“It Isn’t the Walk I Love”

This morning on the walk to school, we discuss the 75 year Harvard Grant Study that attempted to answer the question of what makes a meaningful and happy life. Researchers concluded that happiness and satisfaction are never about money, power, fame, or any of the things we might assume.

It was, by far, the quality of relationships. 

The study talks about connections between people, especially as they age.

So in our lives, we talk about what the Walk-to-School campaign has accomplished for us personally as we have connected for a mile or two with neighbors on school mornings for the past 8 years. It built friendship and connection. My friend comments that it was never the walking that he loved; it was the connections. 

So we then wonder what it takes to build the kinds of connections that help foster happiness. It takes time. It takes conversation. It takes commitment.

And so we keep walking even though it’s not the walking we love.




The Undecorating

I notice today that nobody ever posts photos of undecorating.

Nobody wants to see a house dismantled of its glorious holiday adornment. I find it curious because I love taking down the decorations as much as I love putting them up.

Stripping down the house back to that pure, simple home creates a sense of a fresh start and a refocusing on day-to-day simple community living and work.

I think about God’s work of dismantling the excess and the show from my own heart. I imagine the clean surfaces, the fresh walls and windows, and the wide open living spaces of my own heart now cleared. I’m pared down to basics. 

I love the basics of family, friendship, hard work, and creativity.

I love the basics of living from my soul and not my circumstances.

I love the basics of having a grateful heart.

I love the basics of walking to school.

I love the basics of a cat at my feet, the Bible in my hand, and a mug beside me. I love the basics of a teaching life where I print out the fresh names of all those new students. I paperclip stacks of lesson plans freshly copied and organize my bag for a new day of school tomorrow.

Soon, I’ll cook dinner, and I think we’ll watch Downton Abbey tonight when the girls go to bed.

I love undecorating.


Making Music With Whatever’s Around

Last night I heard David Crowder play guitar and sing. I was fascinated by the unusual instrumentation of the band behind him–and even his own techniques–that he’s now become famous for. I couldn’t name all the instruments, but I know that some of the band played on found metal objects and even made music by dropping chains on the ground.

I thought about how many times in the psalms I read about songs and music and making a joyful noise unto the Lord. For someone like me who cannot sing at all and who cannot even read music, I always found it curious how musical God seemed to be.

I realize there’s all kinds of ways to make music–that beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion that typifies music. I think of my whole life and everything that’s now here and was and all that will be. I think about the scraps and the chains, the discord and the chaos. I think about how the band leader counts out the beat and suddenly, it all makes sense together. I follow God and make music of this whole life.



When You Return: A True Story

Last night, my mom told me something incredible that I had forgotten about my time on Little Hunting Creek. One day, a Canada goose flopped around in our backyard with a broken wing. He was obviously in distress and obviously in pain. Our neighbor’s teenage daughter came to help us catch the goose to then call Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation. She wrapped her arms around the goose and placed the huge creature in our garden shed until the experts could come to help.

They came and took the goose away, and my mom and the neighbors called every few days to check on the healing progress of this magnificent injured bird. Several weeks later–it might have been two months–the experts came to finally release the healed goose back to Little Hunting Creek.

The neighbors and my family gathered on the dock as the goose was slowly released back into the water.

And then, something extraordinary happened that changed us, that brought tears to our eyes, and that silenced us along with all of nature that day.

The Canada goose began honking, his cries loud and clear across the water. Then, in a rapid response from all directions, geese rose up and began to fly towards him as he sat on the water. They kept coming, honking out until a whole assembly of geese surrounded the returning goose. They began splashing up the water with their wings so it looked like a fountain of celebration around him.

And then—silence.

They all floated off together in perfect peace.

And so it will be when you also return from wherever you’ve been. The family is there–the community awaits–to surround you and celebrate you.


Little Hunting Creek

I’m twelve years old and venturing out on to Little Hunting Creek–a tributary to the Potomac River. It’s winter. The ice cracks into little shards beneath my feet and gives way to creek bed mud frozen into little mounds and peaks like black whipped cream. I wonder how cold it must have been in the night to freeze the mud like this. Soon, tiny rivulets of water will rush to my boots.

The tide returned every day, but not always at the same time. Nature followed a schedule I knew nothing about; the river obeyed some other voice that told it when to come and go, how fast and how high. The water seemed in a hurry to come but slow to leave. I organized my life around this tide. High tide meant canoeing and fishing; low tide meant creeping along the riverbed in search of turtle eggs and animal tracks.

