Making a sofrito – it all starts here!

Fork It Over!

One of the first meals I brought home from Panama and shared with friends is a colorful, flavorful stew of fresh, locally caught seafood known as “Sancocho de Mariscos”. Many latin cultures have a similar seafood stew; my first introduction to this Panamanian favorite incorporated stewed chicken into the background, with sea bass, squid and mussels as the primary ingredients.

Like many foods in Panama, Sancocho de Mariscos was introduced by the Spanish and adapted by the locals to include foods commonly grown and readily available in the region such as local tubers like yucca, ñame or otoes. In some of the Colombian, Ecuadoran and Dominican versions, people put coconut milk or plantain chunks in their sancocho. I often add coconut milk and yucca (I can’t always get yucca or plantains at the local grocers, sometimes I have to make a trip to my favorite latino mercado in Eugene).


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The Bucket Talk

bucketThis morning as I was driving into my shop, I had a little talk with myself. I keep a number of “talks” in my Tool Box – there’s the Story of Geraldine the Pig Talk (my daughter knows this one really well), there’s the You Catch More Flies with Honey Than Vinegar Talk (a little lesson I learned in my first year of marriage to The Nice Catholic Boy), the Get Back Up On The Horse Talk (another one my daughter knows really well), and The Come to Jesus Talk (trust me, this one is not what you think), to name just a few. Today, however, my audience was, and is, just me … and I need the Bucket Talk.

It’s the week before Christmas. One full week. Seven whole days.
I am in the retail business. The catering business. The restaurant business.
I operate a “brick and mortar” store AND an online store.
There are 256 brand new emails in my “inbox” this morning.
My voicemail is full.
It seems like everyone wants “it” yesterday.
I try very hard to be nice to everyone, all the time, because I really do love people.
Sometimes, right in the middle of this season of Joy and Goodwill and Peace on Earth, some people forget their manners.
They get demanding. They want what they want right now. They stop being nice.
It doesn’t matter that they waited until the last minute.
Or that everyone on this end of the phone is working overtime.
It’s Christmas.

I watch my little team of wonder women at Mon Ami greet customers warmly and serve them Grace, even when it’s hard to keep the Happylicious comin’. They patiently take orders for non-fat, sugar-free, no-gluten, no nuts, no foam, extra foam, hold the mustard, put tomatoes on just half, can you toast the bread, hold the bread, is there meat in the clam chowder, do you have vegan mayonnaise, can you mix the non-fat and the whole milk so I have a little of both, is it too late to change my order … and they do exactly what I ask them to do every day. Because we love people, and because The Boss Lady says that the customer is ALWAYS right, even when they’re wrong.

I keep the door to my office closed because I need to respond to those emails without interruption, but it doesn’t matter. Another head pops in and says, “Hey, I know you’re busy, but do you have a sec?” The answer is yes, because I am in the people business, the service business, the public business, the what can I do for you business and how can I help business. It’s my choice. I picked it.

Deep breath …

I know why I’m here, and I know why I do what I do. I know that it’s not about me and never has been. I know I can’t be all things to all people all the time. I know there are only 24 hours in a day. I look at my warm and cozy shop full of happy customers sitting at tables and eating wonderful, nourishing food that we have lovingly prepared and served with Grace, and I know that behind my building, beyond the alley, there are homeless and hungry foks – human beings – who come down out of the trees and go through my dumpster looking for scraps to eat. I know that on Christmas, when my husband and I are surrounded with family and love and laughter, there are MANY in my little town who are not. I know that tonight, when I’m snug as a bug and tucked into my comfy bed, there are many folks – human beings – in my town sleeping outside, and they are cold. I know I am a small cog in the wheel of life. I know I can’t fix everything. Yep, I know.

Sometimes it feels like what I do is just a drop in the bucket. It’s not good enough, big enough, quick enough.

Enter the Bucket Talk …

I have a bucket in my hands. That bucket is my life today – all the things on my To Do List, a project I’m trying to get off the ground, a need I want to meet, customers to greet, a worthy cause I want to take on, a problem I’m determined to solve, calls to return, emails to answer, orders to fill. Each time I take a step forward, I put a little drop in my bucket and watch it fall to the bottom. My contribution is, literally and figuratively, a drop in the bucket.

Due West is the Pacific Ocean, just a short walk from my home. Sometimes I stand on the beach and look out on the horizon, over a gazillion gallons of water, and ponder my place in the world. I am small. In the big picture of life, I am a little drop of water. And all of the things I do – the important stuff and the not-so-much – it’s just a teeny tiny drop of water lost in the sea of oblivion. Oh, that can get discouraging …

I must keep my eye on the bucket in my hands. I focus on one drop at a time. There are times when I bring my bucket out into the open, and I ask my friends for help. They come with their containers, we fill the bucket together, we dump it into the pond, and its time to start over. There is ALWAYS another bucket.

Again, my job is to keep my eye on MY bucket. I focus on the drop of water in my hand. I watch it fall to the bottom of the pail and I hear it “ping”. Then I go find a another drop. And another … because slow and steady will win the race. Eventually the bucket will get filled and the job will get done. And then there will be another one.

