Tag Archive | Grace

My Sin and Pine Straw

IMG_0206 (800x533)Southerners do not dwell on their sins; they simply bury them in pine straw.

As I explained here, I was new to the culture and practice of pine straw when I moved to the South. When I was growing up in California, at least in my family, we didn’t spread any kind of mulch on the garden beds.  There were plants stuck in the ground, they got watered, and some grew while others didn’t.  Sometimes the leaves from the oak trees scattered on the beds.  And otherwise, there was just dirt.  If there was a patch where the gardener did not want to show dirt, that patch was planted in some kind of ground cover:  creeping myrtle, ivy, some sort of evergreen shrub, or lawn grass.

Since I have been an adult, though, I have followed the trends of my neighbors and carefully spread mulch on my flower beds.  Since I have lived here in the South, I have learned that, if pine straw is your material of choice, it has to be applied two or three times each year to really do its job.  Last Friday, I finally had a day clear in my calendar when I could provide the spring treatment for the beds in my back yard.

As I looked over my back yard, I saw plenty of my sins.  There were tree leaves everywhere; more fastidious gardeners would have carefully pulled them out or, God help us, used one of those leaf blowers favored by the lawn maintenance services and power-tool-hungry homeowners in my neighborhood.  The sound of those things rising above the fence line from dawn to dusk is more than just an annoying interruption to an otherwise peaceful suburban day; it rattles my brain to mush, so I walk around in a daze until the thing turns off and I can reconcile myself to my surroundings again.  I will not own a leaf blower, and I do not have the patience to collect the leaves by hand.  They stay where the trees left them, right on the flower beds.  But still, although I had good reasons to leave them undisturbed, their presence made the beds look a bit unkempt and me look a bit lazy.

And there were more sins.  Earlier that week, I knew I needed to add compost to the perennials in the back yard.  Since the bin which held the older compost was empty and the bin which holds the newer compost is still working its magic on our family’s apple cores and squash skins, I purchased bags of composted cow manure from the big box store (please don’t judge me).  I generously spread the richness around the base of my plants.  However, other than to make sure I was not burying the stems of my plants too deep in that rich humus, I saw no point in moving the leaves and the old pine straw around.  The microbes in the compost, which are what really bring the miracle of life to otherwise dead soil, would be just as happy if they had some organic matter to chew on as they made their way into the dirt.  So, I just layered the good stuff on top of whatever was there.

And I saw still more sins.  The shriveled and dried remains of last season’s leaves still clung to the bases of some plants.  The walking iris were particularly bad.  I tried just pulling on the dead leaves, hoping they had rotted at the bottom so they would come off easily, but no luck.  The alternative was to go down the whole row with a pair of scissors and remove the leaves one at a time, wrestling around the thick new growth to avoid accidental snips of the good leaves among which the flower stems should emerge any time now.  That sounded like too much fussiness for me, so I left them in place.

In other words, the place looked a mess.  Tree litter here and there, piles of decomposed cow poop showing around the base of my perennials, shriveled up old leaves competing for visual attention with new greenery.  And I just knew that, lurking under all of that, there were thousands of seeds of weeds just waiting until I turned my back to poke their devilish little green leaves where I didn’t want them.  Bless their hearts.

And then, I spread the pine straw.  I shook the needles and pulled them apart to let them weave themselves into a single layer, tucking them up close to the stems of the plants, so all the dirt and mess was hidden.  And then, when I stood back to look, immediately, everything looked even, without any undue variation in level, color, or texture.  I realized that I was looking at God’s grace.  The scattered signs of the inadequacy of my tools and my patience; the crap I spread all over the place, the evidence of my laziness, everything about me that was especially ugly; none of it was visible any more.  I know that the ugliness did not vanish; that’s not the way human inadequacy works.  But under the protective blanket of fresh straw, with time and thought and moisture, the ugliness will be changed.

Under God’s grace, our sin has a place, not to disappear, but to be transformed:  to decompose, to be consumed by the microbes, to be spread out by the force of the water, and finally, to work itself into the soil of our minds and souls.  And then, still under the cover of God’s grace, that sin transformed becomes useful in making beauty:  new roots penetrate to be fed by it, and new stems emerge from it.  Leaves unfurl and flowers bloom because all that ugly sin has been left in place to change and rot and make fertile ground.  Well, ground that is fertile for everything but the devilish little weeds; they are smothered by that same blanket of grace.

I finished the job, pulling the stray needles of pine off of the leaves of my plants, sweeping the wayward bits off of the lawn and patio with my shoe, and giving a little shower from my garden hose to the beds.  I filled the bird baths, put away my tools, sat down in my chair, and I sang a little doxology to myself:  praise God, from whom all blessings flow.


IMG_3083 (534x800)One day recently, I found myself longing to talk with my grandmother. There was nothing in particular I wanted to talk with her about; I just wanted to have a chat: to comment on the beautiful afternoon, to tell her about the stunning view I was seeing, and to let her know what is going on in my life.

