dandelion season

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The dandelions know:
the gentle breeze
threatens revolution.

Earth’s cycle repeats
in endless motion:

bloom and scatter,
bloom and scatter.

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Helpless I hold
my breath and wait,
anticipate undoing,
soon stripped bare
while you prepare
for release
into becoming.

Just yesterday
I grew you;
now I begin
to lose you.

Inside the walls
of my sturdy sheath,
wrapped tight beneath,
your small seed swelled
till I couldn’t tell
where I ended
and you began.

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Once unfolded,
we burst golden,
layers linked
interwoven,
brilliant petals waving
together, blossoms
welcoming spring.

Post-debut, we
again withdrew,
for just a moment
hidden. A brief
eclipse, nature’s magic
trick: time turned us
inside out.

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My motherheart holds
tight your hands
your starlit strands
alight, potential ripe.
Encircled I gaze
within your web amazed
caught in your cottonspun glory.

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Quivering arrows launch,
soar free in all directions.
Each wind-blown slip
leaves my soul pinpricked
awestruck in proud reflection.

My love,
as you glide
into boundless sky
all I can do
is watch you fly.

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held

I slipped through the crowd in the auditorium lobby, swung open the gallery’s glass door, and stepped inside. The bustle evaporated in a holy hush as the space swallowed all the chattering voices. White walls soothed my overstimulated brain. Paintings and photographs peppered throughout did not clamor for attention. Instead, they waited patiently to be noticed.

I wandered past the entryway into the cavernous main hall, where the ceiling stretched taller and gained another story. The polished butterscotch floor reflected the overhead light. Settling myself down on a simple wooden stool, I slid off my bulky coat and laid it down atop the pile made by my purse and bag.

I’d read the description for this meditation session offered to those attending the Festival of Faith and Writing: a brief retreat from the flurry of panels, interviews, classes, and speeches to practice centering prayer. When it fit into my schedule, I showed up, hungry for quiet. I looked around as I waited for it to begin.

A three-dimensional exhibit hung before me in the center of the large room. Photographs of sky and naked tree branches hung like floating puzzle pieces above my head. A rainbow of three-dimensional leaves floated beneath each one in various stages of descent. Lights shone down on the display and framed it on all sides. Silver wires supporting the foliage shimmered when hit by the light, but from other angles, tricked the eye and disappeared. Shadows painted the surrounding bare walls with the shape of each unique leaf, providing the illusion of a deeper forest.

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Soon the facilitator greeted those of us who had assembled. She asked us to close our eyes and relax, to breathe deeply and open our hands. The words she used were few but her voice ushered us into the presence of God. As I sat and stilled in the silence, the word I heard blow through my mind as we began our centering prayer was at once both foreign and familiar:

held

I focused on my breath, allowed my lungs to expand to their limit, then deflated them slowly and deliberately. Peace washed over me as I realized: I am being held.

I flashed back to the week I’d had before arriving at this conference. My sleep was interrupted, my mind was scattered, my days were frantic and checklist-driven. Finally, mid-week, it dawned on me: I was caught in the constricting grip of fear. A legion of lies had pinned me down and drained my energy. This mob loomed large and mysterious in the dark corners of my mind. When I had finally had enough, I confronted each one, brought them out of the background and into the light. I made them stand where I could see them and state their names. Exposed, one by one, they looked weak and silly. In the light, they lost their power. Once I could name the fears I held and see they were holding me back, I chose to let them go. But I was still weary from the fight.

It’s a lesson I have to relearn time and again: fear loses its grip when I choose faith.

At first, letting go of what’s familiar feels like chaos: a free fall that begins when I give up the safety of a sturdy branch far above the cold, hard ground. Trying something new, showing up as my real self, by myself, carries the risk of exposure, rejection, and loneliness. But if I never jump, I’ll wither and waste my one wild and precious life.

The artist captured the falling leaves in mid-flight. They weren’t struggling or clinging to anything; they were free: gliding, while guided and supported by an invisible presence. No longer clustered in a clump with others, their intricate designs revealed themselves in the empty air.

They were wrapped in the wind, held by the heavens, for the whole length of their journey. (Just like me.)

The result was breathtaking, even magical: frailty that trusts learns to fly.

Held. The word was a gift to me. A whispered promise.

I emerged from the sacred space a little calmer, a little braver, and much less alone.