Each morning, as I drive to work, I say a simple prayer. I thank my Creator for the life He has given me and the “bucket” He has placed in my hands. I ask Him to bless me and enlarge my territory. I ask Him to give me the physical strength to meet the challenges of this day, because I need it. I ask Him to bring people into my shop that need compassion and kindness. I ask Him to keep me alert so that I recognize those opportunities when they walk through the door. Because they will. They will walk in and step up to the counter and interrupt the person in front of them and order a triple-shot-no-foam-decaf-sugar-free-vanilla-make-it-extra-hot decaf-no-wait-make-it-half-caf-twelve-ounce-do-you-have-a-bathroom-I’m-in-a-hurry-can-you-make-it-quick latte. We will smile at them, greet them warmly, make them the best latte they’ve ever had, put an extra chocolate espresso bean on their lid to brighten their day, and wish them a Merry Christmas because that’s actually the name of the holiday we’re celebrating right now. They may not leave a tip.

No worries … Just one bucket, the one in my hands.

The Roman poet Lucretius wrote, “Constant dripping hollows out a stone.”

It will also fill a bucket, one drop at a time.

Paying Homage

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the little town of Lebanon, Oregon with a couple of hours to kill while I waited for a friend. On a whim, I started up the car and headed south to the even smaller town of Sweet Home, where my dad had spent much of his childhood and where I knew my paternal grandmother was buried. It can’t be too tough to find the cemetery, I thought. Well, little did I know …

For the record, there are six – yes, I said SIX – repositories of restful repose in Sweet Home, Oregon, a town of maybe 8,000 folks. And I burned through a quarter tank of gas trying to find every one of them. While driving, I passed an old church building that’s now a community center. I recall visiting there with my parents on a Sunday evening when I was five or six. We must have been returning from a visit to my grandpa’s house when Dad turned to my mom and said, “Waddya think? Wanna stop?”

“Let’s just slip in quietly and sit in the back,” Mom replied.

R-i-i-i-i-ght. Sunday evening service in a small town Pentecostal church and the place was packed … there was no “slippin’ in quietly” for us, no sirree. This was the little church my dad had grown up in, where he often sang and accompanied himself on the guitar, where my grandparents had been Prayer Warriors and pillars, where Grandma had brought her famous potato salad and bread ‘n butter pickles to every church potluck, and where my dad had been the Young Man with a Calling. These were the people who had laid hands on my dad in fervent, earnest prayer and sent him off to bible college in the hopes that he’d return home to be their preacher. Nope, no slippin’ in quietly for us.

We were ushered up to a wooden pew near the front and Dad gave my brother and me the Behave Yourself- I Mean It Look. We sang and clapped our hands through ALL THE VERSES of Bringing in the Sheaves and were fussed over by the church ladies during the Greet Your Neighbor and Tell ‘em Jesus Saves intermission. Dad slipped us some quarters to drop in the offering and we fidgeted through a fire and brimstone sermon, and then the pastor announced that there was a Special Guest in our midst. I remember popping my head up to sneak a peek, wondering who it could be. “Brother Brent,” said the preacher as he motioned to my dad. “Would you come on up to the pulpit and bless us with The Word in song?”

Now, I don’t remember what my dad sang, but I do recall the hush that fell upon the folks of that little country church as he walked up to the front and spoke a few words to the lady in a hat behind the piano. I remember Mom pulling a hankie out of her purse as Dad began to sing and an elderly woman behind me whispering “Thank-ya Lord, Thank-ya Lord, Thank-ya Lord.” Later, as we headed towards the back of the church, a gentleman stopped my dad to shake hands. “When are you going to come back to the ministry where you belong, David?” he asked.

“Just as soon as the Lord calls me,” Dad said quietly. “Just as soon as He calls me.”

Funny, the things that stick in your head …

I was two when Grandma Brent passed away. I don’t remember meeting her or sitting on her lap in the rocking chair. But my parents spoke of her often, sharing stories about her life and personality, and keeping her memory present in our home throughout my childhood so that I grew up with a strong sense of her presence and her influence in my life. I think my mom was especially intent on honoring her memory and making sure I grew up “knowing” the grandma who now lived in heaven. I’m really grateful for that. My uncle also helped to fill in the blanks – he was 28 when Dad was born and his memories where understandably different, but his stories gave me a better picture of who she was as a young woman and some of the hardships she overcame.

My grandmother was born in 1887 to a Nez Perce mother and a German father in Huron, Kansas. There’s a lot of heartache and suffering in the history of the U.S. government’s treatment of the Nez Perce in the 20+ years before her birth, and it’s hard to know how much family lore is fact or fiction. But I do know that while many were “relocated” to the Coleville Reservation in Idaho, my ancestors refused to go and Grandma was born into what looked like a typical Victorian-era “American” family. Her first husband abandoned her and my uncle when he was a toddler, leaving in the middle of the night and emptying out Uncle Lovel’s piggy bank before he fled. She was an amateur actress as a young woman, but was forced to farm my uncle out to live with relatives while she worked as a cook in mill camps to support them. It was a harsh and difficult life, and the old photos of her clearly show the toll of her struggles, but she was beautiful when she was young.

At some point, probably at a camp meeting, she got “saved” and from that point on Buelah Belle held tight to the promises she found in the King James version of that Old Time Religion. She never wavered in her faith and committed herself to doing the Lord’s Work with whatever resources were at her disposal.

My grandfather had immigrated to the States in the late 1920s and was working in a Seattle ice house when Uncle Lovel invited him home for supper. Grandpa soon took up with the cook, they married, and Grandma gave birth to my dad when she was 48. She named him David, after the Old Testament patriarch …. “a man after God’s own heart,” and she was determined that he would become a preacher. Throughout his childhood, she schooled him in scripture memorization and elocutionary skills, encouraging him to memorize entire chapters and recite them “with feeling” for company. In fact, Dad was a gifted speaker and communicator, and I know much of the credit for that was due to Grandma’s intentional efforts to mold him into a first-rate evangelist.

