Sunday, May 31, 2015

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.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

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.

Friday, May 29, 2015

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! 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

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.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

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.

Monday, May 25, 2015

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. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

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?

Saturday, May 23, 2015

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. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

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. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

If It's There

Today I cut up all the vegetables and begin making those after school snack platters. They do, in fact, eat what I put out.

If it's there, they eat it.

I promise. Just put all the veggies out, and they will eat. Remember to include some novelties like pickles and artichoke hearts.

I also know this: If it's there, I eat it. If I'm going to eat what's there--no matter what it is--why not make it good for me? (I already ate all the artichoke hearts and pickles with my friend who came to visit.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Because I Want to Remember the Omelet He Made Me

A million tiny moments make up a marriage. Today we both worked mostly from home, and by 2:00 PM had neglected to eat lunch.

"I will make us omelets!" he declares. 

Later, he calls me to the kitchen table where I find an omelet bursting with sautéed onion, bacon, cheese, salsa--everything my heart would want in an omelet.

So we ate omelets together.

It was peaceful. 

"This is the best omelet I've ever had," I report. 

"What made it so great?" he asks.

I tell him that it's definitely the onion, but what I really mean is that it's all of it--the plates given as wedding gifts 15 years ago, the home we've made, the cats sleeping there. It's all of it--this whole life we have together. 

In this ordinary day, I put the plate in the dishwasher and leave to pick up our daughters from school.

Tonight, we'll have spaghetti and enact our bedtime routine. It's just another Wednesday in our marriage that layers up on top of the nearly 800 Wednesdays we've shared over the years.

And today we ate omelets. I wrote about them because I want to remember this beautiful, ordinary day of marriage.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Change the Subject

When somebody starts gossiping, change the subject.
When somebody starts in with all the negativity, change the subject.
When somebody starts speaking offensively or crudely, change the subject.

But how?

Just ask, "May I change the subject?"

Don't explain yourself. Don't apologize. Just ask, and see what happens.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Family Prayer Journal and Stones of Remembrance

I've always been fascinated and inspired by the account in Joshua 4 when Joshua tells the twelve Israelites--one from each tribe--to take a stone from the Jordan riverbed to build a memorial to God.

We read this:

"When your children ask their fathers in times to come, 'What do these stones mean?" then you shall let your children know, 'Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.' For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever."

When our children were young, we had a family prayer journal and a little bag of stones. Whenever God answered one of our prayers, we took a stone from the bag and put it into a bowl by the journal. We would look at all the stones that year and rejoice in how God had cared for us. These were our Joshua Stones--our memorial to remember the mighty hand of God.

Over time, we forgot about that tradition. But last night, my oldest brings out a special journal she had purchased for our family. She found the old collection of stones hidden away in some cabinet. We gathered at the kitchen table and made a list of prayers to God--things we were worried about or things we needed--and we began the tradition again.

This time next year, I'll hold a bowlful of stones in my hands and rejoice in God.

How amazing to consider that the hand of the Lord that dried up the Jordan and parted the Red Sea works on our behalf!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

5 Minute Dinners

I once calculated that I'll have made over 7,000 dinners by the time the first one leaves for college. 

Dinner is a big deal around here. The Italian Mama and I talked about how, with shopping, cooking, and then cleaning up, dinner is a three hour time commitment on most days. 

I want to move in to her house tonight. 

I'm tired. I'm allergic to everything outside right now. I want to do nothing. It's 5:00, and I can't move. 

When I'm this lethargic, I remember the simplicity of 5 minute dinners. 

Quesadillas, for example: Refried beans, chopped peppers and onions, some cheese, and some salsa go onto the tortilla that we fold over and brown in the pan. We make one for each of us. 

Top with sour cream or avocado. 

5 minutes in total. 

Or, if this isn't exciting enough: omelets. Whip up 2 eggs with any veggies or cheese and cook in under 5 minutes. 

Not in the mood for eggs? English muffin pizzas ( or use pita) under the broiler. Sauce, cheese, pepperoni. Just a few minutes in the oven, and dinner is ready. 

On some days, we only have about 5 minutes of energy. We can create some great food in that time that everyone will love. I'll save my Italian feast for tomorrow night!

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Hidden Within the Pines

My daughter bikes around the neighborhood while I walk far behind. I'm looking for new bird nests. Together, we've found old ones from last year in the lilac and the low bushes. Every evening, we go in search of nests. She bikes; I walk.

When I was a girl, I searched for bird nests all spring. I still remember the hope, the excitement, and the wonder.

I walk by the pines. Just to my left, I see something curious: strands of something gently woven into the branches. I peer in, amazed. To small to be a Robin's nest, and too ornate for a Sparrow, the nest must belong to an Eastern Bluebird.

I stand on tiptoe and use my phone to observe.

Two eggs!

What a wonderful Saturday afternoon. I'll return next week to check on their progress.

Friday, May 15, 2015

I'm Held

My eyes land on Daniel 5:23 where Daniel describes the Lord as the "God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways."

How comforting to know this: God holds my life and all my ways in His hand.

