Tassels and All

Pecan Tassels: Before . . .                   And After.
Pecan Tassels: Before . . . And After.

My wife and I call them "tassels," but the correct term for these annual visitors from our pecan tree each late-May to early-June is catkins. They're beautiful. Really, they are. Small dangling instances that one day will find their own way into pies, pralines, and brownies through that buttery nut called the pecan. Did you know that pecans are not technically "nuts," but drupes? These are fruit that have a pit that contains the seed. Like a peach pit. (Other examples are coffee, mangoes, olives, plums, apricots.) When we eat a pecan, we're cracking open the pit and eating the seed at its heart. But we call it a nut, and you'll find pecans in a can of Planter's Mixed Nuts. We come by our confusion of drupes and nuts honestly, since the term "pecan" stems from the native Algonquians and means "a nut needing a stone to crack." So there.

 

"Nut" works for me, for no other reason than the obvious fact that these tassels drive me nuts!

 Just check out the "After" picture above. Look closer. Maybe you can make out the  red-brown boards peeking through all the green. That's our deck--two hours after we swept it! I'll spare you pictures of our kitchen and living room floors, the stairs, won't describe for you what a tassel tastes like when you're trying to enjoy dinner on the deck and the catkin makes a sneaky airdrop into your romaine and spinach salad. These simple pollinated tassels turn into invasive creatures, small chlorophyllous caterpillars, the green-yellow larvae that crawl and creep up your stairs, stick like ticks to your sock-feet or braid their way into the matted mane of Maya the Wonder Dog. For a brief eternity each spring, they mock even my most disciplined attempts at sweeping and vacuuming.

 

It helps during the "Tassel Season," to take a deep breath and step back. To do this several times a day, in fact. To cut back on the caffeine and recall a little botany. Each pecan tree produces both male and female flowers, but always at different times. Some bud out with female blossoms first, then the male ones follow suit later. But other pecan trees, like ours, produce the "male" tassels first. They flower out and pollinate. Later, the small star-shaped  "female" flowers will blossom at the tips of the new branches. Now, here's where it all gets interesting and a tad complicated: by the time the female flowers appear, the male flowers have vamoosed with their magical pollen dust. (I love that botanists use the intriguing term "self incompatible" to describe this!) Which means that pecan trees are interdependent. Without one another they cannot bear fruit. Our tree needs another pecan tree, preferably one that's not to far away (around 200 feet or so) and whose male flowers prefer to sleep in and are always running late. That way, this lazy neighboring tree (or cultivar) will be right on time to pollinate our tree and assure that we have pecan pie for Thanksgiving.

 

Of course, I never knew all of this until I had my own pecan tree. Growing up in eastern Arkansas, pecan groves were common, but we only visited them in the fall to go "pecan pickin'." But now that I live with this tree all year long, and must visit it daily and care for it throughout all seasons, I can see why some people refer to them as "trash" trees. Notwithstanding the pecans, they're a mess of tassels, leaves, limbs, and husks. But they're worth it. Besides the pecans, they are a great example of how nature's indifference to us can be redemptive. If we draw close and pay attention, they serve as an example of the masculine and the feminine energies we all embody. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung encouraged us as men and women to bring these two sides of ourselves together, the assertive and the receptive, the willful and the willing, to integrate these both internally and within society. Jung knew that such introspection and community would not be easy, indeed, that it would take heroic energy. Just witness the continual communication divide and inequality that exists between men and women today. We're different, yes.  We live in a "gendered" world, but such a declaration only points out our great need for each other. Mars and Venus are planetary neighbors in the same galaxy. They must share one another's gravitas in order to honor their respective orbits.

 

So, using the pecan tree as our shady mentor, we see that delicious pecans can't happen without the messy havoc of pecan trees. Pecans are the product of male and female energies coming together in a fruitful way. In order to do this, they cannot live in isolation. They "need" another tree or two nearby in order to integrate the male and female energies they bear. In their own way, they mirror our own call as unique and more highly complex amalgams of yearning. We long for both individual growth and authentic community. What about all the relational hassles that drive us nuts at times--the tassels, limbs, husks and leaves? They are the best we can do, given the season. They all have their role to play in pushing us toward real wholeness, where both personal integrity and community matter, and a more fruitful life before God awaits, tassels and all.

