Tuesday, May 31, 2005

There's b'ars in them thar hills!

We saw our first bear of the year Wednesday night. Or, to be more accurate, I did. And to be even more accurate, it was really Thursday in-the-wee-hours morning.

Todd was still sleeping in the spare bedroom because of his shoulder surgery. Simba was manfully trying and failing to take his place, a small furry ball occupying the corner of the bed. At about 3am I heard the THWAANNNGGGG sound that can only mean one thing: something's messing with our feeders.

We keep a series of bird feeders hanging from an incredibly strong cable strung between our house and a tree. During the warm months of the year, the only feeders that we leave out at night are the short ones. We hang the long tube feeders out in the mornings and bring them in at night, when bears are liable to meander through the yard. If you've ever seen what a bear can do to a feeder, you know why we go to that trouble.

Our state has only black bears, for which I am grateful. They are smaller and far less aggressive than their Western cousins the grizzlies (brown bears) and their Northern cousins the polar bears. But that's not to say they're creatures you want to provoke. Even a small bear can outrun, outwrestle, and outdo an unarmed man. And they have fearsome teeth and claws. They're amazingly strong. Arnold Schwarzenegger might stand a chance. Nobody in my circle of friends would. That said, it's been decades since anyone has been killed by a black bear. They really are "more scared of you than you are of them," as my mother said of so many different critters as I was growing up.

Now, just because I heard a THWAANNNGGGG doesn't mean there's a b'ar out thar. Racoons have been known to climb what we call "the bird feeder tree" and attempt to possum their way out to where the feeders are. Yup, hanging on with all four feet, they "walk" the line upside down until they can reach a feeder, then release their front feet, scoot over some more, and hang upside down using those cute, dexterous little front paws to reach into the feeder and feed their upside-down cute little faces. They can empty a feeder faster'n a tornado.

But wait, you say, that doesn't sound like anything that would make a THWAANNNGGGG sound, does it?

My observant reader, you are so right. No, what makes the THWAANNNGGGG sound is the soda cans that we strung on the tree end of the cable to prevent rodentious creatures like the racoon and his partners in crime, the squirrels, from eating all the seeds intended for our feathery pals. So now anyone who wants to walk on the cable, either upside down or right side up, has to figure out how to get past those fat swirling cans. They inevitably are dumped off, and in the process create a great crashing THWAANNNGGGG sound. Imagine a smug smile on my face. Very smug, indeed.

(Please don't bother to feel sorry for the rodents. I have neighbors who keep bird feeders and who haven't gone to these lengths to protect them. Nobody's going hungry around here.)

( ... except me when I'm on a diet.)

So, back to the night in question. It's 3am, and I hear The Sound. (You thought I was going to say "THWAANNNGGGG" again. Fooled ya.) It wakes me from a decent sleep, so that I have to play it back in my head before I actually realize what woke me. I'm out of bed in a flash. It's really dark outside because it's been rainy and cloudy for far too many days, but I can just make out a large black shadow moving under the feeders. It's way too big for a raccoon. I wheel the window open, clap my hands, and shout, "SCRAM!" Not eloquent, I know, but please consider both the circumstances and the audience. It's not a time for Shakespearean rage. Plain ordinary rage will do.

"So much for Todd's blissful sleep," I think to myself as I thunder down the stairs to flip on the big halogen light in the back yard. At this point, I'm not sure if the bear has managed to reach high enough to grab one of the short feeders, or if he thwanged by climbing the tree and swiping at the cable, so if he's still hanging around I'm planning to watch him to see what he does. But there's no sign of him. (See, I told you ordinary rage was all that was called for.) I watch for a few minutes, switch off the halogen light to spare Todd's stunned eyeballs, and turn on an ordinary porch light so I can see the bear if he comes back. Todd hasn't said anything from his bedroom, so I assume he's gone back to sleep. I go up the stairs more quietly than I came down.

You might be wondering about the dog's behavior during all this. And well you might. He's still a fur ball on the bed. I stare at him in amazement. This is the dog who barks at the slightest unknown sound outside.

Ah, me. I settle back into bed. My jangled nerves begin to subside. I'm about to drift off when --- you guessed it ---- THWAANNNGGGG!!

This time I jump up and just watch. To my surprise, it's a very small bear out there. Not a cub, but not much more than that. Maybe a yearling? I revise the bear's gender in my head. There's quite a size difference between the males and the females. I'm guessing this to be a female yearling, her first spring away from Mom.

