For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime. Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.
Psalm 30:5

Monday, June 18, 2012

Transitory Venus, transient us.

Sunset on 5 June, but no, you can't see Venus in this picture

Fellow Earthling, did you get to see Venus make its transit between Earth and the sun almost two weeks ago, on June 5th? Without reservation, I recommend it wholeheartedly. Pondering the regularity of the planets and the precision of their orbits, all held in place by a Divine hand, it was hard not to be amazed. It was also an educational field trip for children and adults alike, on the subject of astronomy – fascinatingly esoteric.

We enjoyed watching Venus inch her way into the edge of the sun, and further and further inward, a slowly traveling poppy seed on a huge vermillion cake. We were excited, alongside others in the crowd that gathered at Vanderbilt’s Dyer Observatory, as we altogether gazed through our solar glasses and the telescopes, checking that the dot was still there, as if our eyes ascertained its existence and the motion of the planets. We took pleasure in the sense of solidarity we felt with our fellow sun-watchers, realizing that we had all witnessed with very our own eyes an astronomical event never to occur again within our lifetimes. We were the proud witnesses, and would go forth to declare this proudly to our children and grandchildren, perhaps with a photograph taken through a telescopic lens to prove it.

Sun, Venus, and sunspots, shot through a telescope

Yet, to me, witnessing the event was not so much matter fit for boasting, but occasion for realizing that transience is our common experience, this side of heaven. Those of us who saw Venus have that in common, but virtually all of us here on earth now, including those who saw it only from a television screen, the newspapers, or not at all, have this in common – none of us, save a very few toddlers and babes, will be here when Venus next makes her transit. What a reminder of how temporary our earthly experience is!

The crowd of witnesses, sharers of more than this experience

Another thing we all had in common – none of us could have looked directly into the sun, in all its blazing glory, poppy seed or not, without sustaining some kind of eye injury. And thus: the solar viewers and glasses, telescopes and sun projectors. The relentless light of the sun insists that we all have this in common – the frailty of our human bodies, the very bodies which will pass away by the time Venus makes her passage again.

What’s there to boast of, then? Not much, if by way of what will return to dust and ashes, imaginary kingdoms, that will come to naught. But everything, everything – if boasting is by faith and of our spiritual inheritance, that wealth of God’s promises and His very sure Word: of that place prepared for us, that eternal life with Him, of heaven of no more sorrow and weeping.

Transitory Venus cries, “Transience!” Our response: to live our days with sober reflection of this reminder, and joyous anticipation of Who waits beyond this Earthly side of things.  

Media presence from FOX I was trying to avoid all the time. Hindsight often lends us wiser words to say, so what you've read is exactly what I would have said. 

Camping Joys

We went on our very first camping trip in the Great Smoky Mountains! When we were there over Fall Break last year, we spoke of returning in the summer to camp. Well, we did it – two-man tent, two-hob propane stove, sleeping bag and all!

Here are some of my favorite things about the trip:

The Rhododendrons – Rosebay Rhododendrons were at their peak of bloom everywhere we went. They framed our views of waterfalls, fringed the banks of rivers, and kept us company on many a forest trail. Back in the fall, we saw only their dark green, waxy oval leaves, and wondered at the form and hues of their blooms, come summer. We had in fact thought we’d already missed them. Imagine, then, our delight, surprise, and joy!

 Rosebay Rhododendron in full bloom

The waterfalls – This time round, we got to see the remaining eight waterfalls in the park we didn’t get to see in the fall. Then, we’d planned on seeing two more than the three we did see – but we had arrived too late in the day at one of them to make the hike, and as for the other, well, I felt inadequately prepared for the 8 mile hike. This time, though, we made it to these two, plus another six wow-inspiring falls. Oh, and by the way, I slipped on a rock and fell into a pool at the base of the highest falls in the park!

Ramsay Cascades, the tallest falls in the Smokies

The backcountry driving – Sure, driving on unpaved, narrow, winding mountain roads can be a bumpy experience. But they also bring us to the less-traveled regions of the park, take us deeper into the forests, and afford us greater chances of spotting wildlife and wildflowers. We saw a Barred Owl, for example, just on a branch beside the road wondering at our sudden appearance. We also met four elk who ended up running right up to and past our car to disappear into the forest – it was an oncoming motorbike that scared them away.

A Barred Owl spotted at Parson's Branch Road

The Swallowtails – I was flower watching right from the get-go – so when the Flame Azaleas started making their appearance in the area we were driving into, we had to stop for me to take a picture. We stopped at one of those lookout points, where there wasn’t much of a view due to a very misty sky. The Flame Azaleas were a way down the slope, and I would have been content just taking a picture from a distance. Tim spotted a way down that led right up to the bushes, though, and so there we went. Not only did we see Flame Azaleas in yellow, orange, and vermillion, there was also wild Columbine, and the big surprise – large Tiger and Black Swallowtail butterflies , busy fluttering from bloom to bloom. That was also when finally some of the cloud and mist yielded to long-awaited blue.

A swallowtail butterfly with Flame Azaleas, at Balsam Mountain Road

The camping – Of course the ground was a little hard, and it was cold at night – but the birdsong, fresh mountain air, gurgling of a nearby brook, and stillness of the forest were more than enough to make up for it. Our neighbors at one of the campsites were four little girls (sisters?) and their parents (maybe). Their laughter and cheerful voices were the perfect accompaniment to birdcalls and the sound of running water. How wonderful to think that memories of summer holidays such as these will stay with them long after they outgrow their dainty summer frocks and kiddy childhood games.

