Into the Little Town

I drive on snowy roads from State College for twelve miles until I meander into the little town of Bellefonte to meet my friend for lunch at a darling restaurant called Blonde Bistro. Bellefonte, if you don’t know, will invite you to feel painted into a Christmas calendar or written into Charles Dickens or built into Victorian architecture. With the fresh snow, Bellefonte’s charm fills me with new joy.

In the smallness, I remember how vast the world is and all I have not yet experienced. Just twelve miles away, a snow globe village sits with new friends waiting. Yesterday, I didn’t know what I know now:

She’s there among the Victorian houses, where sleigh bells ring at night–a friend in a tiny, snowy town. And here, in this little place, I think of walking down the little streets with my husband one night when we think our own town feels too small. We’ll drive over here and see what this place might offer.

I drive away back to my own place. I leave the little town, and I’m larger.

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God Daily Bears Our Burdens

Today I recall Psalm 68:19: “Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior, who daily bears our burdens.”

How marvelous! How extraordinary! Our God daily bears our burdens. 

I think about my burdens–large and small–and ask God to carry them once again for me. I don’t have to worry about tomorrow. I think about today and God’s gracious, powerful, loving, and totally comprehensive care for whatever burdens I bear. I bear them no longer. He does.

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If We Spoke in Haiku

I occasionally read Haiku and absolutely love it. I love the precision of all poetry, especially Haiku and how it manages and promotes a certain emotional response. It takes this task seriously, and uses not one careless word. It’s an exercise in recognizing a precious, fleeting moment. I read these today:

Over the wintry

forest, winds howl in rage

with no leaves to blow.

by Soseki (1275-1351)

and this one:

The lamp once out
Cool stars enter
The window frame.

– Natsume Soseki

What if we were as careful as this with our language?

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And Now Joy

There you are, standing in your living room.

You look out the window at the trees and dry leaves, as brittle as anything you can imagine, the kind that turn to dust when you close them in your hand, and you feel an overwhelming sense of joy.

You love the leaves and that you live in a world where leaves disintegrate now and return later.

The timing of joy makes no sense. It’s a rapturous feeling that God has poured His love out in a million measurable ways: hot coffee, meaningful work where you grade papers and reward a student for using words like apotheosis and philopatry without pretension but for accuracy, or how you still clap when a student chooses to use monsoons as a verb.

You’re warm and happy. You imagine, for some strange reason, that everything will work out, that all is exactly as it should be, and that later, you’ll take a walk in the cold air and rejoice that you’re alive.

You welcome the peculiar visitor of joy. It comes unannounced, at odd times, and in odd places. You know it by how it invites worship and attention to beautiful, intimate things. Every simple act taps into some larger story, some better, heavenly version to which these exquisite things gesture.

So you gaze out the window. You twirl on your heels to continue grading essays. And joy follows you.

 

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Winter in My Heart

This morning, I woke up so thankful for winter birds in Pennsylvania. In one suburban neighborhood, Penn State researchers have seen 25 different species of winter birds at backyard feeders.

I personally love the chickadees and cardinals most of all. I wish I had the kind of camera, lens, patience, and artistry of my friend over at Pollywog Creek who keeps a photo journal of the most incredible images of birds she’s captured through her lens. Or, I have a neighbor, John, who knows how to place those birds so perfectly in his lens.

So sadly, I offer you no images of these beautiful birds.

But I can tell you this: Winter strips bare the landscape and allows you to see clearly. Nothing hides.

I’ve learned to love winter.

My Columbian student—a refugee who settled with her family in Miami—now departs from Penn State to work in Minnesota. We worry for her about the cold and the snow, but then I tell her the same wisdom my friend told me when I left the warmth of Virginia for the bitter cold and dark skies of Michigan.

She told me that the winter would force a unique perspective. The winter would reveal things that only winter can. I would see bright red berries, trees blackened and shimmered with ice, and the packed indentation of animal tracks in the snow. The stark landscape would allow me no distractions, either. It would turn me inward to the kind of beauty and joy only found within, with God.

She predicted that the winter would make me a poet. The landscape would make me write.

I thought about my student who would find a new way to live in the cold. I thought about my whole life and what it meant to survive winters of the soul. I rejoiced about what I can only see in winter.

And today, my husband and I will refill our new cardinal feeder with the best seed. I fill my own heart, and I wait to see what comes about here in the falling snow.