As I watch her, I realize our feeders are in absolutely no danger from her. She's standing on her hind legs, and they're still so far over her head she doesn't bother raising her arms toward them. She drops back onto all fours, licks some seeds from the ground, makes to go up the tree but changes her mind, and heads back toward the house. In fact, toward the deck, and I remember the cute little tray feeder that's attached by suction cups to our dining room window. Can't let her get wind of that! I rap on the window sharply, and encourage Simba to bark. No need, she runs off. I still haven't heard a word out of that dog. Not a wuff, not an arf, not a grr. Useless!

The rest of the night passes without incident. In the morning, I ask Todd if he saw the bear and he tells me he slept right through the whole thing! But later that day, our little she-bear came back in broad daylight. When I saw that she couldn't reach the bottom of the tube feeders, either, I went to the best window in the spare bedroom and shot about a dozen pictures of her before she headed for the deck. Then Todd scared her off just by walking over where she could see him in the back door.

Later, while I was away, she came back again. This time she wasn't scared off until Todd was basically nose-to-nose with her at the dining room window and knocked on it. She's learning that we're not that scary. She's a smart bear. This is what happens when bears get acclimated to being around people. It's not good for her. Someone's going to scare her off with live ammunition some day, and that will be the end of her.

There are those who believe that heaven won't have any animals. I just don't believe that. It's hard for me to conceive of a place being all that wonderful if there are no animals there. So, if she doesn't make it through life without having a run-in with the wrong end of a shotgun, I have hope that we'll see her again in heaven.

In the meantime, we'll have the pictures to remember her by.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

A broken windshield, a discarded speech

It’s 9:45 on a rainy Sunday morning. It’s not particularly dark, and most of the time it’s one of those light rains that tempt you to leave without your umbrella. But then there’s a spate of harder rain, not torrential, but hard and steady enough that you’re glad you didn’t give in to that impulse to leave the umbrella at home.

Normally, by this time I’d be at church already, but this Sunday I’ve agreed to go to First Congregational Church of Woodstock as a representative for the Fold. Up until last night, I thought I would just be meeting people during the coffee hour after church. Last night I learned the church had allotted me 4 minutes ... not 5, not 3, but 4 ... to speak to the congregation during the service. And I was to meet with Pastor Norm Koop (son of C. Everett“Chick” Koop, Surgeon General of the United States during several presidencies) before the 10:30 worship service started, so he could impress upon me his very firm desire that I not go over my allotted time.

You know, it’s really hard to say anything meaningful in 4 minutes. It doesn’t give you much time for an intro, any little thing you might like to say to warm up the crowd. Heck, it doesn’t give you much time for breathing between sentences!

So I knew I would need to be concise. I had given some thought to the most important points I would want to make, and how I would want to make them. I had looked up a scripture to include if there was time. And I put it all down in bullet points on a single sheet of paper in large type, even though there was so little time to say anything that I probably could have remembered it without looking. You never know when you're going to get the jitters and go completely blank.

So it’s 9:45 on a Sunday morning, and I’m in my car heading toward Woodstock. Woodstock is in Vermont, about 35 minutes away. Part of the trip is 4-lane highway, part on a 2-lane winding state route. I have plenty of time to rehearse and get my timing down. When I hit a nice empty stretch, I note the time on my car’s clock and start my spiel.

It runs 6 minutes.

Scrap the scripture and start over.

It’s a tad over five minutes.

I’m pretty sure they mean for me to take 5 minutes. That’s why they told me 4. I mean, a worship service isn’t exactly on military time, right? Five minutes is good.

I do one more practice run and am comfortable with the spiel. By now, I’m in Woodstock and feelin’ ready to bark with the big dogs.

Parking in Woodstock is never easy, but Sunday mornings aren’t too bad. I park a little over a block away. Now I have to get out of the car without getting my favorite lime green silk jacket wet. I reach into the back of the car to retrieve my big yellow umbrella. I have my bible, purse, and a folder containing my notes and a signup sheet.

It’s been a while since I’ve used this umbrella. I push & squeeze various places before I find the button that opens it. I want to get it partially open before opening the door. I touch the button, and there’s a loud WHACK!

I cannot believe my eyes. There’s a giant starry crack in my windshield. From an UMBRELLA??

Deep breath. Shake head in amazement. Close eyes. Yep, it’s still there.

Deep breath. OK! Not much I can do about it now. Let’s get this show on the road.

