My shovel sank into the soil the full depth of the blade, effortlessly, liker slicing butter. I turned the shovel load over. The soil was rich, black, moist. And loaded with fat wriggling worms.
Some robins thought I had called them for dinner. They hopped happily over the lumps of earth only a few feet away from my own feet.
What a difference 27 years makes. When we first moved onto this property, the land was a horse pasture. It grew nothing but grass. And a row of Chinese elms, almost as pestilent a species as quack grass.
Back then, the earth beneath the sod consisted mostly of river-tumbled rock and gravel. In some earlier era, this bench had been the mouth of a rushing mountain stream dumping glacial debris into a lake much larger and deeper than today’s. It left a legacy of stones and sand.
Whenever we had visitors, we put them to work picking rocks out of what we hoped would someday be our garden.
The remains of the streambed still lie inches below our lawn. But this garden plot is different, thanks to 27 years of relentless composting.
If I’ve achieved nothing else in my life, I’ve created rich black soil that didn’t exist before.
Signs of success
It reminds me of a minister who had been a building contractor before taking studies for ordination. “It was a great job,” he said. “As I drove around the block, I could see the progress we were making every day. Here the foundations. Here, walls going up. Here, a roof going on.”
Working with people was more satisfying in some ways, he said. But not in others. “I had been a minister almost ten years, before the first person told me that I had made a difference in his life.”
It’s something we all want to feel, isn’t it? To feel that we’ve made a difference to someone’s life? Even if we can’t be another Tommy Douglas, giving Canada universal health care. Or a stubborn John A. MacDonald, building a transcontinental railway despite financial and political obstacles.
We do it in different ways. Some people get meaning in their lives through making money. Some, by providing a unique service. Some, through parenting. Some, through artistic hobbies – increasingly as she aged, my wife Joan created beautiful pieces of embroidery.
Almost 60 years of my writings will go, and some have already gone, to the Archives of the United Church in B.C., where they will be available to future researchers and historians.
But their continued existence doesn’t prove that they’ve made a difference to anyone. That kind of feedback comes only in passing.
A minister in Ontario told me, confidentially, that he had been about to drop out of seminary in frustration at its academic focus, until he read my first book, An Everyday God. Instead of reasoning from the accumulated wisdom of centuries and applying it to daily life, I started with daily life and applied it to traditional wisdom.
Like creating rich black loam out of sand and gravel.
“It showed me a different way of doing theology,” that minister said.
I still treasure his tribute.
Copyright © 2020 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
To comment on this column, write firstname.lastname@example.org
Randy Hall responded to last week’s column, about handwriting, with an apology: “I dare to email this response after your column on appreciation of handwriting. But I am lazy.
“Thank you for your thoughts that stirred up within me some lovely memories. It was as much my mother as my teachers who taught me to write in cursive. She had beautiful handwriting and spent many hours showing me how to shape the arc of the capital ‘A’ all the way through to the double arcs of the capital ‘Z.’
“I noticed my children -- now 34 and 37 -- printing their homework and wondered how they would take notes quickly in college. Now I wonder if my grandchildren will be able to read my letter or card if I write in cursive. It makes me want to give ‘cursive’ a new meaning!
I loved the poem by Flora Litt.
[JT: Me too.]
But Sylvia McTavish took me to task: “Jim, you are being somewhat unkind to those who sent you a printed card or message when your wife died. There are many reasons why many did not send a handwritten one. For many arthritis has us in a ugly grip and just a signature is painful; writing a few words is almost impossible for me as my crippled hand cannot control a pen or pencil. So we resort to cards, and trying to find one that is suitable is not easy. I’m grateful for my computer because I do write letters to friends and family but if I had to hand write more than six or seven words they would never know what I said.”
After sympathizing about left-handers, Sylvia went on, “I am sorry to see cursive writing being abandoned . I had not realized this until a young man of 13 asked a few of us old folk to show him how to write his name, as he needed a signature to open a bank account. And we realized this lad could not read a thank-you note we had written him for some volunteer work he had undertaken. A printed note okay, a store-bought card okay, but when one of us put a few written words together he was lost.
“The MacLean Method of writing was part of my school day, I loved the swoops and so on, but we were in an age of not wasting paper and I was guilty at times of doing so. A smooth scribbler cost 10 cents. I can well remember my mother going through a trunk to find an old scribbler from her school days and salvaging the paper from it.”
Tom Watson: Ah, Jim, you've touched some memories. I well remember sitting at my desk in the one-room country schoolhouse, doing those ascending and descending conjoined-circles...and making sure the bottom of the circle is just touching the line as you move across the page. The first I realized that cursive writing was dead was when my oldest two grandchildren started print-writing.
“By the way, I would have been left-handed but when I started elementary school the teacher made sure that I changed to right.”
Cliff Boldt commented, “Thanks for this one Jim. It’s a dandy. I recently had a birthday and I enjoyed the handwritten cards. Jacquie Lawson doesn’t cut it. Not much invested.
