A garden far removed

The garden is so tired, yet the summer is not done with us, and so it attempts growth.

A green pumpkin hangs tenuously onto the fence, a withered vine feigns support. I have no idea what it keeps it alive.

A tomato plant blooms, as does a pumpkin vine far from its original planting. Bees buzz, searching for autumn pollen.

They do not know that the harvest has past. Their efforts are ceremonial, I suspect.

The yellow cherry tomatoes that, during August and September, burst before they were ripe, hang whole and deliciously on scrawny vines that droop over the wire fence. Blossoms of the garden flower mixture, 60 cents at Buck’s Hardware, press against the wires, faces gaunt and hopeful, like prisoners of war awaiting liberators. Perhaps the kitchen scissors will give them their freedom, if I can find something to hold their stems.

The fence goes back to April, a wall to protect the plot from the raccoons, ground hogs and rabbits that ravaged gardens of prior years. The old gate fell apart several weeks ago and I’ve not been of a mind to fix it. The garden is like the final act of the play, when the ticket taker retires to the back room for his Four Roses, and the passersby are free to wander in and take their pick of the entertainment, to catch the closing scene.

As far as I can tell, not one critter has bothered, save the brown snake I disturbed one day and sent him on his way. All 12 inches of him turned on me, opened wide his venom-less mouth and went on his way, and I on mine. I’ve not seen him since, yet I watch for him. I have learned to always watch for the snakes.

More threatening are the acorns. The mast is heavy this year and blankets the ground like a marble-factory truck overturned on the Interstate. The nuts are massive; they smart when they fall on my noggin and sound like gunshots when they hit the metal roofs of the garage and house. They ping and rattle down the incline six feet above my office ceiling and clog the gutters. Families of wild turkey wander in from the forest  and feast on the bounty in the driveway, where my Scion’s tires accomplished released the meat. There are white-tailed deer, as well, and I suspect they claimed one of the four golden delicious apples the adolescent tree bore this year.

This morning the breeze is warm and leaves green, I could mistake it for summer, but it is October, and a third of a way through it, at that. Uneasiness is in the air, and the heavy mast and white tips of my fingers, afflicted with Raynauld’s Syndrome, tell me a cold winter is coming.

There will be logs to cut, split and stack, leaves to rake and yard items to put away. That’s the outside work; inside myriad projects beg completion—two books to write, edit, design and publish, video projects and freelance work.

I feel like that old garden. I am hanging on to the past life of the workaday world, but my hands, the carpet of acorns and fence of dying vines tell me that world is past. I was retired in a flash, but the spots of that flash still cloud my vision and perspective. A bit of summer fans the hope that someday I will return to full-time work, but I know those hopes hang by withered vines; come the first frost, the gourd will drop to  white-crusted earth with a thud that will wake nothing, not even the snakes.

Those snakes haunt me, imprison me in my lair. They bit me so viciously in the past, I cannot help but distrust them and fear their presence. “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?” King David lamented. Like David, I lament, too:

This isn’t the neighborhood bully
    mocking me—I could take that.
This isn’t a foreign devil spitting
    invective—I could tune that out.
It’s you! We grew up together!
    You! My best friend!
Those long hours of leisure as we walked
    arm in arm, God a third party to our conversation.

(Psalm 55:12-14, The Message Bible)

If plants have feelings, I wonder if they will sense betrayal when I rip them from the October soil, drop their bones into the yellow wheelbarrow and add them to the compost pile? Their fruit harvested, their work done, their bodies wracked with the pain of October, devalued, discarded … “We grew up together! You! My best friend!” Will that be their lament, as it was mine?

Or perhaps, like the snakes that I fear so much, the plants don’t feel regret, pain or shame. They just slither about their kingdoms, hissing and going to and fro, seeking who they will deceive next.

If so, I elect to feel their pain. I will feel the pain of October and beyond, to the grave.

unde malum

This much I have learned, pain exists that we might understand the heart of the gardener.

We handle it better as we age, and a good thing, too, for there is much sadness and pain in this garden far removed from Eden.

In good company

Pumpkins rest on the stone wall today. Other hands built the wall, but I grew the fruit, in a garden plot a hundred feet or so south of the wall.

There are less than a dozen of pumpkins; most are small, too small for carving. One small one, perfectly shaped, made it indoors, where it will serve as decor until the weekend after Thanksgiving, assuming it lasts that long.

If I were to take this harvest to market, it would not bring enough money to justify the effort. At best, this crop is worth $8 or so. And what is $8 these days?

The dirt I grew them in cost $200 for the load, and the seeds were 33 cents. I grew other stuff in the dirt, and dirt being recyclable, the expense is a pittance for such pleasure, for I enjoy pumpkins and their company. I like their variations on orange, smooth complexion, curvaceous forms and contrasting, crusty stem. I’ve not a single bad pumpkin memory, and that’s saying something, for by the time we turn 64, we’ve accumulated painful memories of most everything. From salad bars to blue cars; from Prairie Home Companion to Mahler’s First Symphony, I’ve quite a collection. But pumpkins? Not a bad one in the patch.

