Finishing Touches

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By Monday, December 3, it was time to decorate the house. Although a hike through the woods or onto a parking lot would have resulted in a real tree, I simply pulled an elongated box from the shelf and fit together three pieces of an eight-foot artificial tree (lights already strung). Unadorned, she is a common, plastic creature, but once dressed in ornaments, she becomes a red and silver beauty.

Some of the ornaments are easy to place. Finishing touches demand a bit more skill: candy canes and pups in socks, musical instruments and miniature wrapped presents. What is missing is the smell of real pine, but cinnamon candles offer an alternative.

The challenge is the village, which every year is situated on ten feet of book shelf surface. Not much of a task to place the buildings, but oh, those little additions that complete the scene. No question that fireman and his Dalmatian stand in front of the fire station, but where to put the people with gifts? They can’t all be coming from the train station.

And how to stack tuna and tomato paste cans underneath that white flannel so that the children slide down a snowy hill? Or place the hydrants where a dog can stop and sniff and be sure to keep the mailman moving right along to deliver letters and packages? Like the final stroke on a painting, tiny details finish the annual project and leave me with a sense, not only of satisfaction, but completion.

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Within this home enters a new spirit because my sister Mary bequeathed me her holiday banners: JOY TO THE WORLD spreads across the space above the piano, and PEACE hangs over the small ceramic tree. The Magi on one wall point to Bethlehem and the star hanging on another. The Angel floats above the village. I love my sister’s banners: exquisite designs, made perfect by curved edges, beaded crowns, and fringed garments. No need to add a final flourish to any of them.

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All the while I sing along with Sissel, James Taylor, and Rene Fleming. They sing of snow drifting on rooftops, birth in bleak midwinter, and city sidewalks dressed in holiday style.  Another weary year slips away into a new Christmas. And then comes Fleming’s haunting version of the Sandy Denny song:

Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving
But how can they know it’s time for them to go . . .
For who knows where the time goes?
who knows where the time goes?

tree-3Turning a small skater at one angle and securing the pastor who keeps falling in front of his church, making sure that identical ornaments are spaced far apart is a metaphor, I suppose, of peace: the finishing touches I seek in folds of fabric, orbs of shining glass, and the cascade of lovely music. Winter holidays never possess that completion my heart desires, but at the end of the year when the shadows and night deepen, when the wind and rain slice the air,  rituals promise that perhaps this Christmas will be the most wondrous of all.

 

Nestling Things

Today has been one of those miraculous twelve-hour-periods for a writer: wake up in the morning with what has the potential to be a bright idea and watch in surprise as it bursts into kaleidoscopic pieces that by the end of the day nestle into place.

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The Oregon Historical Society emailed their Holiday Cheer flyer and offered, by way of a technical, personalized click, to insert my book into my media postings. I could now send news of the event with my very own Far from Home on the shelf—and quite close to best-selling author Philip Margolin. “How nice to be tucked in with other books,” I thought, and decided that maybe my next blog might explore the theme of “tucked in.”

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What a surprise to see some berries tucked under the leaves. Although most stuck their heads out on twiggy necks, the hidden ones demanded that if I wanted to snap them, I had to angle the camera, move in close, and sacrifice a clear focus on green.

Unexpected as well was seeing bushes stripped clean, their branches like a wooden bowl whose task is to collect the dying.

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Autumn’s brilliant color that burrows deep into the earth happens every year, but never ceases to amaze me. I love this little poem of Adelaide Crapsey, woman of the strange name, but whose “November Night” captures with classic simplicity what I tried to describe with the bushes:

Listen. .
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
And fall.

Since the recent death of my sister Mary, mortality is never far from my thoughts these days. I have the olivewood crucifix she held before she died, her antique rocker, and her wall plaque that holds a vigil candle. I also have a battered family Bible (copyright 1914) she kept.

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And it was in this Bible that her daughters, Andrea and Lisa, slipped a photo, taken in 2016, a photo I had not seen before. There it was, tucked into Tobias. How many scriptural stories tell of nesting thing? Moses in the bulrushes, a sleeping Jesus burrowed deep inside the boat, and Corinthians reminding us that our spirits nestle deep in earthen vessels.

The day was almost over, and still there was one more piece of the idea to fall into place. At 5:00, the world turned dark and the rains came. A walk outside with the dog, but not too long because Angel and I were eager to head back into the warmth.

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And then I remembered that this time of year remains a favorite, not just because of hot cider and flannel sheets and a comfy throw in which to burrow, but the memory of childhood, when I was bundled warm and cozy beneath the covers, listening to my mother read from Eugene Field:

Wynken and Blynken are two little eyes,
And Nod is a little head,
And the wooden shoe that sailed the skies
Is a wee one’s trundle-bed;
So shut your eyes while Mother sings
Of wonderful sights that be,
And you shall see the beautiful things
As you rock in the misty sea.

