I’m learning today not to respond in exasperation or anger when people ask me to do things I don’t want to do or am unable to do. After all, people can ask. I can say no. Why become upset? Instead of thinking, “How dare they ask that?!” I step back and think that the question isn’t the problem as much as my response might be.
People can ask. I can say no.
For example, after I post final grades, students inevitably ask me to raise their grades. Some even beg for the A. I always find myself so angered by the request–How dare they?— but then I realize that the way they ask for higher grades with such boldness (and sometimes rudeness) reminds me of, well, me.
Don’t I approach God with a bold and undeserving, often ridiculous kind of expectancy? Don’t I also appeal to His grace on days I need it most, on days when I have nothing to offer and perhaps have even screwed up terribly?
It helps me respond with more kindness and empathy, I suppose.
And I’m learning to possess the strong and loving “no” in my life. The older I grow, the more “no” matters. Sometimes the no is actually the most loving thing. Sometimes the no fosters in a work of God we cannot see. Sometimes the no means a yes somewhere else.
People can ask. I can say no.
And I’m no longer angry about it.
This morning, I recall Jesus’ words in the gospels when individuals approach Him. He asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” The question resonates with another statement God makes in 1 Kings 3:5 when He appears to Solomon. He says, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”
I imagine God asking this same question and making this same statement to you and me. What would you say? What requests reflect the deepest, truest desire of your heart?
What do you want me to do for you?
God desires for us to ask, to come to Him with our needs, and to see how He answers. How mysterious and wonderful to begin each new day in response to Jesus’ invitation.
I find myself so happy making soup.
This week, I attempt a Potato Leek Soup and a Rich and Cream Vegan Corn Chowder.
I wanted options in my kitchen tonight. I also keep a bowl of fresh thyme and homemade croutons (slice homemade bread into cubes, toss with olive oil and fresh garlic, salt, and pepper and toast in a pan) for folks to garnish their soups.
As I grade papers and fold laundry, I pause to chop potatoes and fresh herbs for Soup and Stories.
My daughters love to grab a candy cane on the way out the door, and I simply replenish the candy whenever the bouquet looks thin. I used cinnamon sticks, candy canes, and some pine to create a simple decoration that smells great and invites you to take a bite.
A friend reminds me of all that goes into building a life–all the influences and teachers and experiences that shape faithfulness and maturity in another person. When we encounter someone, we become a tiny part–a little thread–in the tapestry of that life.
And we can be tiny. We don’t have to be everything. We aren’t everything.
I think about this in terms of parenting or in the scope of my ministry. Our words or actions might serve as the tiny thread that shifts the design, untangles a knot, or connects two larger threads so the pattern begins to make sense. It’s humbling, wise, and honest to admit we live as tiny threads.
Nearly imperceptible, we might just enter a life as it unravels. Our little thread might tie up a loose end, might fix a hole, might begin something new. We won’t know until heaven how our life threaded throughout the pattern of so many others. And we don’t have to know. We just have to stand ready for God to weave us in, secure us as He wishes, and approach others with gentleness and awe that now, our designs intertwine.
This morning I note the beauty of daily morning chores: I feed the sourdough bread starter; I brew the green tea; I stir oatmeal; I clean the breakfast dishes. These chores feel like small, beautiful rituals that make up my whole life. The daily things: this is living.
Later in the morning, the Italian Mama tells me about the deep contentment that comes from “small, tender mercies: walking the dog on a sunny day, seeing a shooting star, watching a full moon rise up over the horizon, the family laughing around the dinner table. . .”
It’s so true. I’ve been seeking the small, tender mercies. I linger over a student’s well-written and insightful sentence, and I consider the privilege of being this close to another person’s mind. I break from grading to roll out the sugar cookies to refill the Christmas cookie platter. I’m wearing a handmade blue apron that matches my husband’s that a dear mentor made us as a wedding gift.
I later stroll through the grocery store and pick out Brussels Sprouts from a big bin. I splurge on fresh blackberries that I’ll serve with our fish dinner. I’m wearing a handmade burgundy hat that a student presented to me yesterday. As an expert in costume design and all things fashion, he even attached a peacock and hawk feather to the wide black ribbon around the brim. I feel so fashionable, so glamorous.
Tonight, we visit friends for dessert, and I’ll bring some cookies since they come with me everywhere I go. I smell like butter and sugar; I wear flour like an accessory.
I’ll watch for the moon rising. I’ll look for shooting stars.
