Safety First

Last night I did what any mature, mentally healthy adult does when overwhelmed by the daily news. I made two pieces of cinnamon toast and a big cup of hot chocolate for dinner. Then I curled into the fetal position wrapped in a warm fleece blanket, put my ear plugs in and checked out for 12 hours.

Yep. I couldn’t take it anymore and it was the right decision for me. Today I am back in the game, refreshed, adulting, and with my guard up better about what pours in over the airwaves.

The start of the #MeAt14 campaign on social media, in response to allegations about U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore’s sexual assault of a 14-year-old when he was 32, was just too much. Many are weighing in on this and I am not going to summarize it all. I am too busy trying not to barf. Typing this much has brought on nausea again.

These are difficult, triggering times for anyone who has any experience in this realm as a survivor of any aspect of #MeToo. We join with those for whom the mass shootings trigger PTSD symptoms, with all its attendant coverage about domestic violence, mental illness, weapons, and safety.

Washington National Cathedral. © 2017 Elizabeth Witherspoon

Fundamentally, all of this is about safety. Safety to be an awkward kid with a crush on a boy band and stuffed animals in your room, without someone coming after your body. Safety to go to a concert, or a worship service, or an elementary school, or a movie theater without fearing a shooter will show up. Safety to interview for a job or go to your place of employment without a co-worker, boss, or client, making it about something else. Safe to be female of any age anywhere. Safe to be a young male around Kevin Spacey. Safe to be LGBTQ and to use a public restroom or serve in the military.

This is not an issue just for Hollywood, or for those around powerful men in politics or business. This is an issue for every single one of us.

The time has come for our culture at its deepest level to have zero tolerance for the misuse of power in any relationship. It is time to disarm not only from semi-automatic weapons and bump stocks – or hand guns with which 3-year-olds can accidently kill 1-year-olds. It is time to disarm from the belief systems that see people of different ages, genders, races, or whatever, as objects for exploitation to satisfy greed, ego, hunger for power, or sexual dominance.

It is time to stop accepting and consuming any sort of media or conversation that feeds the beast of exploitation. To stop in their tracks jokes that demean or perpetuate stereotypes or dominance of one group over another. The culture is saturated to the point that we see, hear, and accept these messages without even realizing it.

Hate crimes, genocide, rape, pedophilia, sex trafficking, child abuse, discrimination, all pre-existed semi-automatic weapons, immigration, the Internet, and women in the workplace. They will still be with us after better gun control, common-sense immigration reform, and widespread workplace diversity training, unless we make more fundamental change.

The heart and soul of humanity must change. We must demand respect for the sacred worth of every human being. We must stand up for those who cannot and be the voice for those who have been silenced. We must make our world safer. In other words, we must do the work Jesus commanded us to do.

If anyone causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.  ~ Mark 9:42


Hitting the Road

                                                                                                                                              © Elizabeth Witherspoon

This morning I handed signed paperwork through the car window to my soon-to-be-ex. It relinquishes my co-ownership of the house we bought together almost 14 years ago.

As sad as it sounds, this step in the divorce feels liberating.

Yesterday, after getting my signatures notarized at the credit union, I went for the second time to try on hiking boots. I am preparing for a journey and need quality footwear. These boots will support my high arches, protect me from stone bruises, and, hopefully, allow my middle-aged back to last longer on the trail.

I went into the store and thought I was decided on one model of a certain brand. After consulting with the outdoor experts, I decided that two notches up in terms of ruggedness and support features is more appropriate.

“This one is better for bearing weight, like a backpack,” he said.

“I’ll always have a pack on; I am a photographer,” I said.

He gave more advice about features and we discussed the $20 difference and how if I wait to buy them next Friday, when a sale goes into effect, I will save $30 and come out ahead.

“Done,” I said. “I have a week to decide which color. I will see you on the 10th.”