Judging by the popularity of pumpkin-flavored beverages, soaps, scented candles and sweets this time of year, I am in good company in my adoration of Curcubito pepo. And while I am drinking pumpkin-spice coffee as I write this, I say let the pumpkin be a pumpkin, not a flavor (artificial, at that), color chip or scent. I even prefer my pumpkins au naturel. No face painting, no carving and no sequins or googly eyes. Born a pumpkin, died a pumpkin, not a Jack O’Lantern.

And so I plant them every year, and hope to raise a crop worthy of the stone wall. That wall is one of the reasons I stay here, in a house and yard way too large for our needs. But Ruth and I find comfort in stone and wood. Truth of the matter is, this property is a lot of work, far from her job and the county real estate, city income tax and school income tax make this an expensive place to live. But we have enough to grown pumpkins and display the harvest on a stone wall come late September, then watch as oak, magnolia and oak leaves accumulate around them until only stems are visible. There is joy in all of that.

I’ll never forget Ruth’s joy early in the summer when the first orange horns appeared on the vines, followed by the fruit. One, in particular, showed great promise, and she beamed when we pulled back the prickly leaves to reveal the perfect form taking shape in the compost. It’s hard not to love a woman who gets excited about a pumpkin being born.

We had not gotten around to the pumpkin topic when we were dating, and so it was with great relief that I discovered she enjoys the company of a few good pumpkins as much as I do. She approved my exhibition of the crop, as well.

Lined up on the wall, our harvest is safe from pumpkins smashers and thieves. I can see their noggins from my office window. And down the hill, in the enclosure where they were born and raised, their vines are brown, dry sinew, ready to be discarded. I procrastinate; I would much rather harvest pumpkins and line them up on a stone wall than deal with the withered umbilical cords.

And so I wonder if we subconsciously associate the shape of pumpkins with the womb, and thereby find comfort in their presence? I wonder they take us back to that singular season of gestation? If these premises be true, I wonder why some smash and carve pumpkins, while others are content to place them on stone walls that other hands built?

 

 

I don’t want to be a rock star

The following line is from a job description:

This is a fantastic opportunity for a rock star creative who wants to help …

We don’t need another rock star. And I sure don’t want to be one.

Frankly, I’m sick of rock stars and divas, stand-up comedians and YouTube daredevils.

I’d like to just go to work, get the job done and come home and read. And listen to music. But not rock.

This rock-star mentality has gone too far. I recall some 15 years ago, when I was attempting to make it as a professional photographer, being told by a very successful one (he got $1,000 and up just for the sitting fee on a family portrait), that you had to think and act like a rock star if you wanted to succeed with that clientele ($250,000 and up annual income).

I don’t know what happened to him and his business during the Great Recession, but I know what happened to me and my freelance portrait and wedding business. It hit the rocks. I don’t think being a rock star would have changed any of that, however. A lot of rock stars were on Wall Street back then, and we saw what happened. The rock star politicians bailed them out, and they are back at it.

Ten years later we have a president who thinks he’s a rock star. Or a TV game show host. If he had an electric guitar, he’d be all set. He doesn’t need it. He plays the voters.

We have a lot of politicians who think that because the majority of voters narrowly chose them over the other candidate, they were suddenly elevated to queen, rock star and diva. Divine appointment. A mandate from the people.

What’s missing?

Rock stars don’t serve. They entertain. They are all talk and noise. They glitter and glam while they are on stage, but back in the dressing room, the miserable person behind the mask craves that next round of applause, that next mention on Facebook, that cover, review or Tweet.

All of this may be fun and games for those who live in the world of social  media and post 30 selfies per hour. But when that person has his fingers on the nation’s self-destruct buttons, it’s not a game. And that holds true for every political office below the Oval one. Perhaps it is because my father is veteran, a distant grandfather crossed the Delaware with Washington and an uncle went through the hell of Korea, but I find it disgusting when elected officials take a rock-star approach to the office. It’s not about them. It’s not about making appearances, handing out kudos and keeping up pretenses.

Blood was spilt, misery endured and limbs lost so that we can have these elections, offices and, hopefully, committed, sincere and transparent individuals to fill them. When an elected official treats the office with the contempt that comes with a diva or rock-star mentality, he or she spits on the flag and the veterans who defended it.

It’s the same way with jobs. Are employers really looking for rock stars these days? Do they really want the grief of dealing with a narcissist on the job, day in and day out? Being a rock star or diva is a competition in deception. What business wants to hire a liar? Evidently, quite a few. I’m seeing that “rock star” mentality requirement in many of the job openings that come through Indeed.

But I don’t want to be a rock star.

 

 

Never had so many calls

Are you lonely?

Does your cell phone never ring?

Do you have an afternoon to waste?

Go to a website where you inquire about health insurance plans for individuals.

Such was my Monday afternoon as I launched my search in the land of Obamacare.

Excuse me, I need to answer the phone. It’s Sandra.

Sorry about that.

