Ashes and the Season of Lent: Maybe It’s Time
to let it all
to stop holding on,
that which is broken
Let it burn to ash.
Let it crumble
Is this not
the way of all things?
is a season of death.
Then, so be it.
Let it all fall apart.
Let it burn.
is the bravest thing,
the one thing necessary
to live a life of faith.
– K. Chripczuk
I’m thinking, still, about ashes and this season of Lent.
I’m thinking of the devastation of this past year – for churches, for communities, for families and individuals. I’m also thinking of the tendency to hold our individual and collective breath, to hold on tight until the storm is past, and we can return to some semblance of normal.
But the longer we wait, the clearer it becomes that normal is unlikely to return – not in the ways we knew and took for granted. The quieter we get, the clearer it becomes that normal – as we knew it – was deeply flawed.
What are we to do?
Cliff Hanger is a character in a clever sketch series from the children’s show “Between the Lions.” Every episode begins with Cliff hanging from the edge of a cliff, hands desperately wrapped around a small breaking branch. Hanging there, mere moments from falling to his death, Cliff ekes out the same phrase in every week, “Can’t…hold on . . . much …longer…!” Every episode begins with the desperate Cliff being rescued only to, in a series of events less than a minute long, end up back in the same dreadful position.
The other day, I described our current mid-pandemic position to my husband using Cliff’s strangled refrain: Can’t…hold on…much…longer….!
All of us, it feels, have been hanging here for quite some time. Our arms are tired. The top of the cliff – that once safe, familiar place – feels a little further away with each day that passes. Hanging here, we’ve had plenty of time to think about what life was really like on that high precipice, to determine whether we were really as happy as we said we were, to clarify which essentials remain essential from this vantage point.
One of the things I like about Ash Wednesday is that is welcomes, under the umbrella of God, the very worst of what can happen in the human experience. Ash Wednesday offers the opportunity to affirm the piercing truth that, eventually, we all fall. “Death will come, bringing a return to dust,” Ash Wednesday declares. Yet, even still, God is with us – even here, even now. Like the Psalmist reminds us, there is no place too high or too low, too dark or too bright or too far away that God’s great love cannot find us, catch us, even there.
This year, looking back at a year of losses, a heap of smoldering remains, I feel my own desire to hold on tighter, to salvage what I can. But, underneath my attachment, I hear Ash Wednesday whisper, “Why not let it ALL fall apart? Let it burn, completely.”
This is the season we are in – Lent – a time in which we follow the darkening trail all the way to the cross and beyond, to the very tomb itself, where hope lay down its weary head and wept. This is the journey of Lent, this invitation to follow, as we can, believing there is no darkness or death that can out-maneuver God’s capacity to create life anew.
Maybe it’s time to let it all fall apart.
Discerning the Place Your Find Yourself In
I once attended a retreat where participants were instructed to spend some time in nature and look for something that “spoke” to them. Whatever spoke to you, you were to pick up and bring back to the gathering-room to share.
Walking down a wooded path, I saw a white stone and bent to pick it up, but paused. The stone wasn’t exceptional in itself, but its surroundings – green grass, pine needles, smaller gray pebbles – made the small, white stone stand out. I knew, if I picked it up to carry inside, I’d be removing it from its “place.” I had a deep sense that the stone was exactly where it needed to be – in a place where it was both nestled-in and singled-out.
That stone helped me understand the importance of place, helped me accept that where I was was exactly where I needed to be. I suppose the message could have been different. All of us certainly find ourselves, at one time or another, in places we must leave posthaste, without looking back at all.
Knowing the difference, of course, is a question of discernment, one I’ve often sorted out in conversations with a Spiritual Director or close friend. Perhaps the best way to begin is with simple, non-judgmental, observation. Here are a few questions to get you started:
* What do you notice about the place you find yourself in (be honest)?
* How does it compare to other places you’ve been in?
* How might you know if this is a difficult, but important place for you to remain in for a season?
* What clear signs might tell you it’s time to leave?
* Still feeling stuck? Shoot me an email (Chripczuk.email@example.com) to set up a FREE consultation – maybe Spiritual Direction would be a good fit for you.
What Remains in the Wake of Loss
I recently listened as a colleague ticked off a long list of losses. Each loss felt, to me, like an autumn leaf, brown and shriveled, dropping from a tree, from his lips, one by one. I could see the leaves falling, piling at his feet. I could feel loss upon loss gathered there, at the feet of the three of us, gathered virtually to listen.
