Letters in the Sand

May 26, 2021 | My Jottings

From the archives….

You are on a beautiful beach. The sea is turquoise, the sky is filled with giant, slow-moving clouds, and the rhythmic sound of the gentle surf is like a balm to your harried soul. The sun warms your shoulders as you walk, and you breathe in the brisk, salty air. For as far as your eyes can see, you are the only person on this slab of earth, and you revel in the peace. No phone calls or text messages interrupt the solitude, no paperwork calls your name, and you do not have to dash madly to any appointments. For a brief period of time you have no obligations, and you relax.

After you walk alone for over a mile, you come across this note written in the sand:  I LOVE YOU.

What would be your first thought upon seeing those words? Oh! I’m not alone after all. Someone was here before me. And you might hold your hand up over your eyes to scan the beach in all directions, to see if the person who wrote the words is very nearby. Whether or not you ever spot the person who wrote the message in the sand, you walk on, knowing someone was there first, and had something to say.


Not once would you ever surmise that the waves and the wind formed the letters I LOVE YOU in the sand. Never would you come to the conclusion that the message appeared there as a random, fluky occurrence. Those three words are too complex to just materialize as the result of a happy accident. You would naturally (and rightly) assume that the letters in the sand were formed by design, by a being with enough intelligence to scrape them into the wet sand, perhaps with a finger or a piece of driftwood.

When I consider the world around me, when I see people and animals and plant life, and the unfathomable hugeness of the cosmic spheres and the smallness and intricacy of DNA, I can’t bring myself to believe that something so complex just happened, as a result of a lucky chemical event millions of years ago. Just as those letters on the sand (simple as they are) betray their intelligent design, so does the rest of creation, which in comparison is so much more complex than I LOVE YOU written on the beach.

I am not smart enough to debate anyone on this. I just know that when I see the magnitude and detail of every single thing that exists, it speaks to me of a very powerful and a very intelligent and purposeful creator.

I’m a Christian, and someday on the blog I will share why I think Jesus is who He says He is, and why He is worth living and dying for.

But even if I weren’t a Christian, I think I would look at the universe and say, “Someone made all this.” It’s too vast, too involved, too detailed, too specialized, too miraculous, to not have been created. Even if I didn’t name the name of Jesus, I would still believe in some kind of a God. Just like the letters in the sand, it seems very reasonable to deduce that this isn’t all an accident.

And I might just remark to myself, “I’m not as alone as I thought I was…”


On that final day

May 21, 2021 | My Jottings

Many years ago a good friend shared with a group of us that she would give anything to be a fly on the wall at her own funeral. So, a zany bunch of us planned Joanne’s funeral while she was still alive, and we graciously invited her to attend. It was held in the evening at a friend’s house.

My husband Michael built Joanne a makeshift coffin, which was laid out on the dining room table. There were chairs set up in the living room as in a funeral parlor, candles lit, flowers placed, somber music playing in the background. All of us wore black, even our friend (who was approaching sixty at the time). One by one, everyone came up to share personal eulogies and memories about our friend, while she laid there motionless in the coffin, listening. Some comments were more serious and truly heartfelt, most were a little on the goofy and melodramatic side, and I remember seeing Joanne trying to keep a straight face as she laid there and listened to all of the weeping and wailing and reminiscing. We dabbed at our eyes with hankies and some even threw themselves across the body in practice grief. Then a couple of us performed a song, an oldie with words we rewrote for the occasion: “It’s my funeral and I’ll cry if I want to, cry if I want to, cry if I want to…you would cry too if it happened to you!”

Then we had a funeral lunch. And Joanne climbed out of the coffin and joined us for that.  It was agreed that a good time was had by all. 🙂

Some of you are thinking this is pretty funny. Others are reading with a raised eyebrow and thinking it’s kind of sick. This sort of humor is not for everyone. I think since our friend Joanne (a wise and dignified woman we all love so much) wanted this and could laugh at herself, it was okay. It certainly created an unforgettable memory for all of us.

