Green Stamps for the Soul

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Lately the concept of redemption has been a recurring visitor, a cue that tells me I should look into this further. Thus far, I haven’t come up with anything in particular that has triggered this but it won’t let go. It’s not so unusual. But I’ve decided I will sort it out here. First, I have to acknowledge some of how such “guest words” come to  be.

Words knocking on a door of the language cathedral (sorry, language is that important to me) within the brain’s acreage might be generated by cultural/sub-cultural info that targets us randomly. Or maybe it’s a condensed version of phrases I seize upon within various books. It can be a convoluted paragraph that flashes into the mind’s magnifier before awakening. Only to leave me with vague recollections as feet hit the floor, depositing an orphan word, a tiny hint of an idea into my morning. Such has it been with “redemption”–it’s trailed me, more like a misty, never relinquished cape. Perhaps because I read and write a great deal, words–people’s entire names (I usually don’t know them), prayers or places–simply come forward and pressure me for attention and a decent response. Sometimes it’s a word I don’t quite recognize so have to look it up. Occasionally there is no such word in my dictionaries. Not too sure about this; I’m uni-lingual for the most part. And words come sung to me. I know. But it’s how it is.

But I try to give these assertive nouns (or other parts of speech) their due–as least as I can see my way through it. I’m less inclined to spend hours researching, more interested in discovering where a word has traversed my own life as well as how it can be applied in a broader sense. Shared. So this is what happened with the word of “redemption” and its other forms (inflections or conjugations of the root word). The following comes forward now.

I recall two meanings of the root word “redeem” from my early years. First off, S and H Green Stamps were happily redeemable. We got them (given as a promotional ploy) at supermarkets and gas stations. After being gathered, were saved, pasted into booklets, and turned in for a multitude of coveted, useless or helpful items from the company’s catalog. I don’t recall the items gotten–doll clothing and games, tea towels, a watch, implements of various kinds–as clearly as the experience of getting, saving and using Green Stamps. It seemed as if my mother only shopped at places that gave out the mint green stamps that were then licked and pasted into each blank page. She was a great coupon clipper and user; anything that could augment income seemed invaluable. I thought those stamps were magical: buy food or gas, get bonus stamps that could deposit a toy in my hands.

I was often talked into pasting in the strips of stamps that clogged the kitchen junk drawer. I whined about it but I can tell you I enjoyed doing this. I liked the way a blank page, sectioned into small rectangular spaces corresponding to the stamps, would soon be neatly covered. To make the gummed backs stick I used a small bottle of water (we otherwise had to lick all stamps ourselves) that had a rounded yellow sponge top. By the time a booklet was filled the pages were wavy from dampness and fat with stamps. I nearly recall the scent of damp, cheap newsprint with plastered, lined up green rectangles. I placed a finished booklet on the growing pile and when done, Mom put them in a box on top of the frig. Eventually, the stamped pages led to something handy or fun. I thought of the items as gifts. But that was how it worked: your mother or father got stamps and they were complied to be redeemed, or traded, for good stuff.

The second way I understood the words redeem/redeemable/redemption was through church attendance and the Bible. The idea was to be rescued from things I did or thought that tripped me up, could tear me down and also cause others harm.  It meant being saved from going under in a vast pool of treacherous sin–all that stuff that wasn’t good for a person, stirred up more by misguided choices–through Jesus Christ’s love for humankind and his subsequent sacrifice. I saw that it meant being set free, ultimately, from tough consequences of my human tendency to make errors– like telling a fib or sassing the parents or smacking my sister back, I guessed. I might get in trouble at home but Jesus saw through to my hopefully better intentions and, if not entirely overlooked the rotten ones, then forgave them and we basically called it good for the time being.

I wasn’t always sure what I might have done wrong. But as I sat on the cushioned pew in the high-ceilinged Methodist sanctuary with a koi-filled water feature right outside to look at, I just knew God loved me. Jesus had already paid for basic human weakness that led us astray, and even future wrongdoings if I forgot how to do the right thing. Such love was clearer to me than shimmering water of the pool with blue sky bits in it, and it went way past civilized behavior like good manners or small or big mistakes of human judgment. I could count on that.