In his poem, Fighting the Instrument, Mark Nepo speaks of the opening that often follows in the wake of loss. He is careful, however, to avoid minimizing the pain of loss. Two-thirds of the way through the poem, he makes it clear: choosing to value the openings created over the desire to fight or bemoan the often cruel agents of change, is never an easy choice.
“This is very difficult to accept,” the poem says. The line is so brief and clear, it would be easy to overlook. But, I have stayed in that place of difficulty that precedes acceptance for weeks, months, and occasionally years at a time. Sometimes I think that staying, that willingness to breathe through each painful loss, is what leads to acceptance, is what creates the opening and the courage needed to live into it.
My colleague listed his losses and they fell like leaves gathered into a growing pile. We listened and affirmed the losses. But, even still, as the leaves were falling, I remembered the way barren branches reveal so much more of a winter-blue sky. I glimpsed, for a moment, the opening being made, and it gave me hope that there would be revealed, again, a “jewel in the center of the stone.”
This post is a reflection on Mark Nepo’s poem, “Fighting the Instrument.” Visit Spirituality and Health to read the poem and the poet’s own reflections on it.
Gratitude and Our Most Painful Losses
Occasionally, it’s possible to catch a glimpse of gratitude bubbling up on the periphery of life’s most painful experiences. This gratitude is bashful, hovering just to the side of things, small and round, like a spot of light, refracted. This gratitude invites a turning in those who want to truly embrace it.
This is not gratitude for the loss itself, but for the path it opened, for the spacious place in which you find yourself now – days or weeks or months later. It is a sliver of light, a glimmer in deep darkness. Such gratitude is best captured by peripheral vision – look too closely at it, slide it under the microscope of quantity, quality or necessary identification, and it dissolves like fog in the morning sun. But, abide with it, welcome it in passing; extend your hand, your heart, to it, as one might do with a skittish cat and maybe, perhaps, one day, when you least expect it, it will walk right over and curl up to sleep in your lap.
This post is a reflection on Mark Nepo’s poem, “Fighting the Instrument.” Visit Spirituality and Health to read the poem and the poet’s own reflections on it.
Turn verb: to (cause to) change the direction in which you are facing or moving.
It’s the end of a long day at the end of a longer week and I’m finally beginning unwind as I sit on the loveseat preparing to read to my youngest boys. One boy sits on the radiator behind the couch with his back pressed against the window, his legs are stretched out on either side of my shoulders.
His mouth is packed with gum and he alternates between seriousness and giggles as he attempts to blow a gigantic bubble. He focuses, pursing his lips, then collapses in laughter as I stare at him with bright eyes and a wide smile. Several small bubbles expand, then pop across his face. The biggest ones cover his nose and mouth with a thin, pink mask. After several bubbles and fits of laughter, I turn back to the book we planned to read.
But, every time I start to read, he leans forward, grabs my head in his hands and turns me to face him. The bubbles, the giggling, the sticky masks continue on extended repeat. As he turns my face again and again, I’m transported to another time and place.
This boy, now nine, is the same one I carried at age three – chest to chest, with his legs wrapped around my back. He always had so much to say, his eager face inches from my own, as a torrent of observations and ideas poured out. While he talked, I would sometimes dare look away – look past him, around him, at the dishes waiting in the sink or dinner simmering on the stove. Noticing my distraction, he would shift his face, leaning his whole body to re-center himself in my gaze. If my inattention persisted, he placed his small, chubby hands, one on each of my cheeks, and forcibly turned my face toward his own. It was a dance, my distraction set in time to his focus and persistence.
Sitting on the loveseat I see again how his hands turning me, his willingness to repeat the motion, to re-center me, is a grace. Maybe this is how all things are turned– by gentle, but persistent hands of love.
Let Me Know (On Letting Go and Taking Flight)
that bind you
to the edge
of that prison
if your heart
of another land,
let me know.
at the edge
in a wilderness
I also know
what they will never know:
the rush of wind
on your face, the feeling
of taking flight; the courage
it takes, the love.
– K. Chripczuk
As a new year approaches, I’m pondering the things I have left behind this year and wondering what more might need to go. Letting go is never easy, but it’s worth the work it takes. Perhaps, you are facing a difficult letting go. Let me know, I’d be happy to “stand at the edge with you.” I can’t wait to see your life take flight.
