Vermont


{Wednesday of Holy Week, and another of the forty mugs of Lent 2017. If this is your first time here, and the mug thing seems odd, welcome to the cluSONY DSCb.}

This is the CinemaScope mug in the cupboard. Wide-mouthed. More for soup than for a hot drink. But it is a mug, so it fits the theme. It’s chipped and cracked, indicating some age. I’ve held onto it all these years because I like the earthy design. I see a landscape: sky above, blue-ridged mountains, green forests, and some brown woods, or soil. It’s the kind of view one might have after hiking up a neighboring peak, a gentle vista, a terrene panorama.

Unlike the phone-camera digital collections of “pics” that rarely if ever make it beyond the tiny device’s screen, my first photos were transparencies projected on a 50″ X 50″ movie screen in the family living room. My very first slides held no landscapes to speak of, at least not the view I imagine on the soup mug. Those pictures told the story of a large family, its everyday life, special occasions, the neighborhood. Even the summers we spent a week on Cape Cod didn’t produce photos of the Catskills or the Berkshires. We didn’t stop long enough to take in the views, and truth be told, as a kid I just wasn’t paying attention.

But once we traveled as far south as my grandmother’s home in western North Carolina, I started aiming my camera at the mountains, the lesser hills, and the landscapes that I had overlooked earlier. The cameras I had early on didn’t have many adjustments. They were inexpensive forerunners of today’s “point and shoot” cameras, and the cheaper color film I bought had little “latitude.” In other words, it wasn’t very forgiving, exposure-wise. Thus, my washed out scenery, a very pale representation of what my eyes had beheld. O beautiful for spacious skies, for kind of grayish waves of grain. So much for purple mountains’ majesty; my mountains were more mundane than majestic.

As I grew into adulthood, the cameras and film became more sophisticated and I traveled more. Living then in Virginia brought many landscapes into sight, and neighboring states had their own breathtaking vistas. When I started shooting video, I could pan and zoom (always slowly, always judiciously), and I could capture the breadth and width and depths of hills and valleys and rivers and lakes. Now in the digital age, if I have to, I can even improve upon the natural beauty of the earth’s scenic gifts.

One of my favorite movies is “Grand Canyon.” Danny Glover plays a lead character whose challenging urban existence in sprawling Los Angeles moves him to dream of going to the Grand Canyon. Not to merely escape the violent gangs in his neighborhood or to run away from personal and family issues, but to stand on the canyon’s rim and gaze into the wondrous spectacle of the river-carved panorama. Film critic Roger Ebert referenced L.A. as ominous and threatening, “an alienating landscape.” And the Canyon? For Glover’s character, and eventually for others in the story, the Canyon is that which is so immense in its grandeur that one’s own insecurities and worries seem petty and small. The dream is not a real escape, but the imagination’s way of seeing beyond, way beyond, present reality to a landscape of liberation. 528-1

I’ve stood there, on that rim, and while I wasn’t battling any demons at the time, I can attest that as you gaze out over the expanse, you are lost in wonder, almost breathless with awe. And you are the last thing on your mind. That was the power of the grand landscape for the characters in the film.

A recent journey west took us to three National Parks — Glacier, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone. Each breathtaking in its own way.  But I have to say that the vistas I’ve seen hiking the Appalachian Trail or having climbed Lookout Mountain in Montreat, NC were more literally breathtaking, because of the difficult paths we had to follow to reach the peaks. Rocky trails, switchbacks, steep climbs…expending energy, exuding determination. And once you have reached the mountaintop, there is no way you turn around right away and head back. You survey the broad geography of hills across and valleys below, of rivers that created canyons and of towns and farms and people below, people who may well be looking up at your mountain peak and thinking wow!

So, you linger. And catch your breath. And pray your gratitude for the beauty of the earth, for hill and vale and tree and flower, as the hymn goes.

We lived in northern Vermont for almost ten years, and never took the landscape for granted. I once asked Albert Urie, who had farmed there for sixty years or so, if he had gotten so accustomed to the scenic views that they were hardly worth a glance. “Never,” he replied. And then he pointed out and named each distant mountain range and peak seen from his front steps.

Whether snow-covered or bathed in summer greenery, the rolling hills and stony pasture land, the walks down the wooded Cemetery Road and the evening vigil we’d keep on Betty Patterson’s hill, looking toward distant Mount Mansfield —  that was our spiritual geography, akin to that found in the Dakotas so admired by Kathleen Norris.