And that made me want to do better. It was a reciprocal thing: being loved by God, then passing it on while loving God back. Even then I hoped to show my appreciation, be in sync with what I thought of as Divine Spirit, a perfect harmony that sang to me, vibrated in nature. It gave me deep satisfaction and if I could have found the right words, a sense of transcendence. And it felt better to live in accordance with “First love God deeply and fully; love your neighbor as yourself” (to paraphrase the two greatest commandments Jesus noted and insisted all learn and live). My parents insisted, as well, of course. The instructions stayed with me as the eternal light that guides me. It was a serious business, redemption, but as a child I wore it lightly, as if an ordinary thing to know and accept.

It would take unspeakable tragedies, sudden losses and repeated failures; long periods of anguish over my selfishness, badly made choices and lapses of faith before I could begin to know the greater meanings and how hard it could be to hold onto the truths it embodied. It’s unfashionable to speak of guilt or remorse but they have their places in the human grab bag of feelings–and in the guide of our conscience. By trading in selfish disregard, despair and even self-loathing–costs of a life gone awry–for mercy and compassion, I found it possible to give the latter more generously to others. When you have nothing, not even hope of life, and are given one more breath as well as the means to go on, it is easy to feel humility and thankfulness. And that becomes a redemption process.

But it is still, after all these years, hard to act in accordance with an old legacy of soul-stirring rescue and renewal. It asks a lot of people to exchange their unwise whims and ravenous appetites– as well as prejudices and a tendency toward small cruelties. That we can do worse, much worse, in the name of “right and might” we know from bloodied annals of history. But do we really act as if we know we can do far better?

Since I believe we come from God, God remains within us when on earth and we return to God in an unbroken circle, I have wondered: what shatters that primary, even mystical connection? We are each birthed into the world, and we don’t usually come with beatific smiles on our faces but crying out. But we arrive equipped with intelligence, fantastic systems of locomotion and for learning, a capacity for feeling a spectrum of emotions. We arrive with impressive free will fully installed, unlike creatures who are motivated by instinct–as witnessed by even a crawling baby’s refusal to do as caregivers desire, even demand.

We think we know so much from the very start. And we do, in some unspoken way…and then smudge it up here and there because we can. And just want to. And then is there still workable knowledge? That which can make things add up to our benefit while acting in good regard for others? Is our will expansive and benevolent or spurious and undermining? It’s our choice, after all.

The word redemption comes to me again and again because it’s powerful. And we each seek it in various ways at certain times. I worry about the fate of this place, our planet Earth. We all do. We lie very still in the breath of night and maybe go to the window and try to count the inexhaustible stars and wonder how that ravishing universe can seem so rarefied yet far from our pettiness and misery, our terrible designs with their misappropriated energies and labors. We fill our lives with distractions to quell the contagious anxiety rippling around the world. How far have we come from our best beginnings? How much have we forgotten of the mysterious congruence of a universe that goes on despite our misguided, our flagging efforts here?

How lost can a species of creatures become? Are we not primal enough? Or not open enough to wisdom greater than our limited, perhaps one might think lazy, speculations?

We are naturally inclined to be explorers. And we have good clues in maps right here. They are in our natural bodies: the pumps and one way doors, a myriad of interdependent chemicals, connectors and transmitters: the blood-rich, nerve-conducting wisdom. Our bodies mirror much outside of the flesh. We have extreme mapping in our brains, those vast reservoirs full of information and imaginative juices. We enjoy our barrier busting leaps of thought. Are we irretrievably lost? Think again, only let higher functions of mind and soul open more effective routes, bolder solutions, itineraries that can take us to answers and make things work for the many– not only the few. What is below is as above; the universe and this planet are part of an infinite, barely grasped whole. Entire unto itself, we guess– yet we are within it.