As I child, I loved to hear stories about my grandma, and every time Grandpa came for a visit I heard a new one. She was a country woman and much admired for her expertise in the kitchen, so much of what I know of her in some way or another is connected to food. Throughout her life, Grandma used her skills and meager resources to make sure that nobody in the neighborhood went hungry. She generously fed every homeless hobo on the roadside, and every visiting evangelist and missionary home on furlough at her kitchen table. My grandparents were poor, but theirs was a table of plenty.

By all accounts Grandma Brent had a simple but stalwart faith in the Almighty. I don’t believe she had much education beyond the basics, but she read her bible ‘til the pages fell out, and she prayed with conviction and expectancy.

One afternoon, when Dad was home for a visit from bible college, two young men knocked at the door and asked for some food. Dad’s roommate, Ron Hittenberger, was there visiting as well, and Grandma invited them in and set two more places at the table. Dad said this wasn’t unusual, as Grandma was known for taking folks in and welcoming strangers. She sent those fellas into the washroom to clean up, then they all sat down and ate. After dinner, the young men thanked Grandma for her hospitality and headed on down the road.

An hour or so later, Ron came out of the washroom and mentioned that his watch was missing. He’d set it on the sink before lunch and had forgotten to put it back on. The watch had been a special gift and meant a great deal to Ron, so he was understandably upset. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who the culprits were.

“You boys get in the car,” said Grandma. “We’re gonna get that watch!”

Dad said it wasn’t long before they found those two fellas. They’d stopped to take a nap under a tree, and when Grandma roared up in that car they were dumbfounded.

“Now boys,” said Grandma. “Ron here is missing his watch. I know you two took it, and I want you to give it back. No questions asked, you just hand it right over, and we’ll be on our way.”

Those two young men swore up and down they didn’t know what she was talking about, they’d never seen a watch, no ma’am, they never saw nothin’.

“Boys,” said Grandma, “you and I both know that’s not true. Now here’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna pray, boys, right now, and I’m gonna ask the Lord to tell me where that watch is. And boys, He’s gonna tell me.”

Right then and there, my Pentecostal Grandma knelt down in the dirt and started praying … outloud, fervently, the way I heard folks pray at church when I was a kid. As Uncle Lovel used to say, she knew how to do “bizness” with the Lord. Then she said “amen”, got up and walked to the other side of the tree, brushed aside some leaves and debris, and picked up Ron Hittenberger’s watch and handed it back to him.

I know of at least five lives that were impacted by what happened that day, including two would-be thieves who got themselves a Sunday School lesson, and two young men in their first year of seminary. Not long after, my dad came to the difficult realization that the vocation he’d been prepared for his whole life was not his calling after all. His best friend Ron went on to become an evangelist and missionary in Haiti and is now the regional director for the Caribbean for Global University at Assemblies of God World Missions. Dad enjoyed a successful career in real estate investments, and my parents supported the Hittenbergers’ mission work for over 40 years. I’ve never met him, but Rev. Hittenberger sent me a personal and encouraging letter when I graduated from high school 30+ years ago, which I took to heart and have never forgotten.

And the fifth person? Well, that would be me.

Funny, the stories we hear as a child that take root in our memory and shape the way we think, and the way we live …

After making a third pass by that old church, I knew I was lost, so I stopped in at a little coffee shop for sustenance and a hopeful chat with some locals. Excuse me, can anyone help me find a cemetery on a hill?

“Ask Marilyn,” said the waitress, pointing to a booth. “She’s been here forever.”

Indeed, Marilyn was a fount of information. “Just get back on that road and keep headin’ straight,” she said. “You can’t miss it.”

Ten minutes later, I found it, but the office was closed and I didn’t have a clue where to start. Fortuitously, a maintenance worker drove up in an old pick-up and asked if he could help me. “

“I’m looking for my grandmother’s grave,” I told him.

“Know her name and when she died?” he asked.

Yes, I did. He motioned me to follow him into the office and for the next 15 minutes, we sifted through shoeboxes of hand-written index cards in search of Buelah Belle Brent. Brandt … Branson … Brown … Brumwell … Buckwald … Busse … nope, no Brent.

“Hmmm,” he scratched his head. “I seem to remember mowin’ over a Buelah Brent the other day. If she was buried in Sixty-Three, she’s gotta be over on that little hill. Why don’t you head over to that neck of the woods and see if you can find her.”

“Over there” were rows upon rows of tombstones and gravemarkers, but I set off in the direction he’d pointed and started to search. A few minutes later, he pulled up in his truck, got out and called to another worker.

“Howard! Get off that mower and start going up and down these rows! We gotta help this lady find Her People!”

It didn’t take long before Howard let out a whoop – “Found her!”

I often wonder how much of me comes from my “people” … what personality traits survived through the generations and how much of what I think and how I act has been influenced by the ones who went before me. I wonder how many ideas in my head are the result of thoughts planted long ago, shaped by years of hardship, loved ones lost to war, gains and losses, births and deaths, and failed crops in the field. The beliefs that my grandparents held so closely were passed to my father, who tried and tested their merit and worth, all the while instilling a revised version in my malleable mind. These are the things I ponder when I listen to my own bright, articulate, and independent-minded daughter and wonder, “Where did that come from?” I think about the thousands of people who have walked through the doors of my shop these last 15 years, most of them strangers, many of them travellers, a few of them in need of a warm place to dry out and a meal that they can’t pay for, and I wonder how many seeds I have sown over the years that have taken root and will surface in generations to come. Hospitality, kindness, a warm welcome, good food, and an extended family when there is none of their own …

How much of me is you? I whispered as I knelt down to kiss the grave marker of a woman I don’t remember but have known all my life.