I start to get out of the car and realize I haven’t unbuckled the seat belt yet. Sigh. Unbuckle. Get out. Open the umbrella ... what?? It’s broken, too!? You know, this is starting to get a little funny. When I try to step out of the car and find my purse strap is tangled up with the seat belt, I have to start laughing. I have the broken umbrella in one hand. I have to hold it open at the base of the spines, so my hand is dead center over my head. My other hand has the bible and the folder in it. My purse is over my shoulder, so I darn near get pulled back into the car when the seat belt yanks on the purse. Two hands full, and a tangled up purse! Yep, the guffaws are really starting now (mine, I mean. Fortunately I didn’t have an audience for this little act!) I put the bible and folder on the front seat, untangle the purse, put its strap over an arm and my neck so it’s securely tucked under the arm. Pick up the bible & folder, close the car door, lock it, and put the keys in my purse. Now, that was almost coherent. You’d think I was competent or something.

Still shaking my head and smiling to myself, I head up the sidewalk with my hand and umbrella held high over my head. I look down and notice my shoelace is untied. Uh-oh. No way to tie it now, so I walk verrrry carefully and look forward to putting all this stuff down when I get inside that nice dry church.

At last! I go up the exterior stairs into the side door of the church. There are two prim, white-haired ladies standing there, hands folded, greeting folks as we enter. I turn to say hello and, forgetting the shoelace, step right on it and lurch toward the wall. Now I’m really laughing. My purse has flipped around and is hanging around my neck like a necklace. My broken umbrella is dripping on the carpet, and I’ve nearly landed in the lap of one of the ladies ... Not that she was sitting down, mind you!

I turn and look at them, smiling ruefully. “I’m not having a very good morning so far!” I say emphatically. I’m trying not to break into giggles, or, worse, tears.

“No?” one of the ladies says, sounding concerned.

“No! I just broke my windshield with my umbrella, which broke the umbrella, too, and now my shoelaces are both untied! Do you think somebody doesn’t want me here?”

“Of course not!” She’s making the best of a dodgy situation.

“Oh, well, I’ve been wanting a new windshield anyway,” I declare, and actually it’s true. After 5 years a windshield gets so pitted it makes a difference in visibility, especially at night.

“And it probably needed washing, anyway,” she comforts me.

“Absolutely. You’re so right.” By now I’ve dropped all my stuff, tied my shoes, picked all my stuff back up, and am ready to move on. “I’m here to speak for the Fold in the worship service, and I think Norm wanted to speak with me beforehand. Do you know where he is?”

She gives me directions. I head off to look for him. I’m still a bit rattled by it all.

En route to finding Norm, I see several friends and acquaintances to say hello to, Judy and Andrew and Eric. So I get to repeat my humorous tale (at least it’s funny to me!) of the morning’s events several times before I find him. He says, “Did they tell you about the time?”

“Yes sir! I rehearsed it on the way over here. It was six minutes. I cut it down some.”

“You look like the kind of person who can speak and keep things right on time,” he says. “Just know that I have a hook. And I’ll use it.”

“Great! You’ve given me my opening line.”

I head into the sanctuary and look through the bulletin that was handed to me on my way in. I see an insert about the Fold. I realize it says everything I was going to say, and more. I am completely superfluous.

Katie and Meredith, a discipler and resident of the Fold respectively, are sitting with me in the pew. I ask them to pray for my jangled nerves as I go get someone to help us set up the Fold's display board in the fellowship room for the coffee time after church.

The service starts. I’m due to go up front after some songs and a few other items. My mind is racing. What do I do?

Just this past week, my Wednesday night women’s fellowship group was reading about Bill Hybels’ trip to India, where he was asked on less than one day’s notice to give the main sermon before a gathering of 20,000 people, most of whom don’t believe in God and Jesus. No one in the audience spoke English. He wasn’t familiar enough with the culture to say anything that he could be sure would ring true with them. He was in a mighty big lather, wanting to sink right through the floor of the stage and get the heck out of town. You know, just about what any one of us would feel under the circumstances.

His awareness that he wasn’t trusting God led him to stop worrying about himself and to pray fervently that the God of the universe would take control of him, his words, his interpreter, and his listeners, and as a result, hundreds of Indians put their faith in Christ that night. It was a mighty moving of the Holy Spirit in that crowd, and it happened because Hybels was willing to put aside his fears and trust God to do the work. (See Too Busy Not To Pray)

Was it coincidence we “happened” to read that chapter this week? Not likely. I prayed something similar to Bill Hybels' prayer. And then when it was my time to speak, I threw away my notes and took a deep breath.

I’d already done a lot of deep breathing that day.

“Norm tells me I have only 4 minutes. He says he has a hook, and ..., “ I drop my voice and lean toward the mike a little, “... he’s willing to use it.” Smiles and chuckles. This congregation if very fond of their colorful pastor.