A Circle of Waiting: Mary, Elizabeth, & the Elephants
The Visitation, by Jacopo Pontormo is one of the paintings I most often display in my Spiritual Direction office during the season of advent. Pontormo depicts the moment of Mary and Elizabeth’s meeting, as described in Luke 1:39-56. In it, the two women, each carrying a seed of a promise within them, stand belly to belly. Their arms create a circle of waiting, a space in which hope’s fragile seed might be held and protected, nurtured into being.
Catholic writer, Henri Nouwen, explains, “Elizabeth and Mary came together and enabled each other to wait. . . . These two women created space for each other to wait. They affirmed for each other that something was happening that was worth waiting for.”
Recently, a dear friend sent me a small, cloth elephant ornament in the mail. We have both been through a LOT this year and, despite our own intense struggles, we’ve worked quite deliberately to support each other. Attached to the elephant was a note explaining that female elephants support each other in times of stress. Intrigued, a quick look online revealed a beautiful picture – when an elephant goes into labor (a time of great vulnerability and stress) the other elephants in the herd back themselves into a circle formation around her. Then, when the baby is born, they trumpet in celebration.
The elephants, like Mary and Elizabeth, form a circle of waiting.
Nouwen goes on to say, about Mary and Elizabeth’s circle of waiting,
“I think that is the model of the Christian community. It is a community of support, celebration, and affirmation in which we can lift up what has already begun in us. [This visit is an expression] of what it means to form community, to be together, gathered around a promise, affirming that something is really happening.”
Circles of waiting require intimacy, trust, and safety. Too often, for many of us, these things have been absent from our church experiences. What we have received, instead, is a conditonal welcome, an attitude that says something more like “we’ll wait and see how you turn out before we support you” instead of, “we believe God has begun a good work in you and we can’t wait to see how it all turns out.” Churches fail to be circles of waiting when product (appearances, image, income) take priority over process, when control replaces trust.
Thankfully, though, many of us, including Nouwen himself, find and form circles of trust outside of traditional church structures. For me, this has been one of the great gifts of spiritual direction – the opportunity to be encircled in my own waiting and to offer to circle with others as they wait upon God’s often surprising and mysterious activity.
I hope you find such spaces. I hope, if you are able, you offer such spaces to others.
Where have you found circles of waiting and with whom? Perhaps now is the time to let that person or people know how much their presence means in your life.
If you are need of community in your waiting, who might you reach out to? Perhaps now is the time to begin a spiritual direction or counseling relationship as God begins something new in you.
Who do you know who needs support in their time of waiting? Who’s circle might YOU complete?
* Quotes are from “Waiting for God,” by Henri Nouwen in the collection, Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas.
Advent Videos Pt 2: Christmas Day in the Morning, by Pearl S. Buck
This advent, I’m sharing a few brief video reflections on my facebook page: Kelly Chripczuk, Writer, Speaker, Spiritual Director. You can find the first two videos in this series by going to my fb page and clicking on the “videos” tab. Or, simply click on the link below to be taken to a reading of Pearl S. Buck’s classic Christmas tale, “Christmas Day in the Morning.”
A young farm boy has a sudden realization of his father’s real, but unspoken, love and searches his heart to find an adequate response to this unexpected love. My reading includes a few brief reflection questions and, at 12 minutes, might be perfect content for your personal or family advent time.
Watch now: Advent Video Series: Christmas Day in the Morning.
Tell Me Again (Of Shadows and Faith)
One night, when he was three, Levi asked as I was putting him to bed, “Where does the shadows go?” The question tickled my imagination and, in the morning, my answer had settled into a poem.
Faith is . . . the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)
“Tell me again, Mommy, where does the shadows go?”
By morning’s light, my love, as dawn creeps
over the mountain, I roll them up tight, every shape
that echos an object. Soft like velvet, slipping smoothly
through my hands, I gather night’s shadows,
tucking them into the far corners of your closet
and behind the attic door. All day long they wait,
deepening, exuding the smell of the rich,
dark earth, of damp caves and mushroom spores.
When evening descends and you’re busy with dessert,
I roam the house, stretching shadows out again,
smoothing them flat across ceiling or floor,
these soft shapes of remembrance, the dark reminders
that what you cannot see does not cease to exist
when the lights go out. Shadows lengthen, like faith,
as darkness descends, reminders of things unseen,
until morning’s light reveals what was always present.