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Hebrews 13:2

Flowers for my Granny


Magdalena Wilhelmina Bakker Wolfe is my little Dutch granny. She was born at a time when women and people of color could not vote, and at 95 has lived through nearly a century of change and progress in both technology and basic human rights. Never going beyond eighth grade, she is immensely proud of her daughter, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters who have pursued higher education and careers. She is amazed that I can take pictures with my phone and send them to someone instantaneously and that I can email a letter without a stamp. “My goodness,” she says as she shakes her head in amazement. “As I live and breathe …”

Up until just a few years ago, Granny was an avid gardener. The yard in front of her cheery yellow mobile home was overflowing with peonies, lilacs, roses, and hydrangeas. And invariably, whenever I would drop in for a cup of tea, that’s where I’d find her – out in flower garden with clippers in hand, fussing and pruning. In a matter of minutes, she’d put together a beautiful bouquet of fragrant stems and put them in a mason jar for me to take home. Some folks may have a green thumb, but Granny has green hands. I don’t know how she does it, but she can coax a leafless Poinsettia back to life and a paltry African Violet into full bloom. I know so because I nearly killed them both before she got her hands on them!

Around the perimeter of my home are four hydrangea bushes nearing the end of their summer bloom, all lovingly planted from cuttings that Granny gave me from her yard over the years. Like her, I love old-fashioned flowers, and hydrangeas are one of my favorites. Yesterday afternoon, I clipped the last of this year’s blooming, arranged them into a bouquet and popped down to the assisted living center where she now lives to surprise her. Her memory isn’t what it was once, and she doesn’t remember growing hydrangeas in her yard, or making cuttings and dipping them in Root Tone before sticking them in a pot of dirt to give to me. But I do. I remember her lessons on how to properly prune a rose bush. I remember the heady fragrance of her French Lilacs. I remember countless cups of tea with toast and honey, plates of fudge, and buttered popcorn popped in oil on top of the stove. I remember macaroni and cheese with a crust of saltine crackers. I remember waltzing around the house as a child in her girdle, and the box of oranges she and Grandpa would send each year from their house on Tico Road. I remember building a fort together and climbing up into it for a picnic. And I remember a shoebox lined with wax paper and filled with Christmas cookies that arrived every December in the mail.

My little bouquets pale in comparison to hers, but she doesn’t notice. “Oh my, Cindy Sue,” she exclaims. “As I live and breath …”

She may have forgotten, but I’ll always remember.

The Best Laid Plans

hammockThe sign reads “”Bienvenido al Paraiso – Welcome to Paradise – and each time I pass through the gates of Valle Escondido to my home-away-from-home in Boquete, Panama, I feel like I’m experiencing a little slice of Eden. Nestled into the base of Volcan Baru is a “hidden valley” of lush native plantlife, tranquil ponds filled with koi, and crystal clear streams surrounded by a tropical forest. Even now, during the rainy season, it’s spectacular. And while I love my coastal home back in the States, I always look forward to returning to Boquete.

As with my previous travels to Panama, this is a “working” trip, interspersed with spur-of-the-moment explorations into the neighboring hills to take pictures and … well, I’ll just go ahead and admit it, daily siestas in my favorite hammock. And I love my mid-day visits to the colorful “Mercado” to pick out locally grown produce for the evening’s meal. The rich soil and tropical climate here make farming possible year-round and it seems to me that EVERYTHING wonderful grows in Boquete – except apples, which are apparently imported from Chili. Tomatoes, mangos, plantains, avocados, papaya, and pineapple are ripe when they’re picked and brought to the market stalls each morning. There are vegetables here that I’ve never seen before, but I’m an adventurous cook and willing to try anything at least once. (Which might explain why I found myself in a hukkah bar in Panama City …. but I digress ….)

As always, I have an agenda while I’m here. While I’m best known back home as the proprietress of Mon Ami Gourmet Deli & Antiques, I also have an alter-ego as the COO and Creative Director of Toby and Max Jewelry. My partner and the designer-in-residence, Sandy Comstock, lives here in Boquete as a permanent resident with her long-time companion Oscar the Poodle. And since the “Muhammed” refuses to leave Paradise and to come back to the States for our annual business review, the “Mountain” is forced to come here. Which is why I am once again half a world away from The Nice Catholic Boy, my cozy little shop, and my personal comfort zone.

Getting here takes some doing. It’s a long trip and I usually head for the hammock as soon as I get here for a nice, long siesta before I hit the deck with my usual full-speed-ahead enthusiasm. There are people to see, places to go, designs to review, issues to discuss, and plans to make for the year ahead.

My agenda for this year’s trip quickly went south, however, when I couldn’t ply myself free of the hammock due to a severe sinus headache, which I attributed to the intense change in barometric pressure. This quickly morphed into a throbbing toothache and swollen jaw, which I treated with what I could find at the local farmacia. But by the evening of Miserable Day Four, I could bear it no more and surrendered my name, rank, passport #, you name it – puhleeeze, Somebody, GET ME SOME DRUGS OR GET ME ON A PLANE FOR HOME!

