wide wings

My very best friend in fourth grade remains among my dearest friends today. We now live several hundred miles apart but for a decade it was a 1.5 mile hike. Often, J and I would walk or bike one way or the other; sometimes we’d meet in the middle.

Between my house and hers was a lonely backcountry road, unpopulated until the outskirts of her tiny village. At about the half-way point there was a sketchy stretch that cut through a swamp. Murky black water, green with algae and thick with brush, no doubt s-s-s-snakes! and other undesirables, lay on either side of the narrow, shoulderless road. It gave me the heebie-jeebies, even in broad daylight. I always hurried through, relieved to crest the hill on the other side and return to civilization.

One lazy summer day as we were walking toward her house and nearing the swamp, a red car passed, slowly. My invisible antennae popped up: too slowly. Too slowly! We were youngsters — ten, maybe eleven, years old. Suddenly I felt extremely vulnerable.

We seldom heard about child abductions back then but my mother had narrowly escaped a stranger under similar circumstances, decades prior. I knew that story well. A heartfelt obligation to return her brother’s bicycle was her salvation. Otherwise, she would have climbed into the car to help the “nice man” find his “little boy, gone missing.” No one had ever warned her otherwise.

But I had been warned. My antennae quivering in alarm, I crept ahead to peek around the bend in the road. To this day I am surprised I had either the foresight or the courage. (Was there an angel pressing me on?) My antennae nearly launched me into outer space when I saw the trap!

The car was turned 180 degrees, so as to be headed back in our direction. Stopped in the middle of the swamp, the engine was still running. The hood was up. The man appeared to be fixing something. He was standing there, by the front of the car. I must have stifled the urge to scream because I am still so inclined, thirty-odd years later. I carefully crept back to my friend.

J had yet to be convinced of the danger but alas, she was an innocent. We were some distance from my house. The only thing that occurred to me was to hide in the ditch. She conceded and we did, hoping the grass was sufficient cover.

It wasn’t long before we heard the hood slam, the door shut, and the tires turn. We held our breath as he drove ever so slowly past our hiding place. Amazed to remain undiscovered, we lay still for some time, barely breathing. When it finally felt safe, we scooted back to my house as fast as our legs would carry us.

The police report dead-ended and I repressed the frightful memory. But years later, driving down that road, it all came rushing back. I slowed where we hid and shuddered, appreciating the unlikely outcome. Even if the ditch was much deeper then, and the grass thicker and longer. Even though we were just kids. It was not much of a hiding place.

There is no doubt in my mind that we were protected from evil on that day. Incredibly, from the first time I allowed myself to fully revisit the memory, it includes an additional detail. In my mind’s eye, I see our niche in the shallow ditch covered by mighty wings.

This imagery has remained vivid for two decades. These are not the wings of a flighty songbird. These wings are like a shield. The feathers are long and layered so densely as to be impenetrable. They are mottled shades of gray and brown, melding into the scrub brush and dried grasses. They overlap slightly but are plenty broad to conceal what lies beneath. There is no hint of refugees in hiding here. This is a secure shelter, a safe place, a dry and warm haven.

When my children were little, I made up a simple tune to help them learn Psalm 91:11. He orders His angels to protect you wherever you go. I’ve often hummed it to myself, drawing courage from a promise I know — I know! — to be true. I’m so thankful for wings wide enough to hide — be they wings of angels or of God. I know that fledgling faith flourishes beneath.

Psalm 91:1-4

Those who live in the shelter of the Most High
will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
This I declare about the Lord: He alone is my refuge, my place of safety;
he is my God, and I trust him.
For he will rescue you from every trap
and protect you from deadly disease.
He will cover you with his feathers.
He will shelter you with his wings.
His faithful promises are your armor and protection... [Read more…]

~René Morley

w00t!

Yesterday my sister completed her college education. She beat the odds — lots of odds. Do you know how many people start but fail to complete college? To say nothing of moms with three children attending numerous institutions of higher learning in several states over nearly two decades? Not many. Reality check! (Or this. Or this.) U.S. completion rates are a national tragedy but .. MY SISTER DID IT! Words cannot express just how proud I am of her.

Tonight we’re going to celebrate. She’s in Virginia and I am not so we will celebrate virtually. We’ll start with a glass of white wine in each state (okay, maybe two) as she unpacks a couple of boxes. Inside are a series of surprises I shipped last week.