 

I'll leave you with this wonderful poem by Arkansas poet Jo McDougall:

 

Paying Attention

 

Coming home to visit my parents' graves,

I enter the house where I was born.

My mother sits at a table, sewing,

her eyes a deepening blue.

My father comes in from the fields.

Until now I have never known

that intent young man,

that slender woman

who lean toward each other

and touch hands

and rise together to climb the stairs,

long vistas of the fields dissolving

as dusk puts down its roots.

 

~from Satisfied with Havoc (Autumn House Press)

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Strange Things as These

Okay, you need to know that this photo was not photo-shopped. It's the real deal. That's my neighbor's house across the street at around 7:00 a.m. on this past Tuesday, May 19, 2015. At that moment, smackdab in the middle of suburban St. Louis, perched this amazing bird on the pitch of their roof. I was managing a groggy slog toward my truck  and just happened to look up and see this . . . this Great Blue Heron?  This Sandhill Crane? This! Here? WHAT!?

 

So I do what I'm apt to do when angels appear. I panic. Swing about, mouth open. Look to see if anyone else sees what I see. They don't. I dig into the jeans pocket, fumbling for my cellphone, hoping to get a picture. End up triggering the key fob that sets off the car alarm. Squelch that blare after forever and a half. Still the bird remains! That's when I take this picture too quickly from too far away, just before the amazing creature takes flight. I had to enlarge the image quite a bit before the bird could be seen, hence the ghostly sense. Did I see what I saw?

 

We're lucky if we get just one shot at beauty. I can say this with confidence because every encounter with someone or something beautiful is a momentary event, a fleeting conspiracy of how the light lands and what it can do with our mind and heart and all that conditions their compliance--age, need, gender, intuition, desire, circumstance, digestion, etc.--all these myriad filters that shape our life's aperture at any given moment in time and space. That's what makes my sighting of this mystery bird such a miracle. I'm not a morning person. Heck, I was lucky to be up, let alone look up. Surely I've missed many sightings of Great Blue Herons and Sandhill Cranes in my day, especially those who have chosen to sashay by bright and early. That's the irony of beauty: it happens only once, again and again. Beauty is all around us; yet each time we catch it in the act, or it catches us, the occasion is unique and fleeting--a sheer gift not unlike the very presence of God.

 

I'm now moving in my mind's eye back to a familiar scene in Nikos Kazantzakis' Zorba the Greek. You might recall that Zorba is awake to the mystery of things, and the "boss" is a no-nonsense British businessman. They meet a peasant riding a mule. Well, let's let the boss tell the story in his own words:

 

"One day, I remember, when we were making our way to the village, we met a little old man astride a mule. Zorba opened his eyes wide as he looked at the beast. And his look was so intense that the peasant cried out in terror: 'For God's sake, brother, don't give him the evil eye!' And he crossed himself.

I turned to Zorba,

'What did you do to that old chap to make him cry out like that?' I asked him.

'Me? What do you think I did? I was looking at his mule, that's all. Didn't it strike you, boss?'

'What?'

'Well . . . that there are such strange things in this world as mules!'"

 

There are such strange and wonderful things to see in this world, instances beautiful beyond measure. Yes, horrible things too, so terrible to behold, even harder to endure, but these do nothing but up the ante on beauty. The horrible has a way of hamming it up and hounding us not matter what, but the truly beautiful seems shy as a deer at the wood's edge, or that Great Blue Heron on my neighbor's rooftop, quietly watching, calling no attention to itself, but apt to be, as we are for now, in this world together. How do we open ourselves up to such visitations, epiphanies? Maybe Zorba said it best, it has to "strike" us. Or maybe God loves to surprise us most when our guards are down with gracious ambushes from out of the blue. Or just maybe we heighten the odds when we slow down and keep awake, quietly leaning into the day step by step. Maybe we need to practice walking like a heron. At least that's what poet Jack Ridl suggests. So I'll leave you with a fleeting glimpse of his poem. Quick, before it becomes a ghost!

 

"Practicing to Walk Like a Heron"

 

My wife is at the computer. The cat

is sleeping across the soft gold cushion

 

of my chair. Last night there was a frost.