I'm settled here forever. I remember the words of Jesus in John 10:28 about His followers. He says, "I give them eternal life, and they shall not perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand."

Today I remember this, and I visualize myself within the firm grip of God's great hand. Here, my whole life--however wide and complicated, however strange and wandering--rests.

I'm held.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Ask for Hope

Sometimes I forget to ask God for hope. I can't produce hope on my own. It's supernatural. I ask, and God answers. It never originates within me. I offer weariness and despair, and God transforms these to hope. 

The prophets had to call hope to their minds. They had to replace the spirit of heaviness or despair with hope. They had to proclaim hope in hopeless places and remember when God says: "I am the Lord, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?" (Jeremiah 32:27)

Hope counters despair. Hope battles against a weary mind and wins every time. I don't fully understand it, but praying for a spirit of hope changed everything today. 

Everything and everyone looks different through the eyes of hope. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Using All Your Old CDs as Mosaic Art

I'm about to discard hundreds of old CDs, but then I decide to see what folks do with all of them. I've found "Shattered Art," for example, that makes me smile for so many reasons. Check out this list of amazing projects from your old CDs and DVDs. I would like to try the bird bath and the flower pot. I'll keep you posted!

Click here for amazing projects:

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Out of Your Mind

For those of us who overthink everything, who ruminate, who infuse everything with meaning--even toenails or pencils or acorns--and who insist on diagnosing and fully understanding our rapidly shifting internal states, I suggest getting out of the mind. 

Sort your sock drawer and do not make it an allegory about marriage. 

Weed the vegetable garden and just pull weeds; don't think about sin or anything corroding the soul.

Bake cookies. Just bake cookies.

Don't take a bath. Baths make you think. 

Scrub all the toilets. You can't think about anything else but the toilets.

Repair something that's broken--an actual, physical broken thing (Not your heart! Not your hurting heart!)

Go deliver chocolates to a neighbor. Then listen to her for however long she needs to talk. Don't interrupt. Just listen. 

Then, watch a comedy on television. Don't analyze the jokes. Just laugh.

Listen to music; dance with children; pick wild flowers. 

Find some animals to brush or walk. 

There, now. You are truly out of your mind. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

For 536 Days

We're driving down a two-lane road in West Virginia. We're tired. We're grumpy. We're ready to be home. Then a slow-poke truck pulls in front of us, slowing us down to what feels like a crawl. 

Why? Why this truck? Why now?

We notice--because we're all driving so slowly--the North Dakota license plate. North Dakota! The last plate we need to complete our license plate game that we've been playing for almost 2 years! For over 500 days we've searched. 

Good can come from what blocks our path. Indeed. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Motherhood Changes

When I became a mother, I've never forgotten what the nurse said at the first appointment with that newborn baby crying beside me. 

"Everything has changed. You won't ever be the same person again."

It was a terrible thing to say. To depressed and anxious me, it felt like confirmation that with motherhood, everything within you dies. The you you knew is gone. I felt withered and lost inside.

I did not like that nurse. I wanted me back. I was scared and strange inside. But now, 13 years into motherhood, I praise God that I did become someone new. The person I was didn't die; she was pruned and tied in place to grow into what she was supposed to be. She grew up, right along with the babies. 

I learned to eat the solid food of the gospel, to walk in dependence on God, to rest inside my soul with no sleep. They hit physical milestones, and I hit spiritual ones. 

Each new day, I grow as they grow. 

Motherhood means all the right things change inside of you. It might feel like a lostness or a withering, but don't worry, you're growing stronger. You're growing into the deep, raw joy of it. Jesus is with you, so do not fear. He might change everything about you, but you can trust the process as you change more diapers and clean up the playroom. The work is hard, but your soul is free to rejoice and learn more and more through whatever the day brings. You'll love more, laugh more, and grow in more wisdom than you can imagine. 

The work is hard, but the joy is greater.

Now go get your coffee and have the best Mother's Day ever. Remember: You're not changing diapers; the diapers are changing you.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

From Whatever Comes

I'm reading Interior Freedom again by Jacques Philippe, and I'm so encouraged by this little quote:

"Faith, hope, and charity. . .  if they are rooted in us deeply enough, they are able to draw strength from whatever opposes them!"

It brings such comfort to see every circumstance in this way. Living with flair means we extract strength from whatever comes against us. 

Friday, May 8, 2015

Always Watching the Light

It's the way the light illuminates the tips of this bloom--

It's always the light I'm watching; that's what my photographer friends have taught me all along.

You always watch the light.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

In Search of the Lady Slipper Orchids

My neighbor and I leave for the woods in search of the famed Lady Slipper Orchids. I remember the day--this same month in 2011--when I learned about interdependence in community from those legally protected orchids. Back then, I knew this:

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Why You Belong Right Here

I'm walking with my neighbor in the woods.

Lady Slippers in the Woods 

All of a sudden, she cries out, "The lady slippers have bloomed!"  She's pointing to the earth, and at first, I do not see anything.

Then, I see them.

Pink Lady Slipper Blooming

I don't even really know what I'm seeing or why it matters.   