I don’t plan on asking my friends and family to stage a funeral for me before I die, although I do relate a little to the curiosity of wanting to know what will be said after I’m gone. I’ve left my wishes and instructions in a file on my computer and my family knows all about it. They won’t have to guess what I want, who should sing, what I should be dressed in, what verses should be read, etc. I don’t want them to have to wonder about any of that at the time of my passing.

But I do have one special request for that day that only God can fill.

This is what I would like to happen outside our window on the day that I die, and I would want it to occur so that all my family members were in one place at the same time to witness it.

I don’t know if it will happen, of course. Only God could orchestrate something this lovely and miraculous. But it certainly doesn’t hurt to ask.

I can dream, can’t I?

Little House in the Big Woods

May 16, 2021 | My Jottings

Almost two weeks ago I took my foster resident Carrie on a four day trip to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, to see all things Little House on the Prairie. We decided to invite a former foster care resident, Betsy, since she loves the Little House series too. Carrie has lived with me for thirteen years; Betsy was here for seventeen before I began the glacial process of semi-retiring, and decided to help place her in a wonderful family foster home not far from here.

Even though it was a working vacation for me, Lloyd wanted to come with us, and we rented a new Voyager at the last minute when I went down to the garage to load suitcases and found my Outback battery so dead not even a click would sound. (I didn’t know then that the wayback dome light had probably been nudged on when I put two big boxes there, but at the time I didn’t want to chance jumping the battery and having the source of the problem be something more serious that would plague us on the trip.)

The gals were excited for our adventure and we had a great time with them. They each had enough of their own money to get hotel rooms for themselves, and we had three, right in a row so I could check on them and help them as they needed. One of them is severely diabetic and her continuous glucose monitor helped me keep her blood sugars safe while we were gone.

We stayed in New Ulm, Minnesota, a beautiful little German town with an interesting history. We took the gals to see the town Glockenspiel play, had takeout Mexican food in a lovely park, drove to Minneopa State Park to see a herd of buffalo. Walnut Grove was about a forty-five minute drive from New Ulm, and we went to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and toured all they had to offer. Carrie and Betsy love to shop for soobeneers, so a lot of time was spent in the quaint gift shop, filling up their bags with books, DVDs, key chains, hoodies and doodads. Carrie was happy to swim in the hotel pool, and we had plenty of time to rest too.

I had never spent time in Southern Minnesota, and it was so beautiful. I’m accustomed to the rugged, rocky, densely treed and river-cut North Shore area of Minnesota, where all things lead to Lake Superior. We drove through miles and miles of Brown and Blue Earth counties, and I was entranced. Mostly flat but sometimes mildly hilly, the terrain was dotted with neatly kept farmhouses set back from the highways, grain silos, barns and cows. Lloyd told me that Blue Earth County was named so because the earth was so rich and black it almost looked blackish blue, and we saw this clearly. Blue- black soil as far as the eye could see, ready to be planted, and I wondered if anything that had ever passed my lips had been grown in this fertile area we were passing through.

My foster gal Carrie always says, “It’s good to get away, Julie, but it’s always good to come home!” And so it was with this trip as well. We recounted aloud together the things we’d done and seen while we were gone, but there’s something wonderful about sleeping in your own bed after being gone a while. One of the highlights was when we drove through Minneopa State Park, hoping to see buffalo. We were warned to take binoculars since the herd might be far off, and we did. But as we passed one fenced area I caught sight of a few beasts within a long stone’s throw and Lloyd slowed to a stop so we could see them through the scrubby trees. If they had been cows I could have stuck my head out of the window and mooed to get their attention, but I wasn’t sure how buffalo sounded. I quickly found something on my iPhone, bluetoothed it through the van stereo system, rolled down the windows and hit play. Oh my goodness. If you’ve never heard the American Bison, you can click here.  We were so tickled to see one of the shaggy and hunchbacked bulls slowly swing his head toward us when he heard the calls. He fixed his little eyes on us as if thinking, “Who do you think you are?” and promptly lifted his tail. This delighted Carrie and Betsy to no end, and might just have trumped the entire trip over all the Laura Ingalls Wilder details.