On Friday I got my letter advising me that funds are no longer available to pay for my position with Ashtabula County. Health insurance ends at the end of April.

Being 63 and without insurance is about as scary as having Donald Trump for President or being an empath at a covert narcissists’ convention.

Excuse me, I need to answer the phone. It’s Devin.

Sorry about that.

So I plugged in the personal information, including my cellphone number, in two websites. And I am telling you that within five seconds of hitting send, the first call came in.

A nice young lady by the name of Nicole took all my information and offered a policy with no deductible at only $275.89 a month. What is this, Chinese health insurance?

Excuse me, I need to answer the phone.

Sorry about that.

It sounded too good to be true. I mean the COBRA premium was something like five times that, and it has deductibles.

Excuse me, I need to answer the phone.

Sorry about that. It was another one of those calls.

Nope. No deductibles. Funny thing, when I asked for something in writing, via email, they aren’t able to do that. Humm.

Excuse me, I need to answer the phone.

Sorry about that. You guessed it.

Based upon the person’s unwillingness to put it writing, I wrote it off.

Besides, at that point, I had five more calls waiting.

The next one wants one to know, right off the bat, how much I can afford every month for health insurance.

“Well, let’s see. I just got laid off. I’ll probably not be able to get unemployment because I have a business. Um. How about nothing?”

The next guy asks me the same question. But he wants to know how much I could wire him today to get the ball rolling. Brother, I think it’s dice, not a ball, that’s rolling.

Excuse me, I need to answer the phone.

Sorry about that. It was Samantha. Wow what is smoking? Nobody should be so upbeat on a Monday afternoon in gray, dreary, windy, rainy northeast Ohio. Then I check the area code. She’s in California. Figures.

The phone stopped ringing. I continued my search online, preferring to put my money into a medical sharing account with a Christian organization. I found a portal for these plans and received great service from an agent whose quote was much more in line with what I anticipated. And so I asked her, why a sharing plan with $10,000 deductible is still twice as high as the premium for a plan that has no deductible.

I won’t share the answer, although it is rather obvious. I smell a rat whenever there are so many sales people jumping onto an inquiry from

Excuse me, I need to answer the phone.

Sorry about that.

one old man trying to

Excuse me, I need to answer the phone.

Sorry about that.

get some health insurance

Excuse me, I need to answer the phone.

Sorry about that.

just in case.

A the Linesville Spillway in Pennsylvania, hundreds of fat carp compete with each other for one slice of bread tossed into the water. I think it’s that way when some sap like myself fills out one of those online forms seeking a health insurance quote. The enthusiastic, persistent calls suggest to me there is both a lot of money to be made in this business and the consumer is being taken for a sucker (like the lips on that light fish). Who regulates these guys? And what ever happened to the affordable in the Affordable Care Act? When your income equals zero, nothing is affordable.

I’m exhausted from swiping the phone and listening to these hot shots promise me the world.

But you  know what’s really scary?

Excuse me, I need to answer the phone.

Sorry about that.

If I am unemployed for very long, or folks don’t buy our books, I may have to work in a call center, selling my soul for

Excuse me, I need to answer the phone.

Sorry about that.

health insurance.

What a sorry state of affairs. But at least I’m not lonely. I have along list of numbers I can call back.

Excuse me, I need to answer the phone.

Sorry about that.

I have learned that I can identify the nature of the call by the five-second silence before they come on the line. And the background is filled with the chatter of other

Excuse me, I need to answer the phone.

Sorry about that.

“agents” “assisting” “customers.”

I am going to turn off the cell phone. I am going make some soup for my lovely wife. We are going to have a quiet evening in the cottage.

I will deal with health insurance, tomorrow.

 

 

Secure the shadow …

I am probably as addicted to reading camera and lens reviews as any photographer or “gear head.” Often, as I droll over the latest DSLR body or lens that I can’t afford, I have to remind myself that I don’t have time to use to their full potential the two Nikons and assorted lenses that I already own, so why waste my time and mental energy even bothering to look?

Of course, I can justify the window shopping as staying abreast of developments in the industry. But since I pretty much hung up my professional photographer’s vest a few years ago, after cataract surgery forced me into the world of reading glasses, I’m just kidding myself. There is a fine line between staying abreast and lust. Despite what that devil on the shoulder would tell you, it usually does hurt to look at that Adorama email or Nikon Rumors website.

We build mausoleums for our exhausted bodies, but give little thought to preserving our digital lives. Words, moving pictures and photographs ought to last beyond the cloud or life of a smart phone.

With the passing of my mother recently, I am reminded of the short distance I have left to cover in this life. The hair is almost gray, the hearing shot and the legs ache. Somedays the fire that once burned like the one in my woodstove on a windy night is but a few embers when it comes to getting out the camera and exploring the forest, lake or some lonely street with it. Having used an SLR since I was in high school, yes way back in 1972, I’ve documented pretty much all I can think of documenting. There are thousands of slides to be scanned, thousands of negatives whose images are likely to be forgotten if I don’t take the time to scan them, describe them and file them before the last few brain cells expire.