This would have not been so easy at one time. I would have hemmed and hawed and gone back and forth to the store and researched every possibility to get a knock-off brand that was kind of the same, but cheaper in price and quality. I would have run myself ragged, been tied in knots, and ultimately bought something with which I was not happy. Then, I would have beaten myself up for making a poor decision.

This time, I am shopping for value – my value. A great deal would be nice, because the budget is a very real consideration. However, I have done my time with aching back, stone bruises, thin socks, and blisters – and every other pain from not putting a high enough priority on my own needs. This journey, my journey, is too important to shortchange comfort, and, ultimately, my stamina and the quality of the experience.

It may only seem like a boot purchase to some, but it represents a big step on the journey away from a lifetime of voices. Ones that for too long I believed. They said in many ways, “You are not worth the solid quality support you need. You can just get by, and that’s good enough – for you.”

No more. I am going places. And I want to enjoy the journey and all its scenery along the way.

Finally, I am getting it deep into the marrow of my bones that were once filled with cancer – literally and spiritually. Wherever I am, God is with me. I am forever a member of His household, which can have many addresses, or no address. Either way, in His beloved family, we all are “worth it.” We all have value and we all belong. With that assurance, I am home anywhere that I can see a sunrise.

                                                                                                                                            © Elizabeth Witherspoon


Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Ephesians 5:1-2

Green Pastures

This morning I awoke with an energy and purpose to get things done. The fog of fatigue, stress, overwhelm, a bit of depression, or whatever, is clearing. I am energized to tackle some tasks that are not fun and which I have postponed.

True to that, I made my bed as soon as I got out of it. While the coffee pot ran, I unloaded the dishwasher and cleared the counters. I ran out in the cool predawn air with binoculars to look at Venus bright in the eastern sky and thank God for the gift of another day.

I was on a roll!

Oddly, though, my morning routine of readings were all about rest. One warned me about the exhaustion of our over-wired society. It quoted the 23rd Psalm and told me to “lie down in green pastures.” Another took me to Matthew 11:28, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

Huh? Today? When this was going to be my grand catch up on filing financial papers, bookkeeping, filing my daughter’s FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), and writing a pitch letter to a magazine editor for a freelance assignment?

Then I read comments below one of the online meditations where others asked prayers for guidance and serenity amid difficult workplace situations. So, I began thinking about the various kinds of “rest” we can have in the Lord. Or, more accurately, I tried to turn off my thinking cap and let the silent whispers from Above inform me.

Last Sunday, I visited the baby goats at Prodigal Farm.  ©Elizabeth Witherspoon

I have learned lately that one of the best kinds of Sabbath afternoons I can have is to exert myself physically doing something outdoor — a hike with my camera on a trail or by the river — followed by an early bedtime. I wake up energized Monday morning. Though counterintuitive, expending physical energy and releasing stress (as through sunshine, fresh air, and photography), are known antidotes to fatigue from both cancer and depression. Medical research supports this.

Then there is the rest that comes from letting go of some burdens that are no longer mine (or weren’t mine to carry in the first place). Easier said than done. Step one: identify them. Step two: be willing to let go of them. Step three: be willing to let others accept the consequences of them going undone or done less well.

I did some of that yesterday at an appointment where I handed off some of my daughter’s medical care — to my daughter. For her to grow in independence, this transition needs to happen. In the moment it was difficult, because I had readied myself and hoped for a clearer demarcation of who does what with less on my side of the line. As it turns out, she and her provider both asked me to stay closer during the transition, but they did agree to commence the transition right then. Progress.

In other areas of my life, I am letting my attorney do her job and letting go of the need to convince or even engage with another on some topics. More and more I hear myself teaching others how to look up information on their own or how to meet their own needs, rather than my being as hands-on providing care.

I could not do these things without a lot of prayer, celebrating the Eucharist in fellowship, or sabbathing outdoors. In other words, resting in the Lord.

Because of that rest, for today, I do have the physical and psychic energy to do some unpleasant, but necessary, tasks like filing financial papers, bookkeeping, and finishing my daughter’s FAFSA.


