The Photo Album

Photo Album“Mom, look what I found—pictures. Can I have a look?” Aisha’s voice interrupts my afternoon nap; a square photo album lands with a thud on the kitchen table.

“Sure, honey.” With a sigh, I hoist myself out of the recliner and sit down next to my teenage daughter. She lifts the heavy cover to reveal the first page, which displays the photo of a woman in her late twenties. Her complexion is perfect, her body athletic.

A stab of envy pierces my heart. I don’t need a mirror to remind me of my crow’s feet and the worry lines on my forehead. Without thinking, I reach up to touch the loose skin of my throat.

Aisha turns the page, careful not to tear the glassine interleave; the same woman smiles at us from a rowboat. She is a sportswoman and I know how she enjoys the rhythm of her strokes as the skiff glides through the water. On the opposite page, she is wearing a runner’s outfit; I recognize how she’s counting her steps, breathing deep, and reveling in the endorphin surge.

I look down at my fifty-plus body. It’s starting to sag. Arthritis is destroying my spine’s cartilage, sending painful messages to my right leg through compressed nerves. Walking is all I can do.

It is as if she’s mocking me, that woman in the pictures. She is in the prime of life, taking beauty and health for granted. In the arrogance of youth, she is confident that she will find the perfect love and lead a purposeful life, satisfying her innate need for happiness. A few bad experiences—and a couple of poor choices—have shaken but not shattered her conviction. She is in control.

Aisha studies the pictures, then looks up. “Is that you, Mom?”

“Yes, that’s me—about twenty-five years ago.”

“Wow. You’ve grown old.”

My mouth puckers. “Well, that’s what happens as time goes by.”

“What is it like to grow old, Mom? Do you feel worse now than when you were young?”

“Uh—” Suddenly, I remember the void. Because the woman I used to be searched for happiness in all the wrong places. The longing for love led her to make hasty decisions and choose harmful relationships. She hadn’t yet figured out that the career path she had taken wouldn’t lead to self-fulfillment. The pride elicited by a compliment of a manager and a significant raise—these things did nothing to fill the emptiness of her soul. And the runner’s high never lasted.

“I definitely feel better now.” As I talk, the truth of my words makes me smile. “Certainly, I’ve lost a bit of beauty and my body is wearing out, but I wouldn’t want to go back in time.”

“But why not? Didn’t you like being young?”

“Maybe I looked better, but I wasn’t happy.”

“Because you didn’t know Jesus?”

“Exactly.”

“Are you happy now?” Her gaze scrutinizes me.

I wrap an arm around her shoulder and plant a kiss on her cheek. “Definitely. And life is getting better every day.”

She leans against me as we quietly leaf through the rest of the album.

My outer self may be wasting away, but my inner self is being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16—ESV).


 

A Prayer about Worn Socks

Worn Socks

Dear Jesus,

This morning, I dropped a pair of worn socks in the trashcan and suddenly felt a twinge of guilt. My Mama went to be with You three years ago, yet I could almost hear her sneering, “Your Aunt Terry is a lazy bum. She doesn’t mend holes in socks; she just throws them away.”

Am I lazy, Jesus? I know I’m not the diligent housewife my Mama modeled. To her, housekeeping was a way of life that began at fifteen, when her father sent her away to be a round-the-clock maid. A relentless sense of duty made her toil every day, all day long.

Her countertop was always cleared. She prepared breakfast and invariably had lunch ready in time for us to get back to school for the afternoon. She didn’t vacuum the house by pushing the handle of the vacuum cleaner; she removed the handle, put the smallest nozzle to the tube, and went down on all fours to make sure it swallowed every crumb and dog hair from the carpet. The day she dropped a frying pan, and boiling oil splattered against her legs, the first thing she did was mopping up the mess. By the time she got to the doctor’s, her legs were two big blisters. The house was always spotless, from fridge to bathroom, from cellar to attic. Every cupboard, drawer, and wardrobe was neatly organized. When my father lost his job, she got a job as a janitress at a local school, doing what she did best.

And at the end of each working day, she put up her crooked feet—the painful result of a lifetime spent standing—and took out her mending basket. She never idled.

Ever since I was twelve, Mama urged me to tidy up my own bedroom, “Because you’re a girl and you must learn housekeeping.” I hated it. Dirty, she wrote in the dust on my bookshelves.