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*This exhibit at Calvin College’s Center Art Gallery was entitled “Remembrances” by Jennifer L. Hand. The centering prayer exercise was led by J. Dana Trent. My sincere thanks to both of you for using your gifts so others like me could be inspired and encouraged.

care instructions

Spent days slump
jumbled together. Limbs
entangle, scents mingle
clamoring for individual
attention.

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Daily the cycle
starts anew:
Sort. Wash. Dry.
Fold. Stack. Replace.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Numbers on neckline
tags ascend along
with passing seasons.
Fading favorites survive
countless revolutions.
Tactile proof of play
reflects each iteration
of your changing self.

Thick tempera paint
splotches sweatshirts
with a rainbow rash.
Splattered marinara
explodes in fireworks
on sky-blue fronts.
Capture-the-flag stamps
spring musk onto
grass-smudged knees.

You are here
even
when you’re gone.

I track each one’s passage,
perform heroic search-
and-rescue from
neglected hampers,
overstuffed backpacks,
and dark closet floors.

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I read instructions,
group fabrics and colors,
pre-treat and soak spots,
line-dry delicates
to prevent them from
shrinking, and fight
stubborn stains
that remain.

Agitated, my heart
twists, soaks in
moments, thumps
in tandem with pulsing
revolutions heard
but not seen
behind closed doors.

 

Your shapes and styles
shift, resist capture,
and dance together
till they collapse.

My clothespin fingers
pinch shoulders stretched
straight. Empty shells
hang limp absent
your solid frames.

Shaking loose
wrinkles, I smooth
and shrink your shadows
into stripes of color.
Layers totter in
temporary towers
atop the soft
foundation of charcoal
couch cushions.

Stacks climb stairs,
rest at last in drawers,
wait again to be chosen.

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Someday I’ll teach you
to manage your own loads.
But for now, I carry
restocked baskets full
of options and let you
dress yourselves
in my love.

enough

A squawking skein of geese
scribbles an arrow overhead,
uniting in mid-
flight. In formation, mass
migration lassoes forces
unseen with collective
instinct. As each falls
in line, the deafening
chaos swells. Momentum
gains, I exclaim
pointing a startled finger.
My children notice.

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Tied to their poles, the fabric
of our nation whipped
by angry gusts waves
in front of their school.
Who decides how
high it’s raised?
Each day suffers
another mourning;
today (again)
it hangs exhausted
at half-staff. Too young,
my kids don’t know
the code. I choke
on stifled sobs
and drive us home.

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Beneath looming power-
lines I walk alone,
recharging. Erased
of color, the empty sky
highlights unnatural
hues strewn across shared
space: the litter of leftovers,
empty containers, willing
sacrifices offered
to a capricious god
of consumption.

Absent is sanguine
sunlight drowning
retinas in illusion, shrinking
trash to aberration,
burying sins deep
in tangled woods outside
our field of vision.

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Rubbish resisting
decomposition, awaiting
recognition, begs for someone
to say

Enough.

I bend,
pick up and carry
as much junk
as I can hold.

roadkill relics

Construction trash left by workmen littered the grass behind the newly bricked entrance sign. They’d be back to finish and clean up, or so their two-month-old promise claimed. But they hadn’t, and now it spread onto the road. The rubbish had morphed from an eyesore to a potential hazard. If not removed, my neighbors and I might drive over the junk for weeks. Broken glass threatened to puncture a tire. I pulled over to the curb and got out of my minivan, leaving my confused kids in the backseat. Plastic grocery sack in hand, I walked over to the edge of the intersection and bent down to clean it up.

With no tools, I had to improvise. My bare fingers served as bristles, sweeping shards of broken mirror and chunky frosted glass into the flimsy bag I held in my other hand. What is this? I wondered, sifting through the pieces.

Splattered across frozen pavement, figurines too big to be chess pieces laid surrounded by a fine powder. Their whitewashed faces wore solemn expressions: pious, pinched, opaque. Were these angels resting on a blanket of fresh snow? Or crime scene corpses outlined with smudged chalk?

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Underneath the pile, I discovered a flattened cardboard box and used it as a makeshift dustpan. Printed on its creased front, I found a gravestone marker: Frosted Glass Nativity. Mass-produced in a foreign factory and sold at a discount store, this set had survived cycles of storage and display only to face annihilation on a suburban street.

Their identities revealed themselves as I took a closer look. Some were maimed, forever mute or lame due to missing heads and limbs, but others were miraculously intact. Some were duplicates.

