What’s good for the soul

Buying Flowers

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“There are always flowers for those who want to see them.”  Henri Matisse

“I love that you have flowers on your grocery list,” the nutritionist I’d been seeing said smiling as she looked over my list from my last trip to Trader Joe’s.  “Well, I always buy flowers,” I say, somewhat shyly but also with a bit of pride.

I didn’t always buy flowers.  I mostly bought them when we were entertaining in our small Brooklyn apartment.  It was often one of my husband’s chores to run out to the corner store and choose some flowers as I feverishly cleaned and got everything else ready to impress my guests.   I had a hard time deciding on a type of flower myself and would often defer to him even if we were together at the flower shop.

Besides the entertaining, he also bought me flowers quite often, and in fact, the day before he died, I had just tossed the last bouquet that he bought me before he left for his trip.  I realized and regretted that right away.  The last bouquet.  They must have started to look sad because I always used to tell him, and he rather liked it, “Nothing can brighten a room like fresh flowers, and nothing is more depressing in a room than dying, wilting flowers.”  I can still see him outside our apartment windows, his silhouette getting off the bus and holding the flowers.  I think he had done something “wrong,” and so I half expected them.  Still, I had smiled to myself when I saw him carrying the white paper cone in one hand.  They were pink carnations I think- or white maybe, with darker pink streaks through them.  It does get hard to remember.

Afterwards, I set up a memorial of sorts on the same table, spreading out all of the photos from the funeral in the black IKEA frames friends had bought for that purpose, and buying fresh flowers each week from the Whole Foods I walked to along the Hudson River.  It seems extravagant that I bought flowers as a newly widowed young mother with no source of income, and maybe it was- extravagant yet vital.  After putting my toddler to bed, I often stood before all the frames and flowers in the dark living room at night, shadows from the busy street outside running past, and said goodnight to him.

Later, when I changed the apartment around and it consisted mostly of play spaces for my daughter, I no longer kept all the photos in that spot, but I kept buying the flowers.  If we visited the cemetery, even if we went to buy fresh flowers as well, I pulled out a few from our own present bouquet to leave there, so that when we got home later, I could look at our bouquet and know that a few of those same flowers were there – with him.

Years before, while working in a cubicle at a publishing job that sucked the life out of me, I had discovered that flowers were transformative.  One morning, while walking my usual route from the subway at Union Square up to my building, I stopped to admire the pink peonies they were selling outside a small market.  On impulse, I was compelled to buy them and brought their softness and life into my cubicle of buzzing fluorescent light and stale air.  I felt a lightness and refreshment that entire day that I never forgot.

When you’re suffering, you cling to anything of comfort or beauty.  And isn’t something of genuine beauty also usually something of hope?  My husband used to tell me to eat whatever I felt like eating when I was sick rather than stick with toast and tea or chicken noodle soup.  “If you feel like pizza, eat that.  It’s good for the soul and you’ll get better,” he said.  In a small booklet I received at an arts conference, which is now a book called “On Becoming Generative”– artist and founder of International Arts Movement, Makoto Fujimura, begins his exploration on why we need to cultivate beauty in our lives by recounting his newlywed days, when money was particularly tight.  He was sitting in his small apartment worrying about paying the rent and buying food when his wife walked in with flowers:

‘How could you think of buying flowers if we can’t even eat!’ I remember saying, frustrated. …. I do not remember what we ended up eating that day, or that month (probably tuna fish.)

But I do remember that particular bouquet of flowers.  I painted them.”

“We need to feed our souls, too,” his wife had replied.

At my daughter’s first grade Thanksgiving party, I bring small bouquets of mixed fall mums wrapped in brown craft paper and twine for each table.  “In all my years teaching, no class parent has ever brought in flowers!” the teacher says.  I privately wince- no flowers?   The children keep moving the bouquets closer to themselves from the center of each table of about six kids.  “Are these real?” they ask- touching them.  “They are!”