Sympathetic friends came bearing gifts of strong drink, then bundled me into the backseat and headed off into the hills where a local dentist kept late night hours in his home-based clinic, in between operating a small cantina and hotel. (Admittedly, I was a bit anxious about having any dental work done in a third world country, but at this point I would have been willing to see a veterinarian. Seriously.) Dr. Riviera’s office was a far cry from the beautifully decorated clinic of my dentist back home, and his equipment was clearly older than me, but he was kind, thorough, and a competent professional and I knew I was in good hands. Three more office visits, two x-rays, ten whole dollars and a trip to the farmacia for the Good Stuff … and I find myself nine days later operating at a markedly subdued pace and contemplating the Best Laid Plans.

On top of it all, it’s raining here in Boquete. I understand its warm and sunny back home and has been since I left. Oh, the irony of it all ….

But juxtaposed against all the things I haven’t been able to get done since arriving in Paradise is something my friend Connie Spinner will be delighted to hear. During the last week, I’ve read three books. I went to a birthday party for some Panamanian friends at their home (this is a BIG deal for a gringa). I got up early and went to mass, but since I was too nausaus to participate, I sat in the back and listened to the nuns sing. I took a lot of siestas, and I ate a lot of soup.

I spent more time in the hammock and listened to the birds. I took a few walks around Valle Escondido and marveled at the breathless beauty of my surroundings. I’ve gone a whole week without an espresso. And yesterday, I was treated to a rare sighting of a Basilisk lizard, known locally as the Legarto de Jesus Cristo because they can literally walk on water. I’ll probably never see one again!

There’s still a week left before I return to the States and back to the life I live at warp speed. Messages to return, meetings to attend, catering jobs to bid, lattes and lunches to make, orders to fill, people to meet and places to go. And a root canal. In the meantime, I know I need to make the most of my time here in Panama.

Which is why, first thing in the manana, I’m headed for my hammock.

A little bird told me …


Hanging from the eaves of my front porch is a fuschia basket that my husband carefully pruned and wrapped up last fall in hopes of protecting it from the harsh elements of winter. Sure enough, it’s now bursting forth with lush green foliage and lots of buds promising to bloom. And right smack dab in the center is a sweet little nest, with four tiny eggs, and one hyper-vigilant mama Chickadee.

I discovered her little secret about a week ago when I was tending to my flower baskets in the front of the house. This noisy little bird kept flying around, making a racket, trying to divert my attention away from the front porch. And the closer I got to the fuschia, the more frantic she became. Upon closer inspection, I found the reason . “Don’t you worry, Little Mama” I whispered, and promptly ran in the house to holler at The Nice Catholic Boy. “Honeeeeeey, we’re having Chickadees!”

A few years ago, another mama bird did the same thing. At that time, I was recovering from yet another back surgery and just beginning to venture out into the world after several months at home. It had been a grueling and brutal ordeal, I was beat down and exhausted , and the front porch was as far as I could get. Literally. My husband had moved a chair onto the porch that I could get in and out of by myself. A few moments of fresh air, sunshine, and a glimpse of my garden in spring were dangled as a carrot – something to lure me out of the darkness and encourage me to crawl out of bed and put one foot in front of the other. Aim for once a day, said The Nice Catholic Boy. Baby steps. You can do it, Baby!

As I write this five years later, even though I am recovered and upright and mobile, even though I’m completely free of opiates and methadone and mind-numbing painkillers, even though I’m able to work with reasonable limitations and lead a full and meaningful life, and even though I’m grateful, TRULY grateful … recalling that period of my life and my overwhelming sense of despair is especially painful and brings tears to my eyes. I often joke with my neurosurgeon and tell her she should name a surgical wing after me – I’ve been there so many times that I’m sure I’ve paid for it. And I swear I’m going to get a tattoo across my low back that says “Still Standing” … someday. But it really isn’t all that funny, and where I’ve been to get to where I’m at now – I don’t want to revisit it.

But then I saw the Chickadee and I recalled the mama bird who quietly kept me company while she nested. Unlike the frantic little mother currently in residence, this one didn’t panic when she saw me coming. I watched her as she gathered little twigs and mud and built her nest. Not long after, she laid two speckled eggs. And then she waited. I’ll sit here, and you can sit there, she seemed to say to me. We’ll wait it out together.

In time, I found myself looking forward to my front porch visits with Hannah (yep, I named her), anticipating the day when her eggs would hatch and I would get to meet her little brood. But Mother Nature was taking her time. I began to find things to worry about – like that Hannah would be killed by feral cats and her eggs would be orphaned, and I fretted that the raccoons would find her nest. But there was absolutely nothing that I could do to intervene. I knew it. It was out of my hands. Hannah was steady and true. She’d fly out of the nest periodically to find a worm, and then return to resume the wait. I marveled at her patience and ability to quietly endure, and wished I could do the same. Patience, however, was not one of my particular virtues.

At some point in the process, I came upon the words of Luc de Clapiers, a French writer who died at the age of 31 in the late 1700s, in broken health. “Patience” he wrote, “is the art of hoping.” And I realized that in the midst of what was one of my greatest personal challenges, I was being given the opportunity to become more than who I was, and to learn the fine art of hoping. It was more than just hoping for the successful hatching of baby birds; I began to hope for me.