She’s out for a run right now so it’s safe to spill these beans…

There are a few unwrapped odds ‘n ends. There is a money belt, per Rick Steves, to secure valuables in pick-pocket territory. (Sure, he’s goofy but he’s also proven right.) A bundle of Redkin shampoos and conditioners in handy foil packets, courtesy of my stylist. The Rick Steves’ 2012 Italy guidebook with an especially nice section on Rome. (Hotel Smeraldo requires current copy in hand for the discount.) The movie “In Her Shoes” with Cameron Diaz. And a selection of sweet and nostalgic tunes for such a time as this.

There are a few gift wrapped items, too. Mini-shortbread cookies and dried fruit nuggets packaged with the Royal Caribbean logo, just for fun. A huge quasi-classy Royal Caribbean tote bag. A bottle of Victoria’s Secret body lotion in some exotic scent. And a home-made travel journal.

That last one is my favorite. It’s so analog. I started with a small spiral bound notebook and added little maps and notes about the journey ahead. I sketched out some walking tours. And included some thoughts about what my sister means to me; sometimes you don’t figure that out until years after you last shared a closet, clothes or a bedroom.*

So, yes. We’ll soon embark on A. Big. Trip. in honor of my sister’s awesome achievement. I can’t wait to begin scheming excursions on Crete and in Athens, Greece; in Ephesus, Turkey; on Sicily, Italy; and especially to return to Rome! I’m going to plot a path a couple thousand years behind the apostle, Paul. In between, we’ll sail the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, enjoying sweet sunsets. No doubt she’ll lap me in her morning runs as I’m walking off dessert and frosty concoctions. With any luck, my daughter and her son will join our celebration.

Seems this is the ~year of celebrations, eh? Two chids’ weddings. A new job. Two special sister trips abroad — the first was in March. Come November, the Hubs and I will celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary. That’s an awesome thirteen-month ride. W00t!

Just for my sister, I’ll say it again: w00t! That’s w-double-zero-t — w00t!

~René Morley

*And again, this is why I love Terri Hendrix’ “Sister’s Song”. Listen in…

heavy boots

Heavy boots.

I learned this phrase last week in reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. The story is of a young boy deeply impacted by his father’s death in the 9/11 attack on New York City. As he wrestles with that horrific event, his own guilt from presumed failures on that dark day, his lack of control and the likelihood of continued tragedy in his life, he often references his heavy boots.

Oskar’s improbable journey in solving a puzzle, following clues around the city as he believes his Dad intended, is his remarkable pathway to healing. His boots lighten as the load is shared, shouldered mostly by caring elderly folk who step into his journey. I love the multi-generational nature of his healing.

I first learned something about heavy boots a long time ago, when my little sister was four, perhaps five, years old. We were making our way across a muddy pasture when she became too mired to move another step. She started wailing, as she was wont to do. And I, only fourteen months older and not a whole lot bigger, was at loss for how to help.

Fortunately, Grampy was not far away, bouncing across a hayfield atop an ancient tractor. He noticed her plight, stopped his work and rushed to the rescue. Grampy pulled my sister and her boots out of the muck, carried her to safety, and set her down on solid ground.

This sweet memory is a perfect illustration of our heavenly Father’s care for us, affirmed over and over in scripture. One of the first verses our children learned in Sunday School was a simplified version of 1 Peter 5:7, “God cares for you.” I have certainly found this to be true. Many a time I have been stuck and wailing and always, somehow, rescued. Most often He’s used others to help pluck me from the muck.

Each time my boots have become too heavy — whether disheartened by my own failure, burdened by health concerns, frightened by an untenable situation, grieving a loss, or wounded and hiding from the world — I can recall exactly who came alongside. Often it’s been my husband or sister-friend; sometimes my aunt, my mom, or a colleague. And to my joy, as my children have matured into independent adults, God uses them, too.

Regardless, it is only done with “There, but for the grace of God, go I…” humility and compassion, rushing in with love, never arrogance or accusation. There is no I told you so or I can fix this for you, just a patient Let me love you while you wail. But my boots get lighter as we wait on God together. Love, like my Grampy, lifts heavy boots.