Like Carrie says, I love to come home. My house is a gift from God, a haven and quiet place where I can hope, heal, rest, renew. Introverts need a lot of those things. And even though Michael has been gone for over six years and I’m remarried, Lloyd and I technically live apart. If you had told me when I was young that I’d someday be married and yet not live full-time with my husband, I would not have thought that appealing. But lots of things change when you’re old. Lloyd lost his Rosemarie two months before I lost Michael. They raised their family in St. Paul and then they retired on eighty acres of north woods after the kids grew up and had families of their own. He built a log cabin in the middle of those woods and dug two ponds. It’s his piece of heaven on earth, and we both love it. I have my own piece of heaven fifty miles north of him, with ever-changing and sapphire Lake Superior always in view. Lloyd has two seventeen year-old cats who are crazy about him, and when his neighbor can care for them, he comes to stay with me for a few days at a time. When I can get respite care for my foster gal, I drive down to stay with him on the occasional weekend. We talk to each other at least twice a day, but ten days or two weeks might go by before we see each other. He loves his little house in the big woods, I love my white house by the big lake.

Here is an aerial picture of Lloyd’s cabin. See it, down at the bottom of the photo?

When I’m at Lloyd’s, I love the immediate feeling of everything slowing, breathing more deeply, and observation intensifying. We’ve seen a huge black bear swim around in the pond closest to his cabin, lumber out and shake off, then stand up on hind legs to scratch his back against a tall pine tree for a at least thirty seconds. We’ve seen a good-sized porcupine with light-tipped quills amble toward the cabin, close enough for it to hear me whisper in the window and decide to go back into the woods from whence it came. We’ve seen glossy fishers, three feet long and so fluid in their movements, dart through the moonlit snow in one direction, disappear from view, then run back with some unfortunate rodent hanging from its mouth. Wild turkeys fan their tails and strut hopefully to attract potential (yet mostly indifferent) mates, cautious deer with twin spotted fawns step into the yard, redheaded pileated woodpeckers cling to the sides of dying trees, listen for insects, then soar low and slow through the woods. Red squirrels run-hop nonstop from tree to tree, from brush pile to picnic table, squabbling with each other, dashing under the cabin. Lloyd goes outside and tells them in the most reasonable manner that they need to stay away from the cabin or else. He thinks they listen to him sometimes.

At Lloyd’s little house in the big woods, I read. I write in my journal. I pray. We make a big salad each time I visit. He grills a chicken breast outside, and I finish chopping romaine, red cabbage, vine-ripe tomatoes, yellow bell peppers, carrots, celery. If I remember to bring mushrooms, I saute them in a little olive oil and butter, and when they’re reduced I add garlic and sherry, a pinch of salt and a generous couple of twists of fresh ground pepper. I might add a few dried cranberries to the salad bowl, a handful of pecans or walnuts, and some roasted asparagus. We slice the chicken and toss everything together for an early dinner. I like blue cheese dressing (first tasted when I was a little girl at the Lyon’s Den restaurant in downtown Covina, California), Lloyd prefers French. If we have any Great Harvest sourdough bread, I thinly slice that and warm a couple of slices in a skillet with all the mushroom/sherry/garlic juices, and I know Lloyd will roll his eyes when he takes a bite.

If the bugs aren’t too bad, we walk the half mile of his winding driveway to the mailbox. In the fall when the bugs are gone, we traipse through the woods and he chuckles when I interrupt our walks every seventeen feet to oooh and aaah over some treasure I find. We read devotions to each other while we sit on the screen porch and listen to the birds.

At night we sleep in his loft, which barely fits the king-sized bed. I like a softer mattress and he likes one that disguises itself as a quilted board, so he kindly and ingeniously solved that problem by purchasing two twins, one hard, one “plush,” and putting them together on a king frame. We use king sheets and blankets, and you can’t even tell there are two different kinds of mattresses. Sleeping in Lloyd’s cabin loft is like being in a treehouse. The view from the windows is nothing but trees and sky, and waking up to the green quiet is sublime.

Lloyd and I freely talk about Michael and Rosemarie. We honor them and our previous marriages and families. We love each other, but he was married for fifty-one years and I for thirty-three, so we know how much of our lives were filled up with another.

