Sunday, November 12, 2017

Me and the atheist

When I arrived home from work, I saw a package marked U.S. Postal Service Library Mail waiting for me on the kitchen table. I glanced at the return address with its familiar square lettering.

“Frank has sent me another book,” I told my husband. “I’ll open it after supper.”

I had first become acquainted with Frank 14 years ago when I became religion editor at a large city newspaper. I’ll never forget his first words because they became a part of my weekly conversations with him.

The phone rang like clockwork the day after the newspapers hit the streets, and I would answer: “Newsroom, Linda Andrade Rodrigues speaking,” and I would hear: “This is the atheist,” which would be followed by probing questions about the subject of my latest story.

While attending a religion journalist convention in Salt Lake City, I stayed with Mormon friends, former missionaries back home. After I wrote a column about the experience, Frank showed up in the Newsroom, and I met him for the first and only time, face to face.

That day I was covering for the editorial page editor, and he marched into her office and plied me with questions about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

As we were walking back to my cubicle, he said, “You’re much prettier in person than in the paper.” These were the first kind words he had ever uttered to me, and I did my best to remember the compliment when he was raking me over the coals, tearing apart my stories and what he conceived were misguided beliefs.

But over the ensuing years, Frank’s fury mellowed and was replaced by genuine inquisitiveness, and I started to look forward to his calls. He mailed me religious books that I used in my research, as well as envelopes filled with incendiary stories, written by atheists and secularists, that I immediately pitched into the trash.

When I left the newspaper, he continued to send clippings to my home, as well as an annual Christmas card and accompanying book.

So when I received the package three weeks ago, I perceived it to be an early Christmas gift from an old friend.

I tore open the package and read the note clipped to the book “Muhammad and Jesus – A Comparison of the Prophets and Their Teachings” by William E. Phipps:

“October 2017
Dear Mrs. Rodrigues,
My brother Frank who passed away September 23rd wanted you to have the enclosed book. My husband finally found it among Frank’s many books.”

It is my sincerest prayer, dear friend, that you have reached the Promised Land; and all your many questions have been answered. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

'There's no place like home'

Thick fog enveloped and light drizzle dampened plans to go to the summer house.

Sometimes fog is a welcome reprieve, providing a place to hide from the world and insulate ourselves from the outside. Other times it sets a trap, imprisoning us within by its cold, clammy and forbidding barrier.

Fearing the latter, we spent Sunday at home; and by late morning sunny skies beckoned.

At the end of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy says that in the future she will look for happiness no farther than in her own yard because "there's no place like home."

Instead of grabbing my camera and heading to the beach, I went in search of the Creator's handiwork in the confines of my own yard.

This is the perfect time to cut and dry hydrangeas. They last for years.
Happiness is a hanging basket of purple petunias.
Tomatoes are ripe for the picking in our kitchen garden.

Impatiens welcome guests at the front door.
Red, white and blue wave amid a backdrop of greenery.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

'When the storms of life are raging'

Morning glories climb the porch stairs. The bright blue hydrangeas are turning deep purple, and brilliant hues of goldenrod are cropping up everywhere.

I hear the waves slowly drifting to shore, gently lapping over rounded stones and shells.

It is a simply lovely September day at the summer place in New England, but my heart is in Florida.

When I was an adolescent, I visited the Sunshine State for the first and last time. We were not lured there by Disney World because it did not exist. No, my parents wanted us to experience the REAL Florida.

I come from a family of adventurers. Before my parents bought the summer place, we spent our vacations discovering America like other average American families. But unfortunately, there was never anything typical about our trips.

My father is a true pioneer, and I would shudder to think what he had planned for us. He loved camping in the wilds and exploring terrain where no man had gone before. He considered pit toilets an amenity.

So we packed up our Ford Econoline camper van, collected two weeks' worth of homework assignments and drove south for three excruciatingly long February days.

Crossing the border, we traced the peninsula, driving down the west coast, and then back up the east.

In the heart of the Everglades, we shared a campsite with poisonous snakes and swam with a crocodile, although we were unaware of its presence until we got out of the water.

It was too cold for the natives, but we swam in the frigid waters off Miami Beach that week.

We drank gallons of orange juice, as well as the waters of the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine (sadly, they didn't work), and were hopelessly lost for hours in Jacksonville (with no GPS to guide us).

Yet what seemed like just another vacation at the time became a beautiful and unforgettable memory of hospitable folks, orange groves as far as the eye can see, sparkling turquoise waters and countless happy days in the sun.

My heart is heavy as Floridians reel from the onslaught of Hurricane Irma. I am reminded of the hymn by Charles A. Tindley: "When the storms of life are raging, / Stand by me; / When the world is tossing me, / Like a ship upon the sea; / You who rule the wind and water, / Stand by me."

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Labor Day litany

A Labor Day walk along the seashore reveals a change in season.

Remnants of Hurricane Harvey keep beach goers out of the water.

Getting their feet wet

Stonehenge? Scottish standing stones? Huge boulders point heavenward.

I imagine this is a spacecraft landing pad in an alien world, the estuary at low tide.