Before sleep comes I want to remember how red berries hide in emerald nests and tired leaves fall into wooden bowls. I’m ready to be grateful for the day’s surprises. I am ready to discover, for a few brief moments, how to tuck myself, like a good book, into the shelf of the night.

Falling Art

The weather is colder now, the wind is up, and I know exactly where to find my WinterTrax cleats when the ice comes. I am afraid of falling. Yet there is an art to a soft tumble, as AARP tells us older folks. The safest route is to keep falling. The more we give in to the fall, the kinder it will be. Maybe that is one reason why autumn draws me, not only because of the color, but because in this season I am surrounded by lessons on fall.

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Leaves stay vibrant in oranges and reds on the branches, but they drift down in those colors as well. The grass becomes Nature’s wedding bed and the leaves like rose petals. Not the fragrance of passion and beginnings, but the deep, earthy scent of loss and endings. They slip beneath my feet and become their own nest in which children scamper and dogs romp.

Above, leaves turn color, transforming themselves into gold, holding fast against wind and rain. No question that a leaf- by-leaf tumble is still ahead. Even the squirrels take advantage. They nibble at maple seeds, like this little guy eating hungrily on the tree outside my window. Such a busy fellow, such a voracious appetite, such an eager helper for autumn’s falling season.

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A small cluster of leaves reminds me of O. Henry’s short story “The Last Leaf.” True to his gift for paradox, the author writes of  a young artist, sick with pneumonia, who knows that when the last leaf on the vine outside her window falls, she will die. But she is tricked into health because an old artist, laboring in the cold, paints a likeness on the brick. The young one lives, the old one dies. The story ends with these lines: “Didn’t you wonder why it never fluttered or moved when the wind blew? Ah, darling, he painted it there the night that the last leaf fell.”

Now this is a story that demands a willing suspension of disbelief.

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No artist’s final masterpiece can replicate autumn’s glory or keep leaves fixed to the maple outside my bedroom window. No paradox from literature can deny the barrenness and decay that follow autumn’s initial brilliant spectacle. What then is left for me? Thank the workers with leaf blowers who did not come. Practice daily the art of the soft, inevitable fall.

Real Estate

On a September day when my sister Mary’s home smelled of lavender and the almost-autumn light poured in through the front door, she and I talked about heaven—that mysterious place where both of us plan to land.

I thought about how much I love books, like Vanderpool’s Moon Over Manifest that I was reading. I leaned forward in the rocker. “Heaven better have a library.”

Mary smiled and her blue eyes twinkled. “I want an audiobook section so that I can listen to stories and do my crafts.”

How many books has she listened to over the years? Too many to count, but I can imagine her listening and at work with velvet and cotton, yarn and buttons, as her magical finger puppets and dolls, quilts and book covers, crocheted doilies and critters take shape—like this six-inch rabbit which happens to be one of my favorites:

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Later that day, riding home on MAX, I listened to the clack and rattle of metal and steel and thought how images of heaven come and go. As a child I was fascinated by sliced thunder eggs, with their rough exterior and splendid patterns and rainbow colors inside. I also knew that the Book of Revelation fit right in with stones and agates: jasper, sapphire, emerald, and carnelian adorned heaven. Once through the pearly gates, I would have jeweled surfaces upon which to skip rope and never miss a beat.

As an adult, I began to turn to nature, listening to and praying Psalm 23 and Isaiah. If I lived a good life a river would run through my home and a Tree of Life would bear luscious fruit. What was waiting for me was a landscape of verdant meadows—green bells and cockleshells everywhere.

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Right now I’m a fan of a heavenly real estate mentioned in the Gospel of John, 14: 2. Jesus tells his apostles that he is going to prepare a dwelling place for them and that this place has many rooms. Some translations use the word “mansions” for what God’s House encompasses. I’m afraid that tapestry and parlors and winding staircases do not excite me, but a library of wood and leather is a huge draw.

What estate, castle, or mansion does not have one? And libraries are so diverse, whether heavy with medieval tomes or shiny with Baroque bindings. Contemporary architecture presents another vision, like the Tianjin Library in China which catapults my imagination skyward.

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One look at China’s other-worldly building and a paraphrased quotation from scripture flares in my mind: “Eye has not seen, nor has ear heard, what is waiting for us.” I ask myself, since humans can construct such a haven for book lovers, what will the heavenly library look like?