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Just Walking the Cat

My husband and I sip coffee at the kitchen table while my youngest daughter continues her leash training of Louise von Whiskers. I laugh because it’s such a whimsical moment, with a docile cat, and a daughter who so much wants to walk down the street with her cat on a leash.

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Delivering the Cookies

Today I deliver cookies to students and then professors and staff in the English department. You know I’m not crafty or excellent with icing. You know the cookies had icing dripping in hardened form down their sides with sprinkles haphazardly applied. You also can surely imagine the packaging: gold cellophane tied with twine.

Only for a moment did I consider the parallel universe in which the ideal Heather makes perfect cookies.

I stayed in reality. I dropped off the cookies and loved people as I know how, in the real ways I can. People smiled. Some exclaimed with joy. Others gobbled the cookies before I could turn to leave their offices.

I spread wishes and warmth and me.

It was ideal after all.

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And So We Make Latkes

Last night, I insist on making Jewish latkes. I know how because years ago, my student drove to my home to teach me how to make this traditional food from her own family’s recipe.

It’s strange how much I wanted them. And what’s even stranger is that I woke up this morning, and I realized that it was exactly seven years ago, during this very week, that I first learned how to make latkes. Here’s the blog I wrote then, and I loved learning from it again.

Latkes, Menorahs, and the French Phrase that Might Change Your Life

I have a student who already has a career in bread and pastries. She’s a baker who works all through the night baking bread for local bakeries. She’ll rise at 2:30 AM, work all night, and report to my 10:00 AM class covered in flour. The smell of freshly baked bread precedes her and lingers when she departs.

Last night, my baker student stops by to make potato latkes (pancakes) for my family. She wants to share this special Hanukkah food tradition with us, and she even brings a Menorah to light at sundown. As a Jewish daughter, she said the blessing as the candles were lit in her family, so she also proclaims the Hebrew blessing as a treat for my Christian family as the flames flicker.

But first, we make latkes!  She’s like a precision sportsman grating white and sweet potatoes with speed. As my student cooks, I notice how organized and how peaceful she remains. She carries on 3 different conversations, washes the dishes (and the floor!), and flips the latkes. At no point is my kitchen disordered or dirty. No stress, no worry.

“This is amazing!” I remark.

She looks over at me (while putting more latkes in the pan), and says, “Mise en place.”

“Me za what?” I ask, laughing.

“It’s French for, ‘everything in its place’,” she teaches. Apparently, every great baker knows this rule.  Before you start cooking anything, you enact mise en place. You set everything up–all your ingredients, all your tools, all your supplies–for the entire project. There’s no scurrying about and no energy wasted. Everything is exactly as you need it–mise en place.

When the latkes finish, she turns them over onto a plate beside her, already lined with a paper towel–mise en place.

When sundown falls like a grandmother’s shawl around our home, she has her candles and matches ready to light her Menorah. Her Hebrew blessing is typed out in translation for us–mise en place.

I serve Italian for dinner; my husband prays over our meal; we enjoy Jewish latkes as the candles burn down.

But all night, mise en place resonates long after I should be sleeping. Can I do that with my life? Can I get everything ready–anticipating–so I offer spaces of peace and organization? Those well-planned days are my best days. No scurrying, no energy wasted.  I have everything I need right here before me. Living with flair means mise en place.

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A Breakthrough Regarding Stress

Sometimes I ask my most high achieving but nevertheless relaxed and laid back upperclassmen to tell me the secret to their easygoing ways. (No, it’s not drugs or anything like that!) They live differently, and I wanted to know why.

A student tells me her secret:

She realized during her freshman year of college that all of her stress came from thinking about her work deadlines, not actually the work itself. She loved her classes, her projects, and her papers. She even enjoyed studying. Doing the work was joyful, but thinking about the work in advance made her crazy. The deadlines overwhelmed her. The potential grade report overwhelmed her.

Then she reminded herself that the work isn’t stressful. The stress resulted from everything else she let herself think about surrounding that work.

Work is fun. Thinking about work isn’t always fun. It’s better to work than think about work. 

I tell my daughter about this conversation, and she expresses a face of serene revelation. She says, “Yes! Yes! I’m a great worker. I love the work. I don’t need to have stress about my work. I can just do the work and stop thinking about everything else.”

Right, child! Right!

It’s such a simple shift in perspective to know that work isn’t stressful. Once we identify what’s making us experience the stress, we can relegate those thoughts to the background and start enjoying our work.

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