Initially, I hoped in baby steps. First, that I could walk to the end of the cul-de-sac and back. And then a little further. Then I hoped that I would be able to walk normally, without the awkwarad gait that comes with foot drop and nerve damage. I hoped for simple but important things, that I would be able to control my bladder and my bowels. (I apologize for my frankness, but as I said, it was brutal.) I hoped that I would be able to return to working in the shop that I love, with the people I love, in the community that I love. I hoped that I would learn to accept my limitations gracefully, without being bitter. I hoped that I would be a different and better person when I “came back”. I hoped that I could have a story to tell that would encourage someone else in the future. And I hoped that my husband would not lose patience with me. (Fortunately for me, when Gene Wobbe said “for better or for worse”, he meant it. Thank God for small mercies.)

In time, a crack appeared in one of the eggs, and soon a little beak, followed by a scraggly creature that looked NOTHING like its graceful mother. And then another. A day later, little tiny chirps could be heard from my hanging basket! As they grew, they were emboldened to perch on the edge of the nest and flap their little wings. And then one day they were gone – all of them! Hannah had launched her kids and moved on.

Ironically, it was about this time that I began to walk without a cane, first past the end of the cul-de-sac and then around the corner and beyond. I was beginning to taper off the multitude of medications that had previously kept life bearable, my head was thinking more clearly, and I was able to make short trips into my shop and feel a part of something again.

As I slowly became a more active participant in life, I found that my view of my little corner of the universe had changed. I’m of the belief that perception is reality, and all those hours on the porch waiting for two eggs to hatch had caused a paradigm shift in how I viewed the world and my place in it. I no longer had the energy or the inclination to “sweat the small stuff.” I found myself patiently waiting for situations to work themselves out without my intervention or “help”. I consciously started my days taking a grateful inventory of my blessings instead of lamenting my losses. And I came to believe that if, indeed, the creator of the universe has His eye on the sparrow, then He most certainly is watching over me.

Some years ago, when I was working in alcohol and drug treatment, a patient shared with me an old Chinese proverb that I think, today, perfectly captures my perspective of what I’ve learned from the fire and the rain and a wise little bird on my front porch. I’ve typed it up on a little strip of paper and keep it where I can see it often to remind me of how far I’ve come and how thankful I am for the journey. It goes like this …

“My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon.”

All this flooded back to me last week as I discovered the Chickadee and her little secret. I wish I could quell her anxiety every time I walk by instead of sending her into a panic. She has an important task ahead of her and I don’t want her fear of me to be a distraction. She doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Bird, and there’s no way I can alter her perspective of me or the world around her. So for the next few weeks, or as long as it takes, Gene and I will come and go through the back door in the hopes of keeping the disruption to her little life at a minimum. It’s the least we can do.

And what a delightful thing I’ve discovered … on a clear night, the view of the moon from our back porch is spectacular! If not for the Chickadee, I wouldn’t have known.

On Motherhood

Note: The following is a re-post of a reflection I posted 3 years ago on a previous blog. My daughter Tori will, once again, be unable to come home this Mother’s Day, so I thought I would share this … with a few updates!

This will be my first Mother’s Day childless. My 23 year old daughter Tori has taken a respite from her Big City Job and is off on another Great Adventure to explore the wilds of the Alaskan frontier, leaving me to be content with a card and assurances of her undying love and gratitude. To be frank, I’m thrilled for her and somewhat in awe of the fact that I managed to raise such an magnificent, accomplished, adventurous, and life-affirming young woman. Good for her … and good for me!

For reasons that seemed rational at the time, I never planned on being a mother. Instead, I opted for being a godmother, an aunt, a mentor, an entrepreneur, and a philanthropist. It made for a rich and rewarding life, to be sure, but being Tori’s mom has been the greatest gift of my lifetime. Hands down. No doubt about it. Take it to the bank. Put it in your pipe and smoke it (okay, that might be a bit much!). Truly, I think I am the luckiest woman I know.

I have always been a planner, a list maker, a strategist, and a tenacious make-it-happen woman. So even though I never planned on Motherhood, I am here to tell you that sometimes an unplanned life makes for the best life of all. The script I wrote for myself in my early 20’s has long since been round-filed. In addition to being the mother of a remarkable young woman, I am now the step-mother of 3, and grandmother of 7. I have been a single mom and a married mom, the foster mother and guardian of my niece, and a mentor to a number of young women teetering on the precipice of life’s toughest choices. And while the path I took was not what I intended, I am absolutely certain it was where I was supposed to go all along.

Donna Ball, the author of At Home on Ladybug Farm, wrote, “Motherhood is a choice you make everyday, to put someone else’s happiness and well-being ahead of your own, to teach the hard lessons, to do the right thing even when you’re not sure what the right thing is…and to forgive yourself, over and over again, for doing everything wrong.”

Yep, true dat!

So this Mother’s Day, rather than sniffle into a kleenex because my Big City Girl is playing Eskimo (or this year, touring the California wine country), I’m going to tell my own mother that I love her, hug my sweet little granny, and lay flowers on the grave of the remarkable woman who gave life to My Nice Catholic Boy. And at the end of the day I’ll breath yet another prayer of thanksgiving for one curly-haired bohemian with the voice of an angel and the unexpected blessings of an unplanned life.