This is probably why we both feel comfortable with the way things are, living apart for now. We talk about the day when my house might be more than I want to care for, and when the never-ending maintenance a log cabin in the encroaching woods requires might be too much for him. We know we might live together full time someday, perhaps in a place new to us both. And we know too, that it might not happen at all.

Experiencing deep grief helps us live in the moment more than we did before. We know how quickly someone we love can just up and depart from this earth. He likes being here in the white house by the big lake, and is often reluctant to go home. I like being in his little house in the big woods and wish I could stay longer, but I feel the pull of my responsibilities here call me back. For now, for two old people already established in their homes and ways of life, it’s working well.

I’m off now to make myself a late breakfast. One half of an Ezekiel sprouted wheat English muffin with butter, a couple of chicken and sage sausages, and a sliced Honeycrisp apple. I might take a bike ride later, and then this evening I’ll be going to hear my beloved granddaughter Audrey sing in her choir’s recital at The College of St. Scholastica. She’s almost fourteen and I call her Beauty, because she is.

A very blessed and peaceful Sunday to you all,

Basic Math

May 14, 2021 | My Jottings

1 + 1 = 2

2 + 2 = 4

4 + 4 = 8

5 + 7 = 12

23 + 86 = 109

44 + 101 = 145

256 + 814 = 1070

1298 + 8330 = 9628

219,011 + 637,226 = 856,237

Godliness + contentment = Great gain    (1 Timothy 6:6)

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I find that regularly going over the basic tables of addition is really helpful.

What kinds of things do you need to be reminded about?

Wednesday’s Word — Edition 147

May 12, 2021 | My Jottings

“Always the essence of the listener is one of deep reverence, infinite respect, and deep gratitude to God for having selected us for that listening. One cannot intrude oneself while listening to another.”

~~ Catherine DeHueck Doherty, from Poustinia

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Into the Silence — Part 2

May 4, 2021 | My Jottings

She wakes after a decent sleep, and thinks it must be close to 5:00 a.m., which would be just fine. She gets up and looks at the digital clock in the closet with the flashlight. Three thirty-eight in the morning. She moves around quietly, lights candles, pulls back the curtains so she can welcome the sunrise. She steps out onto the screen porch to get what she needs to make her cold brew concoction, and feels the thirty degree temps. Closing the door quickly, she throws a pashmina scarf around her head and neck until the hermitage warms. She throws caution to the wind and sets the thermostat at 72 degrees. Her feet are chilly so she pulls on SmartWool socks before slipping her feet into her moosey Acorns. Rocking, sipping, waiting, giving thanks.

As the sun rises she can hear their cries and puts on her glasses to peer in the distance. Sandhill cranes, flying, landing, gliding across the water of Tamarack Lake, just visible through the trees. She tries to think of how their calls could be described in words, and settles on corrugated bicycle horns, knowing the adjectives and the noun don’t really fit. But that’s how the cranes sound to her. She can see the white wakes they leave in the water if she squints her eyes.

She reads and rocks, writes and prays, turns down the thermostat, dresses for the day in jeans and a warm navy turtleneck. No one is there to care, so she doesn’t use the knife in the cupboard to slice her bread and cheese and apple. She breaks the bread, tears off a corner of the cheese, and blesses good teeth as she bites into the juicy apple and murmurs mmmm. Thank you Lord. Such a feast you’ve provided. Give us this day our daily bread. Why do I ever take more than my daily bread? Why did my whole family take more than their share? What is the problem, Lord?

She turns to the sixteenth Psalm and reads it aloud, letting it soak.

“I bless the LORD who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me.”

She reads the footnote and sees for the first time ever that the original Hebrew really says, “in the night also my kidneys instruct me.” How do kidneys instruct, and what do they say? That will be one to study when she gets home. Kidneys have certainly taken center stage in her family these days.

As the morning passes she reads every instance in the Gospels of Jesus taking a small amount of bread, giving thanks for it, breaking it, and distributing it to thousands of hungry people. And how each time baskets full of leftovers are collected. Such familiar scripture. She notes the details of each account, wondering, praying, asking for a word from that very same Jesus. The word that seems to slowly and eventually float to the surface of her murky mind is offer.