Last winter I bring daffodils to a woman in our town who has just lost her husband to cancer.  She had a daughter in first grade at Audrey’s school at the time.  I hadn’t met her, but we had corresponded via email, and I leave the daffodils on her doorstep.  Another young widow who I meet through my last blog and is now a good friend sends me a journal last year for Christmas that gets me writing again.  I send her a set of three small white vases from CB2 with a note saying, “Buy flowers.”

This morning there are some lovely white ranunculus with a hint of pale green coloring, my current favorite flower, offered at my weekly trip to Trader Joe’s- beauty I gently place in the front of my shopping cart.  Beauty for $5.99.  (Yes, Trader Joe’s has great prices on flowers.) As I bring them inside my house, unload the groceries, and find a vase for them, this post occurs to me.  The quotes and ideas form like bullet points in my mind, and I jot them down.  Feeding my soul for $5.99.  Makoto painted his bouquet.  I write about mine.  It’s as though they possess an inherent creative energy that counteracts any destructive energy.

And tonight, as I write, I decide to look through iphoto to find a few photos of the flowers I’ve had over the last few years.  I am sure that I have at least a few, but I am shocked at how many I find.  They are not staged like a still life from the pages of Real Simple.  They are snapped quickly with my phone mostly, sometimes out of focus, and sometimes surrounded by the usual clutter of daily life- Legos, books, snacks.  I suppose when you see something beautiful, you want to take a photo of it.  Now that I’m sketching, I often find myself sitting at the dining room table sketching them and painting them with watercolors.  I sift through the months of the past four years on iphoto-  from the raw, early days of grief and through each season: pink and red tulips for Valentine’s day, daffodils in late February or March to cheer on spring as winter gets long, sunflowers in September, white hydrangeas I pair with red berries for Christmas, snap peas, irises, roses-  and I find what I really have is a journal of flowers.

The backgrounds change as we move from one apartment to another, as my daughter grows from a toddler to a six-year old girl.  The flowers have comforted me, and now they comfort me again.  I feel a strange sense of pride reviewing it- evidence that I have held it together better than I thought.  My life fell apart around me, but there were flowers on the table.  “I want Audrey to feel beauty and good things about this world,” my husband had written in an email a few weeks before he died.  The flowers help.  Seeing that I bought them, displayed them, and photographed them- assures me that hope has been here all along-  sometimes in a simple bowl or small glass vase, humble and often in the background- but also steadfast and striking.

Here they are:

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To see the rest of her photos, go here.

Waiting for light to overcome darkness

Whatever Darkness You Are in Right Now

by
December 1, 2016

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“A speck of light can reignite the sun
And swallow darkness whole.”

Ryan O’Neal

Our theme this month is an important one. It brings the year to a close with essays about what rescue looks like, how deliverance can transform life, where redemption can be found. It’s especially close to my heart.

I’ve been rescued many times in my life. This sounds dramatic and noble and maybe it was on occasion. But to be honest, my rescues also left me bereft.

My rescue began when I was four, I was given up by my mom after social services removed me from her care due to her alcoholism and neglect. This led to a series of foster homes for the remainder of my childhood.

People think when a child is rescued from a dangerous home or family or country, they are overjoyed at their removal, so excited to go to their new home where they will be cared for by strangers and live a life they never thought possible. That’s what we want to believe, and how we play out in our imaginations. And sometimes it does.

But there is a story happening behind the rescue that most people can’t comprehend. As a child I didn’t know what I was being rescued from. I didn’t know that I needed rescuing, I had nothing to compare my life to at that stage. So what did that feel like at four years old? Abandonment. Rejection. Displacement. Fear.

It looked like my world crashing at my feet while I crumbled down in the middle of destruction. It means being torn from the safety of the “known,” however harmful, and thrust into confusion and despair. Sometimes the gravity and necessity of our rescue isn’t understood for years. Instead, rescue has to be worked out in the pain until you live into its “blessing.”

