Madam Secretary Reflects on International Relations and Happy Happenstance

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The Ring of Kerry. My photo.

WELL, MY FRIENDS, IT’S MARCH, and I’m sure we all agree that Old Man Winter has way, way overstayed his welcome.

I thought I would be serving tea at a place in the city. Instead, I’m working in our office so my dad can make up for lost time in the fields, and my current occupation doesn’t involve traveling to anywhere except the post office. (It’s like doing laundry: you sort through the junk mail, code the invoices, file the vouchers, try to decipher heavy Asian accents on the phone, empty the waste baskets and get everything tidied away for a little while, and then you start over again.)

I’ve always said that administration is not my thing.

The joke is on me, as usual.

Anyway, I’m bored, and thinking of tea and travel makes me nostalgic, so I’m going to ramble about foreign countries and things that are none of my business.

I’m not a politician–just a farmer’s daughter. But Ireland and Israel are like strangers who keep crossing my path and bumping into each other, and I feel like they should be friends.

I had the joy of spending Christmas 2014 in Ireland with my sister’s husband’s family. Dublin looked like a bloom of glowing plankton from the sky, the night we flew in. I woke up at three o’clock the first morning and didn’t know where I was until I tuned into an Irish radio station. Billy Joel was singing “Just The Way You Are,” and that song has had a special place in my heart ever since. Continue reading “Madam Secretary Reflects on International Relations and Happy Happenstance”

Revenge of The Broken Horse

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I KNOW WHERE WILD HORSES roam free as the wind. It’s a peaceful place, high in the hills, where there are no fences. I’ve taken a few friends there, when the sun was sinking behind the white peak of the volcano.

I’m not a cowgirl by any stretch of the imagination, but I do love horses in my own way. I always have. I think I’d hardly be human if I didn’t love horses. And horses in the wild are especially beautiful. They’re shy and curious at the same time, and violent and playful, and their thundering hooves drum the anthem of the free.

The Bible contains a famous eulogy to the horse–a poetic tribute that almost jumps off the page (remember that awesome scene in Secretariat, with the Edwin Hawkins Singers belting “Oh Happy Day”?)

Do you give the horse its strength, or clothe its neck with a flowing mane? Do you make it leap like a locust, striking terror with its proud snorting? It paws fiercely, rejoicing in its strength, and charges into the fray. It laughs at fear, afraid of nothing; it does not shy away from the sword. The quiver rattles agains its side, along with the flashing spear and lance. In frenzied excitement it eats up the ground; it cannot stand still when the trumpet sounds. At the blast of the trumpet it snorts, ‘Aha!’ It catches the scent of battle from afar, the shout of commanders and the battle cry.–Job 39:19-25 NIV

One day I realized that, although a circus of wild animals are described in this chapter, these verses are a picture of a warhorse, and warhorses are not wild.

I have to imagine a warrior on this horse’s back, even though a warrior is not mentioned, because he is implied by the horse’s disciplined and extraordinary behavior.

Wild horses, as beautiful as they are, don’t gallop into the clash of arms, “devouring the distance.” They don’t tremble with excitement at the signal of the trumpet, and they would almost certainly panic at the first glimpse of any shiny weapon. A horse without a master would perform badly in this context, but when a horse and rider function as one they become something truly amazing.

An unbroken horse, free as the wind, is beautiful to behold. But an unbroken horse never plowed a field or won a race or carried a king into battle…

Nasal Ecstasy

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Us, 25 years ago… We were almost struck by a rogue bolt of lightning one day on the hill in the background.

IF MY SOUL HAD A SMELL it would smell like mint. We drank it and played in it, waist-deep, when we were little. Its vibrant, heady fragrance has infused my whole life. 

The ancient Romans personified it as “Menthe,” the water nymph loved by Pluto, god of the underworld. Pluto’s queen became jealous and trampled fair Menthe, turning her into a humble plant. But Pluto decreed that the more mint was bruised the sweeter it would smell. (I can vouch for that last part.)

Mint is a popular herb in the Middle East, where it’s used in salads, roasts, and many other dishes. I was delighted to find bulging sacks of fresh spearmint at a market in Jerusalem. I crushed some of the leaves between my hands and the aroma immediately took me back to the verdant fields of home. Continue reading “Nasal Ecstasy”

The Genealogist

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From Grandmère’s album.

GRANDMÈRE IS REPEATING her favorite stories for my enrichment in a tidy room carpeted with green shag.

Grandmère has no filter.

On TV, Pope John Paul II is pretending to be God. A statue of The Virgin is enshrined among candles in a window. I should kneel in front of it, says Grandmère, and ask it for a good husband. (She was a naïve girl when she married Grandpère and definitely didn’t love him, but he was a fine husband anyway, and she was very content).

