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What Can Warm You

A Woodpile

This time of year in Pennsylvania, I can see woodpiles in the side yards of homes.  Folks use wood burning stoves or fireplaces to heat their homes in the cold winter. 

Every time I pass by these wood piles, I experience a particular nostalgia for warm, cozy rooms.  I can hear the crackle of the fire; I dream up the glow in the room.  I let the imagined heat embrace my face and hands. 

Mostly, I think about how secure that family must feel; they’ve stored up fuel for warmth.  They’ve planned ahead.  They’ve prepared for the cold winds.  A wood pile symbolizes a security against that inevitable change of season. 

I’ve passed that wood pile for several weeks now, and even this morning, I can’t help but smile at the warmth it will bring to that family.  The winter will come, and they will not just endure, but they will also have delight over these snowy days inside. 

I think about the change of season in my own heart:  winter.  When will it come?  When will I experience the next bitter thing, the next cold front that puts me inside?   I can’t know, but I can prepare for it.  I can store up all the truth I can; I can build up a pile of beautiful, good things to warm me through the next season of suffering. 

I gather each log–each moment of wonder and worship–and I stack it up for later.  When I need it, that truth can burn bright and warm and help me delight in what I must endure.  

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, / Kallerna)

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The Danger of Inviting God In

Last night, my youngest daughter and I read together from a book, and it occurs to me that she’s actually reading.  She’s actually reading words.

She’ll never be the same.  Once you learn to read, you can’t undo it.  You see a word, and you must read it.  You can’t refuse.  The effects of learning to read are irreversible.

And involuntary.  Try it.  Look at a word and try not to read it.  You just can’t help yourself.  You’ve cracked a code; you’ve escaped from a labyrinth and nothing will ever look the same.

It reminds me of a life of faith.  The Teacher shows you how to crack the code; you’re out of the maze. 

A life of faith irreversibly alters the way a mind sees the world.  It shimmers with the radiance of God’s glory, and you interpret everything through the lexicon of God’s love, goodness, and power.  At first, like for a young reader, the process is slow and basic.  You recognize God in obvious ways, perhaps recounting answers to prayer, emotions felt in worship, or wisdom gained through Bible reading.  But then, you find you’re really reading.  You can’t help it.  You read God in the tiniest moment and see into the life of things.

You’ll discern the truth about this world.  Your heart will break, and you’ll want to hug strangers in grocery stores. You’ll start worshiping God when you see an acorn, a seashell, or a cat’s missing eye.  You’ll see a spiritual narrative behind even the garbage in the parking lot.  You’ll write a blog every single day because you can’t contain the worship and keep it all to yourself.

You’ll want to proclaim things. 

That’s the danger of inviting God in.  You will learn to read, and you won’t be able to undo it.

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It Really Works!

Green Tomatoes Leftover from Summer

I was a doubter about the whole ripening-tomatoes-in-the-basement plan.  Everybody said they would rot.  Everybody said they wouldn’t taste the same.

My daughter and I journey to the basement late yesterday and sit cross-legged before a box of tomatoes wrapped in newspaper.  Just a few weeks ago, we gathered all the green tomatoes from our garden before the first frost.  

She unwraps the first one.

Tomatoes Unwrapped! 

It’s a juicy deep red.  It’s a brilliant and fragrant red. 

We can hardly believe it.  My daughter and I unwrap each red treasure.  The experience is better than picking them off the vine.  Add the element of doubt and surprise, and all of a sudden, we have a celebration on our hands.

Basement-Ripened Tomatoes

We carry our produce to the kitchen.  Outside, the cold wind blows.  There’s a chance of snow, and the gray sky announces winter.  But my kitchen says its summer–the kind with fresh tomatoes and a counter top full of vegetables.

Roasting Tomatoes and Garlic

We get to work.  The little one decides we must make homemade. . . something.  We chop each tomato and roast them with cloves of garlic.  Then we remove skins and seeds and blend the whole thing into a delicious soup.  We’ve got grilled cheese sandwiches crisping and homemade garden tomato soup simmering.

I’m so thrilled that those tomatoes never ripened this summer. I’m so happy for that particular disappointment.

When Plan A fails, Plan B often turns out better–more magical–because of the unexpected, against-all-odds sort of outcome. The truth of it all hits me like the cold wind against this window.  Plan A has to fail sometimes because God’s got a surprise in mind that I’ll unwrap when the cold wind blows, in the sorrow of a dark basement.  That’s when I’ll need it most.