The January wind bit my exposed skin as I collected the pieces and rushed back to the shelter of my van. Buried under rubble, the survivors clinked together, jostling inside the bag. At home, I sorted through the wreckage, tossing the unsalvageable into my kitchen trash can and examining the remains.

The body count included two identical Marys. With downcast eyes, they crossed their arms against their chests. Their diminutive size and distinct head coverings identified them as feminine, the sole wom(e)n at the scene. Joseph was missing; the baby was left in his mothers’ care. Three complete and two partial wisemen clutched angled packages against the folds of their robes.

The only animals, a pair of sheep, formed mirror images, each with one foot extended, helpless in the absence of their shepherds. An unexplained red splotch marked one lamb’s back.

Propped in the chipped glass manger rested baby Jesus. His pouting lips cooed and limbs extended into the scratchy hay. No swaddling cloth protected his arms as they stretched wide, toward the edges of his dirty crib, longing to be rescued into someone’s loving embrace.

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I rinsed their bodies under the faucet with lukewarm water, then spread them onto a clean dish towel laid on the counter to dry, where they remain.

Christmas is over. They do not fit with our home decor. These discarded idols are broken, chipped, and incomplete, yet I can’t bring myself to condemn them to the landfill.

I can’t shake this odd discovery. Not simply trash, these relics are mementos of faith that carry a musty reverence.  For believers like me, to toss them feels like sacrilege. Two weeks later, I’m still pondering the significance.

These figurines manage to convey the identities of those present at the nativity despite the absence of color, texture, or detail. And yet, they are woefully insufficient: lifeless replicas representing real flesh and blood people that witnessed history’s biggest miracle.

The God of the universe squeezed himself into the body of an infant, small enough to fit in a manger. But God won’t stay in the boxes we create.

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God is still in the business of incarnation, taking up residence in fragile human hearts.

For now we see as through a glass, darkly..imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror. Frosted glass blurs our vision, making objects translucent by scattering the light passing through.

All that I know now is partial and incomplete. Much like the church as a whole: imperfect vessels holding the light of the world. Much like me: guilty of offering the world fuzzy, distorted glimpses of Jesus.

Maybe the breaking is necessary to sharpen our sight and expand our understanding of God. Maybe when our beloved idols are tossed out the window, our faith can be reborn. When I surrender my partial understanding, I make room for it to grow.

“Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.”

1 Corinthians 13:12-13

 

limited presence

I stopped making official lists of resolutions in my mid-thirties. Instead, I began to select “one word” each January to guide me through the year. In a season of chasing after young children, composing lists of unattainable goals felt futile. The simplicity of selecting a one-word vision convinced me to make it an annual tradition.

My 2017 word was present. This lofty concept embodied my intent to practice awareness, foster gratitude, and offer my words as gifts to others.

I wore the word on a silver chain around my neck and engraved on a bracelet on my wrist. These physical reminders prompted me to engage when I would rather retreat, to look deeper when I was tempted to skim the surface. 

A review of my year revealed some progress. But in the end, what stood out were my limitations.

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Present has a cost. That’s why we say that we must pay attention. It demands a lot of vulnerability and intentionality. Present carries a lot of weight. My hope was that repetition and practice might make me stronger.

But success came only in spurts. Little victories drawn in sharp peaks were immediately followed by flat lines and valleys on the landscape of my days. Oh, I showed up…only to withdraw again and again. Distraction and weakness prevented me from catching up with my shadow and maintaining my focus.

What I discovered was this: my inner static clashes with the noise of the world around me. To lean in and listen deeply means filtering out my complicated motives and confronting my deep-seated fears. Awareness stings and reveals me in ways I can’t predict or control.

*

This fall, my grandmother died. At 94, her body was giving out and she knew it. Instead of fighting the inevitable, she faced the end of her life head-on. She chose to forgo invasive treatments that might have lengthened her days but limited her ability to live them fully.

When I got the news of her decline, I wanted to imitate her courage and make the most of our remaining time together. The anticipation of this loss made my eyes sting and burn, wearing me out with the intensity of impending grief. I did my best to stay present, to process my emotions, to offer my words as gifts to her and others in my family. By the day of her funeral, my spirit was spent. 

In the midst of my family’s season of loss, the world kept spinning. Others in my world were suffering their own pain so I tried to show up for them.

