A deceitful tree

It’s been weeks—months really—since I’ve opened up this blog to write. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to; it’s really been due to the unfamiliar sensation that I haven’t been able to. “Unfamiliar” because throughout the course of my writing life I have, for the most part, simply gotten down to the business of writing whether I felt like it or not. (I’ve learned that great productivity awaits those who are willing to work.)

No, I think the problem has been this pandemic; all of the sameness of pandemic living for the past year—I happen to live in a region that holds the distinction of having been the most locked-down in all of North America—is finally having its effect on me. This introvert is calling “Uncle!” I’m tired of the lack of novelty, the dearth of celebration in pandemic life. I want to be with family and friends again.

And yet. There is always that “and yet,” (which I understand as the gentle nudge of the Spirit within that prods or convicts me to not remain fixated on my complaints and sorrows but to look for God’s blessings in the midst of them) it has also been a time with more time for introspection. Introspective by nature, I have relished the unprecedented opportunities to learn about myself, God, and others as I’ve had increased time to walk, and freedom to be in nature than pre-pandemic life allowed.

For example, just last week, on one of my daily walks, I chose a freshly repaved and winding path through a small wooded park in our neighbourhood. As I walked and thought and prayed, a tree that I must have passed thousands of times caught my eye in a way it never has before. I am a firm believer that God speaks in diverse ways—including through His creation, so I paused and examined it more closely. Walking around its circumference, I took a couple of photographs—including the one at the top of this page. The ground was still March-soft and damp, and my shoes accumulated clods of mud that had to be scraped off—but it was worth it because that tree had something to teach me.

The trunk facing the path was split and appeared to have been hollowed out by animals or insects. There was evidence of disease, decay, and pain in the hollow. It wouldn’t take much to topple this probably once-healthy tree, I realized. I felt sad to see it.

But from the other side, the trunk still looked broad, vigorous, sturdy. Healthy. I would never have known the truth of the tree if I hadn’t looked at the other side.

Still, it wasn’t until this morning, that I suddenly knew why that tree had called to me. I am reading Paula D’Arcy’s Gift of the Red Bird, and in it, she writes of a long-ago encounter with some Indigenous people: “Observe and listen to nature, they believe, and the Great Spirit will teach you about your own nature and the truths for which the heart is hungry.”

With that single sentence, I remembered the tree. I thought about how what seemed to be strong from one perspective was disastrously weak and fragile from another. I considered how people can be like that tree—presenting an outside version of ourselves to the world that is very different from the reality of what exists on our insides. I thought about the importance of protecting our insides—physically, emotionally, spiritually—by what we feed our bodies and by what we allow our minds and souls to feed on.

And I thought of the word “integrity,” in all its shades of meaning that amount to wholeness, goodness, and incorruptibility, and how the tree—while appearing to be all of those things from one angle—was actually exactly the opposite.

Lesson number 61

Patricia on her 60th birthday

When I drafted this list of 60 lessons learned over 60 years, I should have known that within days, it would feel out of date to me.

My 60th birthday came and went. The photo above was taken minutes after my pandemic birthday party ended, one week ago today on January 25. I don’t often take good pictures – but I like this one, snapped by my husband. I think you can see the genuine joy that was in my heart at that moment on my face.

Were it not for the fact that I had planned a “Zoom” birthday party, I wouldn’t have had the courage to host a party for myself. I’m uncomfortable with being too much the centre of attention. Even inviting my friends to a Zoom Open House – “come when you can, leave when you must” minimal commitment required – felt like a big ask. I worried that people would receive my invitation and think, “Who does she think she is?!” But a year of pandemic rules and lockdowns had made me lonely for my friends. And the reminders of our own mortality made me long to tell people how much they have meant to me over the course of my life while I could. Because, well, you just never know. Life is fleeting for all of us. I remember well my father’s 60th birthday party. We had a bit of a bash for him. He died at 70.

Besides, I truly never thought I would make it this far. And I felt like celebrating.

I have been blessed with many good friends. Dear people of intelligence and wisdom and good character who love me in spite of my many flaws. And so they showed up, and they shared kind words and jokes and memories on our call together.

A screen grab from my Zoom Birthday Open House.

I will never forget it. I went to bed that night overflowing with gratitude and thanksgiving. Over the days since, the kindnesses from friends and family have continued with notes and calls, gifts and messages. Just today, a kind and generous friend wrote to me that we need to “find ways to love on our friends through Covid,” because otherwise, she believes, a “little piece of our humanity dies through this pandemic.” So we need to “find ways to express ourselves outwardly.”

