Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Epiphanies and Uncertainties

Phoenix is always a strange place to be around this time of year. Some trees are dropping their leaves. Perhaps it finally grew cold enough at the end of December to inspire them to shed the glory of last year. Still, with this weather it is nearly always a good day in winter to go to the park. Why, I just recently enjoyed a hot afternoon hike with my children beneath the January sun!

Did you know the Christmas season ended for us Catholics yesterday with the The Baptism of Our Lord? I was going to get a few more carols strummed on my guitar last evening and ended up looking at photo albums instead. The pictures of our little children playing in this house and yard that we no longer own made me wistful. Our family is experiencing a time of transition and uncertainty.

I have so many emotions lately! That is always true with me, I'm afraid, though I am trying harder not to be led by my feelings and not to let them spill forth from my mouth - that is my perpetual resolution for self-improvement, and I don't need a fresh year to remind me of it.

Aside from emotions I had many small revelations and minor disappointments this past Christmas season. This last Sunday was the feast of the Epiphany commemorating the visit of the Three Wise Men and the revelation of the Messiah to the Gentiles. Epiphany is a great feast and an important one to me. I love the story of the wise men. I am grateful to be a Gentile who has seen the light. But this last feast day found me not altogether happy with every change that has occurred in our family life these past months nor entirely without fear when I try to plan for our future. Where will our own star lead us?

On a more frivolous note, because I am currently employed in retail and often work weekends, I was unable to have friends over or prepare all the usual yeast breads, cakes, and gingerbread camel cookies that I typically do, and I may have even cried about it - mostly because I just really wanted some homemade bread to stuff in my face while spending time with people I love!

On the way home from work that evening I found Rosca de Reyes at Walmart to serve my family for the special occasion, and I played We Three Kings and O Holy Night on my guitar at the dinner table. It was still a celebration, just not the one I hoped to have. Yet, my oldest son Berto made sugar camel cookies all by himself for the family, for me. He also, with Papa's help, made the cookies for Santa this year, and can you imagine how proud these efforts made me? They were very good cookies, too.

Beyond the revelation that my son may enjoy baking like me, I had other important epiphanies this past December.

While preparing one morning to read at church for the fourth Sunday of Advent, I read the Gospel passage where Gabriel visits Zechariah and greets him thus:

Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.

Zechariah later responds:

How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.

Then Gabriel replies:

I am Gabriel, who stand before God. I was sent to speak to you and to announce this good news. But now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time.

Never before had I been so fascinated with this passage! Often have I overlooked it in favor of that greater announcement that Gabriel makes to a young woman named Mary, but several things struck me quite powerfully this time. Why, oh why, did Zechariah question the answer to his prayer, no doubt a prayer that he made fervently and doggedly for years in hope of God's reply? Could it be that by the time Gabriel visited Zechariah, Zechariah had long since given up on this prayer, on uttering his pleas, and resigned himself to God's silence or a definitive "no" from the Most High? Why else argue with an angel, God's messenger? For Gabriel specifically said, "your prayer has been heard"?

I don't know the answer, but I find the whole thing very, very interesting, and as someone who has sometimes felt like God's 11th hour baby - haven't we all? - when it comes to prayer life, it bolsters my faith - and also encourages me not to argue with God's messengers when they come at their proper time.

The other small revelation I had came from a conversation I had with my friend Dana. We were speaking about the suffering we see in the world, and she brought up that old saying, "God doesn't give you more than you can handle". Dana added something like this: "But he gives you right up to that limit." 

I told her I felt the saying was trite and added, " Sometimes I see people, and I think they have more than they can handle."

Later in the car - again on the way to or from work - I was thinking about my own response and feeling a little appalled by my own cynicism. My speech was not hopeful or encouraging, probably because my family was having a rough few days - mostly my fault, I must say. In the car it occurred to me that, yes, perhaps that old saying did need a bit of editing but it was not to be discarded like stale dessert, for if one just adds a few more words, I think it makes sense to me:

God doesn't give you more than you can handle [with His grace].

Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.  2 Corinthians 12:8-9

Friday, November 17, 2017

Unanswered and Grateful

Gratitude can be found in unlikely places:

One can feel it while sitting in a chapel and listening to a fellow volunteer explain the Gospel parable to children, hoping to gain new insight, too.

One can experience it while watching bees hum around a honeysuckle bush that produced more reddish-orange blooms in a week than it has in a year.

One might find it in the simple yet challenging endeavor of winding pliable Eucalyptus branches around and through each other to form a wild wreath, however strange and ill-proportioned it may appear to visitors on your door.

Ironically, it can also be found in a change of circumstances that, on the surface, seems bad and unsettling.

And it can certainly be found, just like that classic Garth Brooks' song claims, in unanswered prayers.

Throughout this past summer and fall I thought the thing I really wanted was a new home for my family. I prayed diligently for God to guide us to the house that best suited us in the right location - not too far from work, church, schools and friends.

I walked into place after place and got discouraged. Often I didn't understand why I couldn't like a house. They were nice, but they elicited nothing from me save ambivalence. I kept praying, and - at last! - we encountered a house that felt immediately like home to me. I was so excited that I trembled as I texted my husband. It had the perfect rooms for our children, the ideal spaces to entertain friends and family. Unfortunately, it wasn't in the best location for schooling. We hesitated, and someone else made an offer while we were debating and sorting out the details.

Then another house, completely different from the first one we loved, came on the picture a few weeks later. It felt more like home than the first, seemed a better fit. As we quickly made our offer, however, other offers were coming in, and another family was blessed with that home.

So we toured more homes that made me feel uninspired, including one quirky one in a nice neighborhood in the right location that we didn't make an offer on because I was indifferent to its charms. Boy, was I being difficult!

Yet now I am grateful for the indecisiveness that resulted from my perplexing feelings.

Two days after Halloween we received some news that altered our circumstances; it could logically be perceived as an upsetting and unsettling change in our fortunes.

No longer could we continue to shop for houses. We needed to adjust.

My first emotions about this news were surprise and sadness at the conclusion of a long, important, and mostly fulfilling episode in our family's life. The news wasn't a complete shock, but it was of such a nature to make one take a step back to evaluate the future.

As for the house hunting? I was glad it was over! I was relieved!

It is always surprisingly refreshing to receive a slap in the face that reminds you of what's truly important to you in life. The larger, nicer home? Not so important to me it turns out. All that anxiety, all that discouragement for nothing. My faith is tried by silly things. Family, love, health and security - those really matter. Home is truly where the heart is. God didn't answer our persistent pleas, but now I understand why. Thank God for unanswered prayers. I cannot imagine the stress my family would feel at this juncture if we had gotten that big home we desired, that I desired for my family.

There was another feeling, too, that rushed in upon the heels of surprise, sorrow, and relief.

It was excitement. Perhaps a slightly inappropriate emotion to feel at the time, I definitely felt it. If the river suddenly changes course, one must anticipate adventure.

This change has come in Autumn, not the most auspicious time of year in which to face a drastic change in circumstances, but we have desired this kind of change for a while. It just came about in a more urgent way than expected, but I am resolutely - may God help me not to waiver - anticipating growth and opportunity to spring forth.

Lastly, though it is entirely secondary to more important considerations for my man and our kids, a most welcome opportunity for me followed the cease and desist of home shopping.

I got to write again.

I realized as I cried with joy the first day I earnestly played with words - not just spinning sentences in my head but actually putting paragraphs and ideas down - that no beautiful home could make me as happy as writing can, particularly writing on my book.

As I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving, these are the things for which I am personally grateful: unanswered prayers; another Thanksgiving and Christmas spent in the only home my kids remember; brave, new horizons, diverse opportunities, and wide open possibilities; and a chance to renew the pursuit of my passion.