“I taught writing to students in grade 3. I enjoyed watching their growing feelings of confidence and maturity. They weren't little children any more, they were moving into the adult world.
“I haven’t done any research into the subject, but I suspect that learning handwriting is an art form, and that there is a link between brain development and physical learning of cursive handwriting.”
[In my university days, I wrote a paper suggesting – as a wild idea – that writing might have preceded speaking! The idea came while watching small children contort their faces as they tried to write some complicated letter, wondering if those contortions shaped the sounds that came out…?]
Ralph Milton called the column, “A beautiful piece that brought back memories of my mother who took great pride in her handwriting, having apparently won some prizes for it in her younger years. Handwriting, in addition to the care it conveys, also carries some of the personality of the writer.”
Jill Weckesser: “I too am concerned about children no longer teaching handwriting skills. I’ve been going through old family letters (dating back to 1902) tucking them into acid-free transparent sleeves and saving them in binders. I think it is imperative that schoolchildren learn longhand, even a little bit, so they can read old letters and documents. I’d hate to think that future generations might not be able to read these slices of history.
“I especially loved the ‘Your turn’ section about birds as messengers from our loved ones. My experience relates to another of God’s critters. One day four years ago, about two months after my beloved husband of 53 years died, I was going through a particularly hard day. I sobbed a prayer to God, begging him for some message, something to let me know he hasn’t left me.
“And nothing happened.
“After a few hours I pried myself out of the chair and took out the garbage. And there in the yard was a woodchuck, the first one I’d seen in years. Thinking of the big holes they dig, I yelled, “Get outta my yard!!” He ran across the road into the cornfield, and I continued on. Later that afternoon, I again went outside, this time with the recyclables. And there was the woodchuck again.
“Hours later, something clicked: My husband was born on Groundhog Day. We’d always called him the old groundhog.
“Do I think the woodchuck was my husband? No, not at all; but I really like the thought of ‘God nudges,’ that might cause a woodchuck to ‘just feel like‘ visiting a certain yard at a certain time.”
David Gilchrist: “I agree with you, that dropping writing from the curriculum is one of the more regrettable errors of modern ‘education’ -- like the elimination of memorized tables in ‘new math’ that was tried a few years ago. (I’ve given a young clerk a dollar and a quarter for $1.20 purchase, and she had to check her calculator to give me a nickel back!).
“Having a rather poor hand myself, I do most of my writing on the computer to make the message easier for the reader; but notes added to a birthday or condolence card are always in writing.
“But aside from the emotional aspect, the skill of writing seems essential in so many ways. [David went on to list some of them.] Both my wife and I write a note to someone about something quite frequently; even if the printer is handy, it is a nuisance to go to the computer or cell phone and type it out. Writing a poem or a sermon can be done directly on the computer, I suppose; but jotting down thoughts as they come to you wherever you are, makes a lot more sense. Just as many teachers have reverted back to some of the old math ways, so let us hope that teachers will realize the tremendous value in penmanship -- rather than expecting everyone to depend on technology.
“Thanks for this discussion-starter.”
Bob Rollwagen celebrated an initiative: “My grandson has become determined to learn cursive writing while at home during isolation. My daughter has her kids handwrite thank you notes when they receive gifts, as she does -- a personal habit that is appreciated by many but, as we move more and more to digital and voice activated and who knows what, hand script will be ancient history. It is usally the thoughts and words that make the message, not the form.”
The Psalm for Pentecost Sunday is 104:24-34
24 Abundant and plentiful are your creations, O Lord;
you imagine them, and they came into being.
The world is full of your vision.
25, 26 You fill the abyss with the ocean, the seamless womb of life.
Upon its surface, you support tankers and freighters and cruise ships;
in its depths dwell creatures beyond counting -- sleek and gaudy, strange and deadly,
anchored like rocks and faster than fear.
27 All owe their existence to you;
you set each in an environment where it can survive.
29 But if you turned your thoughts away from them, they would vanish,
a fleeting figment of your imagination.
Your spirit gives them life, as your spirit put breath in our clay;
without it, we return to the dust from which we came,
the dead elements of bygone stars.
30 Blow your breath through our being, Lord.
Create us afresh;
renew the life of your creation.
31 Then your glory will grow;
all living things will rejoice in your gift of life.
The imagination of the Lord will be apparent
in all creatures great and small;
32 from coral cells to the continents themselves.
You stroke the earth and it trembles in ecstasy.
33 Is it any wonder I sing the praises of God?
As long as I live, my life itself attests God's glory.
34 So may even my imagination always turn towards God,
and may the Lord fill all my thoughts.
You can find paraphrases of most of the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary in my book Everyday Psalmsavailable from Wood Lake Publishing, email@example.com.
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To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. Some spam filters have blocked my posts because they’re suspicious of some of the web links.
Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca He’s also relatively inexpensive!
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has lots of beautiful photos. Especially of birds.
Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)
ALVA WOOD’S ARCHIVE
I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge. (Although maybe if I charged a fee, more people would find the archive worth visiting.)