My sister Mary and I agree that each person just might experience a completely different Great Beyond, one in keeping with desires of the heart: maybe jasper enduring clear as crystal, or meadows eternally ablaze with butterflies, or never-ending reading/listening shelves set above craft tables. Given our well-used gifts of voice and eye, Mary and I will both receive our reward: audiobooks and hard copies.

Dylan Thomas, without knowing it, described the everlasting celestial season when he wrote in “Notes on the Art of Poetry”:

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Snap Shot

In Witch of Kodakery, author Carole Glauber presents the amazing life and photography of Oregonian Myra Albert Wiggins. The word “Witch” was part of Kodak ads, alluding to photography’s magic and charm, and certainly Wiggins beguiled her national audience. Her contribution spiraled beyond the camera, to that of artist, writer, and poet. She was a fearless, ambitious pioneer who believed that photography seeks “. . . to reveal to others . . . glimpses of this world with ‘God’s great pictures hung’” (53). What a lovely image: framing nature’s light and shadow so that people pause to look.

Some days I take a walk solely to snap photos of the spaces between branches, colors that zing, and odd-angles shapes. What I also bring with me is a mind humming with snatches of songs and lines of poetry that flow out as soon as I claim a subject for my iPhone.

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Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire
Ring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.

— William Blake

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The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil . . .

— Gerard Manley Hopkins

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How warm a wind blew here about the ways!
And shadows on the hillside lay to slumber
During the long sun-sweetened summer-days.

— Trumbull Stickney

light tree

Light takes the Tree, but who can tell us how?

— Theodore Roethke

perfect rose

Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet—
One perfect rose.

— Dorothy Parker

My walks in the neighborhood (iPhone in hand) are not the adventures of an indomitable Myra Albert Wiggins, but more my curiosity with a final product. As I continue to read Witch of Kodakery, I see another dimension, very different from my need for closure. A photo, in the hands of the artist, possesses resilience. In the Foreword to Witch, Terry Toedtemeier writes that “. . . the plasticity of camera representation has been put to the fascinating task of recording, on the one hand, what the eye sees, and on the other, simulating what the mind envisions” (IX).

These words encourage me to seek out light and shadow, to focus, and to let verses spill out. What a discovery to realize that the technical image declares what I see and the poetic symbols invite me beyond.

Amen. Click.

Discards

Candles in my home, which are often lit for celebrations and intentions, center me. But not if the flames are out of control, like fires raging here in the west. Smoky air has turned the morning sun red-hued—a stark reminder to me of those who live too close to forests ablaze. I thought of that age-old dilemma: if your house was on fire, what would you take with you?

Then, that worn gold shoe appeared on the sidewalk. Why was a single slipper left behind? Would the owner be relieved or disappointed with one less item to carry? I couldn’t help but think of Grimm’s fairy tale of Cinderella and her gold (not glass) slipper. With discards, flight, and fire on my mind, I started to write about what we take and what we leave behind.

In case of emergency what would I grab? On impulse, I pulled my bed-quilt free and threw in my treasures: the photo of my siblings and my drawing of an Indian woman, my father’s elephant bell, my Franciscan Praise, and dulcimer. And, of course, room for Angel. I imagined the bundle like a hobo sack thrown across my shoulders.

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Strange the catalog of what I left behind: tunics and sweaters, jackets and shoes, books and letters, identification documents and journals, energy bars and bottled water, matches and aspirin, dog kibble and flashlight. No thought whatsoever of packing computer or iPad, phone or flash drives.

In an emergency, my decisions would have made no sense. Prepare, we are told, as though you were going on a camping trip. Looking at my selection, I realized the impracticality regarding what I left behind—maybe like the person who surrendered only one gold slipper.

Years ago, before clear cuts and diminishing salmon, when the air was clearer and the threat of flame minimal, Robert Frost wrote “Fire and Ice”:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

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Frost’s philosophical, cynical version of destruction links fire with desire and ice with hate. In the past I favored the blazing choice, but now fire terrifies me. I would run west—toward water—with my quilt of belongings. Before I ever reached the cooling ocean, my framed photos and dulcimer would be too heavy, and the bell and prayer book would drop along the way. Perhaps in the future someone would come along, follow the trail of items, take photographs, and write a book, (with a nod to Tim O’Brien) The Things They Couldn’t Carry.

Angel, precious belonging, would remain with me, bouncing safe against my heart, until I set her down to run free along that coastline—both of us cool, but stripped clean. And I would, once again, count her the most essential, and, like Grimm’s description of Cinderella’s slipper, worth her eight-and-a-half pound weight in pure gold.