Lesson from a Horse

silverToday I was reminded of one of the earliest lessons I learned in life, the importance of Getting Back Up On the Horse. It happened when I was the tender age of three-ish and my parents decided to buy me a pony. His name was “Silver” and he was a Shetland Pony stallion. For those who know a thing or two about this particular breed, they are NOT the best choice for children despite their petite stature. They are temperamental, headstrong, frisky … and they bite. Silver was oblivious to my devotion, even though I brought him sugar cubes and carrots. He turned left when I wanted to go right; he galloped when I wanted to trot. And just as soon as my parents put me up on his back and turned their heads, he’d head for a tree with the lowest branch. He feared no one.

My dad thought that once Silver was “fixed” (that’s fancy talk for turning a stallion into a gelding), he’d “simmer right down” but, alas, this was not the case. Still, there were lessons to be learned in owning and caring for an animal, and my folks were determined that I should learn them. I knew at a tender age that I was Silver’s caretaker. I learned early that the animals were dependent upon us for their care – that’s why they got fed and watered first. We did not sit down to the table until the livestock had been fed and the water troughs filled to the top. I was taught to “walk down” my horse after a hard ride, to stop and check periodically for a rock in its hoof, and NEVER EVER take my anger out on an animal.

And so the day that Silver decided to exert his independence and show me who was really the boss was, for me, a humiliating betrayal of world class proportion. I had just hopped up on his back and clicked my heels for a slow walk around the pasture, when Silver took off down the hill at break-neck speed, running through the hedge of poplar trees attempting to dislodge me, then coming to a screeching halt at the bottom, and bucking me off! I sailed through the air and landed flat on my face. There were no broken bones, but my spirit was shattered! I vividly remember my dad running out to the middle of the pasture, pulling out his hankerchief to wipe the dirt out of face, and telling me “Get ahold of yourself, Piggo, and Get Back Up On The Horse!”

Naturally, this was the last thing I wanted to do. “How could Silver do this to me?” I wailed. Oh, I was heartbroken. And then betrayal turned to anger. “I NEVER want to RIDE THAT HORSE AGAIN! Dad, YOU’RE GONNA GET ME KILLED!”

Those six words – Get Back Up On The Horse – were often repeated to me during my childhood and adolescent years. I heard them when I came in last place at my first horse show, and when I didn’t win a blue ribbon at the 4-H fair. I heard them when I failed my first audition for jazz choir and when I missed my final attempt in high jump at the state championship track meet. I heard them when I crashed my powder blue AMC Gremlin at the age of 16. I heard them after the demise of my first marriage. And I heard them when I crawled my way back to the Land of the Living. Truthfully, I hear those six words every time something I do flops, goes south, or fails to flourish. These are also the words I say when I feel I have failed myself, the only failure I truly fear.

After a lifetime of climbing back up on metaphorical horses, here is what I know … The world is not always gentle. Perfection is rarely sustained. Success is never permanent (and neither is failure). But the value of a single moment is immeasurable. And that moment when you take a deep breath, face your present fear, press forward and try again – that moment when you Get Back Up On The Horse – well, that moment is priceless.

Wearing Grace

Today I am reminded of why I wear a crucifix. Yes, I know “Sunday is a’comin” … but I’m not willing to go there yet. Please let me explain …

I did not grow up in a religious culture that recognized and observed Lent. I didn’t know about Ash Wednesday. I vaguely remember palms being passed out on Palm Sunday, and somebody bringing a donkey to church for the Sunday School kids, but the concept of “Holy Week” was foreign to me. Easter was about The Resurrection and the Risen Christ. There was an Easter Egg Hunt, and an Easter Pageant, and good old-fashioned hymns like “Up From the Grave He Arose, Like a Mighty Triump O’er His Foes.” But I wasn’t real clear about Good Friday.

I am now.

In my little town, we have something called “Three Hours at the Cross” on Good Friday. Several churches come together and set aside three hours for half-hourly reflections and meditation. Folks can quietly come and go. I’ve been sneaking in late for the last 15 years. But for a variety of reasons, this year I’m right here, deep in thought, keyboard in hand.

I mentioned that today has something to do with why I wear a crucifix … my well-intentioned Protestant friends often make pointed comments about the crucifix I wear. “Why don’t you wear a cross? Don’t you know that our Jesus is a Risen Savior? Cindy, He’s no longer on that tree!” I’ve lived much of my life as a Protestant, so I understand why they don’t understand me. And while I frequently use humor when I refer to my rigid upbringing (hence the tongue-in-cheek-self-description “recovering pentecostal”), I am truly thankful for my pew-jumpin’ Pentecostal roots, and for the care and nurturing I received along the way from the Quakers, the Nazarenes, the Lutherans, the Episcopalians, and the Free Methodists. I love the rich diversity that comprises the foundation of my faith and my spiritual life. And I unconditionally love the many, many people who have contributed to it. But today, Good Friday, this Catholic Girl is especially mindful of why I choose to wear a tangible and visible representation of Christ’s crucifixion, every day of the year.

. . . because I have been physically broken.

. . . because I have suffered.

. . . because I have known fear so desolate and deep that it defies description.

And so has He.

That’s it, folks.  It doesn’t mean I don’t believe in the Risen Christ, and it doesn’t mean I won’t be celebrating come Easter Sunday. It means that the road I have traveled has given me an understanding and definition of Grace that runs deeper and wider than an empty cross. It means that I have learned there is something unspeakably exquisite about the comfort and steadfast companionship of a friend who has been where you have been, and who has walked where you are walking. It means that there is strength in brokenness, and beauty in suffering. It means that there is hope in the darkness.

And it means that I need more than three hours to say thank you.