So much that we can discern about us reflects the rest in endless configurations. If you love nature, you can see that: whorls of a tree’s inner trunk and planetary paths and spreading circles a single drop of water falls into a pond. So much more. We are here to immerse ourselves in such wonders and utilize our capabilities.  To pass on love as the treasure it is. We are given all this in exchange of stewardship of a planet and the tending of our human lives so that all may flourish.

And yet here we are. These times of catastrophes, power mongering, failures to communicate. It is all so not new, but nonetheless disturbing.

How, then, can we participate in the redemption of our better natures? We must not once forget the inestimable value of human beings even as we struggle with blindness or confusion. Life can be redeemed little by little, moment by moment, one more sound act of reason upheld by care. And then another and another. There is never too much kindness; we do not run out of it, not if we keep it at the ready, put it in motion. But we are not the only vital characters coming and going as the story turns. Perhaps one challenge is to know our place and yet to find it essential and beloved.

We can count on God knowing we are floundering–we, I believe, share Spirit and Mind. We are earthly specks yet celestial beings, made for greater things though we strain to understand. Still we can take action, bring to the fore our finer and braver impulses. Let the clear heart of redemption move us to trade scattered, weakened intentions for something more sound. More sacred. Practical matters and visionary potential are not mutually exclusive. We can trade for the consequences of a quiet (create/enact the work of hope; smile often, gently) or boisterous (bring on the music, speak up for change) life but do it with the transformative intentions of love.

The time we are given and endeavors we choose, I learned, are worth infinitely more than Green Stamps stuck into piles of flimsy books. It is my responsibility to daily renew commitment to an uncertain life on earth, to make sacrifices as needed and ultimately to live with deep and abiding charity. This is perhaps the means and ends of the miracle of redemption’s power.

In Good Time

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We had been talking as we walked near the edge of a cliff, catching glimpses of the Columbia River muscling its way through rocky landscape below. It was hotter in the mountains than I’d expected, and there was a steady stripe of sweat from my neck to my waist, a rim of damp on my upper lip and forehead. Carissa seemed cool as can be, walking briskly, her white flats clicking on the asphalt. I couldn’t believe she had worn a dress, a pretty one at that, as though she was attending a garden party. Well, I could believe it. She’d be perfect at a table set for tea and scones. It was just her. I wondered if she had another set of clothing in her trunk for the hike.

I was anxious to get off the walkway and tackle the trail to the waterfalls. We had waited a more than reasonable, red-hot hour. I’d shared my water bottle since she had forgotten hers. Matt and Grant had said they’d join us for a little prayer, a good work-out on the trail and refreshments. I’d packed four peanut butter sandwiches and Fuji apples and was getting hungry already. Carissa had brought trail mix just in case but the chocolate drops had started to melt all over the almonds. Still, it took a strong will to not grab the baggie with the mix from her and scarf down a couple handfuls.

She frowned and wriggled as I swatted a spider from her shoulder.

“I wish I knew why they weren’t here, Margo. I tried hard to accommodate their schedules. I know Matt worked this morning but Grant…well, he always wants to see me.” She turned to me with the smallest smile, like she was embarrassed. “It’s almost a problem.”

I shrugged. “Grant can be a nuisance but he’s okay. I think it’s all that wavy blond hair accented by baby blue eyes. He likes attention and you just give it to him.”

“Well, I didn’t say it was a bad problem. Just an inconvenience at times. But you would think the least he’d do is be here on time.” She looked around. “Just be here with me, us…”

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I sat under an ancient, gargantuan tree and fanned myself with a trail map. After a big gulp of water, I handed it to Carissa but she declined, leaning back on her hands, ankles crossed. Tiny scratches crisscrossed her feet and calves. They looked mean on her ivory skin.

