You’ve Got to Smell the Lilacs While They Are In Bloom

Prologue:  Lilacs change very quickly, and in that sense, the post is almost past its time.  I started it and was not able to finish my thoughts until now.  I’ve actually been working on this post off and on or a week and a half.  And yet, because of that, it is important I finish it. 


I’m in a musing mode, so this is a reflection on an episode that happened over twenty years ago, along with the events of this week, and the common thread running through them all.  Lilacs.  Life. Living.

In the spring of 1991, I was a young Benedictine Sister.   I was going to school full time at Dickinson State University, and lived in a small house three blocks from the school with a couple of my  Sisters.  It was very convenient. I could pray in the morning, go to classes, come home for dinner and prayers with the Sisters and go back and hit the practice rooms at night.   It was also twenty miles from Sacred Heart Monastery, so I could return quickly and frequently.

So, I was combining university life as a music major , monastic life, and daily living like preparing meals, shopping for groceries, mowing the lawn, and taking care of the garden. It was a wonderful time.  Then the phone rings on the evening of May 20, 1991. It is my Mother.  She says, “Hey Jill Maria, what do you have going this week?  I have my garden all in, and have a bunch of extra tomato plants.  I’m thinking of bringing them over.”

I said, “Our Sister Josephine died, today, and we will have her funeral,  but other than that I’m free.”   Mom said, “Oh, I would like to go to that.  I am coming over.  It will be good to see you.”

Now, that is all well and good, but let me put it in perspective.  Mother lived eight hours away in Chinook, Montana; and I was in Dickinson/Richardton, North Dakota.   So for Mom to pick up and say,  “I’m going to drive eight hours to bring you a few tomato plants….” and to do so in the middle of the week without taking my Dad on the road trip was all a little bit unusual.

a_yellow_butterfly_on_my_lilac_bush.previewWell, she came, and it was gorgeous Spring weather.   She got out of the car and hugged me, saying  “You’ve got to smell the lilacs while they’re in bloom.”  Fine…. and I  happy to see Mom.  But it was still all a bit strange. We had coffee and a good time and planted the tomatoes.

That night we went to Sister Josephine’s Wake.   Now, Josie was from Hershey Pennsylvania, and always had a bit of candy to give, especially to “the Fathers,”  so that night we passed out Hershey’s Candy Bars to everyone after the service.   The next day we buried Sister Josephine.   It is a short walk from Sacred Heart Monastery Chapel to the cemetery where we laid Sister with all her old friends.   On the way we sang  “Jesus Remember Me,”   and “Surrexit Christus”   as the casket was lowering in the ground.   It was a beautiful, fresh day, with lilacs and spring, and resurrection, and hope.  We were laying to rest a Sister who lived a long full life.

Throughout her days with me, Mom kept remarking in a sing song voice,  “You’ve got to smell the lilacs while they are in bloom!”   She left, I smiled, and didn’t think too much about it, getting back to life as usual.     That week I got a letter from Ma saying  “Thank you for being there for me.”  It was an unusual statement, and I could of just taken it as meaning she had a good time, but it began to  niggle away inside me….   I started praying hard for Mom, and dreaming about her.   In retrospect, I am pretty sure she already knew she was sick, and that she was somehow sharing it with me.  I think that experience of the joyful, playful funeral gave her an important piece that she needed at that time.

Life went on.  The lilacs faded.  Summer came and we had glorious tomatoes.   That October, I got a call from Dad on a Monday night telling me,  “Your Dear Mother is quite ill.”     They found cancer, and were doing biopsies.  On Friday, I talked to the Folks again.  Mother told me herself they were estimating she had six months.

My whole family was together for Thanksgiving that year.  It was the last time we were ever all together at 700 Minnesota.   Usually, when Mom cooked, you stayed out of the way, and let her, because you couldn’t do it as well or as fast as she could, but this year was different .  She wanted me by her side.

There is a moment in the Catholic Mass called the Anamnesis, or remembering, during the institution narrative, as Jesus tells the disciples  “Do this in memory of me. ”   For me, that last Thanksgiving was an anamnetic experience.    Mother would tell me,  “Remember, we always put the cranberries in this red dish.”   “Remember, this plate came from your brother.”     “Remember…..”   I always remember.