Looking for a simple, sweet Christmas gift for a reader or pastor you love? Check out my poetry collection, Between Heaven and Earth, available on amazon (signed copies available locally for delivery as well).
Not sure? Read what poet and reviewer Laura Brown had to say:
The poems in her new book, …are made of common work; building fires in the stove every cold morning; caring for children with nosebleeds and other late-night needs; stripping death from last year’s flowerbeds. They are made of memories of a grandmother who took her to church, fed the chickadees and kept a shotgun by the door to discourage the bluejays. They are made of joy and sadness, grief and hope, and thinking in the dark. Mostly, they’re made of watching, waiting, and. listening.
Far Too Dangerous: The U.S. Elections, Violence, and Love
Half Dome, U.S. Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash
of a great need
we are all holding hands
Not loving is a letting go.
the terrain around here
Here in the US, pre-election, I hear the words “civil war” being tossed about – as though violence is a real possibility, a real option, in the wake of whatever happens in the next 48 hours or weeks or months. I wonder if we really hear ourselves when we toss those words about? I hear the fear in our voices, that much is clear, but I wonder: do we hear the pain, the loss in those words; the devastation? I can’t imagine we do if we’re tossing them about so freely.
Then again, maybe those words describe a reality that’s already present – a nation divided, at war with its self, ready to cut off its nose to spite its face. I hear the arguments too, on many sides, that sometimes violence is necessary. I hear you.
But, I am an anabaptist. I am dedicated to the way of Christ which I understand to be a way of deep, costly love. Love for enemy, because violence toward another is also, in the end, violence toward my own deepest self.
Do you remember, way back in the beginning of the pandemic, how clear it was that we are all connected – my wellbeing tied up in yours and yours mine? “We are all holding hands,” as the poet says. “Not loving is a letting go.”
Everywhere around us, the voices of fear are chanting, loud enough to shake the very ground upon which we stand. Yet, the voice of love is here too. Can you hear it? Beneath the tumult, love’s voice hums, quiet as the gentle whisper Elijah heard after the wind, earthquake, and fire had passed.
Get out and vote. Work at the polls. Offer a ride to anyone who needs it. I’m not saying this election doesn’t matter – I believe it matters very much. I feel, some days, that America is perched on the very edge of a deep well of darkness – not a new darkness, but shadows we have dabbled in and out of since the founding of our country. The terrain is, indeed, dangerous.
We cannot afford to abandon love.
Smile with your eyes, if you can, at the poll workers, the store clerk, your children. Make eye contact long enough to remember that the person across from you – politically, socially, ethnically – is human too. Listen for the whispers of love. Listen harder when fear is loud. Let your actions give voice to love. The terrain around here is far too dangerous for anything less.
An Icon of the Wilderness: St. Kateri of the Iroquois
Photo by Collie Coburn on Unsplash
Our dog, Coco, is curled on a chair in the corner of my office, heaving deep, sleepy sighs, in-and-out. It’s a damp, gray day and napping long hours sounds like a wonderful plan. I am on my third glass of water, first cup of tea. I am not napping, but rather tending to email, scheduling zoom meetings, and reading about the wilderness motif as it appears in the Hebrew bible.
Google dictionary tells me the wilderness is an “uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region.” An examination of the wilderness as imaged in the Hebrew Bible reveals it is a place of “intense experiences;” particularly, hunger, thirst, isolation, and danger. It’s also a place of divine encounter.
Looking out my home office window, I wonder at the wildness of this place, this space I find myself in.
Is this small land, just two acres, wild enough for an encounter with God, or nature, or both? Is this way of life, this season, off the beaten path, its own wilderness?
They say our bit of land, indeed much of the United States, is in drought this year. In the kitchen in the morning, after the kids have left for school, I tell my husband of the drought in my life, the lack of refreshment and nurture, the isolation.
Later, settled in my office, after reading and prayer, I google for a once-discovered, then forgotten icon of St. Kateri of the Iroquois, and image I associate with the invitation to dwell in wilderness spaces for awhile. I spent just 15-20 minutes with this icon in one of my two years of spiritual direction training and she has hung around in the background of my mind ever since. Kateri, born in the forests of New York state, was the daughter of a captive Algonquin woman and Iroquois chief. Converted to Christianity by Jesuit missionaries, she walked 200 miles to join a Christian Indian village near Montreal. One website concludes, “She was a sign of contradiction to two cultures and a prophetic presence in both. She is an icon of Otherness.”