One Last Gift

Today is my dad’s birthday. If he were still here, we’d have a nice family dinner, I’d give him the latest John Grisham book (after I’d read it first), and we’d make banana splits. My whole family would be together – my mom, my brother, our spouses, all our kids – and we would have a nice, low-key celebration, just the way he liked it. “Don’t make a fuss,” he’d say.

Anyone who has spent any time with me at all knows that my dad had a lasting impact on my life. He was a man with a big presence and I loved him fiercely. He wasn’t perfect, and there were many views we didn’t share (much to his chagrin). He was not a patient man; he was terribly uncomfortable around people with mental disabilities and physical deformities, and crying women. He was intolerant of what he called “willful stupidity.” And he hated to stand in line. But he was a great dad. He was keenly aware of his shortcomings, humble about his successes, generous with his wisdom, and a magnificent mentor and friend.

My dad died of prostate cancer at the age of 62. Let me rephrase that … my dad died because he was stubborn, bull-headed, and unwilling to go the doctor when there was still time to do something. He deliberately ignored his symptoms, for years. He ignored the fact that his own brother had died of the same disease, that his father had been treated for it, and that the deck was stacked against him. He ignored my mother’s pleas to see a doctor. “Nobody’s going to go poking around in my orifices!” he said, and THAT was final.

When dad was finally diagnosed, it was much too late. Too late for treatment, too late to take action, too late to change the course of what was now a limited future. I was angry.

“It’s your fault,” I told him. “Did you really think you were going to get out of this life alive?”

He thought about it for a few minutes, then turned to me and quietly said, “You know, I think I did.”

“Well,” I said. “You were wrong.”

“Forgive me,” he said.

And I did.

My dad gave me a lot of gifts over our lifetime together. The first one I can remember is when I was in kindergarten. My friend Linda had the neatest little cabinet to keep her doll clothes in and I really wanted one. One evening, after my mom had picked my brother and me up from daycare and we walked into the living room, there it was … my very own dolly dresser sitting on the dining room table, with three shiny red apples resting on top – one for each of us! My dad had fashioned it out of scraps of panelling that he made at the mill where he worked nights. It had two sliding doors and a drawer at the bottom, much fancier than Linda’s! That doll dresser lasted my childhood, and my own daughter’s. Right now, it holds a collection of vintage Nancy Drew books in my guest room … waiting for the next generation of little girls. (Note to my daughter Tori, no pressure ….)

My dad liked to give me books that he thought I might find interesting. One of the last ones was a small paperback titled Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much.

“What’s THAT supposed to mean?” I asked him.

“You know,” he answered.

And I did.

He had some definite ideas about giving presents. “Don’t wait for a special occasion to do something for somebody,” he’d say. “Do it now!” There’s a little wooden knife he whittled for me on a fishing trip. And a few Albert Terhune books about dogs, his favorite as a child. On our back deck, is a cedar bench with planter boxes he built the summer before his passing. At the foot of our bed is a beautiful, pine blanket chest he made. And in that pine chest is a box of hand-written notes that my dad wrote me over the years with words like “Way to go, Piggo, I’m really proud of you!” and “I knew you could do it!”. And my personal favorite, “You must have had truly amazing parents!” (Yes, as a matter of fact, I did.)

The intangible gifts my dad gave me are too numerous to count … modeling for me the difference between being fair and being just, why the animals need to be fed first, never let the sun go down on your anger, speaking your gratitude, do it now, and how to plant corn. I’m grateful for all of it.

But the best gift he gave me – that he gave all of us – was the last one. Because when my dad knew that his days were numbered, he embraced the final leg of his journey with grace and gratitude, and he made it his mission to make it as easy on us as he could.

There are indignities involved in the process of dying. And for a man who had always lived life from a position of strength, this was not an easy pill to swallow. There came a time when the man I’d always known to be solid as an oak and strong as an ox could no longer get himself in and out of bed. He lacked the strength to stand on his own two feet. He could no longer walk and had to be pushed in a wheelchair. And then there was the personal stuff … no, he couldn’t do that for himself either.

Again, my dad was a PROUD man. He had no sympathy for weakness in others and he detested it in himself. But he was not a selfish man. Never, ever, in my entire lifetime, did I see my dad put his own wants and needs before his family. Ever. And so he did what had never come easy to him, he accepted help. He accepted strangers into his home to help bathe him, administer medications, and take care of the personal stuff. He accepted offers from friends to finish the projects he couldn’t, even when it meant that they weren’t going to be done the way he originally intended. He encouraged my mom to get out of the house and do things without him, even if it meant he spent some time alone. He spoke his gratitude, frequently. He did not make demands on us. He did not want to burden us in any way. He welcomed the help of my brother and me and our frequent visits, even when there wasn’t much to talk about. As unpleasant as must have been for him, he never complained. His first concern was always for his wife, his children, and his grandchildren.

My mom and I talked about this yesterday … of Dad’s last gift to us, of how it very well may be better to give than receive, but that if you’re not willing to receive, you deprive others of the gift of giving. He allowed us to see him in his weakness even though it humbled him, to express our love to him in quiet and simple ways, and to work through the process of saying goodbye. He granted us the privilege – and oh, what a privilege it was – to care for him and accompany him on the journey. He knew how hard it was for us. And in those last few months of his life, he gave me the gift of many truly holy moments that changed me, strengthened me, deepened my faith and character, and filled me with such gratitude that I am determined to spend the rest of my life saying grace.

Happy birthday, Dad. You really were the life of the party.