Goatsbeard and Peony

When I look at this little bouquet, I remember that simple combinations of a few items create lovely results.

Recently, a friend helped me clear more surfaces in my home and display just a few items (rather than ten). I remember sparse decorating ushers in elegance. In past years, I would have stuffed fifteen peony blooms into this blue vase and crammed in stalk after stalk of the goatsbeard.

No more stuffing. No more cramming. Sparse elegance is the phrase of the day for me for decorating and in life.


Inconvenient Beauty

Today my friend invites me to observe the robin’s nest on her back porch. It’s a funny story: she leaves the porch screen door open, and in the time that it stayed propped open, a brazen bird builds a nest in that space.

So there’s an enormously inconvenient nest between her door and her screen door.  It’s not just enormously inconvenient; it’s actually just plain enormous with its tangle of nesting that drips down the door and the wall. And she cannot close that screen door at all.

But she places a ladder nearby, and we can climb up and peer into the glorious nest that holds four bright blue eggs.

I think about the inconvenience of beauty. It often comes wrapped in packages of discomfort, trouble, or difficulty. It often meets our eye in that very place of awkward, unexpected, all wrong kinds of situations. There’s something about truly astonishing wonders that requires a bit of inconvenience.

My neighbors might have torn apart and discarded that nest and quietly shut their back door against these robins. They didn’t. Something too beautiful and enchanting would come if they embraced what inconvenienced them.

For a woman who hates to be inconvenienced, I’m looking at it differently–through the bright blue lens of these eggs–from now on.


The Ballistic Ball Bounce that Baffles Even the Best

Every year, I volunteer to help with Field Day at the elementary school. I’m always assigned the activity that requires the least athleticism on my part (the P.E. teacher knows me well, bless her heart). 

I watch all the other amazing events going around me with all their fancy equipment. Me? I stand on the blacktop and laugh about the materials I’m given: cardboard boxes and tennis balls. 
I’m supposed to invite children to bounce a tennis ball once and have it land in the box. We quickly rename this Olympic event the Ballistic Ball Bounce that Baffles Even the Best.
It’s so difficult and addictive that even the 5th graders stay at the station to bounce the balls into the box. All day long, folks line up to bounce the ball into the box. Teachers can’t succeed. I don’t even make one shot all day.
Someone–a 3rd grader perhaps–holds the world record at 13 successes, and he runs around Field Day proclaiming his victory. 
As I consider my materials–a box and a ball–I remember the summertime frenzy for expensive toys and glamorous activities. Might I instead put a box in the driveway and call out, “Come one, come all to the Ballistic Ball Bounce that Baffles Even the Best”?
I will! 

So You Can See

My enormous Winterberry (there’s still debate about what kind of bush it is) overtakes the back porch. My husband announces that he’s going to “cut it all back.” It’s an overflowing mass of greenery that looks like it’s taking down the house.

For hours, he chops away at those precious branches until a stack of foliage the size of a car sits upon the porch.

I think of pruning and the waste of it. I know God prunes so we can be “more fruitful” and that parts of our lives that bear no fruit endure His careful removal. That’s how I’ve always thought about pruning: it’s to make something more fruitful.

But my husband comes into the kitchen–after I announce how terrible all this pruning is and how I totally distrust all his skill in this area (in a gentle, laughing kind of tone, of course)–and indicates the real beauty of pruning:

It’s so I can see. 

The lilac comes into view. The strawberries. The lily garden that’s yet to bloom in the corner. The silky dogwoods my daughters planted years ago from little, tiny things. I can stand in my home and look out through the Winterberry to see. 

When God removes something from me, it’s so I can see Him better. It’s so I can see my life better. It’s so I can see what’s been here all along but has been hidden from my overcrowded view.


6 Times Repeated: God Keeps You

I’m reading Psalm 121, and I see the same verb six times. It’s shamar in Hebrew; this verb means to keep, guard, protect, and watch carefully. 

If you remember this beautiful psalm, it reads like this:

I life up my eyes to the hills. 
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel 
will neither slumber or sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night. 

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forever more. 

I loved reading Charles Spurgeon’s commentary on this psalm. In particular, he reminds us that God’s help is “never known to be too late.” And of this verb, “to keep,” Spurgeon writes this:

“Our soul is kept from the dominion of sin, the infection of error, the crush of despondency, the puffing up of pride; kept from the world, the flesh, and the devil; kept for holier and greater things; kept in the love of God; kept until the eternal kingdom and glory. What can harm a soul that is kept of the Lord?”

He concludes by asking, “What anxiety can survive this. . . promise?”

God keeps our life. Everything about this day is in God’s keeping, and His help is never late.


Not Imagining They Feel What You Feel

Whenever I’m in social settings with my daughters, I try to connect them with everyone, set up groups, and engage these friends in lively conversation. 

This, of course, would delight and energize me, but it’s stressful and overwhelming for my more introverted family. 
So I’ve learned to remember that they do not experience what I experience socially. What I see as isolation and boredom, they see as precious contemplative time to enjoy observing others and to interact with just one or two interesting people. 
Parents who try to transfer their emotions onto their children might just be completely wrong. This is my best advice for all the summer gatherings ahead: don’t imagine we know what people want in social situations. 
I’m learning everyday that what energizes me drains them. 

back off and let them live in ways that nourish them. 

I Forget Until Someone Asks Me

Yesterday, a new friend who teaches high school English asks for my opinion on what I wish incoming college freshmen knew better.

I recently complained–like I do every May–that teaching wears me down, that maybe I’ll retire, that I’ve lost my love of it. And then someone asks me about teaching, and I start clapping and doing little hops. I begin a lecture on what college freshmen need to know.

Yes, I talked all about vivid verbs. I talked about grammar and sentence variation and style. Analysis, I’ve found, isn’t really the problem. Most of my students come to college with great critical thinking skills.

But it’s almost as if nobody has ever given them the time to develop any kind of written voice.

My advice? Let them write and write and write. Make them use colons, dashes, and parentheses. Make them use three word sentences. See what happens. Don’t let them use the same verb twice; this will infuriate them, and then they will thank you profusely.

Invite them to fall in love with the semicolon. Challenge them to pick three grand ideas they believe are worth fighting for, and then have them write about these things. Make them write, not for just five paragraphs, but for 15, and see if they can keep developing more and more complexity and more and more questions.

This summer, have them write one story, one poem, one song, and one rant.

Here’s a prompt for a short story:

You’re stuck in traffic behind a car that has a square package visible from the back window. It’s elaborately and beautifully wrapped. As the minutes drag on, you begin to obsess over the contents of this package. What is inside of it? Where is it going? What happens if you follow the car to its destination and inquire what’s in the package?


New Pace

With the pool opening today, I find myself gathering books to read. The children don’t need me in the pool with them. They don’t want me in the pool with them. But they do wish for me to be generally around, just available with snacks and emergency repair of broken goggles. 

They insist I stay poolside, reading and socializing. Far away but near enough. Present but uninvolved. Here, but clearly lost in a book. I’m so spoiled! Must I really sit here and enjoy myself for hours? Oh, if you insist. 

Disappointment, Then Searching

We peer in upon the Chipping Sparrow nest on the walk to school only to find it emptied of eggs. Some predator! Some storm! 

We’re so sad and disappointed. But we know that the Chipping Sparrow will build another nest in another place. 

By late afternoon, I’m burrowed inside the Weeping Cherry or elbow deep in the Winterberry to search for new nests. 
It’s the way of nature. What we build may or may not endure, but nothing can stop our hopeful, searching hearts.