Our world is awash in images. Pictures are as cheap as words. I chose the worst possible occupations at which to make a living, photography and writing. Everybody with keyboard and Internet connection is a writer, and everybody with a smart phone is a photographer. You can find a photograph of just about anything online and if you can’t, capturing one is as easy as finding the subject. And when you’re done with the imaging, it will be worth pretty much what every other picture is worth online.

Paid assignments are rare and far between; there’s always a “good camera” owner on staff these days who can take the annual report or marketing photos that the company once called upon a professional to do. Parents, dads in particular, have a good excuse to buy expensive camera gear as soon as the mom finds out she’s three days pregnant.

Living in a small, blue-collar, Midwestern town where art is not much appreciated or understood makes the challenge even greater. If a photographer puts a great deal of effort and thought into making an image, develops a style or exhibits technical mastery of the media, it is likely to go unnoticed because the viewer’s cell phone is capable of producing a facsimile. I’m always amused by cell phone photographers who take pictures of other photographer’s work at art shows and festivals. I spent one gruelingly hot summer sitting under a canopy at area festivals, attempting to sell enough prints to pay for the space. After two such weekends of wrestling with a 90-pound canopy, forcing a smile as people strolled by and being broiled on asphalt, I sold the canopy and sent the matted prints to a consignment shop.

On a rare occasion I had the camera handy as I was working in the garage one winter evening. My wife had left me and the garage and property felt so lonely; life felt so bleak. I felt like half a circle, the person who was supposed to make me feel whole had left, and all that remained was this lonely cottage and bleak landscape. There was in the fresh snow only one set of tire tracks, further reminder of my solitude. Looking at the image today, I recall the pain I felt, but the casual viewer sees only a window, snow and trees. If the viewer finds some beauty in that, the image resonates. But it will never resonate with the viewer as it does with the image maker, who was in the moment, not just the scene.

I have a theory that if people want to purchase photographs to hang on their wall, they will have prints made of their own work because it is much more meaningful to them than the work of another person. They were in the moment, and their expression of it reflects what they were feeling and awakens those emotional memories every time they look at the picture. A sunset photo with a tilted horizon and blown-out sky will still trump a perfectly exposed and composed one if it is of a favorite place or vacation.

Ironically, this plethora of mediocre, easy done images comes at a time when photographers are positioned to capture extraordinary images because of the capabilities of equipment at our disposal (assuming the photographer works on Wall Street or has a solid line of credit). Lenses that are f/1.4, sensors that can see in the dark, optics with razor sharp resolution, software that can compensate for a host of shortcomings in both the equipment and person operating are standard.

Oddly enough, when I read equipment reviews the illustrations rarely depict the full potential of the lens or camera. We’re so obsessed with “bokeh” that ketchup bottles and garden flowers are used pressed into subjects for these reviews because they are handy. The old walk around the neighborhood and shots of brick walls also abound in the reviews because the new owner just had the lens delivered on his lunch hour and wanted to shoot some images with it so he could post a quick review, that is tell the world he just put down $2,000 for a lens that will be used to take pictures of street lamps. And if he has time, he’ll make a video of the item being unboxed. What’s with that?

As I look back on the subjects that I wasted film and time on, I’m frustrated by all the flower, forest, waterfall and sunset photos. Why did I take these things? 40 years later, and the sun is still setting, the leaves turning and the snow falling. Prosaic stuff.

A portrait of the late National Geographic photographer Volkmar Wentzel, photographed in Aurora, W.Va., was one of the most challenging assignments I’ve had an introverted photographer. I gained his trust when I pulled out the tripod for the session; being old school, he liked the fact that I recognized my shortcomings and desired the sharpest image possible. Ironically, the shot I liked best was done without a tripod, in a “down” moment.

Too seldom did I turn the lens on the human life around me. Introverted and fearful of confrontation, I’ve always had an aversion to photographing people. Even buildings scared me, in the event someone ran outside and challenged me, or a passerby in a car would shout the same stupid thing, “Hey take my picture.”

Why oh why did I ever get interested in this stuff?

I suppose it is because as an introvert it is easy to hide behind a camera. I am by nature an observer, and even if a camera is not in my hand, my mind is often noticing the light, the expressions, the play of colors, the compositions that take form as life interacts with life within the frame of the infinite second. Images are metaphors to me, and unfortunately few other share that metaphoric interpretation of what they see.

Laziness is another reason I take photographs, and that ties into my work as a writer. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. The one magazine I write for pays 10 cents a word, so that’s $100. But they only pay $25 for a picture, so the adage isn’t correct, or at least it has not been adjusted for the plethora of both images and words. No, a picture is worth not much. And it is much easier to snap a picture than to study a subject and really get to know it to the point a description can be put into 1,000 words rather than 36 megapixels.

I see metaphor in the things I photograph. I made this image last spring as I struggled with the heartbreak of divorce and recovery from the emotional wreckage in my life. Those things hung as deep shadows on the wall of being, but a vine of hope was emerging through those shadows, following the light upward.