I’m in my fifties now and have my own family. But I still detest cleaning. Please don’t misunderstand me, Jesus—I love a tidy house. I just don’t like the process of achieving it. Somehow, it always ends up last on my list of priorities. I prefer talking with my husband over a cappuccino or worshiping You. Visiting friends, sharing Your love, and praying with them. Hiking in the woods, working on my book, or studying my Bible. Chatting with my daughter, helping her doing homework, or reading a good book.

I vacuum quickly, never on all fours. I never iron. Our wardrobes are a random pile of loosely folded clothes. I wash the dishes once a day. Never in my life have I done a spring cleaning. And I don’t mend holes in socks.

The other day, my daughter asked, “Who’s coming for dinner tonight?”

“Why, honey?” I stopped scrubbing the washstand.

“Because you’re cleaning the house.”

Jesus, it’s true that some days, I loath the idea of unexpected visitors, with dirty dishes piled up, a smudged floor, three dogs in the hallway, and schoolbooks plus half the contents of my daughter’s dressing table scattered in the dusty living room. But then You encourage me with the words that You spoke in Martha and Mary’s house, and I decide I’d rather be found amidst the clutter, radiant at Your feet, than grumpy in a spick-and-span house.

I can’t imagine dust or dirt in heaven. Mama must be having a good time.

By the way, can you please tell her that I love her—and assure her that I’m not a lazy bum?

Thank You, Jesus.

Amen.


You can find the story of Jesus in Martha and Mary’s house in the Gospel of Luke 10:38-42.

I submitted this article first to the FaithWriters Weekly Writing Challenge.

photo credit: New socks required ! via photopin (license)

GraceTruth-Featured

Greedy for Mushrooms

Truffle HuntingWhat’s that car doing down there, at the entrance of our pasture?

I descend the steep dirt road and notice a man approaching. “Buongiorno.”

Signora.” The man avoids looking at me.

“Excuse me, but what were you doing?”

“Searching… tartufi.”

Truffles? Our grounds contain truffles?

“Uh—black truffles?” I try to sound casual.

He shuffles his feet and thrusts one hand into his jeans pocket. “Well…no, white ones.”

The white gold of Umbria—worth up to €3000 per kilo.

A nervous excitement seizes me. “Did you find any?”

Beh, not really. It hasn’t been raining enough.”

In an instant, I’m transported back twelve years…in France…

***

The scent of resin enveloped me as I left the path and ducked under low branches into the pine forest. By the light of dawn, I scanned the soil for porcini mushrooms. Nothing. Had someone gotten here before me? Although I hadn’t detected any signs yet—mushroom stems, cut at ground level—the mere idea of an intruder was enough to infuriate me. Never mind that it was a public forest; I discovered this porcini-rich area. It was mine.

My gaze fastened on a bulge in the earth. I brushed aside needles to reveal the light brown cap of a mushroom. After removing the soil around the fungus, I cut its stem and inhaled the creamy, nutty fragrance. My spotless treasure, weighing at least a pound, filled me with exhilaration.

Just as I closed the lid of my basket, a rustle called my attention. I froze. I caught a glimpse of a rival’s boots as he wandered past, his stick lifting the underbrush along the path. Needles pricked my face; my back ached. But I refused to budge.

While waiting for the threat to recede—my eyes ever roving—I spotted a mushroom above ground, about ten feet away. As soon as all was clear, I crawled to it and found it wasn’t alone. This wasn’t hunting; this was mining! I worked feverishly. My knife hovered over some small ones; if I left them, tomorrow they’d be much bigger—but no, I couldn’t risk anyone else discovering them. The entire porcini family disappeared into my basket. They were mine.

On my way back home, I overtook my foe.

“Porcini hunting?” He asked with more than normal interest.

“Yes, but it’s a bad year.” I twirled my basket as if it didn’t weigh five kilo.

“You’re right—I didn’t find anything either.” His plastic collecting bag fluttered in the breeze.

***

The man’s whistle calls me back to the present. A beagle comes running and sits down at the feet of his owner.

“Does the dog help you to find truffles?”

Si, signora. When he sniffs them out, he starts scratching the ground, and I dig them up with a scoop.”

He takes his hand out of his pocket and shows five marble-sized truffles. “Do you want them? They are yours after all.”

They’re mine…

I ignore the whisper in my head. Thanks to Jesus, I’m not the person I was twelve years ago.

“No, please keep them. I only asked because yesterday, I found a dead badger with snare wounds around its snout. I just wanted to make sure you hadn’t put any traps out here; they would hurt our dogs.”

“Thank you.” He puts the truffles back in his pocket.

“Will you sell them or eat them?”

“Definitely sell them, signora. I recently lost my job. Since my wife works only part-time, and we have two small children, I am looking for ways to make some money.”

