and the rising star Adam Dunn patrol. (Watch your step, fellas!) You couldn’t pay me enough to be part of the grounds crew or stadium cleaning crew for this game.

Tasha would love this event—the opportunity to sniff and lick all that dropped food would be a taste of heaven for her. I can just see Marj’s dog Maddie taking the leap off the promenade and swimming the Ohio River, just for fun. As for the thousands of other dogs and their owners that the team is trying to draw in with this promotion…I just shake my head and cannot imagine the chaos.

The Cincinnati Reds are going to absurd and almost irrational lengths to get people into their park.

Just as dogs don’t belong in a ballpark, surely we don’t belong in Heaven. But hasn’t God gone to an absurd, almost irrational length to fill the seats around His banquet table? Jesus is our ticket, now and forever. No StubHub or Ticketmaster needed.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Sadie the Lady

My son and his family recently moved to Ohio. Living in their first house means they now have a dog, an interesting development since Tasha was not a favorite with either Dan or my daughter Leah. We used to call Tasha the hellhound. Our vet told us she was "possessed" and meant it.

But, like children, dogs eventually grow up. In the first half of Tasha's long life, she was cursed by the neighbors and my kids alike. In the past few years, she's been lauded for her good behavior and calm demeanour. (Okay, except for going into our neighbor's garage and eating their trash...)

It's a parent's revenge to see their child deal with their first dog. Dan and Jamie are still learning how to deal with the chewing, the barking, the jumping, the accidents on the floor. They call her Sadie-the-lady but they've got a long way to go before anyone lauds her as well-behaved. Now she's simply cute and cuddly, and in need of a firm and loving hand.
Welcome, Sadie-the-lady. Be good, and listen to your Master.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Mr. McNaughty

Marj shares this with us--

Several years ago, my friend Nancy informed me that her daughter Stephanie had decided she needed a Cairn terrier. Nancy was not pleased about this because 1). She doesn’t like small dogs, and 2). She lives with Stephanie.

Soon after, the dog, a light-brown rescue animal that had been very neglected, moved in. Stephanie named him Findlay, but it wasn’t long before nobody called him that. Now he mostly answers to "Mr. McNaughty". Well, that isn’t strictly true. He is called Mr. McNaughty.

Mr. McNaughty has distinguished himself in a variety of ways. He has gained a considerable amount of weight. I mean, a considerable amount. He has graduated from obedience school – three times. The general consensus is that the third time wasn’t any more successful than the first, so three courses will be the extent of his educational career. He steals toys from the diaper bags of small children when they visit. He yaps. He has a "skin condition". He is everything Nancy was afraid he’d be.

And - he is no longer the only Cairn terrier in that home. Findlay is Stephanie’s dog. Clara belongs to Nancy, who confessed to me with some embarrassment that she has become "quite foolish" about that dog. About both dogs.

I didn’t laugh (much). Because through grace, I’ve had those experiences, too. When I open myself to the things God sends my way, even (or especially) if I don’t want to, He rewards me in ways I don’t expect. Like being willing to admit I was wrong. Like making time in my life for things that didn’t used to be important.

Like learning to love a dog.