Although the details of Kateri’s life and the traditions that surround it are complicated, the woman in Br. Robert Lentz’s icon captivates me. She stands at the edge of a birchwood forest, with the trees receding behind her. I sense her invitation to the wilderness places of contradiction and betweenness; I sense her strength and prophetic presence.
Later, I pray again for the strength to stay awhile in my own wilderness space; to commit to the wandering and waiting, as the Israelites did; and to trust the call to this journey, knowing I am not alone.
This Cat’s Purr
Cats purr … with a consistent pattern and frequency between 25 and 150 Hertz. Various investigators have shown that sound frequencies in this range can improve bone density and promote healing. . . in bones and muscles. – Scientific America, “Why do cats purr?” April 2006
After a good cry,
I pick up the cat,
across my office floor,
limp and heavy
with sleep. I curl
his body against my heart,
where he settles and purrs
himself back into unconsciousness.
Did five-year-old me
when she begged to own
that even this need
would be met?
No, of course not.
This cat’s purr,
is pure grace – a combination
of creation’s wisdom and a little
girl’s intuition, to hold what is
soft and healing to her
gentle, loving heart.
Me, age 5, holding two of my very first kittens.
A World in Transition
“Monarch chrysalis on butterflyweed” by Martin LaBar is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
We walk daily circles around the yard, stretching our legs amidst long hours spent working on screens. Frost arrived this weekend, impossibly early, and now, as we walk and watch, we witness the world – birthed in spring and matured in summer – receding, one plant, one insect, at a time.
Frost has blackened leaves on the pepper plants in our garden, indiscriminately shriveling some while others remain unmarred. This morning, after three nights in the 30s, most of the Zinnias bear damage – some petals bleached white, others prematurely shriveled and brown.
It’s strange, how the touch of frost’s icy fingers produces an effect so similar to fire, both burn at the touch. Too hot or too cold, the impact is the same – the shriveling, blackening, pulling back from life.
The new purple Aster, a fall bloomer and late food source for honeybees preparing for winter, has yet to form buds. But our mums are crowned with hundreds of tight-fisted possibilities, green buds with just a hint of color foretelling the shade of flowers to come – rusty gold or brick red.
Every day, I check the progress of a monarch cocoon that dangles precariously on the underside of a giant milkweed leaf. The cocoon is still largely green, and I wonder at the frost’s impact on the caterpillar’s delicate transformation. Will new life emerge in time to wing its way south to Mexico or will it be forever suspended, stunted, neither able to return to what it was or emerge into what it will be?
Our kids are happy to be back at school, walking off to classrooms and tethered to laptop screens. My husband continues to work, steadily, at his make-shift desk in the unheated mudroom. I alone, have no place to be. I have no work to return to and what I will be, what I will do beyond the daily, has yet to emerge.
I feel in myself the anxiety of being suspended between what was and what will be. Perhaps, this is why I visit the monarch each day – hoping for its transformation to be complete, hoping it emerges in time to head off to a balmy winter retreat. The chrysalis invites me to a stark surrender, a willingness to let go and wait to see what emerges.
Today, I scooted around behind the giant stalk of half-eaten milkweed, hoping to catch a blog-worthy picture of the cocoon. Crouched behind the plant, I saw the prominent gold specks dotted around the top of the cocoon, like a crown. There is beauty in the process.
How does she
How do gifts
gifts she is
is the model,
will be wasted,
in the effort
in the room?
I see you
I call you
by your name:
that is yours
You are the mirror.
You are the model.
only a sliver
of the divine.
* for all of the female pastors I know, still struggling to gain access to the rooms of power, still sitting through professional conversations in which the validity of their ministry is questioned, still wondering if it’s ok to be who you are. I see you, we need you.
Difficult Women: St. Joan of Arc, Zinnias, and Me
Art by Rachel Grant in the 2020 Women Who Rocked Our World calendar.
Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing, and so they give their lives to little or nothing. One life is all we have, and we live it as we believe in living it . . . and the it’s gone. But to surrender who you are and to live without belief is more terrible than dying – even more terrible than dying young. – St. Joan of Arc
I’ve been sharing office space with Joan of Arc for the past month as she stares out at me from the August page of my Women Who Rocked Our World calendar. The artist’s image, paired with a quote, conveys an air of certainty and defiance, a sense of strength rooted in something beyond the realities of the world in which she lived.