My story is one where rescue wasn’t immediate or complete. Deliverance has been a journey of unearthing fissures and cracks for light to come through. I can, of course, now look back at my life and comprehend the cost of my rescue and see why I needed to be delivered from my circumstances. But even the understanding of it doesn’t erase the darkness it created. Sometimes it makes it worse.

Deliverance can be bloody. It can result in death of some kind. It’s always messy. What one of us hasn’t lived in shadows of one kind or another, shadows of grief and loss, mental illness and addiction, abuse and agony?

Last November, before my first Deeply Rooted worship event, I struggled with serious spiritual oppression and after, I crashed hard. I spiraled into depression which led to relapse which led to shame which led to despair which led to more depression. I, again, needed rescue. The darkness I was under felt heavy and strong. I was tempted to believe I’d lost my last chance with God.

Light flickered in occasionally, taking different forms. A friend emailed me, not even knowing what I was going through, and shared her similar struggle that was becoming uncontrollable. I confessed to friends and my husband. I lay on the floor, face down, crying, begging for mercy. I knew I had opened a door that would be near impossible to close.

But God. He continued this work of rescue in my life. In April I flew to Guatemala City with Children’s HopeChest as part of a team of four female bloggers. The first day we visited a school and two of the students brought half of us home to meet their mom. We listened as the mom shared their story of hardship and hope.

We ask to pray for her, she says only if she can pray for us too. I raise my head and catch her eye and she doesn’t look away. She tells me the Holy Spirit has given her something to say. She takes my hands looks in my eyes and tears well up. She raises her voice and every statement is spoken with authority.

“Your feet were chosen by God since your mother’s womb, Wherever you go the Lord is in front of you. Wherever your feet touch, the Lord has been there before for you. The earth is yours. Whatever your feet touch, the Lord has given it to you. Walk in holiness.”

My eyes are wide open in surprise as this beautiful woman with a gold cross is clutching me and praying a blessing. It is being prayed twice over me, in emphatic Spanish and then beautifully-accented English. Doubly blessed. She embraces me and holds me tight, crooning over me in Spanish and swaying back and forth like she is sending me off to sleep. I hug her again as we left and she prayed over me again, another flicker of light:“Don’t be afraid, whatever God has called you to do he will train you for.”

Last month I celebrated the first anniversary of Deeply Rooted, doing what God called me to do, providing a space for women to be seen and heard. I was afraid, afraid no one would show up and terrified of bottoming out again. People did show up, truth was spoken and hearts were rekindled with hope. After the last night I was hanging out with Anita Scott, our spoken-word poet, who also performed the previous year.

She knew how hard this year was for me, she had been a constant source of prayer and encouragement. She told me, “When you got up on stage, you glowed. You radiated light. I thought maybe it was because you were dressed really nice and I’ve never seen you like that before, but the next day, in your jeans and flannel, it was still true. The words that came to me were spiritually clean.”

Anita named my redemption. What had started out as one of my darkest years, had ended with someone seeing light in me. Throughout this year, I have seen the promise of Isaiah 58 in my life:

And the Lord will guide you continually
and satisfy your desire in scorched places
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.
And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in.

He is my God, my rescuer, my restorer, the One who gives me a new name, a new life, new hope. God is a redeemer. He has been working to deliver me from something, he also has delivered me to something and that something is Himself.