What we forget in all of this is that what we’re capturing is not the real thing but a reflection, it is all a reflection or a shadow of reality. The only thing we really capture is what goes into and stays in our brain. If the researcher is lucky, we’ll take the time to write it out in a journal that has paper for pages and leather for a binding, that is cared for and treasured, and in a few hundred years opened and studied. That’s probably the best we can hope for.

In my mind, at least, a photograph does not become a document until it is committed to paper and preserved for the future. And words, such as these, are nothing more than thoughts as long as they float around the sphere as bytes. The same holds true for video; indeed, I wonder if we can truly call any “film” that is produced electronically and distributed in the same manner as “film” until it reposes on the silver-emulsion.

I find all of this rather distressing given how many people store their family’s memories on their cellphones, in the cloud and on hard drives prone to failure. Perhaps it is a blessing that all those selfies of smiling faces, tongues protruding toward the lens and noses distorted, will be someday lost forever. Then again, they were only shadows.

Earlier this week I ran across an advertisement in an 1868 newspaper. It was from a photographer’s studio; it simply stated “Secure the shadow ere the substance fades.” This morning I am reminded that the substance of mother has faded, her shadow disappeared from the walls and floors of my life. What I captured in the living years is all I will have of her on paper. And I regret that I did not pay more attention to those shadows when the substance was still with me. This, despite having thousands of dollars worth of equipment at my disposal. The camera and lenses stayed in their satchels, safe from harm, safe from shadows, whenever she came to visit. The most recent photograph I could find was from my father’s 84th birthday party in 2016.

My parents, Carl and Cossette Feather, and my cousin, Greg Rumer, and his wife Michelle, at Dad’s birthday picnic in 2016. Lucy was more interested in the food than the camera. It is the last picture I have of my mother; what happened to those other 16 months? I failed to “secure the shadow.”

It is a good memory of her; she was smiling and raving about how much she enjoyed the party and meeting the daughter of the man who built our stone cottage. My cousin Greg and his lovely wife Michelle had joined us; Mom and Dad brought their dog, Lucy, to the party. It was a good moment. And it reminds me:

“Secure the shadow, ere the substance fades.”

And so during a break in writing this, as I walked through the kitchen trying to remember what I went out there for in the first place, I saw Ruth’s cats, Max and Ruby, posed at the top of the steps on her heirloom sewing machine. My D750 was handy, and I quickly put an old 105mm f/2.5 Nikkor on it and forced these old eyes to manually focus for a couple of shots.

Shadow secured.

 

Spiritual lessons from a prodigal dog

My  mother passed away Monday evening (January 29, 2018).

I had visited with her earlier in the day, and I knew her time with us was very short. She had run the race, the finish line was near. 85 years. She was tired. She was ready to go home.

The next two days were a swirl of details as we prepared for a private family viewing and service on Thursday. My mother wanted it that way. She always said calling hours have turned into parties these days. And she didn’t want a bunch of people staring down at her as she lay sleeping. I can’t argue with those things. And we honored her wishes.

I was comforted by the knowledge that my mother trusted in Christ for the forgiveness of sins and had walked with him throughout her life. She would be with mother and father, both of who passed away far too early in life. It had been 50 years since Mom’s father died. Still, the weight of grief pulled upon my shoulders and heart.

On Wednesday morning I went about the usual morning ritual of feeding the two dogs and three cats, putting the two dogs out for their morning business and getting this body ready for public display. We live on two acres with a woods and creek on the back side of our lot and no neighbors for several hundred yards. I usually just let the dogs out to roam the yard. It was cold and snowy Wednesday morning, and they aren’t that fond of either one, so I knew they would be barking to come back inside within a few minutes.

Brody was first to bark. He’s the old black Lab and he loves his creature comforts. I brought him in and called for Polly, but she didn’t come running around the corner of the house and bounding up the steps like she usually does. I didn’t think much of it. She enjoys a good roll in fresh snow.

Five minutes passed and I went back to the door to get Polly. I called for her and stepped outside to see if she’d gone into the front yard, but there was no response.

I made the coffee and went back to the door. Again, no Polly. I began to worry. It was 5:30 a.m. and nothing was stirring out there. What could have happened to her?

I donned boots and coat and went searching the yard for her. Nothing. No response to my calls. Next came the high-beam LED lantern, and a more thorough search of the yard and neighbor’s yards. Not a sign of her.

Afraid that she’d crossed the road and went into the neighborhood where we walk her, I got in the car and started driving the area.

Not a sign of her.

This continued until it was time to leave for work. With a heavy heart made even heavier by the anxiety of having my beautiful, black, flat-coated retriever missing, I went to work. On the way into the courthouse, I saw the dog warden and told her about the missing Polly. She put a lost-dog notice on her Facebook page and made a list of suggestions for finding her. I called the city police and alerted them to look for her, went to the Animal Protective League shelter to see if she’d been brought in and put a notice on the radio station.