A brief bio at the bottom of the page reads, “In a time when only men had power or choice, Joan of Arc commanded both. ‘I’ve arranged your marriage,’ her father said. Joan refused, changed into pants, cut her hair, and called herself Joan the Maid. She proclaimed her God-given destiny was to free France from the English invasion.” Joan led the army that restored France’s king in the early 1400s, only to be captured and executed two years later by a church heavily influenced by her former military enemies.
I never had any real interest in Joan of Arc until I wrote a paper on her for a seminary class on Medieval Female Mystics. It was one of the few papers that pushed me beyond the bounds of the seminary library and sent me across the street, hunting through the dark stacks of Princeton University’s library. I read everything I could find and wrote an extensive paper based on the idea that Joan of Arc represented an early proponent of Liberation Theology. It was a stretch perhaps, a bit of a convoluted hypothesis, that produced the only B grade of my whole seminary career. All of that to say, Joan and I go back awhile, but I’m no expert on her story.
Reading the quote from my calendar, I realize the artist and author are doing something similar to what I did, coopting Joan’s story for a cause (feminism) that came much later than her brief and complicated life. In doing so, they raise an important point – Joan of Arc broke out of the expected feminine constraints of her day. But they do so at the risk of confusing Joan’s motivation – Joan of Arc was called by God to deliver the French people living under an oppressive English occupation. This is the reason for her certainty, the reason for her throwing off expected social constraints.
I’ve been thinking lately about “difficult women.” Women are branded as “difficult” in our culture for any number of reasons – for speaking clearly, for refusing to bend to abuses of power, for advocating for change that is inconvenient to the status quo. The label “difficult” is meant to be pejorative. But I’ve been wondering lately whether the label, “difficult” might be more of an honor than a disgrace.
Joan of Arc, with her level-headed stare, and unwavering belief strikes me as a “difficult woman.” Her clarity, calling, and conviction are rooted in the voices of saints that she alone can hear. She has no proof other than her life, which she gives wholeheartedly and without restraint.
Which brings me to the Zinnias . . .
There are zinnias the size of salad plates in my garden this year – fat magenta petals flung wide atop of thick, green stalks. The stems are hearty and bristle with course hairs and the biggest flowers stand tall, with perfect posture, declaring themselves to the world.
I’ve been sharing heart space with those Zinnias this month, just as I share office space with Joan. I feel drawn to the garden to visit them. I feel loath to cut them for a bouquet or bring them inside. Those Zinnias stare me in the eye, as Joan does, in turns challenging and inspiring me with their clarity and certainty. My heart hears those zinnias proclaim, “My path ahead is clear . . . I was born for this.”
Those zinnias, like Joan of Arc, stand tall and confident because roots that dig down deep, drawing strength from unseen places, pushing past constraints, and living as they were made to, for as long as grace is given for them to do so.
I’m sharing space this August with Joan of Arc and those giant Zinnias. I’m listening to the invitation to grow deep roots, to live with clarity and conviction, to shine bright and uncompromising, like a woman in military garb, a zinnia in fuchsia standing with its face turned toward the sky. I’m letting the label, “difficult,” fall where it may, and living as I believe, whatever the cost may be.
What’s A Pastor to Do?
But what’s a pastor to do when [she’s] got no people to pastor?*
I slipped an extra egg
under the broody hen
and marked the eggs
already gathered there
with a permanent marker’s
The hen settled down,
welcoming new eggs and old.
She puffed wide, her feather-bare
chest, radiating one hundred
and one degrees.
I picked five cucumbers
and weeded around the late-started
zinnias. I asked after zucchini
and green beans, peering between
large green leaves, but the answer was,
I hung wet clothes on the line,
washed and dried over thirty-five
t-shirts. I went to the store for milk.
I cooked a chicken and helped
my son bake a two-layer chocolate
This is what I did
when I had no people to
*This question, posed by a pastor in Winn Collier’s novel, “Love Big, Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church,” got caught in my soul and sits there still. It’s a good question, because asking (and answering it) well raises all sorts of other questions. Sometimes a good question can shed more light than even the best of answers.
Curiosity and Wonder Might Just Save Us All
“They’re acting like a$$es.”
This is what I told my husband in a quick, condemning whisper during the few seconds our four kids were more than an arm’s length away from us on the hiking trail. I’m not proud of my words, it’s not language I use often, especially in reference to my kids. But I want you to know just how bad it was.
