A chance meeting brings gratitude

lilac blossom

As I looked for a photo to use on the cover of an upcoming anthology, I found it here in a vintage post that I wrote at Granite State Walker, of all places. I realized the post actually fits in Advent, a time of preparation and renewal. Re-reading the post brought back all the gratitude and delight I experienced after meeting a gentleman who opened my eyes to a common beauty I’d never before appreciated. 

Never underestimate the potential impact of a passing conversation or a chance meeting. It could affect a life in ways you’ll never see.

Mr. Stiles’s lesson: share what you love

In August 2013, I read in the newspaper about the passing of a New Hampshire gentleman named Walter Stiles. The published tributes indicated that he was a generous man in every respect, devoted to his family, active in his community.  I met him once more than twenty years before his death, had a single unforgettable conversation with him on the subject of lilacs, and never saw him again.   In the short time we chatted, he managed to convey his great and contagious affection for this state and its natural beauty.

We were at a political gathering, not a social one, and there was a lot of edgy debate among attendees that day. No matter. By some chance, I was seated next to Mr. Stiles, who I think was a state representative at the time. His kindness and dignity were a kind of antidote to the tension in the room. I asked him what he did when he wasn’t serving in his political office. I realize now that he could have said any number of things, for as his obituary made clear, he was a man of many parts. What he chose to tell me about was his interest in horticulture, particularly lilacs.

I had never paid much attention to lilacs before that time, to tell you the truth. They were just sort of there. Listening to Walter Stiles, I began to realize what I’d been missing. He told me about the Governor’s Lilac Commission, which was a fairly new group at that time. He told me that the lilac was the state flower, and that he hoped to see more people plant them around their homes and schools and towns. He talked about the flower’s wonderful fragrance (which I had never stopped to notice).  He told me about the people working with the Commission and with their own local garden clubs to encourage cultivation.

When the day’s proceedings were over, he bid me a cordial farewell and went on his way. He must have been grinning to himself, knowing better than I did that he had dropped an idea in front of me and that I was sure to pick it up eventually.

lilac blossom
Photo by Ellen Kolb

As I said, that was many years ago. Since then, lilacs planted by my husband have grown to line one side of our yard. I wait impatiently every spring for those gorgeous blossoms. I fill vases with them and bring them into the house so the fragrance can fill the rooms. Wherever I see lilacs in blossom, I appreciate all the colors from white to deepest purple. I’m grateful to everyone who has gone to the trouble of planting the bushes, which take a few years to establish. As I learned to look for lilacs, I learned to keep my eyes open for the other flowers all over New Hampshire. The variety astonishes me anew every year.

It’s no accident that I do more hiking as I get older. I have more to appreciate and enjoy. I’ve benefited from many people who have taken the time to share with me their love of this state’s beauty. From such folks, I am learning more all the time, and I have all the more reason to savor my time on the trails.

If you’re a fan of being outdoors, I hope you’ll do what Mr. Stiles did: share your enthusiasm. I only met him once, and I never had the chance to thank him for expanding my horizons just a bit. I’m guessing he’d consider those lilacs in my yard thanks enough.

First things first

…many peoples shall come and say:
“Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may instruct us in his ways,
and we may walk in his paths.”
For from Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and impose terms on many peoples.
They shall beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks;
one nation shall not raise the sword against another,
nor shall they train for war again.

Isaiah 2:2-5, NAB
Photo by Pete Linforth/Pixabay

In the Catholic liturgical year, this Advent’s readings began with the book of Isaiah, including a phrase that is among Isaiah’s most evocative: Swords into plowshares.

The first time I heard those words, I was a child in school, and I read them in an account of a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. – a speech now known as “I have a dream.” To me, Dr. King’s call to nonviolence practically set to music the words from the book of Isaiah. The message seemed clear to me: beat our swords into plowshares, and peace will follow.

Still later, reading and hearing the whole of the book of Isaiah, I came to realize that my childhood impression of swords-into-plowshares was upside down. Beating swords into plowshares isn’t a first step. It’s a consequence that can only follow from “[C]limbing the Lord’s mountain…[that] we may walk in his paths.”

Sometimes I think pounding away at the swords would be easier. And just in time, Advent is here to nudge me away from that idea, to turn my impressions upside down, and to point me to that mountain I’m supposed to climb.

A means, not an end

Worth remembering as an election looms and my mailbox overflows and the ads reach saturation points: “policy” is a means, not an end. The former lobbyist in me needs the reminder occasionally.

Journalist Kathryn Jean Lopez always provides edifying reading, and she has often made the point that getting a bill passed is not the same as building a culture of life. She summarized it best in these words: “Our efforts can’t be confined to policy. We have to give our lives to the work of reformation, restoration, reparation, renewal. We need to see human life as the tremendous, incomparable gift that it is, and help other people see that.”

I’ll keep telling people to get to the polls. And still, I can see that our most lasting work will be accomplished during the other 364 days in the year.