News came of the death of the husband of my college friend, a man my age. One rainy Sunday afternoon, I drove to a church on the other side of town to attend the calling. A hug and a few moments of conversation were all I could offer. Ashamed, I found myself unable to stay past the visitation for the funeral. I retreated to the safety of my car, shaking as I held back pent-up emotion. Tears had only been a blink away for weeks. Once they started, I wasn’t sure when they would stop.

Loss loomed across the street as well. I took brownies to a neighbor caring for her mother in her final days, but couldn’t offer much comfort. As my fresh grief collided with her reality, I lost my composure and my words.  I wanted to make it better, but felt helpless to ease her pain. These encounters exposed my own frailty.

Reflecting on my “one word,” I felt the sting of failure when I acknowledged the truth:

My instinct for self-protection demands I keep a safe distance. My fear swerves me away from conflict in order to avoid pain. My pride tempts me to surrender to pull of the urgent, neglecting what’s important. My insecurity crafts a false image to please other people. My energy, my will, my capacity, and my understanding are all limited – by my personality, my sin, and my humanity.

But God used a walk in the woods to remind me: His presence is boundless.

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Lines from a poem I memorized in college but hadn’t thought about in years floated through my mind as I hiked on a November afternoon, fallen leaves crunching beneath my steps.

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

This e.e. cummings poem, whispered by the Spirit, reminded me of my favorite psalm. 

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“Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?

   If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
   if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
   If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
   if I settle on the far side of the sea,
  even there your hand will guide me,
   your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
   and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
   the night will shine like the day,
   for darkness is as light to you.”

       Psalm 139:7-12  

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There is no place I can venture, no hard moment I will ever face, that God’s presence can’t reach. God is omnipresent, free of physical or spiritual limitations. God is omniscient, fully aware of every detail, reality, and need, never shocked or overwhelmed.

When my presence fails, God remains present, both to me and to those I love. In 2017, as I encountered my limitations, my view of God was enlarged. May it continue to be so in the years ahead.

we wear autumn

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This year, we wear autumn.
The temperature shifts;
we shiver, our rough bark exposed. Hanging
on our fragile frames,
the season wraps itself around
our weary shoulders. Thinning
fabrics no longer cover. Bundled
beneath layers we huddle
hidden in the valley
of the shadow.

Time narrows.
Delicate clock hands still
encircle each day twice
but daylight shrinks
and slinks away.
Cracked windows slide
closed to prevent drafts
from whistling through.
We hunker down.

Here
there is room only
for what matters now
and what matters most.

Like leaves, 
we anticipate the fall
beyond which
we cannot see.
We linger at the peak
and sway together.
Nature’s jewels
grasp hands, resist
as best they can,
fade and wither,
drained of fleeting presence.

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An amber ache echoes
in our empty spaces,
the stripped-bare places.
Shapeless words shed meaning,
drift out of reach.
Hours escape ungathered
by the insufficient span
of our outstretched arms.

A chorus forms
from chaos. Displaced accents
both confuse and soothe
with predictable
unpredictability. Geese glide
squawking in overhead flight.
Back porch wind chimes strike
chords in incidental
syncopation. Suspended

notes haunt
and float.

Moments slip:
I cannot catch and hold them.
The warm honey of evening sunbeams slides
through cracks in clenched fingers.
Frost sharpens the air, revealing
the shape of our breath exhaled.
Winter tiptoes nearer.

This year, we say goodbye. 

IMG_20171106_145748812In the parting,
we lose parts of ourselves.
The silent shift uproots us
but traces remain etched in fractal patterns
engraved on paper-thin hearts.

Stillness fills the air
with conspicuous absence.
Woodsmoke saturates
shampooed hair, weaves
itself into fibers
of wool sweaters.
The permeating musk
of this waning season marks us:
spritzed on the backs of wrists,
the thin skin behind both ears.
We breathe in its scent,
embracing others
left behind.

The changing landscape settles
by degrees, lingering
in defiant lament.
Unexpected winds gust,
stir settled clumps, free others
to fly wild.
Shafts of light unmask
true colors.
Cold fronts shake loose
our facade, strip away
our fullness, surprise
and sting with bitter chill.
Some leaves never fall.

This year, we lost you.IMG_20171124_155829680

In stages, and then all at once.
Is autumn’s end ever
not sudden?

Its mournful bellow drowns out
resurrection’s refrain.
Even Jesus wept in autumn.
Our tears till the soil.
Though now it lies fallow,
we await the promised
unearthing of buried song,
the coming spring.

As our shared season ends,
I will carry your name forward
into all the ones to come.