In winter, the cattails froze too, and they’d snap in my hands, the sound echoing off the opposite embankment. I’d see snow tracks of raccoons and foxes that burrowed somewhere inside some fallen log or in a hollow tree trunk. I looked around me and knew that so much of what existed was here but unseen. I wasn’t alone.

The afternoon sun rose hotter than I could have predicted, and I shed my coat and gloves. I could hear the cry of the geese and the slap of a beaver’s tail on the water that now came in and swallowed up the ice. I’d hear him but miss his brown, slick head as I turned in the direction of the enormous beaver dam constructed just to the right of my backyard.

I loved the creek in winter. I sat on a log and listened and smelled the winter. It was solitude.

I think my soul grew here because I experienced a great process larger than myself–the tide, the weather, and the behavior of animals. I thought about things outside of my own life like how the fox hunts in winter and for what. I wondered why the bright red tail returned at the same time every single evening on the exact same hunting trail. For my science project in 7th grade, the one that went all the way to regionals, I tracked the hunting patterns of the red fox and how time, temperature, and weather did or did not affect his schedule (it did not).

Spring would come and I spent every afternoon soaked up to my knees as I caught turtles and frogs and minnows. My sister and our friends fished for perch and sunfish in our little green canoe sometimes using cheese or bread for bait.

I called my parents yesterday because I missed Little Hunting Creek. The house had long been sold as they retired first to Williamsburg and then to Florida. We talked on the phone about all the fishing and canoe trips, the red fox, and how I spent every afternoon searching the river banks. My mom reminded me of the day the beaver chewed down her precious weeping willow–the one she planted herself–and the day the raccoon came right up to the porch and stole a roasted chicken that she had placed there to cool. I remembered the goslings and the turtles and the treasure I once buried with my friend, Marie, that’s still there to this day.

I asked them to send me photographs of the creek because I could only find this one on the internet. I had been thinking about precious memories to share with my own children about my childhood, and I thought of Little Hunting Creek most of all.

LHC_looking_southThe photo is Little Hunting Creek (Fairfax County, Virginia) from its east bank, looking south. (Public domain, Keytone16, May 27, 2007)


Drain Catch

Our drain catch broke for our kitchen sink–the sink with no garbage disposal where catching debris really matters.

You don’t know how much you appreciate the drain catch until the drain catch isn’t there.

It was a simple moment of thinking about clogged pathways, flooding basins, and a drain not equipped for certain experiences and materials. I think of my own heart and the guarding care of Jesus. I think of all He catches and all He blocks, all He removes and all He filters.

He knows what a heart can and cannot take.



Living From Test Taking Strategies

Aunt Melissa, the Wise Big Sister, recently coached my youngest daughter in better test-taking skills. In our public school, we have many assessments–both in reading in math–that can quickly overwhelm students.

Melissa serves so many students as a Reading Specialist, and she’s especially gifted in offering strategies for success on multiple choice tests. She’s been teaching us cool phrases like “slash the trash,” and how test writers like to provide an answer that could almost be true but isn’t. She tells my daughter to circle the question, read and underline key words, slash the trash (find the answers that couldn’t possibly be correct), beware of the tricky answer that looks almost right, and recheck your work once you’ve chosen an answer.

All day long, I find myself more alert to multiple choices set before me.

We have many opportunities that come in a morning, and we sit there trying to manage our time well and pick what’s best. I think about focusing differently–slashing the trash of what’s not in line with God’s best and recognizing subtle temptations that seem like a good thing but distract from the main work of the day.

Mostly, I just love repeating, “I’m gonna slash the trash!” when I filter out what’s not best today.


Passing Down the Recipes: The Story of the Caramel Cake

Today is a big day in my life.

I made the traditional Caramel Cake that’s been passed down from Mrs. John Brown who was a friend of Great Grandmother Johnson (of Fuqua-Varina, North Carolina), and whose daughter, Kitty Lane, made for her family every Christmas.


It’s an ancient, treasured recipe that my daughters talk about all year long. They cannot wait for Christmas for the Caramel Cake!

I immediately realize the wisdom in writing down these recipes and recording the exact instructions from someone in the family who knows what she’s doing.