The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside the still waters, He refreshes my soul.    ~ Psalm 23:1-3

Let It Be

Topsail Island, NC ©2017 Elizabeth Witherspoon

Sometimes, I think, we might be better off not knowing so much. We can overthink. We can rationalize our way into almost any action. We can hurt – and be hurt – by intentions unknown and unseen. It is enough to make us want to stay under the covers or head for the hills.

That is, if we tend toward flight in our prewired “fight-flight-or-freeze” response to stress.

If we are more likely to be a fighter, we might be good in a crisis – a first responder who runs toward the fire or flood waters to rescue people, protest injustice, run for office – or lash out harshly with words or fists. If we are the type to freeze, like the animals that curl up and play dead as a defense mechanism, we may go nonresponsive, duck our heads, wait until someone else takes responsibility for a difficult decision.

I am encountering extreme responses of all types among several close people in my life right now and, frankly, I am worn out.

I am worn out, because in my head and my heart, I hear messages about having patience, compassion, loving thy neighbor, etc. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” 1 Corinthians 13:7.

Meanwhile, I feel swept up, against my will, into a storm of indecision, push me-pull you communications, lies to cover up others’ inability to say what they mean and own the full consequences, and ghosting followed by pursuit. When pushed, some of these people even flip from freezing or fleeing to fighting and assault with hurtful words or passive-aggressive actions. Each has found some loop hole to excuse their inability to be forthcoming and clear and, in my mind, fair.

As a result, I have crossed over from acceptance and compassion about each person’s tendencies or mental health challenges into anger, judgment, and general fed-upness. “What about my needs?” I am screaming in my head.

Today’s devotion pointed me toward going to God to rest and let go of the judging. At first, that irked me. A lot. After all, I have a right to be frustrated and angry with so-and-so for such-and-such, don’t I?

Then it dawned on me, I need to get out of God’s business. It is irrelevant whether I have a “right” to be frustrated, angry, or disappointed in someone else’s behavior. It is irrelevant “why” these various folks behave in certain ways. That is God’s business. Only He knows if it is by choice or through some inherent “issue” they have, which only He can heal anyway.

So, the message I am receiving in this devotion is not so much finger wagging at me to stop judging – at least not like it felt an hour ago. It is a message of love. It is a hand on the shoulder, saying “Take it easy. I’ve got this.”

This means I have permission to let go, pull back, stop noodling on what I need to do or say next. In the words of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “Let It Be.”

While God does His thing, I will renew my body, mind, and spirit. Then, when it is time to encounter each of these folks again, hopefully I will be more patient and compassionate, which is what I really want to be. I will also be more patient and compassionate with myself. There will be greater clarity about how to deal with them while also not allowing myself to be a doormat.

God calls and equips each of us, if we let Him, out of our comfort zones. The fighter can learn to step back and wait, the person who flees can learn to stand still and face things, the person who freezes can learn to feel and communicate. We can, that is, with God’s help.

Topsail Island, NC ©2017 Elizabeth Witherspoon

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. ~ Romans 12:2


This weekend I had a Holy Moment with my 14-year-old son and his friend who slept over. We were making pancakes and sausage and being silly in the kitchen together. It was what I presume to be normal stuff, which is why it was so special to me.

You see, we are not a “normal” family, anything but. And, that is precisely why I am so overjoyed by the most mundane experiences many others might take for granted. My children, soon-to-be-ex, and I are a family with special needs. I came from a family with “issues” and missed a lot of so-called “normal” childhood activities, like sleepovers.

So, goofing around on Sunday morning in the kitchen with two high school freshmen as tall as me was sweet. It was sweet because there was a time when my son had not been properly diagnosed nor begun receiving treatment and was very sad because he felt so different and believed he had no friends. I remember my helplessness and sense of failure at not being able to hug or kiss his pain away. I remember empathizing so much with him from my own loneliness as a kid who moved around a lot that my whole body hurt and my tears joined his.