Our long-awaited vacation had arrived, and I was ready for us to be happy, grateful and relaxed. I had bought into the cultural myth of the “happy family vacation” – the ones you see in pictures, where siblings with smiling faces stand with their arms carelessly cast around each other’s shoulders in front of a serenely setting sun. I’d forgotten how new spaces – even welcome, joyfully anticipated ones – unsettle carefully orchestrated family dynamics. I’d forgotten how anticipation often equals heightened expectations. I’d forgotten how hard family vacations can be.
And so, we found ourselves rumbling down a hiking trail like a gang of hangry bears. Kids fought, picked, and climbed on top of each other. They complained about the hike, the heat, their siblings. The words, “stop hanging on me,” “stop fighting,” “keep walking,” shot from my mouth on an endless loop. I believe, at one point, I announced, “If you don’t stop fighting, we’re going to walk the rest of the way single-file, in silence.”
That is, nothing worked until we jostled around a bend in the trail and noticed a doe standing in a clearing at the forest’s edge. “Look, a deer,” someone announced.
We turned and acknowledged the sight. Our walking and talking slowed. Someone noticed the flicker of a white tail just inside the forest’s shade. “There’s another deer in the woods. Look. See it?” One, by one, we paused and pointed, waiting for the flash of a white flag in the shaded forest’s deep green.
“Maybe it’s a fawn,” someone suggested.
Then, my husband added, “I bet, if we kneel down, it might come out.”
The six of us fell to our knees without argument or question. We knelt, facing the open field, crouched within arm’s reach of each other. Silence descended, save for a few whispered questions and observations. After a few minutes, the second deer tip-toed silently from the woods and we saw they were about the same size – likely a set of twins on their way to the lake for an evening drink.
There was no arguing, no complaining, no pushing or shoving. The agitation of the heat, the bugs, the siblings vanished.
“Maybe, if we’re quiet, they’ll come closer,” someone suggested.
We waited and watched the deer who waited and watched us. We spoke in whispers and the deer carried on their own conversation with flickering tails and cautious movements forward and back.
Those deer did what I could not do. Stirring up holy curiosity and wonder, they pulled us together and brought us to our knees. Divisions eradicated, we found ourselves stunned into a unity of awe.
And so I pray for moments of curiosity and wonder to descend on our deeply divided world. That we would stop our fruitless chiding and bickering and fall to our knees. That we would learn to whisper questions and work in unison that the hope of the holy drawing near would be our unifying desire.
Nothing else seems to be working.
Beauty Blooms in Framed Spaces
It is only in framed space that beauty blooms. – Anne Lindbergh
The haiku settles for doing, as I read it anyway, one very simple but crucial thing – it tries to put a frame around the moment. It simply frames a moment. Of course, as soon as you put a frame around anything, you set it off, you make it visible, you make it real. – Frederick Buechner
A rose bush dances
in the middle window
of my office’s far wall.
Beyond the bush, our back
door stands wide open.
My daughter is sitting
on the back step.
Blond and fresh,
she is bent forward
in her hands.
Her limbs are long,
her hair is long,
and the sun spotlights
her in the door’s dark frame.
She is engrossed
in the movements
of an insect making
its way between her two hands –
climbing a finger, then falling
back to her palm.
In a flash of motion, she looks up,
thrusts her hand forward
and the insect flies away –
a black blur across the wide
Then, she too flies,
off the stoop and out
of the frame and I
am left here, writing
the picture of beauty
I saw through the middle
window of my office’s far wall.
This poem is shared with dVerse poet’s pub.
All the Colors We Need: Expanding Your Palette
“If you can segregate yourself enough, that you don’t get to experience all the different cultures, and people, and beauty… then really, you’re not just missing out on that personally, you’re missing out . . . on a piece of the image of God. Seriously. You’re not letting yourself see and experience the fullness of God if you continue to be ok with your world staying white.” – Lisa Mays
Violet, Saffron Yellow, Paprika, Black – these are just a few of the colors I bartered from a friend a few summers back. She’d purchased the acrylics for a painting class, but never used them. They weren’t the colors I’d pick, but they were free and, just like that, I found myself in possession of an expanded palette.
Those colors sat in my paint box for a long time as I leaned toward my favorite shades of turquoise, magenta, chartreuse, and mango. My friend’s colors were darker than mine, richer, and bold. I shied away. In truth, I found it hard to believe that, faced with a wall of paints, someone would choose those colors. I certainly wouldn’t. I believed her colors were wrong and mine were right.