I write these reflections in Lent, not always tying up theological loose ends as we head toward Resurrection Day. But today, I have to wonder about the landscape of Holy Week. Talk about hills and valleys! Palm Sunday was definitely a mountaintop experience for Jesus’ disciples. Everything was working out as they had hoped, and people, their people, their fans and followers, shouted acclamations of praise and prayer-songs for salvation. Hosanna!

But by mid-week, the tide had turned. Heading down the road, there was a deep, darkening valley looming. By Friday, they would see a garbage heap of a hill, a skull-like landscape for the execution of those who had violated or, better, crossed the ruling empire.

Saturday’s landscape will be empty. Just empty.

And on Sunday? It’s too early to tell. But there might be a garden. So full of life, it will be hard to believe. And a straight road to Emmaus we can walk together.

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{Lent 2017 continues with reflections based on mugs waiting for coffee in our kitchen. Working our way to forty.}

When you look at the date on this mug, you see that it’s obviously the newest of the lot. I once worked with the Tioga County affiliate of Habitat for Humanity, and my wife Joan was on the board of the neighboring Broome County HFH. Mine folded into hers, mine being the smaller group, with fewer volunteers and a tired Board of Directors.

My first Habitat for Humanity involvement was limited to making a quick little video for the Richmond, Virginia affiliate. In that larger city, resources were plentiful, but so was the need for affordable, safe housing. The video showed work on three or four homes going up at the same time. Our church was very involved. That congregation contributed financial resources and enough volunteers to build at least one home on its own. And probably more than one home through the years.

After we’d been away from Richmond a few years, we happened to be visiting that church one Sunday when volunteers were being commissioned for the next build. There were saw horses in the front of the sanctuary, and some 2X4 boards that would be used in construction. Church folk were invited to sign their names to the boards so that they’d have a place in the finished studs of the walls. Paint cans held contributions, and prayers held high hopes for a family that would call that house a home.

[An important note: the families that partner in the building of their homes contribute 500 hours or so of “sweat equity,” as well as paying off a no-interest mortgage on their new house. It is a common misconception that HFH gives homes away for free. No, they don’t.]

When we moved to Vermont, I got much more involved in the local affiliate there. It was a different animal in rural Vermont. The building season up in the northeast part of the state was very short due to the cold climate. Volunteers were far fewer, with most potential workers busy on their farms or working in professional building trades trying to make their own living during that short construction season. And the churches were very small, unable to make large contributions to support the mission. Still, the need was great. Despite the romantic “Currier and Ives” image of Vermont, substandard homes strained under the weight of heavy snowfalls, woodstoves labored to keep homes warm, and a weathered look meant thin skins (exterior paint coverings) let cold winds seep into rustic homesteads.

Much of our work was accomplished by work crews from outside the state. For example, a group of college students (even high school teens) would stay in church basements, work on a home for a week, and go back home, to be replaced the following week by another crew. And rather than expend a huge commitment to build a new home, our affiliate did rehab work on old homes. We could improve the living conditions of several neighbors by repairing roofs, adding a coat of paint, rebuilding porches, etc., instead of spending two or three summers to build one new home for a family. The national headquarters didn’t always smile on our more humble efforts, but that was the reality in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.

Again, that small Habitat affiliate struggled to find work crews, coordinate their availability and skills with our current projects, locate housing and showers for the crews, and fund construction materials and supplies. The board was small and it was difficult to find local volunteers to serve on committees and help with building and rehabs. One couple, a retired minister and his wife, provided the leadership and coordination year after year, until the husband became too ill to continue. Eventually the affiliate had to close. It was a sad day.

When Joan and I moved to upstate New York, the Habitat board in the county to which we’d moved had just discovered that an embezzlement had decimated its financial accounts. I offered to produce a documentary about the current home it was working on, and somehow wound up on the board. Long story, short… though it built more homes than the Vermont affiliate had, it had trouble recruiting fresh blood for work crews and board membership, and while its finances grew stronger, the group itself grew fatigued. As it dedicated its last home, Joan had joined with a neighboring affiliate and we saw her group absorb mine. Just in time for her affiliate’s 25th anniversary. Thus, the mug.