©2017 Elizabeth Witherspoon

It was sweet because at this exact time last year I was hanging on sipping ginger ale and munching crackers during chemo, not cooking pancakes. On top of my treatment, we were a newly separated family adjusting to custody arrangements and my apartment.

Now I was hearing their deep crackly almost-men voices laugh and finish each other’s sentences about favorite video games. I was bursting with gratitude that such a fine young man is such a fine friend to my son. I was seeing my son blossom with this acceptance and sense of belonging.

The pancakes were secondary, and that’s a good thing. I got so caught up in enjoying the moment that I coached my son to pour twice as much milk as needed into the batter. What could have been upset over a change of breakfast plans, I quickly solved by dumping the rest of the Bisquick into the bowl and winging it with another dash of vanilla.

Special-needs moms – like most moms – are a resourceful bunch who turn on a dime and patch things, while also trying to model resiliency and flexibility and assure everyone that all will be well (even when we aren’t so sure ourselves). We had big laughs and joked about best and worst grub master (cook’s) experiences while camping with Boy Scouts.

And I, who, because of my family situation as a kid, could not have sleep overs and only went to a couple of them at anyone else’s house, got to be a part of this fun. The night before we watched an action-adventure-sci-fi movie, while filling up on Costco lasagna and ice cream.

We made a mess. We made some noise. We made some memories.

Thank you, God, for this morning. For answering my prayer for friends for my son. For answering my prayer for improved health so that I can host them. For giving me another shot at childhood. Amen.

I will give thanks to you, Lord, with all my heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds.    ~ Psalm 9:1



Enough Grace to Go Around

I had a Holy Moment this morning while reading the Society of St. John the Evangelist’s “Brother, Give Us a Word” sermon about how God’s love is not a zero-sum game.

Of all the various jobs I have worked in media and communications over the last 30 years, the one I liked least was as an advertising sales person for a regional lifestyle magazine. It was a career stop necessary up the corporate ladder to becoming a publisher.

I enjoyed calling on restaurants and art galleries and trying to persuade them that it was a good business decision to place an ad in the magazine. That part was easy. I had edited a sister publication in a different market for over two years and believed in the value of what I was selling.

What ate at my soul was competing. It was one thing to sell against other media in the market (the newspaper, radio stations, etc.) for a bigger portion of the client’s advertising budget. It was quite another to compete against other sales people from my own magazine, people whose desks were inches from mine.

Yet, when we hit the street every morning we tried to outrun each other to claim dibs on new accounts by making first contact. This was before cell phones, so it really was a race run in high heels. Aggression, secrecy, even deceit, was rewarded over team work. Kindness was some quaint notion for losers who weren’t “hungry enough.”

This translated into my sales manager forbidding me to take time off to go see my mother in another state right before she died. Even though I was willing to forego the commissions by missing one weekly sales cycle, the sales manager said the magazine needed the revenue I would bring in.

“Because, of course, you’ll then want off again to go back for the funeral,” she said derisively.

At that point, standing there in my high heels, I let fly a few un-ladylike expletives and went to my desk to make plane reservations. Upon return from the second trip to my mother’s funeral, which occurred within a month, I found another job.

According to SSJE’s Br. Geoffrey Tristram today: “The Christian’s struggle is not a bitter competitive struggle to outperform the other, but rather a struggle to become who we really are, by the grace of God, beloved children of our heavenly Father.”

“But what about tomorrow, when we go back to work, back to a world with very different values?” he asked. “How can we keep this glorious, life-giving reality, that life is a gift, in our hearts and minds, when we have to live and perform in a society which tells us that everything has to be earned?”

Br. Tristram recommends daily prayer every morning, even for just a few minutes, to center and meditate on the gift of life and stay in touch with our core values. I do, too. My life course might have run very differently had I started this practice long ago.

“So that during the day, at work,” he continued, “when we feel the pressures of the world’s values getting at us – the drip, drip of anxiety about our performance, when we start comparing ourselves unfavorably with our colleagues, when we begin complaining about them inwardly, and feel lack of self-esteem – we can at once counter the cold dripping tap of anxiety with the warm, faithful images we meditated on in our time of prayer and quiet at the beginning of the day.”