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Your Beautiful Moments

I introduce Memoir Writing to my students today, and I ask them to write down one or two examples of beautiful moments they’ve experienced. 

I’m always amazed, year after year, with the types of things we remember from our childhoods.  Without fail, a student’s beautiful moment has something to do with nature, friendship, God, travel, or overcoming a trial.  Not once, in all my years of teaching, has a beautiful moment emerged from memories of television or video games.  But the time they spend with technology (hours upon hours) would suggest that at least some tiny memory might emerge–some tangible image–that elevates the soul and provides a moment of self-discovery.  

But they don’t have memories like that with technology. 

Yesterday, I went to a parent / teacher conference for my kindergartner.  In her journal, she was supposed to draw her “favorite moments.”  She drew the swing in our front yard, the pumpkin patch, and jumping on the bed with her sister.

No favorite movies; no favorite computer games; no favorite technology experiences.  I needed to see that. 

My Sea Glass Bracelet

Just now, I visit my dear friend down the street.  Her son has a collection of sea glass, rocks, and shells from a summer beach trip.

He’s teaching himself the art of jewelry making.  He presents me with a handmade bracelet, woven together with wire.

I will treasure this bracelet.  He tells me about the beach, about finding these shells and sea glass.  It’s a beautiful moment.  And he’s made this memory into a bracelet I can wear.  It’s tangible; it’s real.  It’s the stuff of memoir.

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What We Think and Do Not Say

Yesterday, I write an unusual email to a friend who lives in a different part of the country.  We rarely talk on the phone.  We haven’t seen each other for years.  But this week, I think about her several times for interesting reasons.  So I write a numbered list of all the times her face came to mind. 

She’s the friend who introduced me to the joy of cooking on a baking stone, and whenever I bring it out, I think about her.

I think of her when I order elaborate coffee drinks because we did that together years ago.

I think about her when I see pistachios because she once told me about a delicious recipe involving a pistachio crust.

Random things.  Fleeting things.

But I was thinking about her.  And it occurs to me to tell her this.   How would she know otherwise? 

Later, she emails me back to tell me she printed out my list and put it in her journal.   I think about that little list–baking stones, coffee, pistachios–that seems silly and unimportant. 

It matters so much.

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Does Happiness Have a Sound?

Lately, I’ve been amazed at how loud the autumn leaves are.  They crunch underfoot, and those left in the trees chatter as the wind blows.  And then there’s the haunting whisper of a leaf as it descends–barely audible–but still vibrating whether I perceive it or not.

I stop everything and gaze at that leaf.  It arrives on the ground soft and silent.  

What beautiful sounds never reach my ears?  If I stop and think about it, I’m hearing so many things at this exact moment I’m surprised I’m not crashing from auditory overload.

I know I’m growing older.  Movie soundtracks seem too loud and assaulting.  I can barely handle the frenzied circus beat of a video game.  I’ve been known to scream out, “Can’t we just have some quiet?

I want enough quiet so I can hear beautiful sounds:  the purr of a cat, the clink of ice in a tall glass of water served to guests, the hush of wool socks on the hardwood floor.  I want to hear the gurgle of homemade sauce simmering and the teasing fingers of the first drops of rain on the roof.  

And the measured sigh a page of a book exhales when I turn it. 

I take my hearing for granted.  One day, I might lose it all together.

I want a beautiful soundtrack to accompany this day.  I want to be still enough–aware enough–to hear it.  Living with flair means I manage the auditory track.  Might I be a gatekeeper for my ears and my living space?   Might I create a culture of beautiful sounds in my home–the kind of sounds that delight and don’t disturb?

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Something Strange at the Voting Booth

In my neighborhood, we all gather at the small Baptist church to vote.  We come and line up, all of us representing different party affiliations.  I love this moment, and sometimes I’ve even been known to cry right there in the line. 

I’m one very tiny voice in a very large democracy.  My ballot represents my voice in this system, and I come out of dutyHere we are–all of us together–participating in this supreme right of citizenship. 

I’m in line, and I notice that nothing is happening.  We aren’t moving along.  I look ahead, and I see an elderly woman so hunched over with age that nobody can see her face.  She’s propped up by a helper on her left and a cane in her right hand.  Her movements are painfully slow.  The folks working the polls stop everything to assist her.  A chorus of helpers ask:  Can she make it over to her booth?  Is the booth too high?  Can she hold the pen and cast her vote? 

It’s like slow motion.  When we observe her, we all start rooting for her.  Volunteers call her by name to make sure she can reach the booth.  We are all participating in this moment now.  This woman needs to cast her vote.  Nothing will thwart her.  The moment takes on a weight I wasn’t prepared to experience. 