May we all be blessed with a well-timed slap in the face occasionally in order to realize what we really value! And may we learn to, not just embrace, but squeeze the life out of change.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

On homes and grief, life and loss

In a joking way I have always asserted that it would take an act of God or nature for our family to move from this little house in which we have known love, good health, security, and happiness these many years.

Now we've sold our family home, and I can only say that, in a way, I came to the decision because of an act of God.

Both of my grandfathers passed away this late spring and summer, and I experienced a real emotional crisis. As my extended family's loss began to sink in, I felt so badly for my husband who had lost all of his grandparents in the past couple decades, his paternal grandfather before we were even a couple. Losing our grandparents feels like an indelible marker on the road of life: You Are HERE. 

And I just want my grandpas back. It was a comfort to know they were in the world even though I spent so much of my life hundreds of miles away from them.

I look back to when I was a teenager and recall how very unhappy I was to be moving from Tennessee to Idaho. And now? I earnestly thank God for that time I had with my grandparents in Idaho, camping, talking, shopping, eating meals, taking walks, that I never would have had if my parents and I had stayed in that beloved home in Tennessee so far from extended family.

My generous husband flew me up late June for what turned out to be a brutal weekend in which I attended my paternal grandfather's memorial service on Saturday and then my maternal grandfather's funeral on the following Monday. The true solace of those few days was the raw beauty found in mourning with family - some of whom I had seen seldom or never actually met before - in telling stories of Papa and Grandpa for the benefit of each other, singing their favorite songs, and listening reverently as "Taps" was played in the quiet of verdant cemeteries for each by an Honor Guard sent to pay tribute to their military service in WWII.

(I will never forget the beautiful image of my mother, her sister, and three brothers standing before their dad's coffin, hand in hand.)

Still, emotions ran high during conversation, company was kept late and sleep was elusive, and the evening before my Grandfather Asher's funeral, my sister and I had a vital but highly charged conversation that drained both of us further. (Yet I know Grandpa, who undoubtedly had many difficult family discussions in his life, would have been proud of us for clearing the air.)

When I got home 4th of July, I felt I looked about 50 after sleeping fitfully and eating poorly and balling my eyes out on multiple occasions. In the car ride home from the airport, I sprang the news on my husband that, after talking with my brother and parents about my feelings, I wanted to sell the house. Then I balled again in his arms when I saw that he and Berto had refinished my dining room table as a surprise.

Honestly, I don't know what I've done, why I've done it, or what I've gotten us in to. In large part the idea of selling this house was a way to avoid succumbing to depression in the wake of such a huge loss, a loss that felt so much heavier, because Grandmama Asher, to whom I was very close as a young woman, passed away when my youngest, Daniel, was only six months old.

I thank God for the time I had in my Grandparents Asher's house. I always felt at home there, loved, well cared for, and I admit that my memories of being in their large, rambling home with its spacious yard in a small town made me long to give my family something like it now that both of them are gone - a sort of legacy of the home they created for their grandchildren to visit.

So I have taken a leap of grief and faith and said goodbye to the small but only home my family has ever known since our oldest, Berto, was a mere babe in arms.

Over the years I thought on and off about it whenever our 1240 square foot house felt overwhelmed by our family's activities, but something about the realization of the life marker that clearly states "You Are HERE" gave me an attitude of now or never, leap or sigh. 

I can only hope we find a home that reminds me of all the love and joy I knew in my grandparents' houses.

Our beloved Grandpa and me

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The home my grandparents made

Tuesday night I lay awake in bed thinking about how strange it would be to enter my grandparents' house and neither of them be there.

And then I cried silently while my husband slept next to me, the tears matting my hair and dribbling into my ears.

I love Grandpa and Grandmama's house in that small Idaho town where both my parents spent years of their childhood. Even though my grandparents didn't acquire that house until I was a teenager, it's the one I associate most with their presence. And so to be in it, and they be absent, will be very sad.

It's a fine, old two-story home, partitioned into many rooms that have changed slowly over the years, but those rooms always seemed to be brimming with family, with life, and with small, energetic dogs who followed my grandfather around. How many of our clan have spent several nights or even years under the same roof as our patriarch and matriarch in their welcoming home where the coffee and conversation flowed freely?