Pretty soon, the outpouring of care and support for those affected by Hurricane Harvey will be overshadowed by news reports of competition over resources. It has happened during the response of every previous national disaster.

Our President may utter inappropriate things that turn the spotlight on himself. Conflict being the news value that drives more clicks, shares, viewers (and therefore higher advertising rates), the media may focus disproportionately on the finger-pointing of officials rather than the kindnesses of people looking after other people. That may even disillusion and curb some generosity to the recovery effort.

Little Neck Inlet, Virginia ©2017 Elizabeth Witherspoon

In God’s kingdom, however, kindness is the character trait that “wins,” because it is not a zero-sum game. We can pray without ceasing. We can multiply the love and send it out like ripples across the flood waters in all forms of aid and encouragement.

Here and here are some ways we can help.

Neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation [including Hurricane Harvey], will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:39

Walking the Labyrinth

All photos this post, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Durham, NC @2017 Elizabeth Witherspoon

Several issues were weighing on me and, try as I might, my ability to pray them away and remain calm was faltering a bit. Two days before, someone had mentioned walking the St. Luke’s Labyrinth. I did not expect to experience such peace and clarity in this holy moment.

For the unfamiliar, a labyrinth is a walking meditation along a circular path that folds in and out of itself. Unlike a maze, there are no dead ends and nothing is hidden. One starts and finishes through the same opening and simply follows the path. The center is a place to pause and reflect. Kirby Cook built the St. Luke’s Labyrinth several years ago as a Boy Scout Eagle Project.

A novice to walking labyrinths, all I knew about the practice was the suggestion to release something at the entrance and walk slowly toward the center. At the center, pause to open yourself to receive, then walk out filled with what you have received.

Standing at the threshold, I asked God to help me let go of the two specific worries. Slowly I began walking, looking down at the gray pea gravel. Wearing ear plugs to muffle traffic noise from Hillandale Road, I could still sense a crunch with each step.

My eyes noticed random strands of pine straw, twigs, the occasional pine cone. With each step, my entire world narrowed to only what was on the path for the next step. Effortlessly the rest faded away. In my cocoon of muffled crunching and narrow view, I became conscious of how it was all so peaceful to be free of everything but simply the next gray step.

Like a friend tapping me on the shoulder, I felt a soft brush. It was the tip of a low branch of a white oak beckoning my gaze upward. Dappled sunshine spilled through, a treasure to someone who adores trees as much as I do.

Wanting to keep this image forever, I jumped off the path and grabbed my camera. Next thing I knew, I was taking shots up the trunk, using different settings for short and long depth of field, close-ups and wide-angle, framing in portrait and landscape. I was in the zone, that delightful place of creative flow. My childlike wonder of “What if I do this? Or that?” streamed forth. All other sounds fell mute.

Then I realized that I had not given a thought to those worries I had left at the threshold. They were miles from here, out of focus, bobbing in a small boat on some distant horizon. With gratitude, I resumed my walk with camera around my neck and approached the center.

Looking up, the high canopy of tree branches encircled me like the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral. A small opening of blue sky directly overhead let in soft light and reminded me of the hot, summer day forming outside this shady enclave. I took more pictures pivoting and reveling in the variety of hardwoods, the shapes of their branches and foliage bending toward each other overhead.

On the walk out, sweet memories bubbled forth of my daughter, now 17, as a three-year-old preschooler on this playground. I could see the kind teachers and hear children’s laughter radiating from the swings.

In my mind, I saw her as a 10-year-old fiercely competing at her last Easter egg hunt here. Always spunky, she raced around oblivious of her pink flowered dress and white shoes, jaw set determinedly and her waist-length chestnut hair sailing behind her.

Then it dawned on me, the space inside me opened by the release of those worries going into the labyrinth was now filled with joy and gratitude and peace.