This longing came over me because I was standing by her gravestone in the Chapel Hill United Methodist Church cemetery in Sequatchie County, Tennessee, the place where she was laid to rest after she died 15 years ago this summer. Well, it was the place where half of her was laid to rest. When she died, my dad and my uncle deferred to their sister to decide where she would be. My aunt had been the one who had done the most to care for their mother in the last years of her life; she helped make the arrangements to see that Grandma got the care she needed, and she and her daughter went to see her almost every day. Aunt Susy decided that she wanted Grandma to be remembered with a grave in the small town in New Mexico where they had lived since the early 1950s. But she also realized the importance of Grandma’s connection with her family in rural Tennessee. So she put a stone and a portion of her mother’s ashes in the public cemetery in their town, and she put another stone and the other portion of the ashes in the church yard, up the street from Grandpa Hamilton’s farm where she was born 88 years earlier, right next to the grave shared by her parents and her sister, Ellen. It seemed like a fine arrangement to me.

In some sense, it was strange, though, to have this longing to talk with my grandmother. I don’t believe I had ever felt such a longing before. I knew my grandmother as I was growing up, but we never lived close to her. Every year or two, she would come to visit us, and she made a special effort to make it to big events like graduations and weddings, even when the trip was hard for her. We would go and visit her, too, for holidays or on family road trips in the summer. My dad would talk with her on the phone. My mother would write her letters, and as I got older, my mother would help me read the letters Grandma sent back. And when my grandmother sent a five dollar bill in my birthday card every year, my mother would make me write a nice thank-you note, detailing how I spent it or saved it for something special later on.

Although I knew my grandmother, I knew that she loved me and was proud of me, and I loved her as much as I could, my longing to have a chat with my grandmother did not come from warm nostalgia of memorable conversations with her. Instead, as I stood in that church yard, I felt a longing in my soul to belong somewhere in this world. For good or for ill, friendships, professional relationships, church connections, and even marriage are all understood in the postmodern world as personal choices. I felt the need to be affirmed in a connection that went deeper than that. I wanted something tangible I could see and touch and listen to and speak with to reassure me that I would be welcome whether the one welcoming wanted me there or not. Seeing that slab of granite which represents my grandmother, sharing an eternal resting place on a hill with her parents and sister, I wanted to sit and visit a while.

After I left the church yard, that unexpected longing had not gone away, so I drove the forty five minutes or so to the Bean-Roulston Graveyard, where portions of six generations of my ancestors have chosen to spend eternity, including my grandfather. He died in 1962, eleven years before I was born, so I only know him through the memories my father and other family members have chosen to share with me. A few years ago, I had a chance to ask my dad’s cousin about my grandfather. She said he was very attractive and very charming, and she always found him quite likable.  But he was also never settled, and she always thought his troubles later in life tied up with his feeling of never being really satisfied where he was.

My grandfather died when he was only 46 years old, a week after his daughter’s wedding. By the time he died, he had been divorced for five or six years. He was an alcoholic, and although his younger sister had taken him in and cared for him when he had surgery to treat his colon cancer, he had alienated much of the rest of his family with requests for money and other kinds of help over many years. His only friends in town were his drinking buddies. And so it fell to my dad, at the ripe age of 24, to take care of him as he was dying and to make arrangements for his burial after he died. I remember seeing my grandfather’s death certificate in a trunk my dad keeps in the garage when I was young. It listed his place of death as a “sanitarium” in Albuquerque. I didn’t know that was just another way of saying that my dad got him into a hospital before he died, rather than letting him die in the apartment my dad rented for them with his wages working for the railroad in the last months of his father’s life.

I don’t know, but I imagine that my dad had help from his aunts and uncles with my grandfather’s burial; it is neither easy nor cheap to get a body from New Mexico to Sweetens Cove, Tennessee. He is buried in the shadow of his own parents’ gravestone. Next to their large stone, which reads “Beene:  The Family of Mamie and Roy,” are his siblings who died young: his brother Lemuel, who was not yet two when he died in 1910; his brother Alton, who died of appendicitis at age 12, four months after my grandfather was born in 1916; his sister, Clara, who was what we would now call developmentally disabled, who died in 1932 when she was almost 30. In the two rows in front of my great grandparents, though, are their sons who survived: Uncle Pete, Uncle Jack, and M.C., my grandfather. Those are not their real names; they were nicknamed at birth by their grandfather, “Wash” Coppinger, whose imposing plot is directly behind his daughter, Mamie, and her husband.

Looking at that plot in the Bean-Roulston Cemetery, I saw the grace of God for my grandfather. I let myself imagine that he had found there a peace that comes with being settled. He belonged there: connected to people whom he both charmed and frustrated when they were all alive, who welcomed him back into that place when he died too young, who were connected to him in a way that went deeper than simply a personal choice.  I enjoyed a picnic supper with my grandfather that evening. I am sure he had no idea what I was eating; as I spread my roasted red pepper hummus on crackers, then scooped out my Greek yogurt flavored with blood orange, I could only imagine how his face would have gone from puzzled to indignant and back to puzzled again. At least he probably would have recognized the Triscuits. But it was a calm evening, with only the cows bellowing in the field on the other side of the stone wall to disturb the peace, and we had a nice time. The memories of that evening calm my soul.