All that personal biographical information is meant to say that we regard the ministry of  HFH’s founder Millard Fuller as a valuable contribution to meet a global need through local efforts. When a local church partners with Habitat for Humanity to provide a safe, affordable, and energy efficient home for a qualifying family in need, the people of that community of faith discover skills they may not have known they had, see progress from the foundation to the roof top, and witness to the fruits of compassion and hospitality. With its Christian roots, this housing ministry has grown into an interfaith effort, and watching all the Children of Abraham join in a common cause wielding hammers and paint brushes alongside a partner family about to own its home for the first time — that is a sign of hope, whether in downtown D.C., a suburb of Tempe, AZ, or anywhere in Haiti’s storm-ravaged landscape.

www.Habitat.org is full of helpful information.

To lighten things up a bit for tomorrow, the next mug says “Sax in the Morning.”

Many years ago I told someone, maybe my wife Joan, that God would never kill me before springtime. I figured that if I had endured winter’s blast, I deserved to at least see the dogwoods and azaleas bloom before I died.

Among the last images I’ve chosen for this Lenten daily discipline of writings based on my decades-long hobby of taking pictures is this slide from the early 1970s. The scene is Richmond, Virginia’s Bryan Park. On a weekend in early springtime, the park was filled with visitors, almost all of us focusing cimg022.jpgameras on the floral wonders of the park.

I officiated at a couple of weddings there, and one memory is, as they say, “etched.” At the Friday evening rehearsal for the Saturday ceremony, the bride, standing amidst rampant red and white azaleas, discovered she was allergic to those flowering blooms. An injection of some kind helped her make it through the wedding the next afternoon. So, yes, there is that downside to springtime: allergies.

However, the new life that springs forth from the seeming death of winter offers us the promise that beauty, fragrance, and nature’s bounty can renew us as well as the earth. I have to admit that it wasn’t until my transplantation to Virginia that I paid much attention to spring’s gifts. Was I too young to care about such things as changing seasons? Childhood in Upstate New York, college years in western Pennsylvania, and then that season of maturation, marriage combined with graduate school in Richmond…aha! Dogwoods! Azaleas! Tulips and jonquils. My eyes were opened to places like Bryant Park, Willway Avenue in the city’s “near West End,” and even our own more modest front yard. We made sure the landscaping of our first home in the Bon Air area included flowering bushes and trees.

When we moved to Vermont after 27 years in Virginia, we worried that Vermont might not even have a springtime. It sure took its time coming. Folks there referred to “mud season.” Not very promising at all. Maybe the only aroma we’d enjoy would come from the sugar houses, sap boiling into maple syrup. Maybe the only flowers would be jonquils hardy enough to push their way from frigid earth to warming sun. But here’s what we found so astounding there. They called it “greening up.” And pow! One day (it seemed to us anyway) suddenly the yellow-brown grass turned green. Really green.  And then our neighbors’ front yards were full of flowers, all summer long, as if there were a need to overcompensate for winter’s harshness.

Another thing we noticed about our rural area of Northern Vermont: within a short time of greening up came the yellowing up. Dandelions! Everywhere. And no one really cared. It was as if we deserved and appreciated more color after our white-blanketed winter. Weeds? No, wildflowers, almost as welcome as the blue forget-me-nots that would cover the yard through the summer.

I write this in Lent, and note that the derivation of that term comes from the Old English for the lengthening of days, as in growing minutes of sunlight day by day. The word spring also has Old English roots (no pun intended here, though I am not above that), referring to a “springing up” of nature’s new life, a place of rising and young growth.

This season is not to be confused with Easter, by the way. We in the northern hemisphere do insist on linking Easter’s promise of new life with the wonder of springtime. But my Australian friend Christine Gapes would remind us that “down under” Easter comes in the fall. So there.

Let Easter have its theology and springtime its climatology. One way or another, we can let the lengthening of days here in our hemisphere prepare us for the Day of Resurrection. Maybe in the southern hemisphere, Easter is even more mysteriously surprising, with colorful autumn leaves falling in stark contrast to the rising up of new life that is Easter.

Right now, with our only flowers, the crocuses, covered in last night’s inch of snow, we move through Holy Week, knowing its darkness will be overcome by Sunday’s sunrise, one so bright and promising and stunning that it will be hard to believe. But believe we must!