Find meaning where you look for it

We’ve got a throw-back church sign today, drawn from one of last summer’s thoughtful messages. This one makes me smile because some people can’t their heads around the use of “her” as a pronoun for God. On the other hand, some people can’t get their heads around the use of “him” as a pronoun for God.

Maybe your God is male. I have no problem with that. But my God doesn’t have genitalia, so I guess that means I land in the “they” camp (despite the grammatical agreement issues that causes). He is male, She is female, they are both, they are neither. If I refer to God as “She” once in a while, well, that’s just a reminder that I don’t really know. I’m not omniscient. Which is sort of the point of this message: faith is trusting even when you don’t know what the heck is going on.

I also don’t really know much about the meaning of geraniums, which my husband thoughtfully planted in the church sign stand, except they are a pretty-in-pink reminder of the promise of things to come on a gray winter day. A quick Google search reveals geraniums mean pretty much anything. Friendship? Sure. Ingenuity? Yes. Stupidity or folly. Yup, that, too.

I trust that you will apply whatever meaning you need today.

Time spent among trees is never time wasted

Among the benefits of investing in an existing structure, as opposed to building a new one, is that you usually inherit mature trees on the property.

This was most definitely the case with our converted church in the center of town, a little village on the Wisconsin-Illinois border. We had a number of big, beautiful trees on the lot. We ended up removing a few of the elderly Chinese elms, but the rest of them just needed a little pruning and love.

The stars in our yard are the pine trees. Somebody in the congregation long ago planted a number of pine trees that grew to forty or fifty feet tall in the decades since that prescient decision. They tower over the church roof.

The biggest pine, in a greener season.

Immediately upon taking possession of the property three years ago, we had the lowest branches on the two pine trees closest to the building trimmed dramatically (it took me and our hired man hours to haul all those branches to the burn pile). Some of the branches were draped across the roof, and they had to go. But since that extreme haircut, the scars have healed. I can barely get my arms around half the trunk of the biggest pine tree, it’s so massive (and I have long arms!). I stare into those towering branches next to our patio when I am in savasana, the final resting pose at the end of almost every yoga practice–at least, when I’m lucky enough to do yoga outdoors (which is out of the question, even in Texas, this time of year). It’s supremely calming to listen to the wind in those branches, and contemplate how those branches were reaching skyward long before I was born. Depending on my luck and the tree’s, those branches might be writing poems on the sky long after I’m gone, too.

If the true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit, a quote alternately attributed to author Nelson Henderson or Elton Trueblood, my husband decided to repay those long-ago congregants by planting a new pine tree in our yard last fall.

Tyler, Uncle Al and St. Johnny worked together to plant and stake this tree between the garage and the property line.

After we cut down those Chinese elms on the property line, Tyler determined we needed a little more greenery between us and the neighbors. So this little spruce tree took up residence between two of the bigger pines just off the driveway. If we had been around for Christmas, I would have been tempted to hang lights on this tree, it was so perfectly Christmasy.

In my youth, I didn’t consider myself a nature lover, but the longer I enjoy the eternal newness that comes from sunrises, sunsets, plants and yes, trees, the more I appreciate it.

“Of all man’s works of art, a cathedral is greatest. A vast and majestic tree is greater than that.”

~Henry Ward Beecher

Making room for new things

“Sometimes letting things go is an act of far greater power than defending or hanging on.”

~ Eckhart Tolle, spiritual teacher

Sometimes, it’s necessary to toss the chaff away to make room for the wheat.

As the new year dawns, I can’t patrol any social media site without seeing evidence of resolutions to organize closets, give away housewares, sort through junk drawers and toss expired condiments, medications and eyeshadows. People are making room for better things by getting rid of clutter.

So it was with one of our trees last fall.

The hard maple tree in the front yard of our chome wasn’t there when the church was constructed back in the late 19th century, but it’s evident in pictures from the mid-20th century. An inoperable light fixture remains attached to the trunk; we’ve been told one of the pastors lived in a trailer outside the church, and the fixture provided exterior light.

Pruning, in progress.

It’s a beautiful tree but an aging one. We were forced to cut down three mostly dead Chinese elms on the property line in the spring of 2019 after one of them split in half in an ice storm. This hard maple was mostly alive, but one of its main branches hung over the road, threatening to kill someone in the right (or wrong) windy conditions. So Tyler determined the tree need a major trim. His cousin, an experienced tree trimmer, agreed to perform the work in September just as the leaves were beginning to turn.

It made me sad to see this tree’s huge limbs turned into kindling. I knew it was for the best, but I was appalled. I imagine some people feel the same way about dropping their belongings off at the Salvation Army store or Goodwill. I know a lot of people who watched as we renovated the church in 2018 felt sad about the passing of an age, but it was necessary to save the church structure and create the home in which we now live.