Before he closes the door of his old Fiat Panda, he lifts his hand in greeting. “Grazie, signora. Arrivederla.

A trail of grey smoke marks his path as he drives up the road.

I set out for my walk back home. Despite the steep climb, I manage a spring in my step.


I published this article first on FaithWriters.

Photo credit: Stefano Cellai/age fotostock

A desire ran wild, handed over

Even a normal, healthy desires can turn unhealthy if we allow it to run wild and dominate us. In this article, I share with you how in 2006, I surrendered my “baby lust” to God, and how He molded it into sheer beauty.



 

Verdant hills roll to the horizon; a river glistens in the sun. The breeze caresses my face as I look at my belly, which bulges under a wide dress. Smiling, I wrap my arms around myself and embrace the wonder of new life.

Beep, beep, beep!

Three minutes had passed. I half opened one eye, eager to know the result, but afraid of disappointment. A little pink line stared at me. Hoping to detect a second pink line, I opened my other eye as well. I blinked. Nothing. My womb was empty.

I grabbed the pregnancy test stick off the washstand and tossed it in the trashcan, along with my dream.

It wasn’t the first time I considered having a child, but I had always found a reason to tuck the idea away. Now I wasn’t in control. Baby clothes brought me to tears. Imaginary telephone conversations to announce my pregnancy to family and friends made me beam. Whenever my husband, Jan, and I sketched our future, I drew a little one into the picture. I planned a nursery. I even named my baby. The prospect of morning sickness, stretch marks, or labor pains didn’t ruin my reverie; rather it added a heroic touch.

As the months crept by, my jubilant anticipation gave way to fear and frustration. The craving intensified with each negative test result, clutching my heart so tight it hurt.

Jan was at peace. “If God wants us to have a baby, we will conceive. Otherwise, we will remain a family of two.”

I fought his words. “If God exists, surely He wouldn’t be so cruel as to stir up this devouring need and then deny me a child.”

Later that year, when I surrendered to God, I learned that He might have given me the desire, but He wouldn’t want it to run wild and dominate my life. I decided to let Him reign.

But then early menopause hit, and I had a hard time accepting that I would never feel life grow within me, give birth, or nurse my baby. Jesus received my tears and tended to my wounds.

When He promised me a child through a Bible verse, “Sing, O barren one, who did not bear…,” I was confused and terrified. “Lord, what if I heard You wrong? What if my scars rip open and the craving creeps out? Can I bear it?”

Yet I chose to trust Him.

Ever so gently, Jesus molded my desire into a longing to care for a child—any child, no matter in whose womb it had been conceived.

Instead of enduring nausea, a big belly, and contractions, we struggled with adoption information sessions, psychological assessments, and a huge pile of paperwork.

Two years later, when the adoption agency proposed a seven-year-old Ethiopian girl, we knew Aisha was to be our daughter. Mesmerized, we gazed at her pictures. “When can we bring her home?”

Cheerfully, the psychologist answered, “The Ethiopian court must study your dossier and approve you as Aisha’s adoptive parents. If everything goes according to plan, the process will be completed within six months.”

Waiting at least another half a year and facing the risk of being rejected—o Lord, I need your help.

While collecting and authenticating the last documents, I submitted the adoption procedure and my fears to Jesus. He was faithful. He armed me with confidence and patience to fight the lavish longing that was about to organize a coup in my heart and rule once more.

One autumn day, we found ourselves sitting on the edge of a rickety couch in an orphanage in Addis Ababa. There, amid dusty furniture and boxes piled up to the ceiling, I first pressed Aisha’s small body against my chest. There, I felt Jesus wrap His arms around us, embracing the wonder of new life—a new family.

 


Notes

The Bible verse, “Sing, O barren one, who did not bear…” is from Isaiah 54:1.

This article was first published in the FaithWriters’ Weekly Writing Challenge.

 

Keyword for 2015: FOCUS

Foto by Lisiane Detaille

Foto by Lisiane Detaille

December 30, 2014

Wind gusts stung my cheeks. Two degrees below zero, but the temperature didn’t stop me from taking my daily walk with the dogs. I squinted as I admired the ever-enchanting, Umbrian landscape from the top of a hill. Sunrays warmed my face, and I relaxed.

These last weeks of the year, I felt tense. Of course the frenzy of the period leading up to Christmas contributed (including a rare cleaning rage), as did having guests, breaking the daily routines due to school holidays, watching the new Hobbit movie, shopping, cooking, visiting friends, and worrying how to get our daughter to the long abided Christian winter camp in a snowy Abruzzo.