The Compassion of Nature

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I wonder if Nature is more compassionate than we give her credit for.

Last Sunday afternoon, I was fiddling around in the flower bed in front of my house when I saw yet another anole.  We have had a bunch of these little chameleon-like creatures in our yard this summer; I think the wet weather has led to an abundance of greenery, which has led to an abundance of insects, which supports a larger population of predators who eat primarily insects, including anoles.  I have seen many anoles in the past few weeks which were quite small, as if there was a baby boom among the reptilian crowd in my yard.  I don’t mind; did I mention that they eat bugs?  And they’re kind of cute and fascinating and quite photogenic.

I went inside to get my camera.  I have taken plenty of photos of the anoles in my yard, but the light was nice, and I had a few minutes, and this one looked especially striking against the large, smooth texture of the leaves of the elephant ears.  I chose the long lens, thinking that I would get a better close-up with the greater zoom.  Once I got my equipment together, I stood the requisite three feet away to get the zoom lens and auto focus to work right together.  I looked through the viewfinder, and started snapping photos.

Then, I noticed something that made this particular anole unique.  At first, I didn’t believe it.  I had to do a double-take, and then look at the screen on my camera to see if it was real.  Maybe I was just looking from a funny angle; maybe it was hidden behind a leaf or an arm or something.  But no; it was just the way I saw it.

The anole was missing a hand.

He was, well, how would he like to be called?  Was he handicapped?  Or did he prefer disabled?  That didn’t make any sense.  Clearly, this animal was quite well-abled.  Before I knew he was, um, different, I had watched him easily climb up the long stem of the elephant ear leaf.  He was not especially thin, which would have indicated that he could not keep up with the bugs which make up his diet.  He looked more mature than many of the smaller anoles I have seen in my yard recently, which means he could run deftly enough to get away from whatever considers him prey.  He was just as able as any anole I have seen.  So what was he?  Was he “differently-abled?”  No; that sounds a little condescending.  How would I describe him?  He was simply missing a hand.

What I really wanted to do was to ask him some questions.  How did he lose his hand?  Was it a dramatic escape from one of the neighborhood cats?  Did he cross into some other anole’s territory and get into a fight?  Did he get trapped between a rock and a hard place and have to choose between his hand and his life?  Or was he just born that way, with some sort of genetic mix-up which missed the cue to grow what would otherwise be at the end of his arm while he was inside his egg?

I was too shy to ask him those questions, though.  I realized I really don’t know him at all, so it seemed somehow impolite to get so personal.  I hated the fact that I was staring at him for so long.  I didn’t want him to feel awkward.  But still, I was fascinated:  how did he walk?  Was it different than the way other anoles walk?  Could he lunge so he could take his prey by surprise?  Or did he have to learn a different way to hunt after his accident, or his fight, or whatever it was that caused him to lose his hand.  He seemed willing to have me take his portrait, so I thought to myself that it would be more polite to just look at the pictures later rather than to keep gawking and wondering in the moment.  Soon enough, he spotted something that had landed a few inches in front of him on the leaf, and we both moved on.

As I think about my encounter with this anole, however, I realized I am surprised at the grace of Nature this anole reveals.  I think of Nature as a harsh, rational, survival-of-the-fittest kind of power.  The Darwinians teach us that, right?  Only the strong, healthy, and fully able survive in Nature.  Those who are weak in body, mind, or spirit are picked off by predators or simply left to starve and die alone.  The struggle to survive is the only way each species remains strong enough to carry good genetic material on to future generations.  It seems cruel to us as sophisticated, self-reflective creatures, but that is just how Nature works.

But here was an animal who had faced some kind of trauma, either in his formation or in a fight, and that trauma hadn’t killed him.  His body healed itself:  his blood clotted to keep him from losing what little liquid life force he has inside him, his antibodies prevented infection without the help of Neosporin, his skin closed over the place where his hand used to be with no stitches or Band-Aids, the muscles in his shoulder and elbow and leg strengthened to compensate for the balance and coordination he would otherwise have from his hand.  His mind taught him how to adapt.  His surroundings nurtured him until he could get the food and the shelter he needed all on his own.  Anoles are notoriously lonely beings, aggressively territorial and unlikely to socialize with other anoles, even their own young, for any purpose other than to mate.  So I don’t assume that he had the care of a mother or a father or a kind neighbor or supportive teacher to help him figure out how he was going to get along without his hand.  I doubt his insurance covered occupational therapy.  Still, Nature didn’t dispose of him like a strictly rational Darwinian would suppose.  Nature nurtured him so he could get along just fine, hand or no hand, fulfilling his function of keeping the population of insects in check in his little territory in the flower bed in front of my house.

And Nature doesn’t feel the need to put a label on this particular anole.  Nature doesn’t ask nosy questions about how he came to be so, well, abnormal.  Nature doesn’t gawk or stare at the injury or single him out in any way at all.  Nature just lets him go about his business.

I wonder if Nature is more compassionate than we give her credit for.

Note:  I now have note cards with images of Anoles available for sale in my online shop, so you can share these fascinating creatures with your friends and family!  Click here to check them out!