Mother died March 20, 1992.  That spring, I looked out at the garden, remembered her tomato plants and the lilacs, and wept.   I don’t think I could smell the lilacs that year.   I wanted nothing to do with the garden.  None of the other Sisters had time so it sat dormant.

I graduated from DSU,  and made my final profession of vows that summer.   I was no longer living at the Dickinson house.    So imagine my surprise when my dear friend Sister Brigid called me, saying, “Come by the house, I’ve got something to show you.”    We prayed together and had coffee and talked, and she said,   “Lets take a walk out back.”    There in the garden were tomato plants.  They had reseeded themselves.    How amazing that life is.   There again was a simple but beautiful example of the resurrection. Mother was teaching me, showing me.


Fast forward a few years to 2002.  As much as I loved the Sisters and the monastic lifestyle, it was becoming apparent that for a number of personal reasons, I needed to make a change, so I  made the difficult decision to leave Sacred Heart Monastery.  I entered a three year leave of absence, called exclaustration. During this time, I could return to religious life, or make a decision to sever my formal ties with the community.

It was a challenging time.   I was starting a new ministry as director of music and liturgy in a large parish.   It was a huge transition.   I worked hard and there was a lot to learn, a lot to wrap my head around.  I was living in a simple apartment most of the year.    But basically, I was 40, and starting over from scratch.   In the spring of 2003, I decided it was time to buy a house.    If I decided to return to the Monastery, I could always sell it.     If not, well then, the best way to get equity was to purchase property.  (LOL  remember it was 2003, not 2013!!!)

The market was hot.  I placed offers on a couple homes and didn’t get them.   Then my Realtor said, “there is this place on Hilltop I want you to check out.”   Hmmm… I read the add for the place in the paper, and it was not at all what I was thinking of, and the front looked kind of blah.   But I dutifully went to check it out one Sunday afternoon.   Ironically, the selling Realtor had a flat tire, and never showed, but by the time I drove up the lovely meandering street to the top  I was charmed by the street and the neighborhood.

866018779_ee6d568da6_zI  had not seen the inside of the place yet, but there was this great little brass sign out front that said, “On this site in 1897, nothing happened.”   It tickled me so much, I knew I was home.     A few days later when we could reschedule a private viewing, my Realtor was grinning from ear to ear.  She’d walked through the house and already “knew” it was for me.  The flat ranch layout was wonderfully kind on bad knees.  An older couple had the house first, so there handicapped rails and many other extras. So many of the features were things I didn’t know I was looking for, but were perfect when I saw them.

We made the offer and the process started.   A friend of mine had helped me find my mortgage, and worked for the bank whom I got it through.   However he  chose to come to the signing as my friend and support, rather than in a professional bank position.  I was nervous and extremely emotional.   As another old friend would say, I was weepy with “boogery t-shirts.”   I used my friend’s handkerchief, and don’t know if I ever returned it to him.

Throughout the proceedings I kept thinking,  “Dear God, am I doing the right thing?  Should I be buying this house?  Oh, I wish I could talk to Mom.”    I talked to Dad, and Aunt Donna was a great help, but I was still missing Mom.  After I signed the papers on the house, and I was given the keys, the friend from the bank came with me to do my first walk through.  I opened the kitchen double doors and walked out  onto the patio, and breathed, and cried.
There, filling the air, filling the yard was a large lilac bush in full bloom.  Mother was with me.  Smiling and blessing me.    It was such a wonderful gift.      I smiled and laughed and cried some more and breathed it in, thinking ” You’ve got to smell the lilacs while they are in bloom.”


This spring 2013 has been strange on many levels.   The weather has done a number on just about everybody’s psyche.  Rain, snow, storms have created many natural disasters, and there have been many violent man made disasters this year, including school shootings and bombings.  In April I turned 50.  This is supposed to be a milestone, but I’m not sure about that yet.  Actually, I am.  I am sure that I am grateful, and that life is not to be taken for granted.   I am reminded of the shortness of the span of the lilac in so many ways.