Offer. Offer? She writes it down and knows she will go home and look up the places in the Bible, especially in the Greek, where the word offer or offering is used. Offer. What can I offer you Lord? I offer myself. I offer my praise. My family. My thoughts. My money, which of course is really yours. I offer my home. I offer my sorrow. My past. My time. Will you help me not take any of it back, Lord?

Offerings. There were so many kinds in the Old Testament. All of them placed before God, on the altar. She remembers years ago when she drove up the north shore of Lake Superior, staying in a place overlooking the water, to get direction about two matters. The Lord had impressed on her then that whatever was placed on His altar was safe.

The next words that seem to blink over and over in her mind are from the places where Jesus simply says, “Bring them here to me.” What resplendent, glorious, hopeful words are those!

“Bring them here to me.”

What or who is brought to Jesus? she asks. Sick people. Outcasts. A few loaves of bread and a couple of fish to feed thousands of people. Unclean people. Children…Jesus wanted children brought to Him. A paralytic. Whatever was brought to Jesus was changed. He multiplied. He cleansed. He made whole. He nourished. He did what needed to be done. And He had/has the power to do it all, because He is the Creator of the whole universe, fills it up with Himself.

“Bring them here to me.”

That is prayer, bringing all and everyone to Him, humbly placing them at His feet and asking. Looking into His eyes. Trying to trust in His timing and will. Once again she writes every name of those she loves, tearfully and slowly bringing each one to Jesus. Here he is, Lord. Here she is, Lord. You alone, Lord Jesus.

The sun is high and she gets up to open the windows. Canada geese fly and honk overhead. The fresh air swirls in. It’s time for a walk. She laces up her boots and sets off through the trails. Every step is a crunch of fallen oak leaves, and she looks for a perfect acorn to pick up, recalling the saying about how an entire forest is found in one acorn. She loves that about God. Abundance and growth and shade and life from one seed. And He’s not in any hurry, she thinks. Lord, teach me your rhythms and routines. Help me breathe deeply, trust you fully and commune with you more than I do.

Five minutes from her St. John the Beloved hermitage, she gasps and is startled by a snake on the path, right in front of her feet. She slams on the brakes and her recently broken toe jams against the hard end of her boot. A lightning bolt of pain. It’s then she can see that the three-foot garter snake is already dead, its head presumably crushed by the staff car yesterday, after delivering her bags.

The body of the snake is curved as in movement and only its head is flattened, its mouth open, revealing its red tongue. She looks for meaning everywhere. Is this a message for me? That on the first full day of my silent retreat, I see that the serpent is dead, head crushed? She knows the verse in Genesis regarding the serpent/devil reads, “…He shall bruise your head and you shall bruise His heel.” Do I need a reminder, Lord? She takes a good look at the striped green and black snake before walking on, stores the thoughts in her heart, and begins to limp as she goes. The toe is worse; re-injured perhaps. No matter.

She takes her time and walks through the woods to the prairie, too early to be filled with the wildflowers she’s seen in the photos. She approaches the huge wooden cross, closes her eyes and puts her hands on it, trying to picture what the Marys and John must have felt when they saw their Master there. She knows she can’t even come close in her imagination. She slowly winds her way to the lake and walks out on the floating dock to sit on the wrought iron chair at the end. The cranes are gone for the day, but she can see the pale green, twisting lily pad plants beginning to grow under the water, two feet from the surface. She knows this shallow lake will be covered with lily pads come full summer. She watches water bugs skim and occasional bubbles come from under the water, and thinks about how God has His eyes on it all. After an hour she makes her way back to her temporary home in the woods and takes off her boots. Yes, the toe next to the little toe is badly swollen and is a darker purple. The top of her foot below the toe is bruised. It will heal.