Tomorrow, I’ll start the whole thing again. After the morning chores, I’ll walk with the sun on my face and laugh with family around my table.
Growing older, I realize now, means perhaps most powerfully that we’ve increased our capacity for joy.
As I washed my hands in the kitchen sink this morning, I remember I did indeed recognize a flair moment yesterday (the day I didn’t blog). It’s because I glance up at my nearly dead orchid in the window sill to see that it sent out a hearty spike with bright green buds.
It’s going to bloom again!
Last year, after my neighbor gifted me with a beautiful orchid in a decorative pot shared with a succulent, I enjoyed the blooms until they died and the spike shriveled away. I trimmed it down and then basically ignored the plant.
Since I admired the dark green glossy leaves, I occasionally splashed the plant with water as I washed dishes.
And then! And then! This!
I learn that an orchid will rest for nearly a year and then bloom again with particular care. In this case, I inadvertently did everything right: the sunny (but not too bright) spot, the trimming away of the old growth, and the infrequent watering.
An orchid will bloom and then retreat into a dormant state to rest and restore nutrients. Then, sometime in the next year, it will bloom again.
It blooms just once a year. Once a year! Consider the wise orchid. I’m so thankful for the natural world that showcases the rhythms of rest and fruitfulness. I’m so thankful that sometimes, we spend our years restoring nutrients for that one beautiful moment.
An orchid blooms once a year and mostly rests. With particular care, I think about these rhythms as the winter seasons keeps us dormant and slow.
We’ll bloom in time.
Yesterday, I was out and about: radio interviews, meetings, concerts, and, of course, delivering Christmas cookies to the English Department since this is the last week of class.
So I never blogged. I didn’t even think about blogging.
(Don’t worry, I won’t stop blogging!)
Sometimes, you’re writing. Other times, you’re living.
Sometimes I live through my writing; other times, I’m just out and about.
Yesterday, I lived out and about so much that I fell asleep on the couch with my family around, and I slept the kind of sleep where you don’t know where you are when you finally wake up.
If you find you aren’t thinking about writing as much–or if you simply don’t have time–perhaps it’s a season of being out and about.
On another note, I think I’ve already made 300 Christmas cookies, and it’s only December 6.
Last night, I hosted a few neighbors for a Monday night “Soup and Stories” evening. After years of wondering what I should do next–after Monday Night Neighborhood Fitness and the Walk-to-School campaign ended– I prayed and prayed about how to connect with friends on a regular basis to share our lives.
My fellow Italian Mama encouraged me (and of course agreed to come) to the first Monday Night Soup and Stories night.
The concept: I make a huge pot of soup. I slice warm bread. Some neighbors pop in for an hour to eat soup and share a story about their day.
That’s it. Soup and stories.
I felt like I did in graduate school when we had a Thursday night “Soup Night.” The poets and musicians came; the med students came; the random new friends came. We ate soup. We told stories.
We enjoyed fellowship.
Fellowship! What a beautiful thing!
Motivated by many things (David Brooks’ The Power of a Dinner Table; Sally Clarkson’s The Lifegiving Table: Nurturing Faith Through Feasting, One Meal at a Time; and the Harvard research report on the epidemic of loneliness as a public health issue), I simply, finally, took the first step.
(PS: If you’re a neighbor reading this wishing for an invitation, don’t worry, I hope to invite you soon!)
So far, I made a Tuscan White Bean Soup with Escarole last night, and next week, it’s going to be a Creamy Corn and Potato Chowder.
My husband set the table. Since I wasn’t sure how my first soup would turn out, we served salad at the last minute!
I share my Soup and Stories idea with my students. I think about the loneliness they feel, too. When I tell them, their eyes shine. They love this. They want this, too.
I hope you do as well. Perhaps you’ll start your own Soup and Stories night to connect with neighbors for an hour on a Monday night.
I invite my students to listen to, and read, David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water,” the commencement speech he delivered to graduating seniors of Kenyon College in 2005. While full of many lines to discuss, I love this one in particular:
“Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”
As my students write their final essay in which they “choose what to pay attention to” and then how to “construct meaning from” whatever they choose to examine closely (the classic humanities essay), I reconsider the truth of what it means to think, to write, and to live a meaningful life. So much of my own thinking, writing, and living has been a journey to hold up my experiences to biblical truth and to see God at work everywhere.
We choose what to pay attention to. And we work to make meaning from what we experience. I cannot wait to read these essays!