In my family, my Mother was 60 going on 25 when she died.  My Grandmother was 52, my Uncle, 49, and another Aunt at 63.  My Cousin passed away at 30.   So there is definitely a history of that demon cancer.  However my Grandfather was in his 90’s when he died, and  another Uncle led a good full life, so I’m not being a woman of doom.    I just am reminded that one cannot take life for granted.

In my work at the parish, I deal with life and death on a regular basis, as  we see weddings, baptisms, first communions, confirmations,  and funerals.   The cycle continues on and on.  But our source of hope and salvation is in that, in the Resurrection.

Ecclesiastes tells us:

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,

vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!

What profit have we from all the toil

which we toil at under the sun?

One generation departs and another generation comes,

but the world forever stays.

Yet, there are times when simply speaking, “it ain’t easy.” Within the last  two weeks, there have been six deaths within the parish, including a dear old friend, and a man in his 50’s.  Three friends lost their Mothers on or near Mother’s day, and I attended two of those funerals.   And it was the first anniversary of a sweet friend’s Father, who died a senseless death right before Memorial day last year.

Today, my Dad called, telling me that my  Step-Sister Jody died after a three year  battle with pancreatic cancer. May she rest in peace.  It is ironic to me that I work with funerals and families all the time, and yet feel so helpless to help my own family so far away. So  what can I do?  Pray.

All in all, it leaves me in a place of wonder, recognizing that God is God, and I am not.  There are many things I’ll never be able to understand, and there is probably no scripture, no hymn, no poem, no image that can change that.   There are may things I cannot fathom or comprehend.    This is when I must just turn it over to God and ask  him to increase my faith.

But this is when I must combine the wisdom of Rosemarie and the wisdom of Quoeleth…”What profit have we from all the toil?”  “You’ve got to smell the lilacs while the are in bloom.”   There are seasons and times when we definitely need to toil and to toil hard, but I need to remember to smell the lilacs, or the roses, or the crocuses; or listen to the chickadee, robin, cardinal, loon;   look at the sunrise, sunset, stars, clouds, and moon.

If I do not take the time to be grateful for all life, and to put it all in perspective,  then I am of no good to anyone else, and no good to myself.  I’m no longer serving and praising God if I’m slaving or murmuring.   None of us knows if we will live another day, another year, or another thirty years.    There are chronic illnesses, debilitating diseases, and  unfathomable accidents.  We may waste away slowly,  or be gone in the blink of an eye.   But it is life!  So hang on, live it, and be grateful.

Thank you to all those who have gone before me, and for the  wisdom you have taught me. I pray that I may always live my life fully, gratefully.  

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,

Let Perpetual Light shine upon them. 

May they rest in peace.  AMEN. 


April Poetry Month hmmmmm which came first?

April is National Poetry Month.      Many of my friends are writing posts about it on Facebook and other such happy places.    I think I’m too tired to write a poem tonight, but want  to talk about poets and poetry and literature and life.   My undergrad is in music, and it has always been part of my vocation and avocation.

As such, I am a “Jill of all trades, master of none.”   I am a trained vocalist, play multiple styles of  guitar, sax, and trombone well.  As a former band instructor, I have at least a semester on a zillion other instruments so could understand them and do basic fingering charts etc and play well enough to stay ahead of a Jr. High player.

I can usually handle my own on the keyboards, but no matter what, that is always a secondary skill for me.  I have a couple of musician friends who are gifted in ways that I could never even fathom.   Yes, They have been gifted, and they’ve also worked incredibly hard to be what I call ‘thoroughbred’ musicians….they are skilled at a level that I can barely even covet.     Thankfully they are generous with their time and talents, and I’ve been able to work with them for most of my large liturgies, and other musical events.    When I have to play for something important, I actually pray that their spirit may enter my fingers.

I’m reminded of a quote I’ve heard attributed to a couple of people:  “A genius! For 37 years I’ve practiced fourteen hours a day, and now they call me a genius!” –Pablo Sarasate (Spanish violinist)  The truth of the matter is the musicians I mention had both a natural gift and a discipline that I will never have.

My brain frequently works in loose associations, and friends and  associates  either marvel or cringe at the fact that you can say dang near anything and I will break into song.   It could be a popular song, an oldy, or a freshly minted paraphrase on an existing tune just to fit the situation.