As I write this, I am sitting on one of the wooden benches in the Outdoor Chapel built by Wes Blalock as his Boy Scout Eagle project prior earlier. It is adjacent to the Labyrinth. A chipmunk scampers around the sandbox. Cool breezes gently caress my arms. It’s the hug I needed today. I invite you to find one just like it.

And about those troublesome worries? In short order, I had clarity on decisive action to take regarding one of them and took it. This was a bold step I had not felt empowered to try before. An answered prayer.

Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.

~ Psalm 119: 105

Between the Doors

Some anniversaries are cause for celebration. Others, not so much. Still others are a time to pause and reflect.

This time last year I was a few days into the start of my legal separation after 24 years of marriage, in an apartment not yet unpacked, and one day shy of the start of chemotherapy.

I’ve often heard the phrase, “When one door closes behind you, God opens another.” Depending on who says it to me, I process that statement very differently.

Tossed out as a flip line, it tells me the person saying it is uncomfortable with our conversation or the topic of uncertainty and just wants to scurry away, either verbally or physically. They mean well, but just can’t go there.

Delivered by others, I hear a ring of truth in it. As I look back on my life, and perhaps if you do too, there is a pattern of ending one thing (school, a job, a relationship, an address), experiencing a period of nowhere-ness, and then beginning another (school, job, relationship, address).

In those cases, I have historically pictured this door analogy as some sterile office building. A barren hallway with blank doors, the walls, ceiling, and woodwork painted a bland contractor ivory. The floors some utilitarian contractor carpet.

The object of the game was to spend as little time as possible in the hallway. When put out there by “one door closing behind you,” one should as quickly as possible find another door on the other side of the hallway to open. Twist door knobs and beat on the doors, if you must.

If you are lucky, a door will open to a beautiful blue sky with white puffy clouds or a meadow ablaze with wildflowers. It’s not unlike trying to choose the right door in “Let’s Make A Deal.” More often this rushed approach eventually resulted in the humiliating “wonk, wonk, wonk” sound.

What if God’s plan is not like that at all though? What if He doesn’t want us to blindly rush across that hallway, but instead to linger with Him awhile. Rest, renew, study, reflect, get stronger for the next phase of life. Grow in faith as we learn to let go and let Him carry the uncertainty.

Eno River, Durham, NC ©2017 Elizabeth Witherspoon

What if this hallway isn’t even a hallway? What if we open our eyes and find it is a beautiful river? Perhaps it alternates between deep calm for lazy canoe rides and shoals that both scare and thrill as we learn to read the rapids. What if it is a calm sea on which to sail toward a horizon, doing nothing but communing with the wind and the sun, marveling in glorious sunrises and sunsets?

We are taught (I know I was) to minimize the in-between time. People question what we are doing. Every moment and every action must count towards something better, as if the present is never good enough.

When I was in my late 40s and would land a good consulting gig or get something published, my dear dad’s response was always, “That will look good on your resume.” We couldn’t just celebrate the moment for what it was.

We can feel adrift without a neat label that categorizes us by job title, marital status, health status, permanent address. If we cannot give a tidy answer, we (at least I) have felt pressured to explain when this in-between time will be over?

  • When will you be finished with chemo?
  • Are you going to buy a house?
  • When are you going back to work?
  • When will the divorce be final?

And I see the effects of all this on my children, too, especially my daughter who is a senior in high school. As a year-round student, she is over two weeks in and up to her neck in her first project for Civics class, writing assignments for AP English, and AP Calculus problems. If she goes out in public, she hears:

  • Where are you applying for college?
  • What are you going to major in?
  • What do you want to do with your life?

Though well-intentioned people are just showing interest, I want to gather her under my wings and protect her from all this added pressure. I tell her she does not have to have it all figured out. It is better to learn how to cope with the pressures you face today, rather than borrowing more from tomorrow. And, for heaven’s sake, stop and look up at the sky. Take a breath. Notice the birds, and yourself. You are amazing and you are enough. Right now.