Lady Slipper Reaches Out

My friend tells me something wondrous.  Lady slipper orchids are extraordinary.

Are You Looking at Me?  

It's illegal to uproot them.  It's actually against the law to harm these wild orchids.  I learn two amazing facts that explain why.

First, the US Forest Service reports that lady slippers depend upon a very special fungus in the forest that allows the seed to grow.  The fungus cares for the seed--passing on nutrients--until it grows older.  And when the plant matures, it then sends nutrients back to the fungus through its roots.  That symbiosis will be destroyed if we harvest the orchids.

Second, I learn that the intricate system of orchid roots means that if you take even one plant away, you harm the entire network of orchid plants. 

Lady Slipper Family 

Every single one matters.  And the location isn't an accident.

As I think about the impossibly complex design that allows these orchids to thrive, I consider my own community.  Every single person nourishes each other, and we're here for a reason.  There's nothing accidental about it. The conditions for our growth exist only here.

Doesn't God tell us that He "searches out the exact places where we live" (Acts 17) and that we are "all part of one body"? (Romans 12)

You are here for a marvelous reason.  We need you!  And even when these growing conditions seem like, well, fungus, this is what we require to thrive.  

Living with flair means really seeing ourselves as a community and knowing why it matters.  We are part of each other. 

Finally, it took another person to reveal this beauty to me.  I would have never noticed these lady slipper orchids without her.  Living with flair means that when our neighbors don't see it, we show them.  

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Another Question to Ask God

This morning I read a quote by A.W. Tozer. He writes:

“The reason why many are still troubled, still seeking, still making little forward progress is because they haven't yet come to the end of themselves. We're still trying to give orders, and interfering with God's work within us. ” 

I realize the truth of it: I know all the ways Jesus brought me to the end of myself (children, crushed dreams, failures, depression and anxiety). I know the ways He continues to bring me to the end of myself in similar categories.

Still I give orders. Still I let myself imagine how things might be.

Today I'm challenged to simply ask God a new question. I want to know how and if I'm interfering with His work within me.

How am I interfering--and thwarting--anything you want to do in my life, Lord? Show me! Help me surrender to you! 

In my list of life-changing questions to ask and answer with God, I'm adding this as #5.

1. Is knowing Jesus better than anything?
2. Is there anything in my life that doesn't please you, God?
3. Will I live the life God asks me to?
4. Am I available to be God's spokesperson?
5. How am I interfering with God's work within me? 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

To Be Happy That You're You

Today my youngest turns 10 years old. I'm so happy that she's her. 

My prayer for her is that she, too, will be happy that's she is herself. 

I want her to live a life free from comparison. I want her to rejoice in everything unique about her. I want her soul to be anchored so tightly to God that nothing unmoors her, especially the lure of other lives that other girls will live and display in pictures for her to see.

Can you imagine young girls all over the world who wake up so happy to be who God made them to be? I pray against self-criticism, self-hatred, self-doubt. I invite self-acceptance and a reveling in the lavish love of God that allows her to love herself and not doubt how wonderfully made she is.

It has taken me so many years and so many tears to wake up and like myself, to be happy that I'm me.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Not to Us

I'm reading Psalm 115 and the repetitive cry of the psalmist: "Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!"

It's a great prayer and reminder. When something wonderful happens in our lives or when fruitfulness comes, we cry out, "It wasn't us; it was our steadfastly loving and faithful God!"


Sunday, May 3, 2015

All the Yearnings

I am reading again Sheldon Vanauken's book, A Severe Mercy, a love story indeed. 

As the author discusses what it was like to consider faith in Jesus, he writes:

"I had impulses to fall on my knees and reach out to him. I suspected that all the yearnings for I knew not what that I had ever felt. . . were in truth yearnings for him."

All the yearnings. For God! 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

My Work Here is Finished: The Cupcakes in Review

Kindergarten brought with it the Green Apple Cupcakes for the birthday class treat:

First grade? She wanted Stiletto High Heel Cupcakes.

Second grade? Of course: The Hamburger Cupcakes

Third grade? Ice Cream Cones.

Fourth grade? Well, she turns 10 on Tuesday, so I blocked off the morning for the new cupcake idea for the class treat. What would she choose?

She says, "I would like chocolate chip cookies with M&M's--the kind you get from the refrigerator section that I just arrange on the pan to cook."

Done. For her party? She wants nothing but store-bought cannoli. No cake, no cupcakes. Cannoli. The kind I did not make. 

My work here is finished.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Take Caution

I'm listening to a professor who teaches on adolescence and girlhood describe what happens to identity in a culture of selfies posted on social media. She argues that once we post something--a picture of ourselves for example--we then become objects to ourselves. We're observing a distanced self, one that we create and manage for an audience.

Split apart like this, we're living a strange and mediated life--one always understood in light of an audience, one always made instead of lived.

Google reported last year that 93 million selfies are taken per day and that we check our phones, collectively, 100 billion times per day.

I wonder what's happening to us. I wonder how to guard against a crafted life, even as I write this blog that I know an audience reads every day.