Don’t just pretend to love others, really love them. (Romans 12:9)

~René Morley

belonging

I returned home late last night from Chicago. It was a good trip. Not as good as I hoped because my time out and about in the city was limited to, well, just about none at all. But I did the work, connected with a few colleagues, made new business connections, experienced smooth flights and safe travel. Really, no complaints.

Except that this morning I feel so weary. It’s that ache-all-over feeling. It might be created, in part, by sleeping in anything but my own Tempur-Pedic bed for too many nights. Or multiple hours in those crazy uncomfortable plane seats. Or hauling a bag full of geek gear along for the ride. But mostly, I think, it is the result of remaining in a high-alert defensive mode as I traverse some part of this big ol’ world alone.

So I was really thankful for this guy at the airport restaurant looking for business. He crashed through the line at Chili’s asking for, “Singles? Follow me! Plenty of room here for you and your laptop!” I happily jumped the line to follow the pied piper. It was a bit of a disappointment to be led to the bar but he was right, there was plenty of room. He said the hostesses didn’t appreciate his interventions but there was nothing they could do about it and, “I gotta’ make a living, too!”

From my little perch I watched him work. Every few minutes, when the line got long, he’d go back looking for more business. Most of the time, he brought someone back with him. He’d warm up to every customer in a way that made him or her feel they belonged and, as a result, kept the place humming. I felt myself relaxing a bit, letting down my guard, enjoying the chit-chat and banter as he engaged his clients with even-handed expertise. When I departed, I left a nice tip. He’d earned it.

As I thought about this brief interlude in my day, I was reminded why it always feels so good to come home. No matter where I travel, I look forward to returning to where I feel safe. Where I am loved. Where I belong.

Everyone should be so lucky.

~René Morley

they call me dad

Tony fit into our plans perfectly that Thursday morning, as Phillipsburg was still shuttered and we were eager to make tracks for Marigot, Saint Martin. We were looking for straw market bargains, and something tasty at la Sucriere, perhaps also some café au lait. And we were determined to return to l’Escale des îles for more of Dona Bryhiel’s Simple Life. Tony loaded us into his sparkling clean van and off we went.

Drivers are a dime a dozen but Tony was a storyteller. He recounted tales of growing up on the island, playing ball in narrowly cobbled streets devoid of traffic and fishing — whenever he wasn’t in school. He pointed out his birthplace as we sailed around one corner, allowing a brief glimpse of a modest two story structure painted aqua-green.

Tony didn’t seem overly discouraged that what his uncle sold for a few thousand dollars is now valued in the millions. As we drove on he pointed out several other examples of property value gone wild in paradise. His good humor about the local economic impact was impressive. I can only dream of owning property here; to lose it at such a loss seems worse, by far.

Tony pulled over briefly along the way to engage a sharply dressed young man walking to work. As we resumed our journey, he told us the story. A few years ago, this fellow was among many who regularly congregated at his home, hanging out with his own kids. “They all call me Dad,” he said. He was justifiably proud of his mentoring within the community and noted that he spends a lot of time teaching tennis, even raising up a championship team. But this particular fellow was headed down the wrong path, using drugs and abusing alcohol, and Tony had banned him from the premises. This was tough love and a necessary measure of protection, for his own.

Visiting the local prison, he was surprised to find so many familiar faces, children of promise now incarcerated. Although dismayed by the impact of drugs and alcohol on this generation and his community, Tony seemed indefatigable. He’d retired early from a successful career only to take up driving cab to put his children through college. He hadn’t anticipated such a large family but education was the priority. He held his kids and their friends closely accountable. “If you can’t tell Dad, then it’s wrong.” Simple and effective, it was his only rule.

The fellow on the street in Phillipsburg needed an extra year to complete school but was back on track, entering a telecommunications career. What joy Tony expressed in the redemption of one of those who call him Dad! He was every bit as proud as he was of his own six children, all successful students and young professionals in careers ranging from surgeon to engineer. What a gift, this man Tony, an anchor on spit of land 32 miles square in the middle of nowhere.

Tony’s story has lingered in my mind since we departed Sint Maarten. Sometimes one person makes a lot of difference, and often quietly. Tony had embraced the opportunities that unfolded in front of him to become a loving father figure to God-only-knows how many, impacted for good. This set me to wondering about my own opportunities, perhaps yet unrecognized. What will be my legacy, locally? What will be my lasting impact on the community? What will I do now, knowing Tony?