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Attention

Remember Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, the fable of guileless children and preoccupied, inattentive adults? Remember what the narrator (so consumed with matters of consequence) learns from the tiny prince (so consumed about tending his rose)? And it is a single rose that lives on his planet, a rose who “chose her colors with the greatest care” and who did not “wish to go out in the world all rumpled, like the field poppies.” Certainly the fable is one of friendship, love, and loss of the unique, but what makes me smile is the depiction of the rose. How vain the flower is, how she expects to be protected, and how true to life Saint-Exupéry describes the tending of a rose.

HPIM0284Six years ago, I had my own rose bush, just outside the door. I cared for it: watched the leaves burn red and green, delighted in the new buds, breathed in the fragrance of the bush, clipped the flower just about the five leaf, pruned it knee-high in November, clipped it low, shaped like a basin, in February, and waited for the apricot surprise waiting every summer.

HPIM0283Years have passed and I have not cared for a single rose. Even though I live in an apartment complex, I was sure that management would give me permission to plant one outside my patio. The answer was “No.” I do understand. Like the flower of the little prince, roses demand attention. Then, in May, a young friend who was moving offered me a plant. “It will get better care with you,” she said. And she handed me a rose twig perfectly suited to the pot and the sunlight on my patio.

Over the months I have faithfully tended this tiny plant. And little by little she has flourished. Not yet ready to bloom, but so close, so close.

You’d think I would be content. Instead, I have walked the neighborhood noting rose bushes, the healthy ones peering from inside fences, the bedraggled ones hanging limp outside the yards.

IMG_1005A neighbor lady and I met one morning, a sad rose bush between us. As she watered her potted geraniums and golden zinnias, we talked about warm weather and our dogs and summer plants.

“What about this rose bush?” I asked.

“Not mine. It’s in the neighborhood’s common space.”

“I need a rose to tend.”

“You go for it.” she answered.

I clipped old blooms just above the five-leaf marker. New leaves burned a familiar green and red. Not having been tended for a while, the leaves had suffered insect nibbling and the bush was a bit on the shabby side. Gradually, though, the buds are coming, not in apricot tones, but in lipstick red.

IMG_1043I will fuss over my tiny roses and the larger cluster just two blocks away. There is a difference, however, between me and Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince. My patio rose and I may watch sunset traces and falling stars, but I cannot drag a lawn chair down the street. My neighbor, initially gracious and generous, would probably open her curtains, observe the scene outside her window, and judge me a bit obsessed, sitting in the dark, paying too close attention to a singular rose bush.

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Miss Manners

Not so long ago, individuals were expected to follow rules of etiquette. The courteous were welcomed in society because they displayed gracious manners, educated opinions, and the ability to listen to those with differing views. Crass or cruelbehavior had no place in polite society.

And in the canine upper-class world, Angel was expected to excel in social graces. After all, she possessed papers verifying her noble Shih Tzu bloodlines. But because she is only human—whoops, canine—she had to learn the hard way how to navigate in the big, bad world.

Rule # 1: With a patient strategy, the domineering can be redeemed.

In the beginning, Darla, a huge lab, considered Angel and her leash as dog toys. One tug and Angel turned biblical: “Wherever you go, I will go, too.” Darla, though, was just a gentle giant. If Angel didn’t resist, Darla lost interest. The gist of this story (the little and big of it), is that the two became good friends.

Rule # 2: In matters of war and peace, the former gets you riled and the latter helps you sleep.

Somewhere around eight months, Angel decided to assert herself—a behavior she carries to this day. No one would treat her like a stuffed toy. She scampered around so fast that humans thought petting her was akin to chasing a squirrel. Playing hard and wild taught Angel an additional truth: too much exertion ends in collapse. Out of self-preservation she settled for a more non-confrontational posture.

Rule # 3: Sharing is essential to the common good.

Oh, but generosity has never come easily to this eight-and-a-half-pound pup. She prefers her own toys and her own company. How simple that would have been if she were the only dog, but for ten years she has lived in a household of visiting dogs and adoptive siblings, so she has no choice but to share. And the meeting place is the living room dog bed. 

Rule # 4: Sometimes the one so different from us becomes the greatest treasure.

Of all the dogs in Angel’s life, her best buddy was a big, gangly, scruffy mutt named Josie. By appearances, they would have seemed a strange pair, but what a bond. No matter that one was a breeder’s darling and the other a cast-off, or that Angel’s hair was silky beige and white and Josie’s was wiry black and gray. So different, so linked, such faithful friends, content to share time and cushion. When, after twelve years of life, Josie began to fail, Angel refused to leave her side.