It’s wrong to worship idols, says my thirteen-year-old self, conscientiously. But ninety-one-year-old Grandmère isn’t listening…

Grandmère is so petite–when she plays the organ her feet barely reach the pedals. She has a memory like an elephant, though, and has traced her roots all the way back to 1695. She opens her album and flowing names like Jean-Baptiste reenforce the knowledge that my people came from France, ate snails, and died praying to the dead. (Ahhh, you say, that explains so much!)

They are strangers to me, these people of antiquity.

But I came out of them. Continue reading “The Genealogist”

Charity Begins At Home

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GOD CAN USE ANYONE, anywhere, anytime.

He might not want all of us to get P.H.D.s or move to the other side of the world, and you don’t have to be a televangelist or a best-selling author in order to live a great life (not to belittle anyone.) Take Jesus for example. He spent most of his earthly life in his small hometown, and people were surprised that he even knew how to read. He wasn’t married, wasn’t very attractive, and wasn’t a stranger to sorrow. He chose illiterate fishermen and social outcasts to be his companions.

Neither of my grandfathers had college degrees or ordinations. What they did was common but also very important. They labored patiently to provide for their families and to put food on other people’s tables in the process.

After serving in the military, my father’s father built a successful business, and today the profits help to support charities near and far. He was always generous and ready to give. His door was wide open to friends and strangers alike. (By the way, in the Bible, hospitality is listed among the special gifts of the Holy Spirit, just like prophecy and healing). Continue reading “Charity Begins At Home”

His Work, His Way

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“God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.”–Ecclesiastes 3:11 NLT

THE SUICIDE AND ALCOHOLISM RATES in my neighborhood are well known facts. Teen suicide is 62% higher than the national average. Alcoholism is 510% higher. We have the highest unemployment levels in the state. One out of three females are sexually abused. The average life expectancy is forty years…

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.–1st Corinthians 1:27-29 ESV

What is not well known is that God is doing good things here. He’s using common clay. He’s personally invested in His creation, and nothing is too hard for Him. He’s working in unexpected ways, through unlikely and unassuming people. He’s doing His work His way, and unseen miracles happen all the time.

I was reminded of this today when I interviewed a certain unsung hero. (Notice all the uns in this: unexpected, unlikely, unassuming, unseen, unsung…)

“God don’t make junk,” he said.

No, Precious, He doesn’t.

For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.–Ephesians 2:10 NLT

Snug As A Bacillus In A Cheese

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Me and my sisters.

THERE WAS A WINTER when it was so cold that the air hurt to breath and made the hair in adult noses crackle. Power lines snapped under the weight of accumulated snow, which completely buried our car, and which we melted in pots on our wood-burning stove because the plumbing was frozen. It took real guts to venture out on the icy roads. Starving coyotes would sit outside the house at night, punctuating the stillness with their delirious howls, while our Border Collie slept fitfully indoors by the fire. My sisters and I curled up together, spoon-style, beneath a mountain of quilts, more like one body than three. To ward off the doldrums, we played a sadistic little game in which we dared one another to go outside and run all the way around the house barefooted. We were always the kind of children who were easily entertained, and so it was no hardship when fog settled in like a nebulaerasing the world around us. I perused the whole shelf of World Book encyclopedias from A to Z. I ate instant oatmeal and learned the importance of ritualthose little habits and routines that lubricate the machinery of life and maintain our sanity.

So it must be nostalgia or femininity or some combination of both that when I think of “adventure” I automatically think not of storm-chasing or espionage but of Gontran de Poncin’s description of hibernating at a Hudson Bay Company outpost in Kabloona.

“Paddy had done wonders with his living room. It was warm and intimate and was the frame within which our life was lived. Here within a hundred miles of the Magnetic Pole there was a kind of bourgeois* coziness that was unbelievable. I used to say to myself that there were no bourgeois places, there were only domesticated souls. One could be an adventurer in New York, and one could also be an old maid in the polar regions… Nothing would have been present to remind one of the Arctic if a few white foxes, the ‘money’ that paid for my excursions on the trail, had not been hanging from the ceiling… There was even a vase of artificial flowers—which I would hide from time to time and Gibson would bring out again almost immediately…

Adventure has two faces—one showing men at grips with the elements, the other showing them darning their socks. It was in Gibson’s living room that I saw a remarkable photograph of three members of an Antarctic expedition. They were sitting in a hut, one of them mending his pants, another smoking with a far-away look in his eyes, the third writing a letter. Had they the same peace in their own homes, I wondered? … I felt as snug as a bacillus in a cheese… Continue reading “Snug As A Bacillus In A Cheese”