“Not only that, but I just looked in your bulletin, and the yellow insert,” waving it for them to see, “has everything on it that I was going to tell you. So, I’m putting my notes aside and am just going to speak to you from the heart about the Fold. So Norm,” turning around to where he’s sitting right behind me, “would you clear your throat about 30 seconds before you reach for the hook?” Now there’s quite a bit of laughter. I’ve gotten their attention.

I spend the next 3 or 4 minutes thanking them repeatedly and sincerely for their support of the Fold, and shared why Todd and I have chosen to support it with our own time and money. I think I kept it pretty short. Norm never cleared his throat. A few people afterward said I did “great” ... but people are kind. I think it was OK. My main hope is that I was able to interest more people in the Fold’s mission to help families. One really good outcome was that quite a few guys signed up to help out on summer work teams this year.

So, did God guide my words, you ask? I guess that's for you to decide. If He wasn't pulling the strings directly (a concept that may sound Machiavellian but that gives me huge comfort, to know that when I willingly give Him control, He will take it), He certainly arranged my life so that I would be ready and able to speak at a time when I was needed.

Who knows? Maybe sometime they’ll ask me back when there’s more time so I can tell them some stories. Starting with the story about my windshield.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

A small red blessing

Last night, as I was getting ready to leave to have dinner with Todd at the Riverside Grill, I heard a loud thwack! from our dining room. It's a far too familiar sound. The little birds outside get spooked, fly away as fast as they can, and run into one of our big windows. As I turned to look, I saw something flutter to the deck.

I went to the window, hopeful that the bird would only be stunned, as usual. But my heart sank as I saw a brilliantly colored male purple finch on its back, neck twisted, eyes closed, panting, with its legs jerking spasmodically.

It especially pained me because this spring we had a huge flock of purple finches, unusually large. Their song filled the trees in the mornings and throughout the day. But when I left in April for a week, the feeders weren't being filled, and they moved on. Now we only see a few.

I'm very attached to this particular kind of bird for several reasons. One is their beautiful, trilling song. I love to wake up to it. Another is the bright color that they add at our feeders, especially beautiful next to the brilliant yellow of the goldfinches. But, perhaps most of all, I love these little birds because when I lived in New York City, they were just about the only songbirds I ever saw. In NYC, pigeons are a common sight. Songbirds are not. But, as luck would have it, across the street from my apartment on 13th Street the buildings were covered in ivy, and the purple finches nested there and sang their hearts out. I would keep seed on my windowsill to lure them so I could hear them sing even more loudly. It was balm to an animal-lover's soul in a largely animal-free landscape.

My windows were over the entry to the building, and the super finally figured out it was me making that litter on the sidewalk and asked me to stop. So I did. Mostly. :o)

As I was getting ready to leave to meet Todd, I kept returning to the window to see if the little bird had died yet. It looked as if there was blood seeping from his head, and I just wanted him not to suffer. I prayed fervently, "Lord, just let him die quickly!" If I had known a humane way to ease him out of this life, short of twisting his little neck to break it, I would have. But I was fresh out of fairy dust.

By the time I left for dinner, his legs had stopped jerking but he was still panting. I was so sad. During dinner the thought would return and I would close my eyes in pain. Todd asked me once if I was feeling OK, but it wasn't me, it was just the sadness about that poor little bird. I asked him if he would take care of getting rid of the little body so I wouldn't have to see it again when we got home.

So, we got home, and I went straight to the laundry room while Todd went upstairs. Soon he called out, "Your bird recovered!"

"What, he's not there?"

"Nope, I don't see anything."

"Then somebody got him!"

"It's too early for predators."

"Do you see blood? I saw blood near his head!"

"Nope, I don't see anything."

I dashed up the stairs to see for myself. I still didn't believe it. That little bird looked to be very badly hurt.

Sure enough, a clean back deck! Nothing! Either the "blood" that I saw was his feathers fanned out around his head, or it was one of the maple buds that are scattered everywhere right now.

I thought to myself, "The Lord answered my prayer. Not the words that I said, but He loves me so much, He answered the prayer of my heart, that the little bird would be OK. "

If I had done the humane thing, I would have been wrong.

Makes me think of Theresa Schiavo.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Lessons on a sunny day

It's a nice day, and I've gone outside to wait for my friend Lynda, who is still inside the Listen Center blissfully looking over every half-price item in the store. She's already got a large bag full of items, and is hoping to score a few more before calling it a day.

The sun is warm, even though the temperature hasn't quite hit 60, and I have in mind to sit in a used lawn chair that's been placed outside to tempt passersby to stop. Out of the corner of my eye I see a lady coming up the front sidewalk toward the store front.