I printed posters and distributed them to neighbors, searched the ravine behind our house in case she’d fallen into it and gotten trapped under brush. After work, Ruth and I went to numerous neighbors’  houses and talked to them in case they’d seen Polly. She had disappeared without a trace.

It made no sense. Polly is a one-family dog. She has anxiety issues and is very afraid of noises, strangers and being alone. She’s my shadow around the house. If a stranger knocks on the door, she goes around and around in circles and barks. She loves being indoors. It just didn’t make sense that she’d run away, especially on a cold morning, or would have gotten into a stranger’s car. But where was she?

I took Thursday off for Mom’s funeral. The grief was crushing for both Ruth and I. The pain of loss was doubled by the anxiety of losing a very sweet canine member of our family.

Someone posted on the dog warden’s Facebook page that a black dog had been seen entering a cemetery drive about a half-mile from our house, on the other side the ravine, the morning she disappeared. I immediately jumped on the lead and drove around Pleasantview Cemetery before going to the funeral services. I spent an hour up there calling her name and walking the deep ravine that surrounds the place. I saw footprints of a dog, but no Polly.

After the services and dinner, I returned to the cemetery. A cold wind was blowing from the northwest and the temperature falling rapidly. The forecast was for a single-digit night. But no Polly.

I slept fitfully thinking about her. Many scenarios tortured my mind, none of them pleasant. My comfort was that perhaps someone had found her and given her a warm home for the night. I thought I heard dog barking throughout the night, and got up to check the side door to see if she was out there, going around in circles and barking to come in. But it was only a neighbor’s dog, or my imagination.

Friday was a combination of taking care of some work appointments and searching for Polly. Feeling that my father might appreciate the opportunity to take his mind off the grief, I enlisted him to assist. He drove the neighborhood for three hours. But no Polly.

Friday evening, as darkness enveloped the cottage, the heaviness of heartbreak and loss settled upon us like the falling temperatures. Ruth and I sat in front of the wood stove and played a game of Scrabble, but my mind was on Polly.

About 7 p.m., my cell phone rang. It was the police dispatcher. “Are you still missing a black dog?” My heart raced. I feared the next words would be “We found one dead alongside the road.”

That’s the INFJ, always thinking the worst.

But the news was hopeful. An officer, patrolling the cemetery after dark,  had seen a black dog running lose in it, but the dog would not come to him. The dog ran into the woods and disappeared. She suggested we check it out.

Ruth and I were on our way within a minute. She grabbed some dog bones, and I the lantern.

We drove around the large area with windows rolled down and calling Polly’s name. I drove toward the back, where I’d seen paw prints in the snow two days earlier. Nothing.

I stopped the car and we got out. Shining the lamp toward the center of the cemetery, Ruth caught a glimpse of movement. It was Polly, and she was running full speed away from us.

I made a beeline to intersect her while Ruth jumped in the car and headed toward the front of the cemetery. As I closed in her toward the edge of the ravine, she disappeared into the murky forest. I walked the ravine begging her to come back. Suddenly she reappeared about 50 feet from me. I froze, got down on my knees and allowed her to slowly approach the light. By then, Ruth had arrived with the car and treats. It was a joyful reunion.

Polly was cold, exhausted and starved, but showed no sign of injury. Back home, she gulped down water and food, then settled into a long nap by the fire.

Ruth and I thanked God that our prayers had been answered and we’d just witnessed a miracle. As we lay in bed that night, reflecting and talking, I sought a deeper meaning in all that had occurred.

Metaphor number one was that I found comfort in the picture God had just painted so vividly using my love for Polly as an example. My mother was safe, at home and with her family who’d gone on before her. For several days she had wondered in that middle ground between life and death. The light came into the darkness, and at first it scared her, just as the headlights of our car and the beam of the lantern had spooked Polly. Torn between life and death, my mother struggled toward the light.

A tender, caring voice was calling her. The voice of one who wanted to take her to a place of rest. And she followed.

I thought of Polly resting comfortably and without care in front of the fire, and I saw a comforting picture of my mother, at rest, loved, forever secure. She will never have to wander the cemetery of this life again.

I also saw a metaphor for God’s love for me. For many years, I saw God as an angry deity always ready to punish us when we went astray. “Bad things happen when we disobey God.” That was the message drummed into my head for years by preachers who knew much of God’s anger and righteousness but little of his grace and mercy.

In the image of my relentless search for Polly, I saw an example of unconditional love seeking those who belong to him but have gone astray. I was putting all my time and resources on the line to find her, to rescue her from certain death. Yes, she had disobeyed and ran off to pursue her own interests. At first, the adventure must have been grand, but then it turned to loneliness and confusion, and ended in a place of death, separation from her family and their love.

She felt alone, no doubt, but I was looking for her, and I would not give up I kept returning to that place of death into which she had wandered, hoping that she would hear my voice and return.

And so it is with God. He keeps coming back to find us when we go astray. He knows that we are lonely, cold, scared and full of anxiety, despite how much “fun” we are having on our excursion into the world, away from the safety of home. He seeks us, he calls for us, he shines his light toward us. Yet we turn and run away, out of fear that he wants to punish us with those arms, rather than welcome us home as the prodigal son.