This season of waiting for the light to overcome the darkness can leave us feeling weary and cynical. We’re crying out for the rescue of children in Aleppo, the deliverance of our country from racism and fear-mongering. We’re longing for the redemption Jesus promises us, over and over again, in his very Word spoken to us. Whatever darkness you are in right now, he holds it in his hands and lets that darkness pierce his own heart so that light will shine through his wounds, and bring you back to life

Tammy Perlmutter

Writer at Raggle-Taggle
Tammy Perlmutter writes about unabridged life, fragmented faith, and investing in the mess at her blog Raggle-Taggle. She founded The Mudroom to make room in the mess and create a space for people to be heard. Tammy guest posts a bit, writes flash memoir, personal essay, and poetry, leads writing groups, and preaches on occasion. She is also an advocate for women and mental health, an alum of the Voices and Faces Project testimonial writing workshop, The Stories We Tell, for survivors of sexual assault, abuse, and trafficking, as well as the Social Media Director for Threads of Compassion, an organization offering comfort to recent victims of sexual trauma. She will have an essay included in the book Soul Bare: Raw Reflections on Human Redemption, being published by InterVarsity Press in 2016.

Coming to the end of ourselves

Jerry Sitter, in his outstanding book on loss, A Grace Disguised, writes about the sudden loss of his wife, his daughter, and his mother, all in one tragic car accident.  We all suffer loss and Jerry writes so well about what is common to all of us in our losses.  Here is one sampling:

Loss forces us to see the dominant role our environment plays in determining our happiness.  Loss strips us of the props we rely on for our well-being.  It knocks us off our feet and puts us on our backs.  In the experience of loss, we come to the end of ourselves.

But in coming to the end of ourselves, we can also come to the beginning of a vital relationship with God.  Our failures can lead us to grace and to a profound spiritual awakening.  This process occurs frequently with those who suffer loss.  It often begin when we face our own weaknesses and realize how much we take favorable circumstances for granted.  When loss deprives us of those circumstances, our anger, depression, and ingratitude expose the true state of our souls, showing us how small we really are.  We see that our identity is largely external, not internal.

Finally, we reach the point where we begin to search for a new life, one that depends less on circumstances and more on the depth of our souls.  That, in turn, opens us to new ideas and perspectives, including spiritual ones.  We feel the need for something beyond ourselves, and it begins to dawn o nus that reality may be more than we once thought it to be.  We begin to perceive hints of the divine, and our longing grows.  To our shock and bewilderment, we discover that there is a Being in the universe who, despite our brokenness and sin, loves us fiercely.  In coming to the end ourselves, we have come to the beginning of our true and deepest selves.  We have found the One whose love gives shape to our being.

Praying for you, that through whatever loss you are experiencing right now, that you might know the fierce love of God for you.

God is always with us

“God is always with us.  Even in the dark nights of our life, he does not abandon us.  Even in the difficult moments, he is present.  And even in the final night, in the final solitude in which no one will be able to accompany us, in the night of death, the Lord does not abandon us.  He accompanies us, as well, in this last solitude of the night of death.  And for this reason, we can be confident: We are never alone.  The goodness of God is always with us.”  (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI)

Frankly

A very good friend of mine just died.  She knew she was dying, and, as her spiritual director, we had many frank talks about death.  Her biggest question–one I think is all of ours–was “What will it be like?”  Another friend of mine tackles the same question here.  And, frankly, we both give the same answer.

Lord, you know that dying is not something I’m looking forward to.  You know my thoughts, so you know that I don’t spend much time even thinking about it.  But it’s impossible to mark your death and resurrection without thinking about the fact that I, too, am going to die.

Frankly, celebrating your resurrection doesn’t make death less dreadful.  Nor does thinking about my sharing in your resurrection.  Today, I know; this world, I know.  The resurrection–that’s something I don’t know.  I feel very rooted here.  being pulled up by the roots, well, it’s not a pleasant expectation.

Yet I do know that when the moment of being torn from this world comes, I will not be alone.  You will show me theplant-hand path to life.  No, you will be the path to life.  You’ve already made the journey form this world through death into risen life.  When it’s time for me to make the journey, you’lb be there to bring me from this life into life with you forever.  I still don’t look forward to being wrenched form this world.  And yet, Lord, “my heart is glad” (Ps 16.9)

(Kevin Perrotta)