In the summers of my teenage years, I used to spend the night often - even bringing along my best friend Sarah - and loved the middle room upstairs with its window overlooking a slice of the front yard and its enormous pine trees. I loved Grandmama's fine garden to the back of the garage, that garden she seemed to call forth effortlessly, though I know she must have labored in it continually. I have good memories of sitting on the front porch with her, snapping green beans from that verdant plot into huge bowls.

I loved Grandmama's colorful flower borders by the front walkway, now gone.

...and the raised flower bed and outdoor seating area in back that Grandpa built

...the knickknacks, multiple prints of famous artwork, and abundant furnishings that my Aunt Stephie helped to collect, mostly from yard sales

and the spacious park at the end of the street where Grandmama and I used to walk before stopping in a little cafe to get smoothies or coffee.

Just last October I was in that house, and as usual an abundance of family was there - some I did not expect to but was overjoyed to see - and a new little dog whom I had not met, and the coffee percolated constantly in an industrial-sized coffee machine.

My Grandmama died more than six years ago, but I sat with Grandpa out back beneath the awning he had made as he told stories about his wife, including all the classic ones about how jealous she could be, once telling a waitress to "Get your damn hands off my man!" I love those stories, because I am a jealous woman myself, and they explain where I got it from.

Grandpa was starting to forget things, and there were so many people around, and so he asked me which one I was. I told him I was Hillary, nicknamed Hoodoo, and I reminded him of the time I lived with him and Grandmama for a brief time in Boise after my family moved back to Idaho from Tennessee and how I disliked my new school so much  - built like a prison with slivers for windows! - and was so slow getting up and ready for it that Grandpa, who loved to tease, called my walk to the bus stop (or ride if I were running late) the Hoodoo Trail of Tears.

His eyes lit up with the memory, and he exclaimed, "That's right!" and chuckled afresh.  (It was a story he retold every time I saw him, but I had to tell it this last time.)

On Tuesday I found out Grandpa had passed away, not even a month after we lost my Grandfather Hylton. Our family's grief is compounded. My mom and dad have each lost a parent. My siblings and I have lost both our grandpas. It's a summer for grieving.

I won't hear Grandpa call me Hoodoo again or see that tell-tale twinkle in his eye or hear him chuckle at his own stories.

I won't get another chance to ask him about his service in WWII or the crazy adventures of his unusual childhood.

And I am so sad and heartbroken for my darling mother, his daughter.

But I am sure that whenever we may enter that house again, even while now missing both Grandpa and Grandmama terribly and feeling their absence keenly, it will still be brimming with family and love.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

In Memoriam: Grandpa Hylton

Memorial Day will be one of many days for my family to remember the man who was my grandfather, C. Lee Hylton, in the years to come. He was a veteran of WWII who joined the Navy near the end of the war when he was just 16. In my grandfather's own words, he was a "hillbilly boy" who had "no whiskers yet, just a wild ambition with a lack of wisdom".

He passed away recently just after Memorial Day on May 30, 2017.

One of his many grandchildren and great grandchildren, I am the granddaughter he called "Tank" when she was an infant because of her chubbiness, and dubbed "Hildy Bee" in her teenage and adult years. I can still hear the way he used to say, "Well, Hildy Bee..." in his gentle, joking way. I can hear his joyful, subtle laugh, a laugh I heard often when I took my own children to visit him. It is my great pleasure and privilege to write about the man who was my Grandfather Hylton.

Grandpa traveled the Pacific with the Navy, but most of his life was spent in Idaho's small towns and wilderness areas.

He was working as a shepherd on West Mountain when he met my grandmother, Alverna, a book keeper in a small store in nearby Council, Idaho where his older sister was a clerk. They married in 1948. Little did Grandma know then that her husband would soon become a different sort of shepherd and that his life's work was to have a far greater impact even than service to his country.

His vocation came to him quite unexpectedly, and it began with a conviction that struck his heart like lightning.