The line forms here.

"You water the mountains from your dwelling on high, the earth is fully satisfied by the fruit of your works. / You make grass grow for flocks and herds and plants to serve mankind; / You appointed the moon to mark the seasons, and the sun knows the time of its setting. / The sun rises, and man goes forth to his work and to his labor until the evening." (Psalms)

Sunday, August 27, 2017

'Be still and know'

Under deep blue skies, I am sitting in the sand at the seashore.

The sun is a torch, but the warm land breeze caresses my skin and keeps my long hair off my face.

Despite the sunscreen I just applied, I wrap an orange beach towel around my legs.

I am undercover – not because of the big straw hat atop my head or the polarized sunglasses I’m wearing.

I am in hiding...

I wish to blend into my surroundings as inconspicuously as the stones, shells and single beach rose a few yards in front of me.

These days it gets increasingly harder to find solitude, yet here I let go of my everyday life and retreat into nature’s calming presence.

The first step is detachment.

The laundry list of things to do begins to fade. The buzz and barrage of bad news reports recede. I forget where I am and where I’ve been.

My senses sharpen...

I begin to hear the music: the pulsing of the sea, the cry of gulls, the sounds of children splashing in the surf, the wind in the sea grass, the beating of my own heart…

Contemplatives teach us how to connect with the Divine:

“Be still and know I am God.”

“Be still and know.”

“Be still.”


Sunday, May 21, 2017

Summer house beckons in springtime

Awaiting the start of the season, we wander around the summer house, glimpsing the natural world around us. 

Signs of the Creator's handiwork are everywhere: in the brilliant yellow petals of daffodils, the drumming of a woodpecker's bill boring into a tree, and the contented munching of a pair of horses dining on nature's bounty. 

While we soon will awaken the summer house from its long winter's nap, we count the days until we fling open the windows, mow the lawn and roll the barbecue grill out of the shed.

Meanwhile, we sit on the picnic table and dream of sunny days, soft breezes and the soothing sounds of the sea...

A welcoming sight -- daffodils bloom along the
stone wall, while clay pots wait to be filled.
A male downy woodpecker clings to the trunk of our tree,
 while he digs a nest hole with his long pointed bill.

Our quintessential New England seaside town with
 its stone walls, farmland and sea beyond.

Horses graze in a pasture dotted with yellow wildflowers.

Melted snow and abundant spring rains created wetlands, where trees
 stand tall, partly submerged in the middle of a pond.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Chipmunk's Tale

It was the first week of the New Year. The Christmas tree was still up, and the manger awaited the arrival of The Three Kings on Epiphany.

Unbeknownst to us, another visitor would be lodging at our house for the next three days.

Similar to the fantastic journey Alice experienced in Wonderland – falling down a well into a strange country – a chipmunk romping on our snow-covered roof fell into our chimney.

Landing in the fireplace, the rodent thought he had died and gone to heaven. There in the middle of the room stood a pine tree sparkling with ethereal light. The bitter cold had vanished, and instead the air was as comfortable as a spring day. Best of all, two bowls brimming with fresh water and Purina dog chow waited nearby.

Yet it wasn’t long before he regretted his fall from grace.

Immediately sensing the intruder, the dog chased the chipmunk down the hallway and into a closet.

Hearing the commotion, I was sure a field mouse was in the house, not an uncommon occurrence when you live in the woods in the country. I also knew from past experience that it would find its way out again or die trying.

However, we closed the bedroom door that night and went to bed with a false sense of security.

The next day after work, I wrapped myself in a soft blanket and began to read. Dozing off for a while, I awoke still in a dream.

Across from me on the side of the television, a chipmunk stared at me while he crunched on a Purina dog chow nugget he had snatched from the dog’s dish.

It was about nine inches long and four inches tall with reddish brown above and a gray strip from its crown to back. Its sides had a whitish stripe edged with black, and its belly was white. Its tail was long and fluffy.

Half asleep, I addressed the rodent.

“I know you like it here,” I said, while it stared at me and daintily nibbled. “These are nice digs, but you can’t stay. Chipmunks hibernate in winter.”

Then the dog awoke, picked up the scent and, barking furiously, chased the chipmunk under the couch. Slipping by the dog, the rodent ran down the stairs and disappeared under the door into the basement.

For the second night, we closed our bedroom door.

The next day I was about to start the vacuum cleaner when the chipmunk ran past me. I screamed, and my husband, who was outside on the deck with the dog, came to my rescue.

With the dog in hot pursuit, the chipmunk circled the dining room table. I ran down the hall, closing my office door, bedroom and bathroom doors. I screamed as they flew past me. But this time the chipmunk was cornered.

Buddy was growling inches from the rodent’s head, and I kept screaming – perhaps irrationally – “Don’t hurt it!” After all, this was one of God's tiny helpless creatures.

My husband put on his gloves and grabbed the chipmunk, which was intent on biting his captor. Running onto the deck, he opened the door and threw his tiny quarry into the snow. The chipmunk was stunned for a few minutes, then ran off, leaving tracks in the snow.

We slept with the bedroom door open.