As much as I loved to write, I simply didn’t get to it. At times, my mind was skimming the surface of potential subjects, but whirlwinds of irrelevant thoughts blew them out of reach. The continuous distraction irritated me.

“God, please give me focus so that I can write again.”

Focus on Me, and you’ll have the right focus in anything you’ll do.

Bible verses popped up. Hebrews 12:2, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith. Isaiah 26:3, You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.

I realized that I had spent little time with Jesus, because my days were filled with other activities—activities I didn’t even fully enjoy, because I constantly felt “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread”—yes, just like Bilbo Baggins after years of owning the master ring of evil.

Allowing my own program to drag me away from the source of light, I gave darkness the opportunity to further distract me, steal my joy, and become superficial and ineffective.

“Forgive me, Lord—again.”

It wasn’t the first time and it probably won’t be the last time I let circumstances reign my life, but I know that it’s best when He is King.

In the first week of 2015, I dwelled in His presence every day, and enjoyed every single thing I undertook. Including writing this post.

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus (Colossians 3:17).

Catching Horses at Midnight

Horses

Pepita and Darius

My cell phone on the nightstand buzzes just as my daughter and I snuggle under the covers.

“Please silence it, Mommy. I’d hate to wake up tonight.”

“Sorry–with Dad gone, I prefer it up and running.” I put it back after reading my husband Jan’s message that he had a great day, a thousand miles away. “You could go sleep in your own bed, honey.”

“No, I want to stay with you.” To Aisha, sleeping in the king bed is the only benefit of Jan’s absence—never mind she’s fifteen.

Hugging her tight, I pray for a restful night. We both need it. Aisha had a sleepover at a friend last night—super fun, Mom—but of course, they did anything but sleep. Taking advantage of my solitude, I had been wordsmithing an article until 3 a.m.

I switch off the light, turn over onto my side, and fall asleep instantly.

Drrring, drrring.

Groggy, I reach for the phone. The display informs me that my neighbor, Valeria, is calling me at midnight. “Hello?”

“Milly, sorry to bother you at this hour, but it’s urgent—your horses escaped.”

“What?” I jolt out of bed and start getting dressed with one hand, while she tries to reassure me. “I’m blocking the road with my car, so they can’t go any further.”

“I’m on my way.”

I hastily explain to a drowsy Aisha that I must catch our two horses.

Mamma mia, my luck. They’re always docile, but now Jan’s gone—these few days a year—they decide to get away. I grab a carrot, a headstall, and a flashlight. Outside, I discover the flashlight has a dead battery. Sure, bad luck accumulates. Thankfully, the moon in a cloudless sky lights up my path as I descend the steep dirt road to our neighbors’ house.

Instead of a car and horses, I meet dead silence. “Valeria!” My voice carries off into trees, shadows, and an empty pasture. “Valeria!”

Oh no—forgot my phone.

After a strenuous run uphill, I’m chuffing into the receiver. “Valeria, where are you?”

“Almost there.”

Outside again, I see headlights come around the bend of the road. Despite stress and fatigue, I can’t help but smile at the sight of the equine pair, sauntering toward me in front of the creeping car. I wave to Valeria and put the headstall on the gelding, who willingly exchanges his freedom for a carrot. The mare follows us into the pasture.

Moments later, while they’re munching hay in the shed, I realize that I forgot to feed them since Jan left, yesterday morning. Probably, the late-autumn fields left them greedy for greener grass.

“Now, where did you break out?” I mutter, as I rub their crests and inhale their sweet scent. For a moment, the gelding interrupts his chomping to nuzzle my hand.

Before checking the fence, I phone Valeria to thank her. She warns me, “The gate at the bottom of the hill was open. I closed it as well as I could, but you better check.”

“Mama!” Frustration echoes from Aisha’s voice as she calls me from the doorway.

“Here I am, sweetheart.” I snatch my car keys. “Now, go back to bed. I’ll join you in ten minutes—just need to check the gate.”

“No. You can’t leave me alone.”

“Okay, put on your shoes and jacket and come with me.” Great, now we’ll both be wide awake.

When I inspect the double gate in the beam of the headlights, I discover that the bolt slide isn’t shut. What hunter, truffle seeker, or other nature explorer would leave our gate open after having benefited from our grounds? Groaning—the iron gates are not level—I slide the bolt in place.

When we finally tumble into bed, Aisha mumbles, “You’d better say another prayer; God didn’t hear you the first time.”