Papa, as many in our family called him, labored in an auto body shop repairing the damaged steel frames of wrecked cars after he and Nana married. He was a drinker in those first years of marriage and child rearing -  not a habitual one, but a man who drank to excess when, as my Grandma put it, "the wrong friend came around".

One of those errant friends worked with my grandfather. As they were leaving the shop one day, he turned to Papa and said out of the blue, "You know, if we don't change our ways, we're both going to hell."

That very next Sunday, Grandpa took his family to church. When the altar call came for people to confess their sins and offer their hearts to Christ, my grandmother handed their baby son to Papa and hurried to the altar to kneel. He was mad that Nana beat him to the punch. The following Sunday it was Grandpa's turn to give his heart to the Lord. That was the year 1952.

Reverend C. Lee Hylton
Two years later they were headed to Los Angeles Bible School. Grandpa and Grandma had saved their money, so that Papa could train to become a pastor.

Upon their return to Idaho, they were given several small churches one after another, called "missionary churches", as their little ones grew up. Preaching and extravagant living rarely go together; it always seems incongruous when they do. Papa did not make much from doing the work of God, so he painted houses during the week, no doubt mulling over the Word of God and his sermons for the coming Sunday with each rhythmic brushstroke.

Though my grandfather dedicated years of his life to shepherding churches in Idaho, what really ignited him was traveling as an evangelist, going to other congregations to preach each night of the week in order to revive the faith of communities. One of his revivals lasted five weeks! Papa even brought his family here to the towns around Phoenix in his evangelical mission.

A favorite sermon to deliver, one that he preached several times over the years according to my dad, was born of his experiences as a shepherd on West Mountain. My grandfather encountered many a mountain stream while herding sheep. Those tributaries in Idaho are beautiful, pouring forth cold, clear water from the heights. But they sometimes become clogged with the debris of nature, mud and stones and fallen pine branches. When Papa saw such diminished watercourses, he knelt to scoop out the detritus from their chilly, trickling water until they rushed again through the lush mountain meadows as they were meant to do. This was an allegory for what we must routinely do in our relationship with our Maker, Papa asserted: we must remove the litter to receive the rush of grace and love that God so freely and mercifully gives each day.

I didn't get to spend much of my childhood with my grandparents. They were in Idaho, and we were in Tennessee. But I knew my grandpa as a man short of stature but full of fire when he delivered a sermon, a man who always wore weathered cowboy boots - something I loved about him. And he was a man who had a strong voice for hymns as well as preaching, one who was never ashamed to sing praises to the Lord as his wife skillfully played the organ. One of his favorite hymns was "Down From His Glory".

When my Aunt Cheryl told me how Grandpa used to love to sing that song, and I looked it up, I could hear my Grandpa's fine voice and see his face tilted just so as he sang it in the small New Plymouth, Idaho church where I heard him preach as a teenager.

What is Grandpa's legacy? Every one of his three sons has served as a pastor and each of his two daughters married one. They hold fast to their faith, regularly work to share it with others using their unique talents and have passed it on to their own children. His grandchildren know how their Papa praised and loved the One who came down from His glory to win all our souls, the One Who once spoke to and changed Grandpa's heart through the blunt words of a friend.

That man's name is Jesus, and He has now another stalwart servant in His loving arms for all eternity.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

A post in pictures: Gorgeous Bath

Pulteney Bridge in Bath, UK - one of the grandest bridges in the world

I was watching Persuasion the other day while folding laundry, and as Anne and the Admiral strolled through Bath, I suddenly recognized a fine old landmark.

"Hey, I've been next to that tree," I thought. "I took its picture!"

Then, suddenly, I was back in beautiful Bath with my good friend Holly, posing for a picture on Pulteney Bridge over the River Avon, delighting again in the graceful curve of the Royal Crescent, relishing the incredible buns in the oldest house there, Sally Lunn's Historic Eating House, getting chills of excitement as I walked above ancient water systems at the Roman Baths, and shopping near the gorgeous Bath Abbey constructed of that most famous limestone, Bath stone.