It’s a beautiful moment.  I feel suddenly aware of my own lack of interest in this particular election.  I’m aware of how inconvenient it felt for me to drive over to the church and stand in line.  I’m saddened by the fact that I had to print out a voter’s guide because I didn’t recognize half the names of the candidates on the ballot. 

The woman who nobody could stop from voting has a name and a story.  She has an opinion and a voice that shapes our nation.  Her presence makes me realize another way I want to live with flair.  I need to show up and participate as a citizen.  And I need to help others do the same.  You have a name, an opinion, and a story we need to hear to help make our nation great. 

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Love is a Tornado

This morning, my daughter hands me a little card that says her love for me is like a tornado.  She drew a picture of a tornado and wrote, “It’s like this.” 

I turn to her and say, “You mean it’s powerful and destructive?”

She smiles and pretends she’s punching me.  She tries to explain the comparison:  “It gets stronger each day like a tornado gets stronger with each spin.” 

Her tornado is a giant mess of scribble that looks terrifying.  

Love is a tornado? 

That can’t be right.   

My husband adds at breakfast that a tornado is like love because you “never know where it’s coming from.” It can take you by surprise (like how I met him when I least expected it).  

I look at this little family.  I think of the kind of love that breaks the heart and repairs it simultaneously.  I think of the terrifying surrender of it, the giant mess of living lives intertwined. I think of the powerful destruction that love’s wake leaves on the landscape of a heart.  It’s a tornado that rips you apart.

But it’s the kind of devastation you endure because there’s no other way to have it.  It’s the most beautiful storm you’ll ever experience. 

I hug my children–these little tornadoes in my heart–and think about the kind of love I want in my life.  Let it be giant and powerful.  Let it get stronger each day. 

Let it destroy what in me needs to be leveled and remake a pure landscape.  

(Photo:  Public Domain. Credit: OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) via [pingnews])

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Why I’m Making a Rite of Passage Ceremony Today

Today, we celebrate my daughter by a rite of passage ceremony that we’ve been thinking about for a long time. 

We are getting her ears pierced. 

As I think about rites of passage, I realize that precious few exist in our culture to celebrate girlhood–not adolescence or graduation or marriage–but just being a young girl.  I wanted the ear piercing to have ceremonial, symbolic importance that she might remember for her whole life.

We will have friends and family there to witness the event.  

I wrote a letter to my daughter for her to read about what her ear piercing symbolizes.  I wrote that whenever she sees her earrings, she will remember God’s love for her, her family’s love for her, and her realization of her own worth–far more precious than any jewel.   We are making a rite of passage to initiate her into the next stage of her growth.  These next few years will mean so much in terms of identity formation, and I realize the role that ritual, symbol, and community will play in that secure sense of self.

I turn 35 years old this week.  I wanted my daughter’s ear piercing to coincide with my own rite of passage.  She has five years until high school, and I have 5 years until I turn 40.  What will we make, together, of these next years?  When I look at my daughter’s earrings, it will symbolize my own journey as a woman and a wife and a mother. 

And I need friends and family to witness this.  

Symbols and rituals help build a meaningful life.  We can pass them on, weave together a beautiful history, and mark our lives by them.  When I look at my daughter’s earrings, I will remember what they mean. 

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You Weren’t Alone Today

Do you remember when I cried while mopping my kitchen floor because I was thankful for the filth?  Well, today I bring out my mop to clean the floor once again, but this time, I think of a different narrative.

I imagine who else in the world is mopping a kitchen floor at this exact moment.  Of the 6 billion folks living on the planet today, chances are good that somebody is also mopping a floor.  Maybe thousands of us are.

And then, I start imagining you fellow moppers:  your countries, your lives, your particular sorrows.  I can’t help what comes next:  I start praying for unnamed, unknown people. I pray that you would find joy in the work; I pray that whatever happens on your floor today would be a good thing.

Then I go about my morning.  But something has changed in me.

I wash dishes, and I imagine other people who are scrubbing breakfast dishes at this exact moment.  Next I fold laundry and wonder who else of the 6 billion of us are folding underwear right now.  I smile and giggle to think of this community of underwear-folders.  And then I say a prayer for the people folding underwear out there. 

I’m not alone in these tasks.  I’m never alone at all.  We are all in this together–you, me, and people all over the world–mopping floors, scrubbing dishes, and folding underwear.  We did it together today.  So if you felt alone, you weren’t.

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