This actually comes in handy when I am doing liturgy preparations.   When I meet with a funeral family, or look at Sunday’s liturgy,  I can read the scripture, or listen to the story about the deceased, and think of a song that would be a really good fit. I had a boss once who used to call me  “the human jukebox. ”

What I am saying  is that LYRICS are very important to me.   If I get a new CD, I’ll play it over and over until I have internalized the whole thing and know the text and the changes.   Sadly, people in the pews don’t always catch the  painstaking steps one takes to tie together the hymns with the scriptures and prayers.   Or it is an AHA moment when one realizes “Hey, those hymns went right a long with what Father said today…..”

You know, it doesn’t matter how great the homily was though, more people are going to leave the liturgy humming the final hymn than the homily.   Music has such a subliminal ability to carry the message, and to connect life moments.   I could do a whole life timeline by what I was doing  or where I was at in life when I heard that song, or where I prayed that hymn for the first time.

So  where all this is leading  is to a major insight I had a few years ago.   For many many years, I thought of myself as a musician who liked to write, but a few years ago, I had an AHA moment and in that epiphany, discovered that I was actually a writer, who makes music.    Perhaps that may seem like splitting hairs,  but it was an important piece of self knowledge, and that gnosis  has given me a truer vision of my gifts and my talents as well as my strengths and weaknesses.

The rich imagery and poetry of the Psalms have always been some of my favorite parts of scripture, and how those lines of poetry that I prayed daily for so many years in the Monastery  still come back as a source of strength and insight to me now.   It seems the right line and emotion are always there.

We just finished Holy Week and the Sacred Easter Triduum.  Perhaps the most powerful moment for me was Sunday AM after communion, when the congregation sang a hymn together that summarized all that we had been through.   M. D. Ridge’s beautiful “Three Days” set to Gustav Holtz’s THAXTED  http://www.ocp.org/products/129171  In its concise three stanza format, it captured all that hours of prayer had said, creating a ‘nutshell’ version that was ever so rich.

KALEIDOSCOPE_WEBSo, as we begin this month of poetry I’m reflecting back to the influences on my life:  Our primary reader series (school was JUST beginning to move away from Dick and Jane (Kaleidoscopes)  with Miss Olson.  (Panorama and Serendipity were the other books in that series… they were so cool, and I loved those big words!)

The Roberts English books (remember one had the turqoise stripes on the covers and others were patterned?)   It was there with Mrs. Dannis, Mrs.McIvor, John Moffatt, and so many others that I learned Robert Frost’s “stopping by the woods on a snowy evening” and “the road not taken”  Walt Whitman, and Joyce Kilmer’s “Tree”  and so very many other poems. But my very favorite was a line from Shakespeare that I still tend to throw out in odd places and situations:  “And greasy John doth keel the pot!”  It appears the actual quote is  “While greasy JOAN doth keel the pot” but I always pictured a big sloppy guy in renaissance clothes…. for many years I had it that way, until I actually looked it up a few years ago and discovered it was all Joan’s fault


When icicles hang by the wall,  
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,  
And milk comes frozen home in pail,  
When blood is nipp’d, and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl, 
To-whit! To-who!—a merry note,  
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.  
When all aloud the wind doe blow,
And coughing drowns the parson’s saw,  
And birds sit brooding in the snow,  
And Marian’s nose looks red and raw,  
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,  
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
To-whit! To-who!—a merry note,  
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

Love’s Labour’s Lost, V.ii; written circa 1593

I remember a Bismarck State instructor, Arnold Lahren, who taught  Doug Blumhardt, Isolde, Cynthia Trondstat nee Katharine Swanson the importance of poetry, and accepted our feeble efforts and attempts and found some greatness in them.  Kathleen Norris and her husband poet  David Dwyer, David Whyte,  and Anne Sexton gave me an appreciation for contemporary poets.

Yet, all that paled when I first experienced someone writing a love sonnet for me.  It moved past the intellectual, even beyond the spiritual, as there were those wonderful, terrible, truly ineffable vicissitudes of emotion that accompanied it.   For when a simple statement is not enough,  when one needs to wax eloquent, or to try and find the perfect word, then only a poem will do.

It is late, the month is young, and while I have strayed far from my initial concept, there is much more to be said about poetry, but I will leave it for another day.