I am practicing to walk like a heron.

 

It's the walk of solemn monks

progressing to prayer on stilts,

 

the deliberate cadence of a waltz

in water. I lift my right leg within

 

the stillness, within the languid

quiet of a creek, slowly, slowly,

 

slowly set my foot on the dog-haired

carpet, pause, hold a half note, lift

 

the left, head steady as a bell before

the ringer tugs the rope. On I walk,

 

the heron's mute way, across the

room, past my wife who glances

 

up, holds her slender hands

above the keys until I pass.

 

~from Practicing to Walk Like a Heron  (Wayne State University Press)

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Achilles' Heel

    Dying Achilles at Achilleion, Corfu. Sculptor: Ernst Herter, 1884.
Dying Achilles at Achilleion, Corfu. Sculptor: Ernst Herter, 1884.

His lowly heel is where our imaginations go when we hear Achilles' name. We don't think of his military prowess, can't name all the battles he won. The many foes he vanquished remain nameless. We think of his heel.

 

You know the story from Greek mythology. Like each of us, Achilles had a mother. And like every mother worth her salt, she was a worrywart. Fearful that her son might die an early death, she took her son to the River of Styx, which was said to offer the power of invulnerability. So she dunked her baby in the river, holding squirming Achilles by his heel, the only dry spot on him spared the river's magic. Achilles grew up to be a menacing man of war, seemingly impregnable. Then came the day a poisonous arrow with his name on it struck and lodged in his heel, killing him. So the heel's what we remember most.

 

Achilles' story remains a curious Greek artifact until its truth gets under our skin where the heart thumps. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung believed that the great myths are classical in that they have the capacity to address people in every age and culture with transforming power and urgent appeal. In fact, certain myths and symbols have a kind of insistent resolve: they seek us out and speak their piece through our dreams, intuitive hunches, a song, book, or poem, even what seem to be certain coincidences, just when we our lives need it most.

 

The myth of Achilles accosted me about two years ago. I was mindlessly weed whacking my backyard one beautiful late-July day when I brushed against what turned out to be a wheelbarrow, leaning against the shed. It slid down and with a very quick, clean chop to my heel, severed my Achilles tendon. That moment put a halt to much that I hold sacred. It would be three months before I could walk without crutches or a cast. Another six months before I could run again, though "waddle" might best describe my gait after the hiatus. A couch potato penguin could have given me a run for my money!

 

I'm a lifelong runner. I've run through all sorts of challenges--adolescent insecurity, young adult ambition and life choices, parental and pastoral concerns, my mother's early death. Running has been both my shield and my metaphor for life: I press on with passion, my own frail pursuit of impregnability. But here I was being given an even greater gift. This rupture provided me the lived sense of being, as Reynold Price once put it, "provisionally mobile." I was a gimp, hobbled, forced to be held up by others. The myth of Achilles moved in, incarnated itself, its words became flesh and blood. Pastor and activist William Sloane Coffin, fed up with hearing the cliched critique that the Church is a crutch, replied, "Of course it's a crutch. What makes you think you don't limp?" I limped, and knew it in my bones. Further, I knew the chances were good, no matter how well I recovered this time, that one day all too soon I would limp again.

 

I'm back at it, walking Maya the Wonder Dog and running again. My right foot is scarred but healed. It still tightens up and talks back, but complies for the time being. Two days ago I was out in it, running like I was 16 again, blue-skied day, light breeze, spring greening out on all sides (imagine a Nike commercial). That's when a black bulldog appeared from nowhere. Clearly, this was his street, so we were off to the races! He made three passes at me, each time growling and growing closer. I stayed calm, shushing and shooing him away. But on the third pass, I could feel the warmth of his breath and his wet nose against my right ankle. I saw red. Just before his teeth set, I let him know that that size 13 foot he was chasing was about to become a fist. At just that moment a woman's voice yelled, "BRUNO, you git home!" So he did. Just like that. Then as I ran on I heard, "SORRRRY!"

 

We all have our Achilles' heel. If you're like me, you might have several such heels. We're vulnerable, despite our posturings at perfection. No matter how secure, things can turn on a dime. But there's another aspect of Achilles' story that has landed in my heart like a seed: I'm haunted by the fact that his vulnerability came from being held. Despite his mom's motives, what made Achilles most human was how she held him with loving intent.