I’m about to agree, but all of the sudden, my perspective shifts. “I think God heard us well, honey. He wasn’t the one who forgot to feed the horses, to close the gate, or to recharge the flashlight. He is the One who led me to leave my phone on, made Valeria come by at the right moment, cleared the sky, and calmed the horses…Honey?”

Aisha’s slow breaths reveal she’s sleeping. To whom am I preaching?

Thank You, Lord.


 

This article was first published as an entry in the FaithWriters Weekly Writing Challenge.

Civita di Bagnoregio – The Dying City

Photo: AndreaPucci

Photo: AndreaPucci

I first visited Civita di Bagnoregio twenty years ago. Through the fog of mist and rain, only the memory of the dank odor of damp tuff and the image of desolate alleyways endure. Most appropriate for the Italian town that is known as La Città che Muore—the Dying City.

I saw her again ten years later, on a golden November day. Gloriously clinging to her high rock amidst a vast valley, Civita etched herself in my memory as she resisted her epithet.

No cars, no busloads of tourists. Only a Vespa buzzing past as I climbed the 300-meter long footbridge to the Porta Santa Maria—the only one left of the original five city gates. Sculptures of lions grasping human heads witnessed of an older resistance, when the city threw off the yoke of feudal oppression at the end of the fifteenth century. A worthy entrance to a place little changed since the Middle Ages.

When I entered the tiny souvenir shop behind the gate, the shopkeeper laid aside her needlework to share Civita’s tragedy with me. “Although the city looks like she’s been pulled from a fairy tale, in reality she’s been suffering from erosion and earthquakes. In 800 B.C., the Etruscans founded Civita on a large plateau between two valleys. However, the plateau wasn’t solid rock—it was brittle volcanic tuff.”

“So it just weathered?”

“About 1500 years ago, the erosion increased when the area was deforested to create farmland. The rivers and the rain had free reign and steadily washed away the sides of the plateau, leaving nothing but a narrow ridge.”

“And the earthquakes?”

She nodded. “Two earthquakes, in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, reduced the ridge to a pinnacle. And the erosion continues. A hundred years ago, Civita could still be accessed by a donkey path. Now we need a bridge.”

I suddenly became conscious of the fragility of the ground under my feet. “Aren’t people afraid to live here?”

“Most families fled after the last earthquake, because their houses were damaged. Despite the recent restorations, there are now fewer than ten residents.” Her face softened. “One of them is Maria. I’m sure you’ll meet her.”

Strolling through the narrow streets, I marveled at the omnipresent traces of history. The windows of a facade showing the blue sky—the house probably swallowed by an earthquake. Column stubs of a Roman temple in front of a Renaissance church. An alleyway ending in a chest-high wall that prevented me from stepping into the void. The grindstone of an ancient olive press that used to be operated by a donkey-powered treadmill until the 1960s.

I could not imagine that one day this timeless city would slide away.

As I rounded a corner, a soft voice greeted me.

“Buon giorno, signora. Do you want to see my garden? It gives a good view over the Calanchi Valley.” Blue eyes under silvery, well-groomed hair gently beckoned to me. Her right arm hung limp against her floral dress; her right foot was bent at an awkward angle.

Maria.

“I’d love to, grazie.” I reached inside my purse and placed two Euro in her opened left hand.

She smiled. “You will also love my little museum.”

On one side of her yard, a wall displayed a collection of worn garden tools, Etruscan artefacts, and giant potsherds.

“Look, there’s a Roman armor piece.” Maria pointed to something that could be a breastplate.

On the other side, the oblong garden invited me to walk to its far end, where a surreal landscape awaited me. Across the valley, gulches cut through barren hillsides, leaving sharp crests of white clay. In the distance rose the purple silhouette of the Apennines Mountains.

I sat on the wall that enclosed the garden, absorbing the view and the silence, amazed that such destruction can birth such a beauty.

This year, I returned to Civita, hoping to spend time in Maria’s garden. The small town was still perched fiercely atop its pinnacle, seemingly unaffected by wind and water. Flowerpots adorned balconies and staircases. From an open window, the aroma of garlic and tomato sauce wafted towards me. Cats were dozing in patches of sunshine. But I didn’t find Maria. Her garden was closed, the artefacts removed.

At the souvenir shop, I learned that Maria had deceased.

As I left Civita that day, I realized that the city is dying. But it is not only because she is losing her ground. She is dying because she is losing her souls.

***

This article was first published at the FaithWriters Weekly Writing Challenge.

For an aerial view of Civita di Bagnoregio, watch this short video on Youtube.