Eventually we can run no more. We are famished from trying to subsist on the empty calories of this world. And we bow down, expecting a whip across our back. Rather, we feel a hand of love, the hand of a father. We expect punishment, we receive grace. We expect expulsion, we receive a ride home. We expect a night in the dungeon, we’re given an honored spot on the carpet in front of the fire, covered with blanket, pampered with a pillow.

Love never fails. It seeks the lost and forgives; it seeks the best for us, even in the midst of pain and loss. His love never fails. But I would not begin to understand the depth of that love if I first had not felt the pain of loss and loneliness of losing a loved one, a family member. God longs for us to come home to him and prepares a place for us. If I can love a dog this much, how much more does God love my mother, love me? I can only begin to fathom it with the shallowness of a human heart.

I wonder why I had to suffer three days of separation from Polly, why the anxiety and agony of worry had to be added to the grief of losing a parent? And then it occurred to me how long God has to wait for us to turn around and come back to him. A week? A year? A decade? God is patient for us to get our priorities right and does not give up on us while we go astray. Yet when he does not answer our prayers pronto, in our time frame, we lose patience with him.

There is much to be learned of God in grief and loss. And in coming home.

Polly enjoys the comforts of home after three days and two nights on the run.

 

On being INFJ

All my life I have felt weird, out of place. Like a dust bunny in an operating suite. A vegetarian at a Texas barbeque. A lifetime WCTU member at a distiller’s convention.

The rest of the world was having fun, I observing, thinking about what was going on; feeling the sound waves, but never hearing the sound; sensing the emotions of the room, but never engaged in them; watching the shadow move across the time dial, but sensing the absence of having lived under the sun that cast it.

I was labeled “shy,” “distant,” “quiet” and “aloof.” At a party – to which I am rarely invited – I’d rather be in a corner with a book or hiding behind a camera than at the center with a drink in my hand.

It’s been this way since I was old enough to remember sadness. I cried when my goldfish died and went into a serious depression when they hauled the cow away and it came back wrapped in white paper stacked in freezer. When an old man ran out of candy one Halloween night and had to give pennies, instead, I asked my mother if I could take it back to him, afraid he might need it for food.

My teachers called me “sensitive,” the kids called me “sissy.” Childhood was hard, and I spent most of it watching clouds, doing chemistry experiments and trying to remember where I’d just come from and why I was here.

As I got older, it got worse. I was the shy nerd in high school, my heart yearning for love but my nose too long and hair too short to attract it. It was the late 1960s, after all, and long hair was a sure sign of rebellion, if not outright Satanic possession. You talked to only Christian girls, and they talked to only cool Christian jocks and pastor’s sons who were heading off to Bible college to become just like Dad.

In adulthood being odd was no longer an option; to make a living, you have to fit in, even if you stick out. Words beckoned, written words. An INFJ will take an hour writing a letter that a phone call could resolve in 30 seconds. Forty-five years later, I am writing to you.

I was out of place wherever I went. The pitter patter of polite conversation was so much rain on my roof, lulling me to sleep, boredom. Last night’s ball game, the grandkids’ report card, the hunting expo … I retreated … It was not that I had nothing to say; to the contrary, there was much below the surface and poker face. But who would want to listen?

On a rare occasion, someone would listen, and it was wonderful. We would start to talk and discover were on the same page, sentence and comma, where life paused, esoteric topics were germane and questions asked with expectation of answers.

I was in my late 50s when the mystery began to unravel and discovered that my personality is INFJ.

The revelation came by taking a personality test. The result is based upon the Briggs-Myer Type Indicator (BMTI), which proposes 16 distinct personalities based upon the four criteria that Jung developed. So my type is Introvert-Intuitive-Feeling-Judge.

It is the rarest of the personalities. Less than 2 percent of the whole population have it, and it is even rarer among men.

I want to be clear about something: I do not consider myself “special” because of my type. At the root of it all, I’m still a sinner saved by grace, schooled by pain and soothed by love. My operating system is the righteousness of Christ imputed through his sacrifice. But the software, it is INFJ, and it determines what this human heart is capable of doing and how this human mind perceives reality.

For example, INFJ people love deeply and can be happy with  just one friend, one deep relationship, whereas most people measure relationship success with the number of friends they have on Facebook.

Once an INFJ comes to trust someone, he or she is in it for life. They constantly believe the best about the other person, even if the evidence points to something else. They make dedicated, loyal and committed spouses; they find no joy in sleeping around or one-night stands. Sex transcends the physical; it is more than two bodies coming together, it is two souls.

An INFJ is glued to his or her spouse. He or she won’t let go, no matter how many times they are hurt. They are stubborn lovers and the only deal breaker is breaking up itself. They dive in with their whole heart, and if the other person can’t do that, the effect is devastating.