 

We do our best. We try to hold on, hold out, hang on, try, try, try again, only to end up more distant and shielded from the life we love. We sometimes try so hard, hold on so tightly, we begin to lose our grip. Maybe you're done. Maybe, as Bruce Cockburn sings, you've proven yourself so many times "the magnetic strip's worn thin" ("Pacing the Cage"). Maybe you're ready to be held again, knowing full well that the only way to be held is to be vulnerable, to trust, to be open. Maybe when you come to this place, the world comes to you, God comes to you, your loved ones even, they come to you in your need, sheer gifts who want only to hold you too.

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Backyard Mysticism

When my calling shifted from the "steeple" to what I've come to name as a more "free-range" ministry, I did not forsake the church, institutional or otherwise. I've spend most all my life in churches of all shapes and sizes, and would not know what to do with myself if I did not have such a "home away from home." But something did shift inside when I ceased pastoring full-time after 30 years. I made a vow (a big word, I know) to find everything that matters most in "my own backyard." I meant that literally and figuratively. If God is alive, if my love for others is true, if I can ever begin to make progress in the area of self-compassion, then the proving ground is close in and intimate. I must come home, start where I live, in this grounded, incomplete and ordinary glory called my own backyard. You can chalk up this penchant for the local to my having being raised in the agrarian South, or having read too many of the Agrarian Movement writers, who championed the regional and the low-tech as our country was becoming more homogenous and industrialized. But I have long held a hunch that won't quit: what's most particular and local is also most universal and global. Take William Blake for instance:

 

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour. ~from "Auguries of Innocence"


Buddha and St. Francis inhabit my backyard. They keep a kind of distance. From my vantage point, about 20 feet. From Google Earth's vantage point, or, say, an astronaut's purview, they are part of the same blue dot. Which leads to a profession I have to make. I started to say "confession," but my good friend, pastor and poet Steve Holloway, reminded me recently that a confession implies the intent to change. So this is more of a profession, since it involves an affirmation of my heart, a devotion that I've come to over the years. Here it is: I need both the Buddha and St. Francis in my life because they help me in my striving to bear and share Christ's love. In other words, in the close place of my heart, they are part of the same blue dot.

 

Buddha teaches us to sit still and welcome all, the good and the bad, to see it all as what's been given to behold, to endure, to compassion what's impermanent and passing (since compassion is a verb). St. Francis shows us that genuine joy in Christ comes from caring for all of creation and repairing Christ's church. These twin practices, the cultivation of stillness and the call to care for God's world and repair God's church, hinge my life. They get me about as close as I can get to the door where Jesus knocks. They connect me, yet allow me to turn, again and again, away from my ego and toward the larger world that both roots us and draws us out in its blossoming forth. They help me, like all good hinges, to pivot and open when the Mystery knocks.

 

Given the choice, I'd choose St. Francis over the Buddha. (I've never been very good at sitting still!) But the good news is, in choosing Christ, I no longer have to make such choices. I can welcome and risk the Good, the True and the Beautiful wherever I find it. Why? Because my backyard, for good or ill, is where I live into the grace I've been given. And how I honor Christ's presence is much more about how God graciously holds and beholds me than the minute things I manage to think or do. I'm seeking the One who "is before all things, and in whom all things hold together." The One through whom "God was pleased to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross" (Colossians 1:17, 20). I'm seeking the One who sees and seeks me out, most often through the particular, small and odd offerings of my life. Before he was known as Christ, he knew us as Jesus of Nazareth, the simple man who called us to a near and nearing Kingdom known in a sparrow's fall, spinning lilies, or a cup of cold water.

 

The backyard is where I feed the chickens, cardinals and sparrows, walk the neighborhood with Maya the Wonder Dog, tend to the persnickety tastes of my three cats, and return the call of my turtle doves. I mow and trim and watch my wife plant and weed the garden. I write and read. Make calls, send emails, post stuff. Stare down my demons. Wheel the green wheelbarrow. Read the Post-Dispatch. Fall down and get up. Age. And pray--for a whole world, millions and millions of backyards where folk are doing their best just to be held, and to hold things together, on this blue dot of ours.

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