~René Morley

scene change

20120318-084231.jpgA change of scenery in the presence of good company is a sure pick-me-up. My personal favorite is seaside: sun, surf, sand with someone I love. As winter in the North Country winds down, we are overdue. Last week my sister and her husband further improved upon a sweet sail.

Sometimes our scenery was expansive. A long stretch of turquoise deepened to azure and cyan and finally cobalt, extending into forever. Then we were reminded of our place on this planet; mere specks, dangling precariously from a moment in time.

Often, the scene was set more closely, on a lovely face recounting a dramatic sea-life encounter, savoring juicy fruit not long from the tree, or relaxing fully into the sun’s embrace. Her eyes and her laugh were warm and familiar, her presence comforting. Sisters are solid footing as the world spins madly on.

We explored some scenes step by step, feeling our way along. We need not submerge to learn of the seabed, laid bare like an offering at our feet. Pebbles and coral, worn round by the surf were tossed upon shore for a sun-baked finish. Sharpish fragments of reef, shells and sea debris were pounded into submission; quick-dried in the midday heat, they stuck stubbornly to our feet. Beautiful in black, pink, gold, or white, the most exquisite beach was flecked with grains of each.

But the best was a beach broad and deep, a swath of silky smooth sand sparkling bright in warm sunlight. We walked ankle-deep, gentle waves caressing each easy step around the perimeter of paradise. Generously ringed by mangroves and palms, it was a respite, a place to lay quiet and listen. Waves washed in and out, timed to our deep breathing of sea-salty air and fragrant fronds blessed by sunbeams.

Elemental; really, nothing much. And yet, it was enough.

~René Morley

P.S. My sister and I could play double for the other,
if it were only about matching laughs … or feet.

sister time

20120310-180017.jpgEarly this morning we set out. It was a sloppy and slow drive to the airport but the inconveniences of life are of no great consequence when you are in the right frame of mind. We were happy to be on the road, heading south into the sunshine and leaving the snow behind.

The Hubs and I have come to count on a March migration to tropical ports of call to restore the fabric of a relationship worn a bit thin over the course of a year. Work is hard; life is stressful. It has come to feel like a necessity, this one week afloat. However, this trip is sweeter still because my sister and her husband will join us for their first cruise. We are celebrating her fiftieth birthday and their thirtieth anniversary — milestones well worth marking. Did I mention she is my older sister? Sometimes that does come in handy.

The last vacation I remember together was in high school. We stayed a week or two at a small cottage on Cranberry Lake with gritty linoleum floors, lumpy mattresses and a faint smell of mildew. My family thought it was paradise and delighted in learning the secrets of the lake and exploring the surrounding woodlands. Breathing deeply in the balsam and pine, catching sunfish, learning to waterski, life was good. Yet I don’t recall a single event of that vacation specific to my sister.

I admired and respected my sister. She was three years older, much smarter and effortlessly successful, or so it seemed. As the eldest, she shouldered a lot of responsibility and hardly flinched. Still, we didn’t exactly get on. We pursued shared interests separately, if not competitively. We seldom shared clothes, or friends, or secrets. We did share a bedroom but drew a line down the middle of the bright orange carpet to keep the peace. Somehow she knew if I even breathed on her side. I was surprised that I cried when she left home after high school, but I did, I sobbed. I didn’t know when she’d come back, if she’d come back, and suddenly felt so alone.

She never really came back and our lives quickly moved on, consumed with the challenges young marriage and childrearing bring. But eventually our time did come, as it should for all sisters. Newfound freedoms and fresh perspectives of our forties ushered us into our complicated “middle place“, coalescing into precious opportunities to grow closer. Incompatibilities of decades past are now celebrated distinctions, just more reasons to be proud of her.

We’ve made up for a lot of lost time, my sister and I. And now, we’re buying time: a whole week together on vacation! We’ll laugh until our sides hurt, talk until we’re hoarse, and make great memories to last a lifetime, this time. Our cabana boys have promised to keep the frosty drinks flowing and sunscreen slathered on thick. What more could we ask?

So here we sit, the Hubs and I, enjoying a glass of vino and a cold brew, waiting for our people. Yay! There’s my sister!

~René Morley

P.S. Terri Hendrix gets it just right with her sweet Sister’s Song. Listen in…