The other day I sang along with Anne Murray’s “Sure Could Use a Little Good News Today.” So often, the world’s anger knocks the wind out of me, and then I look at Angel’s funny face and I laugh. Miss Manners? Maybe not all the time, but just enough. If creatures, through instinct, can curl up with those four rules, if animals can give and take and make friends with those different from them, maybe there is hope for the rest of us.

Falling

IMG_0762-1Over the past two weeks, with suicides front-page news, I have thought of that woman waiting for the MAX train and the question she asked. “Is sadness a sin?” Long ago, I was taught that sadness robs us of gratitude. I was taught that sadness could lead to despair, and despair robs us of hope. To give up on God’s Providence was the one unforgivable sin. Now that teaching seems to me not only harsh but unforgiving. I believe that for every fall into depression or melancholy, there is a foothold leading upwards. Each of us climbs toward relief in ways that can be confounding, individual, and sometimes incredibly sad.

yin-yangSadness—no matter what form it takes—is never a sin and remains inescapable. There is sorrow linking me to another’s pain; melancholy coming from a world where cruelty and greed seem pervasive. Sadness slips in, reminding me that I am limited, and that I am mortal. Sadness is also the flip side of joy, the quality Carl Jung describes: “The word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.” Weariness of soul has the power to throw us off-kilter, yet Jung talks about the balance of happiness and sadness, like walking a tightrope with these two aspects offering equilibrium.

As a child I devoured books like Anne of Green Gables and Nancy Drew Mysteries. I loved Polyanna, that bright creature sure of a rainbow in the downpour. Noble, confident characters were the people with whom I wanted to play and happy endings were where I wanted to be. Scurry away from sadness and skip into the meadow.

IMG_0844 (1)I still prefer to breathe in Pollyanna’s world of flowers and color. I’m that character Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote about in the song, “Tell Me on a Sunday.” Even if it means a ruptured relationship, tell me goodbye (“no long faces, no long looks”) in a place of trees, a loving spot for chimpanzees, or a ride on a flying trapeze.

Yet there are six other days besides Sunday, and so I return to the fact that sadness is an integral part of the work-week, and part of being human. My task is to recognize gloom, and then find ways to release its grip.

Recently I attended Broadway Books’ party for Kim Stafford, Oregon’s new Poet Laureate. Wise and funny, he is a man in love both with words and his audience. What I left with, though, was Stafford’s invitation to bring light wherever there is darkness.

IMG_0690 (2)I cannot go back to that MAX experience and replay what I could have said to the woman who asked, “Is sadness a sin?” But I have a partial answer, one I found in Stafford’s elegant little book, Take What You Need. So many of his poems issue the challenge to bring a small flashlight on the journey. Stafford’s words in the poem “Dear America,” can keep me company on any bus or train platform:

If you were a river, I would be a raindrop
sipped into your sweep . . .
If you were a sorrow, I would be a glimmer.

Entry

The lovely entrance to the home of my niece Andrea Bigcraft is a metaphor for the welcome I have experienced during these weeks of promoting my memoir Far from Home. The doors of family and friends have opened wide in Oakland, California, Ashland and Portland, Oregon. It is the hospitality Judy Collins celebrates in “Song for Judith”: “Open the door and come on in.”

My love for doors did not just arrive because of a published book. Entrances are both works of art and a way to learn about treasures inside. Below are my door photos from travels to Denmark’s Kronberg Slot, better known as Hamlet’s Castle, and a building in Riga, Latvia.

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Years ago, Sister Helena Brand, SNJM, literature scholar and extraordinary educator, introduced me to the theme of hospitality. We studied Greek myths, like The Odyssey and the story of Philemon and Baucis (so similar to the angel story in Genesis 19). A poor couple welcomes into their home Jupiter and Mercury, the gods disguised as weary travelers. Rembrandt, Rubens, and van Oost depicted the story in art, but this engraving caught my eye.

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There is no beautiful door leading into the cottage, simply a wooden structure meant to keep out the cold, but open to pilgrims. “Come on in,” Baucis and Philemon say. “Share our fire, fruit, eggs, and wine.”

Nancy Haught’s wise and wonderful Sacred Strangers explores the same theme of open doors in Scripture. The universal lesson is this: welcome others into your home because you never know if and when you will be in the presence of the Divine. And the way in is through a door.

Doors Frick (2)If I had my preference, entries would possess carvings, color, and beauty, but more importantly, there would be someone on the other side ready to turn the knob and share hospitality, like Andrea. Judy Collins’ song continues, “I’m so glad to see you, my friend.”

So here I come, full circle, to where I started with my Facebook post, outside the splendid woodwork of the Frick Museum doors, sure that welcome and beauty are right across the threshold.