As for me, I am lingering with God for a while – resting, renewing, studying, reflecting, and getting stronger for the next phase of life. I am growing in faith and learning to let go and let God carry the uncertainty. The scenery is beautiful.

©2017 Elizabeth Witherspoon

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

~ Matthew 11:28


New Habitats

All photos this post ©2017 Elizabeth Witherspoon

My mother had a green thumb. Where ever we lived (seven houses) she tended houseplants in nearly every room. African Violets bloomed in the kitchen window, a big palm or Ficus tree filled a sunny corner of the living room, Peace Lilies adorned side tables in low-light areas, and all manner of Hens & Chicks, Mother-in-Law’s Tongue, and Jade Plants thrived on our Southern porches and patios. Succulents were her favorites.

She seemed to nurture these plants by instinct. I rarely saw her look anything up in a book, and she died before we had access to the Internet. Dad often remarked she could get a broomstick to sprout. There is so much more about plants I wish I had learned from her before she went to help tend God’s garden.

I do have a piece of her Crown of Thorns plant though. It began as a clipping from her plant on the patio where she and Dad lived in Baton Rouge, La. I brought it back several years after she died via airplane to my home in Durham, N.C. This was pre-9/11. I doubt you could board a plane today with a handful of thorny stalks protruding from a wet paper towel wrapped in aluminum foil.

At home I dipped the stalks in rooting powder, inserted them in potting soil mixed with sand, and set the pot by a large window with full morning sun. Over time the Crown of Thorns grew and thrived to three feet in diameter. It spent happy summers outside. The production of bringing it indoors each autumn became more complicated. We wrapped it in beach towels to spare whomever was carrying it from the thorns, which were tough enough to pierce garden gloves. Someone else held the door open.

September 2016

My husband admonished me many times to “give it a haircut,” even though it sat in a corner of the dining room where no one ever wanted or needed to go. I did give cuttings to a couple of friends.

Last summer I moved from that house to start a new life in an apartment as a single person with joint custody of two teenagers after 24 years of marriage. The Crown of Thorns came with me. It was as important as bringing the cherry coffee tables Dad, a gifted woodworker, had built. Until late autumn the plant lived happily at the downstairs entrance to my second-floor apartment with plenty of sun and room to sprawl.

By the time it needed to come inside to avoid frost though, I was seriously ill with complications from chemotherapy. I spent more than half of October in the hospital. My sister who came from Alabama to help offered to bring it in for me, but I was worried carrying the heavy awkward load upstairs would hurt her back.

“I’ll get the kids to help me with it later,” I insisted.

But, between my own difficulty with asking for help, illness, push back from the kids about smaller requests, and my guilt over the divorce’s impact on their lives, I let it go. The frost got it.

Through winter, in and out the front door I kept passing this brown collection of thorny stalks, a punk Medusa reminding me that I am a plant murderer: willful negligence.

Then the guilt evolved into a voice telling me that this plant was just another casualty of the move quickly followed by chemo. There was only so much I could do. Let it go. Yes, I should have gotten someone to help me bring it in, but that’s an area I still needed to grow in. At least I was letting a neighbor grocery shop for me and others give me rides to appointments. A person can only do so much growing at once, right? Still, I felt bad, very bad.

Finally, on March 2, the day after Ash Wednesday and with the onset of Spring, I decided it was time. Take control, celebrate surviving the winter, and embrace spring. Do those things left undone.

My big event of the day was standing on a chair and drilling holes in the hard, wooden post on my balcony to hang the bird feeder. My arms were so weak, I couldn’t hold the cordless drill above my head without rest spells between getting each screw in the bracket.

Next I approached the Crown of Thorns. Ready to pull out the dead stalks and walk them to the apartment trash compactor in final defeat, I found a few sprigs with life still in them! Fortunately, I had soil, because a previous “big event of the day” was buying a small bag especially for cactus to repot my Jade and Reindeer Cactus.

Wearing an N95 mask, because I was still being treated for the pneumonia of October – ironically from the type fungus commonly found in soil and mulch – I carefully teased out the small live sprigs with their tiny roots and replanted them in a new pot of the specialty soil. Then, I triumphantly texted a photo to my sister in Alabama.