Grandma Kitty’s Caramel Cake is my daughter’s favorite, and she requested it for her birthday cake today for her 14th birthday dinner. But alas! I’ve never made the cake and have no training in this area of fine Southern Cakes! I do know that Sarah’s Aunt Kathy and Great Aunt B can make the Caramel Cake, but they are down South and not here with me in Pennsylvania.

So I call Grandma Kitty.

We spend a day texting and calling one another, including frantic exchanges before church about whether my caramel is “soft-balling.”

She sends this:

Caramel Cake

Thankfully, Grandma Kitty interprets this image with the following (and she gives permission to share this recipe, so enjoy!):

Mother’s Christmas Cake

  • 3 Cups Swansdown Cake Flour
  • 3/4 pound of butter
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 6 eggs
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 1 cup Pet Milk

Mother’s Caramel Icing

  • 4 cups brown sugar, packed
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1 1/2 tsp vanilla

She writes: The cake recipe came from Mrs. John Brown a long time ago. Mother always made this cake recipe. You need to use 3 cups Sawnsdown Cake Flour; it comes in a box  near the other flour. It measures differently from just regular flour.  It calls for 1 cup of Pet Milk (evaporated milk not condensed). I grease and flour the pans very, very well or the cake won’t come out good. Mother always said you cream the softened butter and sugar a long time. When you think it should be done, beat some more. It should look very, very creamy before you proceed.  Add eggs, one at a time next, beating well after adding each egg. Add other dry ingredients to the flour and vanilla to the milk .Don’t put all the flour in at one time or the milk either. I always alternate  flour, milk, flour, milk and end up with flour.  Be careful when you add to flour and milk that your mixer is on the very lowest speed and you don’t want to mix it any more than necessary to get it altogether.  After adding flour, the cake will be tough if it is beaten too much. After the cake is done, it should show signs of the cake leaving the edges of each pan. Cool on rack for 10 minutes before trying to get it out of the pan. Then take a spatula or knife and run it very carefully around the edges to help release the cake from the pan. After this turn the cake upside down on plate and tap the bottom of the pan to release the cake.  

For the icing, I use 2 boxes of Light brown sugar. The recipe calls for 4 cups brown sugar packed, but I have found that 2 boxes is close enough. Put sugar and milk ( I use the balance of the pet milk left over from the cake and add regular milk to it to make 1 cup) in the brown sugar and stir and dissolve it very well before turning on the stove.  Cook and stir until it makes a soft ball in cup of cold water, I don’t know, maybe less than 3 mins.  Take off stove, put into bowl that has 1 stick of butter and 1 1/2 tsp of vanilla. Set this bowl into another bowl that has cold water in it.  Ensure while you are stirring the icing to cool that you don’t slosh any water from the bottom bowl into the icing or it probably won’t harden just right.   When spreadable on cake , take out of water bowl and start spreading on cake.  If the icing gets too hard before you finish icing the cake, you can add just a tiny bit of hot water and stir very well.  Not too much, you can always add more, but can’t take any out. Good luck and if you need me, just call. 

So my wisdom for today–my living with flair moment–is to capture the old recipes. Follow the ancient paths of wisdom, even in baking.



Starting Your Wisdom Journal for the New Year

This morning I have a moment to write down some words of wisdom I heard recently. I remember that from the time I was 18 years old, I recorded words of wisdom in my bedside journal. In order to make it into the journal, the statement had to help me understand God or myself better and ultimately help me live a better life.

I bring back the practice of the Wisdom Journal for 2016, and I hope my daughters adopt this same practice.

What did I write today? Well, I heard a great pastor, James White, speaking with my husband about leading well. We were talking about my husband’s deliberate, foundational ways of leading that bring about order, peace, and fruitfulness (but often seem slower, less energetic, and more introverted). James said to Ashley, “Keep doing what you are doing. You are leading from a position of victory, not as someone trying to gain victory.”

I started clapping when I heard him say that.

I want to live from a position of victory in Christ, not as a woman frantic to gain victory. I’m already there; I’m already in victory because of Jesus. 

This made the Wisdom Journal.

Then, I read this simple but profound quote from Hannah Whitall Smith about God’s love and activity in our lives: “We don’t have to beg Him to bless us. He simply cannot help it.”

This made the Wisdom Journal because I know I’m a beggar before God–as if He wasn’t already wanting to and able to bless abundantly. And the quote made the journal because I want to live in the reality of this loving God all day long.

Do you have a Wisdom Journal? Start one today and share what you write! I’d love to know!