Holly and I visited Bath in April 2015, enjoying fine weather the entire time in a town where one of our favorite authors, Jane Austen, set two of her novels and where Austen herself lived for about five years.

I remember my brother saying. "All women are like, 'Ooooooh, Bath!', and men are like, 'Phflut, Bath.'"

What does my brother know? After all, does not Bath have the Jane Austen Centre? - a lovely place in which I wrote a love letter to my man with an old fashioned quill and blotter? (He didn't even appreciate the thought and effort; my note wasn't amorous enough!)

My nose looks enormous in the picture, but I don't even mind. I'm in Bath!

Is it not a charming place where my friend and I enjoyed a scrumptious tea at The Regency Tea Room (upstairs at the Jane Austen Centre) before posing elegantly with Mr Darcy?

How about the Roman Baths, constructed in 70 A.D. and smelling of and draining history?

(Though I wasn't tempted to plunge into that water as the Romans routinely did, I thrilled to walk across ancient stones upon which they trod, to view rooms, drains and ancient artifacts that they utilized, and to learn of the temple they once erected there to the goddess Sulis Minerva.

I must say, however, that the mineral water, such as Jane Austen and her friends would have enjoyed in the Pump Room, tasted terrible.)

Is Bath not the only place to boast the gorgeous Royal Crescent, completed in 1775 and designed by John Wood the Younger to give the growing Georgian middle class elegant town living in terraced houses?

And that fine old establishment that serves the most heavenly buns, Sally Lunn's?

Indeed, I defy my big brother. Bath is one of most beautiful places in the world with some of the lovliest architecture, and I - lucky girl! - got to experience it firsthand

As I strolled along the Royal Crescent two Aprils ago, intoxicated by its romance and history, I imagined taking my handsome husband to the luxury hotel that now occupies numbers 15 and 16 on a romantic vacation someday.

It would be just like a Jane Austen novel.

Maybe a little more amorous.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

It's been decades....

I had a dream I put on jewelry to go out and look at the stars.

If the night sky was going to be resplendent for me, then I had better make an effort, and so I put on a brilliant sapphire tiara and long sapphire earrings and stood out on a balcony, wooing the galaxies.


That dream was inspired by my first proper viewing of the stars since camping with family on my great-grandfather's claim during the summers of my teen years.

Friends invited us to their home in Eastern Arizona for spring break, far from this dusty old town and its light pollution. My husband and son wanted to go skiing at the still operating ski resort near our friends' home. My oldest daughter wished to spend plenty of quality time with her close friend. As for me? I wanted to hike, but high on my list of things to do in the country was to look up in the big, dark outdoors with all my city children and witness their awe.

A couple of years ago when staying near the Grand Canyon, I forgot to escort my children out for the big show. This time I had already put the little ones to bed when Analisa asked me, "Mama, are we going to look at the stars?"

I hastily grabbed the younger two from bed and fled outside and down the porch steps and walkway. After asking my daughter's friend to turn out the garage and porch lights, we spun around beneath a multitude of magnificent stars, the hazy clusters like enormous shimmering jewels, like my children have never seen. I sent one of the kids in to fetch their papa. I held Gabriella in my arms, and Matthew held Daniel, and I could not help but exclaim repeatedly to my family, "Isn't it gorgeous? Isn't it the most beautiful thing you've ever seen?"


I often will gaze into the night sky when I'm taking out recycling or trash at night. I can pick out Orion, and I'm always happy to see my friend the moon in all his moods.

But the stars appearing above my front street are only the most demonstrative ones. A chance to see the stars in full regalia is rare and humbling. For the many of us living a city life with maybe a daytime hike or short road trip here and there, the opportunity is far too rare.

So my advice?

Don't forget the stars. When you're out camping, sojourning in a cabin, or even traveling a long stretch of empty highway between towns at night, look up! Visit the real superstars of the universe. You don't even have to wear jewelry for the occasion.