If the relationship breaks down, and the INFJ’s partner walks away, it is seen as an act of treason and violence against the fabric of the universe. We trust completely, and when that trust is shattered, we feel like a 10,00o-piece jigsaw puzzle tossed into outer space. The pieces, we are certain, will never come back together. All is lost.

INFJs are intensely empathetic;  as weird as this seems to most people, we feel other people’s emotions. Sometimes, when I walk in my neighborhood, I sense what is going on in a stranger’s house and have to stop and pray about it.

We are old souls, we feel like we have been around this block one too many times. We’ve felt every grief and joy known to mankind, and we are so tired of the pain. We long for love’s balm and sacrifice everything when we feel connection finally occurred. My daily prayer is “Dear God, do not let me die until I have fully lived and really loved.” And I mean it.

When the connection longed for all those years and decades turns out to be but a crossed wire, our confidence in our intuition, as well as all humanity, implodes. Yet another reason that healing from a broken relationship is so very difficult for an INFJ.

Everything about us is a paradox. We want to love but are scared to death of love because we hurt so deeply when it goes wrong. We want to be with other people, but the introvert keeps us from reaching out. And when we are with people who engage in idle chit-chit, we just want to retreat into that corner with a book and our thoughts.

The empathy in us makes it impossible to understand how a person who we trusted and loved can break a commitment and walk away.  Competing emotions well up – anger for the pain inflicted even as we feel empathy for the person who is walking away from the riches of human love that could have been theirs.

We linger in the shadows far too long, and the shadows often becomes our graves. We relive every failure and keep a ledger of the mistakes that killed the relationship. We step back and see a long row of words, phrases and dates under our name.

Everything is our fault. And that makes us a perfect target for those who are perfect, who have no sense of accountability to a partner. Our favorite expression is “I’m sorry.”

We are quick to take the blame and fix the ills of the relationship, as well as the world.

We are dreamers, artists and visionaries. We are passionate about human and animal rights; we can’t stand to see an injustice occur, unless it is to ourselves, and then we think it is O.K. because, after all, we are at fault and we are sorry.

We think all the time. Even when we sleep. I never wake up rested. I wake up probably 50 times a night, and each time I wake up, a thought is there. Usually about loss, pain or a concern; seldom about a blessing.  My first wife always said my mind never shut down. If I was quiet, which I usually was, she knew something was being created inside my head, and I could not wait until whatever we were doing to be over so I could act on those thoughts.

We are never satisfied with what we create, however. We can never step back and see the beauty or grace in it. We see only the speck of dirt in the paint, the misspelled word in the book, the misplaced comma. We expect perfection and find only our imperfect selves.

Accordingly, God frustrates us. We can’t understand why the rest of the church equates experiencing God to emotions. Isn’t there some factual perfection that we ought to be able to discover in him? Why does an eternal God who is said to be the same yesterday, today and tomorrow act with such serendipity, saving one relationship or life here, allowing another to wither or die there, despite fervent prayer? Our favorite word in just about any discussion is “why,” but especially so in things theological, probably the worst possible venue in which to ask “why?”

Like answers to theological riddles, the things we long for more than anything else elude us: deep conversation that goes late into the night and a loving relationship that grows more loving and deeper with each passing day. The INFJ would trade his soul, and often does, for those two things. And when the tradeoff turns out to have been as phony as free healthcare, we grieve deeply. Not just for our loss, but for that of the person who could not see the value in what was being offered.

We retreat to our books, our thoughts, our private space that we cherish so deeply. Chances are, there is not a lot of stuff in that space, but what there is of it is very, very special to us. It tells our story, and typically exudes craftsmanship, quality and beauty. We’d rather have one high-quality thing than 20 mediocre objects, unless they are books, records, stones, sea shells, driftwood, dogs or cats. Then we are hoarders.

In my life, I have felt great unrest in my relationship with things. My parents and first wife found great comfort in collecting. I followed in their steps, but found it so exhausting. I was minimalist living in a big box version of Goodwill, Salvation Army and the neighborhood thrift store rolled into one.

That is changing.

As I write this, my kitchen floor is covered with stuff I’ve collected. I’m sorting it, selling it, letting it go. My spirit is soaring as I do. That piece of concrete I’ve carried on my back for decades is getting lighter. Perhaps, if I am fortunate enough, it will turn to sand and roll off and I will fly away to that perfect place that every INFJ dreams about, where it is just me, nature, beauty, space to create and that one incredible person love ever so deeply – soulmate.

Just knowing who I am and why I have felt so weird and out of place all these years, why previous relationships didn’t work and why I got hurt so deeply by them, has been liberating. Why don’t they teach this stuff in junior high? Why don’t we focus on helping kids figure out who they are before we start pushing them into societal molds? If we did that, there would be fewer suicides, fewer addictions and fewer divorces. We’d have a road map to ourselves and to understanding why we do the things we do. More importantly, we’d learn that other people do not think like us or feel as intensely, and we have no right to expect them to do so. We’d learn to respect each other.

Imagine that, respecting each other’s differences without labeling them weird, sissy or nerd.

As I said, INFJs are dreamers.