As spring warmed into summer, I moved it out to the balcony where it has begun to thrive. Since then I, too, have increased in strength, stamina, and general health. As the stalks burst forth new leaves and began to bloom, I had a good lung CT and blood work, finished taking my antifungal med, and got my chemo port removed. Now I am writing daily and taking online classes, building a blog and preparing a nonfiction book proposal.

Both the Crown of Thorns plant and I have a strong inner core and determination to survive. We have endured harsh conditions and willful negligence. Yet, we have the capability – with God’s help – to thrive. Given a habitat rich with the right balance of water, sunshine, nutrients, and protection from the cold, we grow lush and green. We even flower over the scars of frost damage and thorny defense mechanisms.

I am glad I got a second chance to nurture this plant and keep the spirit of my mother, the gardener, alive through this legacy of hers. She and I had a complicated, thorny, relationship from which I am healing. A big part of that, I am coming to realize though, is recognizing and celebrating the good parts of who she was and what she taught me. Let go to the trash compactor of time the dried up, thorny dead parts.

This must be why it mattered so much to me to keep this plant going, to give it what it needs to be the healthiest Crown of Thorns it can be. During the barren winter after the frost got it, I felt what anyone feels when they are seriously ill. I wanted a mother to soothe me, the way I have soothed my own children, to anticipate my needs, and to assure me that everything will be all right.

My biological mother wasn’t available to do that and likely would not have been capable of it had she been alive, but God sent others to mother me during that time: my sister from Alabama and other friends locally and online. Now, I can bring back and celebrate the best parts of Mom through the flowers and birds of spring and summer as I embark on a new life.

God provides all of us new pots, new soil, new habitats, and new nurturers. Sometimes we have to go through an ugly, dirty process to fully embrace these gifts. Sometimes we have to make hard decisions, without a guaranteed outcome, about pruning or dead-heading, or simply letting parts of ourselves or relationships succumb to the frost.

Only then can our healthiest parts flourish to tell His story and to serve His kingdom.

Summer Rain

As I write this, a summer rain begins. Though the volume of water is not high, each drop falls heavily with a hard thud. I hear it on the pavement, the tops of cars, and it echoes down my metal chimney.

Overcast skies close in and I sink lazily into this chair. I am tired and already a tad achy. Perhaps like the birds with their hollow bones, mine sensed the drop in barometric pressure. I just talked myself out of yoga class and snuggled a little deeper under my blanket against the breeze of the ceiling fan.

Rest. Blessed rest.

I love this, because it is the kind of rest that truly restores me. Perhaps because it takes over without guilt. I have learned through trial and error over the years to give into this kind of rest whenever I have the opportunity and to savor it gratefully. Let the back muscles ease around the lumbar support of my recliner.

Our busyness and the expectations we place on each other and ourselves don’t give permission for this kind of rest often.

I remember as a kid not minding and, in fact, welcoming, a break to the active summer days with a slow thuddy rain like this. We would move onto the big porch at the neighbor’s house. Or, we’d be forced out of the swimming pool and sit there wrapped in damp towels in the warm humidity and play cards. I loved it, and still do.

God is nourishing the Earth with this rain – satisfying crops, filling reservoirs, completing the water cycle to return fresh water to Creation. This is our opportunity to step back and marvel at this wondrous process.

Meteorologists and hydrologists can explain it in fascinating detail. The science writer geek in me soaks this stuff up (pun intended). Last night I was on the NOAA website studying cloud formations, just because.

Today, however, I don’t need to know or understand. I just need to smell the summer rain, hear its reassuring thud, be thankful for the rest and relaxation and savor the oncoming nap.

©2017 Elizabeth Witherspoon

Afterward, I will stomp a few puddles, rescue stranded earthworms, and slightly resent the return of the sunshine which calls me back to activity and responsibility.


I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees their fruit.   ~ Leviticus 26:4