Tag Archives: candles

Breathing in the Basement

Flowers on the table.  And two envelopes.  The first was a list of memories, from my dad, and the second was a story, from my mom.  Neither she nor I had been very comfortable on the day in question, but she remembers it— vividly— and I do not.

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Friends in the Middle East had contacted my family in Maine, to get suggestions on how to celebrate this day’s anniversary with me.  They had taken responsibility for delivering the flowers and notes from my parents.  Later, they pulled out a cake glowing with candles— trick candles, a couple dozen of them, plus extra until they achieved the correct number.

How did you know?  I asked, when the smoke had cleared and I could see the cake itself.

It was a household favorite, only eaten on birthdays.  But I hadn’t thought of one, much less mentioned it to them, in time within memory.

My friends shrugged in a downplay of their own thoughtfulness. But I learned later, the “favorite cake” tip had been sought out, arranged after advice from my family.

A fresh perspective welcomed my thirty-second year.  Those who helped me to celebrate were mostly unknown to me six months earlier, and the view they gave me was definitely “second story,” and beautiful.  A midnight picnic at the Red Sea with international coworkers.  Sweet gifts from the hearts of the ones I love.  A surprise scuba diving trip– first time!– from one of the teachers at our community center.  More flowers, and a heavily accented rendition “Happy Birthday,” from sixty students in Young Leaders.

But sometimes returning to the basement is the only way to put the panorama in context.

I say basement— my housemate (a former real estate agent, and who’s family is among the few I have known for some time) says “garden level apartment.”  It is underground on three sides.  But no matter what he calls it, when the conversation is over, I descend the stairs down, down to the home’s foundation.  To a place both close and cozy.

Sometimes, as I sit in this basement, I simply feel closed in and limited in perspective.  I want the breathing room of the second story.  I want to peel back layers of soil until I reach it, but the result would only be dirty hands.  Exhaustion.

I cannot change this.  

—–

My mother’s life verse to me, which she told me two decades ago, comes from the exclamation of an impossibly pregnant old woman to an impossibly pregnant young woman.  I love the promise it holds.  “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.”  It rings in my mind often as I hold out for promises made that are yet to be fulfilled.

A couple of days after birthday celebrations, I felt drawn to read the beginning of this story, to go down, down to its foundations.  Earlier in the chapter, before she got any affirmation from a human voice, Mary listened to heaven make a promise of something unexpected.

Something scandalous.  Something impossible.  Something desperately needed by the whole world.  Her question in reply: How?

—–

Sometimes I fight to see promises fulfilled: for the area in which I live now, for my beloved family and friends, for my life.  Work harder, perform higher, plan with more discernment.  Love more, listen more, speak less and with more discernment.  Have more friends, since many of those who were here this year may not be next year, and choose who from your local and foreign community to spend time with… with more discernment.  

But trying to fulfill promises through these mean efforts only results in a mess.  In exhaustion.

I cannot control this.

Then I think about how the promise given to Mary was fulfilled, not because of her capability, but because of the power of the One Most High, who overshadows the limitations of the ones like me.  So I return to the foundations.

Like on my birth day, I could not cry until I could breathe.  And I could not breathe until I got released from the cord around my neck.  My mother recalls her own breathlessness in waiting for this, her joy when I finally let out a wail.

Sometimes when we go to the basement (or garden-level apartment) of the soul, to remember the promises we have been given and the foundational identity upon which our lives are built, there are tears as well as laughs.  And that is okay.  We can relax our hands and renew our hopes, because He is the one who is powerful, and the basement perspective is limited but the promises still hold on.  We are, crying or laughing, still taking breaths.

So I cannot keep from hoping.  

Because the promises in the basement– even the ones yet unfulfilled– are sweeter than a chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting.
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The Letter

A letter from my grandfather.  The thin sheets have survived six moves in eight years. When I lived in Southeast Asia, he sent them to me, along with a recipe for homemade bread.

I remember squinting at his scratchy cursive.  It took a long time to understand.

I served Grandpa’s bread on a floor mat, to some neighbors who had come over to celebrate Thanksgiving with me, that first year overseas.  The smell transported me from that island in Asia to a hilltop in Maine.  For years as I was growing up, on visits to Grandpa’s, the sweet, warm aroma of bread had greeted my family before he did.

We would stretch our legs after the two-hour drive up north, then enter through the side door of his farmhouse.  Grandpa didn’t always hear us coming in– especially later in his life– but the smell said we were welcome, he had prepared something.  We were loved.

Last week, the teenagers from the Young Leaders’ program didn’t hear me come in.  They were occupied taping photos of the pilot onto black and white balloons, preparing dozens of tiny candles for a vigil, and wrapping words around their grief until it spun into poetry.  They did not know his name while he was alive.

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But the shocking news of his death had made him an international headline, and even after media moved on, it made them feel like they lost a brother.  So they searched for ways to express their loss, their loyalty, and their love.

Just days afterward, we heard of 21 more killed.  Words seem cracked and dry.

I don’t know where things will go.  In the next five months, over half of my coworkers will move.  I will begin directing the Young Leaders program in the spring, right when fresh faces are arriving.  The steady rhythm I just learned will give way to a different song.  New colleagues will join at the community center.

The relative stability of our region in the days ahead…the relational dynamics in our shifting team… the reality of how much (or little) Arabic I understand will understand in a given conversation…

All of these are unknown.  And all of these will change.

Frequently.

Recently someone suggested picturing faithfulness as a kind of water.  For someone who enjoys metaphors, strange as they may sound, I didn’t get this at first.  But then, I pictured:

A barren rock face.  There’s a small pool of liquid in the middle, but no sign of beauty, none of strength.  Below the surface, unseen, water seeps deeply into the ground.  There it meets just the right combination of empty spaces, pressure, and intense heat.   Sometimes at predictable intervals, other times unexpectedly, the water bursts forward.  A geyser.

It’s not a bubbly, flowing stream, how I used to see faithfulness.  It is mostly quiet and hidden from sight, under an unyielding surface.  It is fiery.  The pressure and empty space work together for something positive.  At just the right moment, grace and power erupt.

And the transformation from hard ground to geyser only takes place along the earth’s faults.  In broken places.

My understanding has often proven too limited to trust, my attempts to predict the future usually result in frustration… But if I still my soul I hear this reminder: I’ve made a way for you here.  I’ve prepared something– just wait.  

I love you. 

The letter closed with the verses that, in his words, “had that meant so much to your grandmother and I.”

My grandpa passed away two years ago, but over the past two days I have heard his voice in my memory, just like I heard it when I first read that letter.  He is reciting these words:  Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.  In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths. (Proverbs 3:5-6)

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