The Listen Center sells used clothing and uses the profit to help the community in hundreds of ways. It's housed in an large, dignified, older home in a residential neighborhood, near downtown.

Lots of my friends make regular visits to the Listen Center. That's the only way you can hope to routinely find good-quality clothing there. I'm not much of a clothing shopper at all, so I'm not a regular. But you might be surprised to find out who has Listen Center used clothing hanging in their closets.

I'm starting to make a beeline for that comfy beach chair, when I hear someone calling out from a car in the side road. The lady coming up the front sidewalk meets my eyes, shrugs, and goes inside.

The lady in the car is calling loudly, "Is there a laundrymat around here?" I stop to think, then call out, "Yes, there is!" I make my way down the sidewalk toward her, ending up standing in the street next to her driver-side door. It's not a busy street. No car interrupts us for the duration of our conversation.

I start to tell her about the nearest laundromat, to the best of my knowledge. Occasionally I need to use a large dryer to dry a comforter, so I've gotten to know the few that are around.

But she interrupts me as soon as I get half-way through, "No, not that one, across from the mall, it's too busy!" Now, this is a pretty good-sized laundromat, so I wonder if she's thinking of the same one I am.

"Are you thinking of the one on the Miracle Mile?" I ask.

"Mile ... yeah, whatever ... I was just there, it's too busy." she replies vaguely. She's a middle-aged or a bit older woman. One of those women whose age is hard to tell. She could be my age and have had a hard life, or she could be older. Her car is filled up with stuff, and she has a discontented face.

"Ok, well ... ," I'm uncertain how to help her, "... there aren't any right around here in the downtown area."

"What do you know about this church here?" she demands. Sacred Heart Catholic Church is directly opposite us.

I'm a bit disconcerted by the change of subject. "Not too much. I think it's a pretty good church," somewhat lamely. I do know some families who go there, and have even been there once to attend the baptism of a co-worker's child.

"Is it? Isn't there a church around here that had to close down? Is that somewhere around here?" she asks without looking at me. In fact, I'm not sure she's looked at me the whole time. She peers out of her car, mostly straight ahead, firing these questions that are starting to feel like an odd sort of inquisition.

"Yes, let me think ... " Even after 14 years in the area, I still have to work to get my mind to orient itself around the crazy streets whose layouts resemble cow paths more than anything an urban planner would have designed. "Yes, it's in West Lebanon, over behind Dunkin Donuts. Do you know where the Dunkin Donuts is?"

Silence for a moment. I assume she's thinking. Then, abruptly: "Do you go to mass?" I'm starting to get whiplash from the changes of subject.

"I've been a few times," I respond, wondering what I've gotten myself into. I try to get the conversation back on track. "Do you know where the Dunkin Donuts is?"

"Yeah," she says. "What kind of church do you go to?"

"Oh, a bible church," I say.


"No ..."

"Baptist? Or what?"

"Just a basic bible church."

"So what are you?" she says, and I understand her to be asking about my religious identification.

"I guess you would call me an evangelical."

"They haven't changed, you know. Masses. You should go!" I can't believe it. I of all people am getting hit over the head for not going to church. Or not to the right one.

"Well, I have a few issues with the Catholic church," I say, having to raise my voice to override her at this point because she's still insisting that I need to go to mass without much pause, and I'm getting tired of this. (Later I think of the best response, "Well, I've seen one, and they haven't changed, so I guess I don't need to go see another." On second thought, maybe it was best I didn't think of that at the time. Smart-aleck me.)

"What, you used to be Catholic?"

"No, I never was."

"Well, you should go!" And she continues talking, her voice rising as she warms to her topic. I decide I've had enough. I'm backing away and trying to say goodbye or wish her a nice day or something. I can't get a word in edgewise. So I'm forced to turn my back and walk away while she continues to shout at my back.

I go in the Listen Center and find Lynda. "You will not believe what just happened."

"What?" she asks, continuing to contentedly root through the women's business clothing rack.

"Oh, I'll tell you later," I say, because I can see through the window that the car is gone. I tell Lynda I'll wait for her outside, to take her time, I'm just going to enjoy the nice day. And I finally go take a seat in the sun.

I learned a few things in those short minutes with the Catholic proselytizer:
  1. Rudeness does not win souls for your cause.
  2. If you don't show an interest in the other person, they're going to have no interest in hearing your perspective on anything.
  3. First impressions can be wrong. In this case, she seems to have made lots of assumptions about me, and I assumed ... wrongly ... that I was dealing with a reasonable person.
  4. It's still worth it to try to help someone.