It was Matt, Grant’s twin, I tried not to think about. He was as much like Grant as a plum was like a pickle. Broad of shoulder and big of spirit, he had what my mother called color. Everything he did was either fun or verging on sly. Carissa said he was a scamp. I thought he was a bit like a bee, flitting flower to flower, but hopefully no pollination was going on. That would have disappointed me. But you never knew with Matt what the consequences of his choices would be. It kept it interesting as far as I was concerned.

We had all been schooled in what was important in life, what was right and wrong. Even I didn’t always know what it all meant and my uncle was a minister. If truth be told, I was inclined toward very human thoughts and doings yet I never doubted my security in the good Lord’s arms. Uncle Travis said it best: I had an understanding with God from birth. That meant I felt close to God and tried hard to live up to expectations but I had questions and ideas. If I failed anyone, so be it. God kept the door open from what I could tell. I wasn’t prone to much rugged worry.

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Carissa, though, she had a fear of things, of spiders and eating too much and sneezing loud, or giggling in the middle of church. She feared not getting on the honor roll, wearing one item of clothing twice in the same week. Once she was upset she had left out the butter so it began to liquefy. I didn’t understand it and I had known her most of our lives. Still, she was a good kid. I was older by ten months and bigger so naturally I felt protective.

So when she started to fuss as time hemmed and hawed and stretched into an hour and fifteen minutes but still no boys, I took her cool hands in mine and said, “Look, let’s hit the trail. It’ll be cooler down in the trees and we can sit by the waterfall and eat. They couldn’t make it, I guess. We could try calling them, but…”

“No, let’s go.”

She smoothed back her wispy bangs and lifted her chin. I worried about her flats and told her so but she was unconcerned. We started down the incline gingerly, the gravel rolling off the dirt. I was in front and twice she grabbed me as she slipped. I hesitated. All we needed was an accident, her dress ruined, shins fully bloodied. The path soon leveled off and was beaten hard so we kept on. My t-shirt was soaked in back and my chest felt prickly. A mess is what I was, but the woods were thick with greenness and everything glowed in the afternoon light. The ferns, slugs and mushrooms, the lichen clinging to nurse logs, the breeze sweetening: I was in heaven. I fell into a pleasing rhythm and forgot to watch over Carissa.

It was a good trek into the dappled cool of the forest. As we descended towards the snaky creek and rounded a curve, waterfalls seemingly dropped from the brilliant sky, parting the rocks. They called out to us with happy music. I could see one fall mixing with another and wished I could slide right down them into the sapphire pool below.

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At the bridge I turned to Carissa. She was leaning against the railing, staring into the creek.

“I came here to celebrate another day with the Lord, but nobody’s here…” she said in a near-whisper.

Really, I thought I heard her wrong. I studied her perspiring face, the corners of her downturned mouth, her chest heaving as she tried not to cry. What I saw shook me up.

“What?”

“No one came.”

“I’m here, Carissa. I’m always here, if you think about it.”

She propped her chin in her hands, then squeezed her eyes tight. “Yes, but…”

“And God’s here, right under your nose. ”

“I guess. Yes, of course. Still.”

The water roared like a playful creature. I found I couldn’t hear Carissa anymore. I crossed the bridge, climbed up thirty-two railroad ties with muscles straining so hard I thought I’d have to stop, but didn’t. I had to keep going. Finally I arrived at the top platform overlooking Bridal Veil falls. My heart was banging but I felt strong, good, like I had gained stamina along the way. I stood alone but it didn’t bother me at all. Here was creation and it was amazing to behold. It hit me that I was at home, where I belonged.

When I finally turned to see if Carissa was joining me, I heard my name called. There came Matt running down the trail, just Matt, his hands waving like crazy at me. Carissa stood alone at the bridge, her mouth open, arms wide, palms up as he passed her by. It made me sad to see her there in that pretty aqua dress and dusty flats. But I guess the right time is when things happen of their own accord. That’s how God sends us a little message. At least, that’s how I see it. Carissa–she’ll find her own faith sooner or later. I’ll likely be around to offer her a hand if she wants it.

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