Here’s the tree, fully leafed out in early summer.
And here’s how it looked after its haircut.

The tree looked scrawny after the pruning, but we hope we have given it many more years of life.

Bats don’t dwell in hell; they live in the roof

Like a bat out of hell, I’ll be gone when the morning comes.

~ Meat Loaf

So, tell the truth now, do you have bats in your belfry?

The answer is definitively no. We do not have bats in our belfry.

However, we have had a bat swooping around the fans in our 20-foot great room ceiling. And if I’m being honest, it happened more than once.

Ardent fans of the blog will remember the first time we found a bat in the church, and I recounted that slapstick incident in the book.

It (or its relative) visited twice more, after we moved in. The first time, the little imp disappeared. Suddenly, he was winging around the room while we were watching TV, we chased him around for a bit, and then *poof* he was gone. Very disconcerting, it was.

The second time, my hero of a husband batted him down (get it? He batted down a bat?) with a fish net and then removed him from the great room in a bucket. Since it’s illegal to kill bats, let’s just say he flew off to greener pastures. Or a better belfry. Whatever.

Tyler suspected the bats were getting into the false roof of the church through the chimney (not the belfry), so that’s been sealed up, and we haven’t seen a bat in a long time. We could never figure out how they were getting from the false roof into the house. That part’s a mystery.

Metaphorically, do we have bats in our belfry? Also a definitive no as evidenced by the end result we live in. We weren’t crazy. We were crazy like foxes: seemingly foolish but in fact extremely cunning.

CSH Book Front Cover Only# # #

My memoir Church Sweet Home: A Renovation to Warm the Soul comes out May 5. The paperback will be available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Preorder the ebook at Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook and Kobo.

Trees are as close to immortality as the rest of us ever come

We suffered a loss here at the Church Sweet Home estate, and it hit me harder than I expected.

We cut down three mostly dead Chinese elm trees on our property line last month. Well, to be specific, we had them cut down by the pros. Removing 65-foot-tall trees is not for amateurs unless you’re interested in starring in stupid idiot videos involving chainsaws and house disasters.

fallen tree
Our tree, iced.

We knew they were mostly dead. During an ice storm earlier this year, one of the trees split nearly in half. The branches clogged up the driveway next door, and that’s when we understood we needed to take drastic action. Before some fallen branches clipped a car. Or a person.

So, Tyler called a tree guy, and he diagnosed the trees as kaput. I suspect he was a little like a surgeon who fixes every malady with a scalpel, but we didn’t have any holistic remedies at the ready. So chainsaw it was.

The project required two days, four trucks (some with buckets) and at least six guys. Strange weather befell us, and the men worked through sunshine, clouds, rain and snow. They started at the top of the trees, which towered far above the top of our belfry, and worked their way to the ground.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Yes. It sounds like a chainsaw and feels like an earthquake. The church literally shuddered when the trunks were felled. I shuddered, too.

The tree guys knew what they were doing. Our trees were removed without incident.

tree getting cut up
Where mulch comes from.

Except to the trees. Which were essentially massacred. The trunks were cut into pieces and hauled away to be used for pallets, we were told. The branches were turned into chips, mulch for someone’s yard maybe.

Chinese elm is a rapid-growing species native to eastern Asia. It is highly resistant to Dutch elm disease (which killed off three-quarters of all American elms in North America). It wasn’t disease that killed off our trees. It was just age. And ice, I guess, which is problematic for the older set who is a little unsteady on their feet, too.

tree stump
Eventually we’ll dig out these stumps, too.

When the tree guys finished their work, I inspected the remaining stumps in a way I had never looked at the trees in the first place. I didn’t appreciate them when they were around. I was sort of sad. I counted 70 rings in the stumps, so they were planted about the same time the church underwent a major renovation to build a new entryway and move the altar from the east side of the sanctuary to the north side. The ’40s must have been a good decade for the Methodists here. Renovations like that take money, which in the church world, required enthusiastic members.

Our yard, even without the spindly leafless branches, looks weirdly naked without our dying Chinese elms. Of course, it doesn’t help that the gray of early spring casts a pall on the entire landscape.

I suppose the trees lived a good life and died a good death. But I miss them.

trees cut before
Here is how our trees looked while the men were working on them (I don’t have a good picture of them with leaves from this angle).

trees cut after
And here’s how our side yard looks now.

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Today’s headline is a quote from American author Karen Joy Fowler. She is best known as the author of the best-selling novel The Jane Austen Book Club that was made into a movie.