She washes her hands over the metal bowl on the table, then unwraps the bran muffin with the gooey dates and toasted nuts. She pulls pieces off and savors them, thinking she should ask for the recipe. Not usually one who thinks twice about muffins, these she would make, especially for Lloyd, who has a cup of coffee and eats a muffin of some kind in his Chevy Silverado every time he drives the hour to her house. When all that’s left of the muffin are a few crumbs on a paper towel, she gets up and finds the small pad of paper in the closet. The Pacem folks have told her to leave a note in the mailbox to the left of the door if she needs anything. They drive to all the hermitages at noon to check on hermit requests. She asks for one delicious muffin, writes her thank you, and folds the paper before placing it under the stone in the mailbox. At 12:05 she hears the footsteps on her porch and then the car driving on to St. Dominic.

At 1:30 she looks outside and finds a canvas bag hanging from the mailbox, with a saran-wrapped muffin inside. The note says, “Please enjoy this treat from your Pacem friends. Know that we are praying for you.” She puts the muffin in the basket and decides to save it for the next day.

She closes the windows of the little dwelling and decides to try to nap. Many hermits sleep when they come to this place of silence and rest, not being fully aware of how exhausted they are. She doesn’t feel physically exhausted, but she has always wanted to be a napper, so lies down on the bed and closes her eyes. Just like at home, sleep doesn’t come, but she’s aware of her breath and thanks God for the gift of all the things that make up this moment. Fresh air. Comfort. Warmth. Family at home caring for her foster resident. The sounds of nature all around and ears to hear. New mercies every morning, sorely needed and gratefully received. Quiet. Beauty. Hope.

Dinner is a banana, some cheese and half of one of the whole wheat boules. A steaming cup of Lipton tea. She wishes some big creatures would pass through the woods. Squirrels and birds are lovely, but wouldn’t a moose be the ultimate? They don’t live this far south, she remembers. A deer, perhaps. They’re practically on every block back home. She has heard coyotes howling out here before, wouldn’t that be amazing to see one trotting by? Or a fox. Or what about one bright cardinal?

She feels a tiredness settle over her, remembering how early she was up this morning. Maybe tonight she’ll sleep longer. Teeth, hair, face, flannel nightgown, candles blown out. All is silent. She hears the clicking of the wall heater as it goes on. She pulls the covers up to just under her nose as she does at home, prays to the God who made her and sustains her, and sleeps.

When her bladder announces itself, she gets up and shines the flashlight on the digital clock in the closet — 5:30 a.m. How wonderful it feels to have slept so late. She will be going home today.

She lights a candle, makes her cold brew concoction, and settles in the rocker to watch the woods wake up. She peels an orange and eats it slowly, listening to the Sandhill cranes on the lake. After a long time in silence and with elevated yet slightly sober thoughts, she gets dressed for one more walk. She washes her face and brushes her teeth before setting out, and breathes in the cool, fresh air.

She thinks she should have been a dendrologist, with the way trees delight and fascinate her, the way she can’t take a single walk without pausing to look a dozen times at swirls in bark, or at trunk and branch silhouettes and patterns against the sky. Every tree is a miracle, has influence, accomplishes much that is vital, yet mostly unseen. She knows birch trees especially clap their hands in praise, and they always ask her to join them if she’s nearby. She doesn’t clap her hands much anymore, but praise is always there inside. A remnant from Michael.

She doesn’t know the poem by heart, but so much of Wendell Berry reaches deep, and she finds it later:

“I part the out-thrusting branches
and come in beneath
the blessed and the blessing trees.
Though I am silent
there is singing around me.
Though I am dark
there is vision around me.
Though I am heavy
there is flight around me.”

Once back in St. John the Beloved, she begins preparing the hermitage for its next guest. She changes the sheets and towels, makes up the bed, fluffs and places the pillow. She boils water to wash the dishware she’s used, sweeps the floor, wipes everything down. She packs up all her things and places the two bags on the front porch, then returns to rock for a while before walking up to The Big House. She prays for the next hermit, asking God to bring His peace and healing to her or his life and family. That they would have His joy and rest.

She turns on her iPhone and texts her husband to let him know what time she’ll be out of the woods, waiting on the bench by the Big House, ready to return home.

She opens all the curtains, closes and locks the windows and the porch door. Turns to look one final time at this little piece of Heaven, and wishes she could come and stay more often.

This autumn perhaps. When the nights fall early and cold, and the leaves blaze.