Up here in Maine, the winter sun shines low on the horizon. On clear days, the brilliant sunshine streams directly into my south-facing picture windows from early in the morning through the mid-afternoon. The miracle of sparkling white winter sunshine warms both my heart and home. In fact, my recently repotted garden geraniums are thriving in their new home on the warmer side of my plate glass dining room window. They are shouting their glad thanksgivings daily with bright new salmon-pink bunches of blossoms. I wonder if those transplanted geraniums deeply know they would not be thriving right now had they stayed in their summer window boxes now located on the frigid outer side of the same glass. Indeed for now they are blooming where they are planted, as am I. I enjoy sitting in the sunshine with these geraniums, whether we’re outdoors in the summer or indoors in the winter.
Today’s winter cast of the afternoon sun is drawing my attention to new life breaking open. As my eyes follow the sun to its own warm reflection, I notice all that is an amaryllis. Today it is a blade pushing through its tough shell, exposing a tender new tip of what will become a lanky leaf. We can’t yet see the length to which it will grow, we can only imagine it. What a contrast it presents of itself today. So vulnerable it is at this moment, yet astoundingly resilient. Have you ever pondered how tough a blade of new growth can be when it first turns toward the Light? It persistently pushes through everything that stands in its way.
As I give my full attention to this unassuming bulb in transition, my gaze slowly refocuses on the message hanging on the wall behind it: HomeSweetHome. An epiphany dawns on me, suspended yet suddenly so obvious–all that is alive is now and always will be, changing. A vivid memory catches my breath. I’m in the summer of 1981 again, satin-stitching my heart’s deepest desire for HomeSweetHome on to this same punched paper. Though it was once stitched on new white paper, now it’s weathered into a wrinkled and stained icon of a lifelong quest of mine. How odd it is for me to witness this fragile paper slowly fading over the years.
At the time of its creation, this piece of handwork was an exercise in hope. I was seventeen years old, about to head off to college, and I wasn’t at all keen on leaving home. It’s not that I was happy at home on the High Plains of Kansas, at a deep level I knew that my parents were not going to keep a home together much longer. It all felt utterly desolate at the time. I knew that when my time came to leave home, there would be no turning back. Despite becoming a seasoned traveler over all these years, I’ve never been keen on leaving home.
It was early in the summer of 1981 when my mother’s mother grew so very sick. It took my breath away to see her fade away. She was a grand mother to me in all ways, making Home a sweet place for me to just be. Her old friends called her Pinky and it described her well, she was full of life, a diminutive dynamo, an only child who was a mother to six children. One of my favorite places to be was in her overgrown backyard flower garden. I would spend hours out there alone, free to be lost in my imagination. It was also there that Pinky annually taught me the names of all the perennially blooming varieties of pink, yellow, and purple garden blossoms.
I was determined to learn the name of every flower by heart. As soon as school was out for the summer, I wanted to be back home in her hometown. At the end of May, I would travel six hours across stormy Kansas with my mother to visit her mother and grandmother where five generations of our family have lived and loved. We had a sweet ritual of filling an emptied winter’s worth of foil-wrapped 38 oz metal Folgers coffee cans with a profusion of irises, peonies, bleeding hearts, and water. We’d carefully place the splashy cans of homegrown flowers on the floor of the family car and slowly head a few miles out of town to Mt. Hope Cemetery. Our jolly procession was slow because we didn’t want the cans to tip over. To this day whenever I smell coffee, I smell the scent of May flowers too. We were on a mission to decorate the graves of our family for Memorial Day. As Pinky and I would wander around the gravestones placing our flowers, it seemed as though we were walking the avenues of her childhood as she’d tell me all about our family and friends who were now buried in rows out on the windswept Kansas prairie. The names carved into the simple gravestones came alive in the time my grandmother took to share the stories of her life. In my heart, the stories still pour out every time I draw in a deep breath of Pinky’s favorite heavenly-scented flowers.
When we buried Pinky on Mt. Hope at the end of that sepia-stained summer of 1981, I felt as though my hopes of HomeSweetHome died too. In tears, I decided to stop my needlework and frame it as it was, half-finished and exposed to the ages. Now when I look at my framed icon of HomeSweetHome, I can still see all of the flowery stitches in the empty places that I chose not to fill. I ended that point in time with a period and reluctantly moved on. Suddenly in the brilliantly lit hindsight of this winter day in Maine, I can see exactly where her ending marked my new beginning.
Since then I’ve faced countless setbacks and grievous upheavals, feeling forced to “leave home” every step of the way. It’s been a winding trail of tears: a trial. I loathe to take leave of my gardens planted all along the way. And yet, the stories of true love planted and shared along the way do keep me going. Now my daughter and I walk through gardens, sharing our stories of love along the way as we learn the names of new varieties of old friends which have blossomed over time.
Almost like the cross which Jesus carried for us, I’ve carried my half-stitched HomeSweetHome with me, perpetually seeking where I was next meant to be. My work has called me to places that go way beyond the limits of my imagination. With a slow dawning as I look to the East, I’ve come to better understand the paradoxical hope of the Cross. Every year on Palm Sunday, almost without thinking, I’ve tucked a newly folded cross made of one long pliable palm frond into the wooden frame of my HomeSweetHome. Every year I slowly watch it turn from new green to brittle brown over the course of a church year. Each year on Ash Wednesday I burn the cross into ashes and wait through Lent for the next supple palm frond to arrive in procession on Palm Sunday. When lovingly folded by others and placed by me in the upper left hand corner of my punched-out paper icon, my ever-changing palm cross intentionally marks a dark spot where my tear stain left its mark in 1981. It’s pressed into the corner amongst the embroidered flowers that I chose to complete, a testimony to the regular return of my glad thanksgivings.
So often, I’ve felt like my variously borrowed homes away from Home are actually one tent being taken up and put down way too many times. “Where is my HomeSweetHome?” has been my frequent lament as I’ve walked along over time. I’ve literally carried this framed question on a quest to every home I’ve ever hoped for and I’ve faithfully driven nails into a never-ending succession of walls, hanging it up with hope again and again and again. Every time, except most recently, I’ve also had to tearfully take it down again. I’ve lost count of how many times it’s been carried to the next place where I’m called to Hope.
This is the cross we bear in the Garden. Life in the midst of death is meant to change with us. We are always walking toward home with Jesus. Yet, wherever we may wander, our shared stories carry us along. Thanks be to God, our true home is not yet to be found on this side of heaven. For now we are tenting with fellow travelers, orienting our flowering faces toward the Light of Love. By the grace of God, the Son brilliantly shines through it all turning all Light into Life.
Photos by mjh+