I think she’s right. And that, dear readers, is Lesson #61. If you find yourself in the midst of a pandemic, find ways to demonstrate your love to others. Do it because it will remind you of your own humanity. Do it because you never know just how much it may brighten someone else’s day to realize that they matter to you. Do it because, in the midst of this dark and dreary time, love still shines.

For my birthday, one of my wonderful friends – an artist through and through by the name of Lois Krause – took my list of 60 lessons and reduced each lesson to a single word, and then expanded those words into a poem. It took my breath away when she recited it, and so I asked for her permission to share it here. She gave it no title, so I’ve taken the liberty. I think of it as:

“Patricia’s 60 Life Lessons as Interpreted by Lois Krause”

My kids, their kids, these things I laud,

My spouse and things to learn  with him,

To travel, share a meal, a grin,

The Sabbath Day, a rest, a nap,

A walk, a diet, dog to pat,

Cooking, gardening, flowers and trees,

I’m thankful for each one of these.

Persist, forgive and try again,

Let go and broken fences mend,

Ask help and build your marriage strong

And give to those who don’t belong.

Give thanks and treasure time and sing.

Clean up and try in everything.

Prioritize and learn each day;

Speak gently and know good habits pay.

Be patient, know you are OK,

Good character will win the day.

Be humble, faithful strong and true

These are all things that we must do.

Know that it’s true you may be wrong,

But God can give your heart a song.

You can trust Him to bring you through

He’ll walk beside in all you do

And more than all of the above,

It’s true that we must love, love, love,

These things I’ve learned in sixty years,

These things I share with you my dear.

60 lessons learned over 60 years

60th birthday card

Adult birthdays have, for the most part, wafted past without much fuss for me. I’ve dreaded a few. (I remember 35 being particularly tough, for some reason.) More often they would come and go like a slight breeze on a summer’s day, barely causing any noticeable disturbance at all. But when the birthday card pictured above fluttered in on last week’s mail—a gift from a lifelong friend who celebrated the same milestone birthday herself just two months ago—I became teary at her thoughtfulness. The unexpected whiff of emotion, it turns out, was a harbinger of the gale to come. For soon, I was thinking about the reality that on January 25, I will turn 60.

Sixty sounds old, even to me who’s just about there. Certainly older than I feel. And yet, I know I’m fortunate to achieve the milestone. Too many people don’t even come close.

To mark the occasion, I decided to jot down 60 lessons I’ve learned from living this long. It’s a way of acknowledging that I’ve genuinely learned some stuff along the way, and I believe that some of what I’ve learned is worth sharing.

So here’s my list of 60 random lessons, in the order in which they occurred to me:

  1. Progress, not perfection.
  2. Love people for who they are, not for who you wish them to be. (Thanks, mom for teaching me this one, again and again.)
  3. Fresh flowers make any room beautiful, and any mood brighter.
  4. Raising a good dog is work, but it’s worth it.
  5. Building a good marriage is work, but it’s worth it. (Here’s an earlier list of lessons I’ve specifically learned from marriage.)
  6. When the world feels wrong, a walk outdoors can help it feel right again.
  7. Self-discipline and good habits can help to build a happy life.
  8. Observing a weekly sabbath or day of rest is actually a form of self-care.   
  9. Rather than focusing on what you don’t have, giving thanks for what you do have turns resentment into joy. 
  10. Gratitude, over time, can build contentment.
  11. Contentment, over time, can build your savings account.
  12. Love is more than a feeling, it is a choice and an act of the will. Making the deliberate choice to love when the feelings aren’t there can make the feelings follow.
  13. When in a sad place it’s okay to pour out that sadness on trusted friends who can be counted on to get you laughing or at least help to put things into perspective. And if they can’t help, then it’s okay to turn to professionals. Over the years I’ve sought professional help from caring pastors and from counselors. Every time, it made a difference.
  14. Giving generously to church and charities hasn’t always been easy for me. At times, I’ve given grudgingly. But as I look back over a lifetime of charitable giving, I believe that giving consistently even when I haven’t really wanted to, has been good for me. (See #7)
  15. Building and maintaining a friendship is work, but it’s worth it.
  16. I have no memory of life without God. All these years of walking with Him has shaped who I am and given my life meaning and purpose. Decades ago, a friend told me that he thought faith was a crutch. It’s a crutch I’ve been thankful for.
  17. Making my bed is work, but it’s (usually) worth it.
  18. We don’t know what we don’t know. Remembering this truth can be key to humility.
  19. There’s more that I don’t know than I can possibly imagine.
  20. Pride and ego get me into trouble every time. When I’m certain of my convictions I tend to forget #19.
  21. When I don’t understand, it helps to remember that God does, and God can be trusted.
  22. I believe #21 is true because I believe God loves me and every human being—passionately.
  23. I believe #22 is true because of Jesus.
  24. Raising children is work, but they’re worth it. Part of the payoff comes from seeing them grow into adults you enjoy and are proud of; another part is grandchildren.
  25. Life is hard. And in one way or another, it’s hard for all of us. When I’m confronted with people who are difficult to love or even just to be around, it can help to remember that life may have been harder for them. Whenever possible, give people the benefit of the doubt.
  26. Cooking a tasty meal for family and friends brings joy. 
  27. Running out my kitchen door to my little garden, picking some fresh vegetables and herbs for a meal or a salad brings me a crazy amount of satisfaction. A garden is also work that’s worth it.
  28. Family can make you crazy. But it’s a gift to know that there are people on this earth who will always be there for you, no matter what. Through thick and thin. Even though you make them crazy too.  
  29. A soft or gentle word really can turn down the heat.
  30. What we believe matters because it determines how we live.
  31. It’s never too late.
  32. Forgiveness can feel impossible. But if you persevere, you may be pleasantly surprised to realize it’s not.
  33. If you don’t want to lose the ability to do something, don’t stop doing it. (Thanks to my mother-in-law who taught me this one.)
  34. There are many ways to live a life, but we only get one life to live.
  35. Character matters. In partners and in politicians.
  36. Truth matters. Keep your mind and heart open to the search for it because it can be found in surprising places.
  37. Don’t defend lies just because you may have previously believed them to be true. Doing so discredits the one who called himself “the way, the truth, and the life.”
  38. The heart is deceitful. It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you are better, more righteous than you are. Regular self-examination can be a good antidote. 
  39. The heart is deceitful. Allowing words of self-condemnation to exist on a playback loop in your brain will lead you into dark places. You are a child of God, dearly loved by Him, created for a purpose. Honour that.
  40. When you’re confronted with hard truths about yourself remember that these things are also true: mercy, forgiveness, and grace.
  41. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right. (Thanks to my dad for this early lesson.) Over the course of my lifetime, my own learning has led me to expand the principle and modify it: if you give something your best, then if you fail, at least you can honestly tell yourself you gave it your best. 
  42. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly. #41 might lead you to think that some things are not worth attempting. You’ll miss out on a lot of life if you tell yourself that. If something is worth doing, it’s also worth attempting, even if you know you’ll do it badly. 
  43. Losing weight is hard.
  44. If you fall off the wagon today, remember that tomorrow is a new day, and you can start again.
  45. The “to-do” list is never done. A healthy life will mean regularly ignoring the list in order to make time for more important things. 
  46. Hardship and pain make some people better, and others bitter. Choose better. 
  47. When something has served its purpose in your life, it’s okay to let it go.
  48. Not everyone will love you—or even like you. But you can determine in your own mind to love them anyway. (See #12).
  49. If you love to sing, but lack talent in that area, then make a joyful noise—even if only in the privacy of your own car, your kitchen, or your basement (during online church in the midst of a pandemic). (See #42)
  50. We’re stronger than we know. It helps to remember that during times of testing.
  51. Life is a gift. We show our appreciation for it by stewarding well the time we’ve been given.
  52. It’s good for the soul to get outside of the city every so often, to go outdoors after dark, throw your head back, and marvel at the stars. Take along a pillow so you don’t get a crick in your neck.
  53. God can heal what is hurting, restore what is lost, and repair what is broken. There is always, always hope.
  54. Travel. Just do it.
  55. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. The same principle works for writing a book, running a marathon, earning a Master’s degree, and almost anything else that seems formidable. Break it down into bite-sized pieces (or achievable steps), and then tackle it one “bite” at a time.
  56. For years, your children’s lives are yours to steward. But they will grow up, make their own choices, and walk their own journeys. And when they do they will still need you to root for them, believe in them, and pray for them. 
  57. Where is God in the suffering? Working through His people. Want to see less suffering in our world? Then, get to work.
  58. It’s easier to clean up the kitchen as you go than to leave a great big mess for the end. It’s easier to clean up the kitchen before bed than to face a sink full of dishes in the morning.
  59. There’s always more to learn.
  60. Life is full of surprises. When I was young, I never imagined myself living to 60. But here I am. And I am thankful to have arrived.