In our cozy 2-man tent 

The fireflies – We got to see fireflies during their mating season, a synchronized symphony of lights. It was like a kind of stargazing, except that the stars were all around us, instead of above us. As we walked along the forest trail in the darkness, it was as if we were walking into the twinkling constellations, or a sea of Christmas lights. Apparently, synchronized fireflies are an annual occurrence, displaying their glory only in the span of a week a year, and only in two places in the world. Singaporeans, if you’ve not done so already, go see them in Malaysia!

While waiting for nightfall, we sat by the Little River

Camp food – Did we not grow up thinking of camp food mainly in terms of luncheon meat, and combat rations warmed up (or not) in mess tins? Undeterred, though, we packed a cooler box full of groceries, another two bags of kitchen pantry supplies and utensils, and a propane stove. We made sure we had vegetables (pre-washed, and cut), easily cooked sources of protein (eggs, baked beans, naturally cured sausages, pre-cooked pulled pork), quick or no-cook carbs, and pre-baked breakfast items (granola, chocolate chip scones). Stripped of shelves full of condiments and sauces and nifty gadgets, I was surprised and felt silly at how quickly meals could be prepared, and how fun and uncomplicated cooking really is. Modern life with its too many choices has often stupidly stressed, and spoiled me. Then there were the clouds and forest canopy overhead… ah, the forest kitchen!

One of the dinners - A pulled pork bagel, salad, baked beans, and scrambled eggs

What a list of favorites. I could have gone on and on. But there was also the rain, which obscured many a mountain vista from our sight, and caused us to forgo going on two highly anticipated trails. Yet, the rain brought its rainy-day blessings too: a cozy morning lie-in, Bible reading and Scrabble game while listening to the pito-pito of the rain upon our tent, much-appreciated shade and coolness during long hikes, misty after-rain views of mountain streams, jewel-fringed leaves and petals, if only we cared to look.

It was a wonder-filled six days, could you tell?

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Green Fingers and Social Justice

Never underestimate the power of a simple act. 

The house we worked on after one day of work. The paved sidewalk and gravel driveway hadn't been laid at this point. Also, the flowers hadn't been planted. The green, cream, and brown were all painted by the volunteers yesterday. Before this, it was just all white and looking rather poorly! 

A couple of weeks ago, we came to know of the opportunity to be involved in 'A Brush with Kindness', Habitat for Humanity's exterior home preservation service. They were seeking out volunteers to contribute a weekend of time and energy into a makeover project for a home in a low income neighborhood in East Nashville. 

Many of us know of Habitat for Humanity because of its home building projects in Latin American and African nations, where affordable housing is provided to many who need it. I've heard of friends who've gone on project trips with Habitat over the summer when they were attending college here in the USA, and spend a fortnight or so building houses. 

Fewer of us, though, may have heard of 'A Brush with Kindness', part of Habitat's ReConstruct arm. Taken from their website:
ReConstruct’s A Brush with Kindness is a neighborhood revitalization/stabilization program designed to assist existing homeowners with minor repairs, maintenance, painting, and landscaping.
On one level, this serves the homeowners themselves, who might otherwise not have been able to afford to restore their homes without this help. Mr M, the owner of the house we worked on, for example, suffered a stroke some years back, and later lost his wife and daughter. He certainly wouldn't be able to accomplish all we did for his house today himself - the painting of the whole exterior, paving of a sidewalk, laying gravel for a driveway, and landscaping of the front yard. 

On another level, though, this serves the neighborhood and the larger community too. These homes in low income neighborhoods are frequently in a state of disrepair and dilapidation. Property value is low, and the community risks being bought over by developers for building condominiums or luxury apartments. For those of us who are in a privileged position, this means more housing options - for others, though, this means a reduction in the amount of affordable housing available in the community. The implications? Increased homelessness. 

I'm not sure that I'll be looking at new retail or luxury residential building projects with the same eyes anymore now. I certainly hope I will not. Social justice issues abound in our communities; there remains so much more for me to learn and act upon.

When I think of luxe urban redevelopment projects, I think of Burger Up, a popular burger place in what we've come to dub the "Holland V" of Nashville, a enclave of trendy eating places and (unaffordable) housing. I now wonder... who was this at the expense of?

When homes in low income neighborhoods get restored, though, the whole community stands a better chance of not being overtaken by urban redevelopment. Property value of restored homes increases, and affects the property value of the surrounding houses and the neighborhood as a whole. Homeowners may be inspired to take better care of their property too, thus further increasing property value. This is what we want - virtuous instead of vicious circles! 

It may seem so small a thing, just painting and landscaping for one house, but I am amazed to think that this one simple act of kindness can make such a big difference. 

Side note: It was fun working with others on applying two coats of paint to the back of the house, while getting to know their stories and letting them get to know us too. It was great cool weather too, which is amazing, since it was 35 degrees celcius earlier this week! After 7 hours or so of painting, though, we were exhausted, so we went to Pinkberry, our favorite Froyo place for arguably a well-deserved treat, and promptly came home for a 3 hr nap. 

P.S. Does anybody want to guess the reason for "Green Fingers" appearing in the post title? Leave a comment if you'd like to hazard a guess!