Until I didn’t. And I began to incorporate her palette into mine.
I bought 4 or 5 new tank tops this summer, mostly in neutral colors, save for one in my favorite shade of turquoise blue. I saved that top like a treasure for a day when I knew I wouldn’t ruin it digging dirt in the yard or cooking. Finally, one morning, with plans to meet a friend, I pulled it on: my new, turquoise top. It wasn’t until I reached out to grab my favorite earrings, in a matching shade of blue, that I thought of my former co-worker, the one who called those same earrings green.
I paused, looked down at my shirt and thought to myself, Lisa would call this shirt green. I took a quick picture with my phone and texted it to her: “I was all excited to wear my new blue shirt today, but when I put it on, I realized you would call it green!”
She replied a few minutes later, matter-of-factly, “Yeah, it’s green.”
I don’t remember when it started, but at some point, after several conversations in the office where we worked together, Lisa and I realized we saw and labeled colors differently. The most shocking (to me) was my favorite blue that she saw as green. I was so fascinated that we could look at the same object and label it differently that I developed the habit of running into her office at least once a week with a color related question. “What color do you call this?” I’d ask, holding up a notebook cover or pointing to an image on one of her most recent pieces of graphic design, eagerly awaiting her reply.
Lisa told me how a paint store owner named a color of paint after her special request for a room the shade of her “teddy bear’s feet.” She helped me see that pink (a color I adore) is in the same color family as red (a color I barely tolerate). She helped me see that greens can lean toward blues and visa-versa and that the line between the two might not be as clear as I thought it was.
Lisa and I, different ages, different races, bonded over the differences in the way we saw colors. She helped me see there was more than one way to look at things and that things, even as fundamental as colors, might change depending on your perspective.
How lucky I am to have friends who see the world differently than I do. Some help me embrace the darker, bolder hues. Others help me understand that the way I see things is only one way among many. I’m wondering – what colors are missing from your life? Who might help you find them?
Maybe my friend, Lisa, can help you too? Check out this video presentation Lisa gave last Sunday, talking about her experience of the world as a black person in the 1960s and 70s. She has such amazing perspective and insight and communicates in such a gentle, thoughtful way.
Free-Range Summer Days
Isaiah (age 8) has taken up baking. He bakes like a happy drunk, tripping around the kitchen, leaving a trail of small disasters in his wake. He dives into each recipe like a boulder dropped into a pond, no caution, all energy. We may or may not have all the ingredients, he may or may not add them in the correct order. He scoops two cups of flour into the one cup measuring cup and scrapes the excess off with a casual flick of his wrist. Flour coats the counter, the floor, his clothes.
Often, all of this happens before I’ve stumbled downstairs for my first cup of coffee.
The other week while I was out (napping possibly or at the store), I returned to discover all three boys had established vegetable gardens IN-THEIR-ROOMS. They scrounged containers from the recycling bin and planted seeds in soil they found God-only-knows-where. Solomon offered me a pride-filled garden-tour and the twins boasted the convenience of midnight snacks being so close at hand. They love their gardens and water them daily, but I’m having a hard time getting past the act of hauling dirt INTO their rooms.
Speaking of dirt, we’re in the middle of installing an above-ground pool and, in the process, we’ve moved a bunch of soil from one place to the next. It turns out a dirt pile in the yard is even better than in your room and may just be the hottest toy of summer 2020. I’m only hoping they get as much use out of the pool.
The other day Isaiah was sitting on the edge of a once-buried cement goldfish pond, a treasure left by the previous owners. We’d planned to dig it up to make room for the pool, but it was built like a cold war bunker, all concrete and rebar, and after going through two jackhammers, we admitted defeat and moved the pool a bit further down the hill.
Isaiah, though, sat on the small concrete wall one morning, cutting at a piece of metal with a hacksaw. I guess I should have interrupted that activity, but he was so happy and it was his father who suggested the hacksaw after all. A friend was due soon for a playdate so I called form the back door, “Maybe you should put the hacksaw away. Your friend will be here soon.”
“Why,” he asked, looking up from his labor.
I paused a beat, then replied, “Well, some parents don’t let their kids play with hacksaws.”
It was later in the kitchen that my daughter repeated the line back to me, laughing and I heard the absurdity. I posted about it then, online and people loved it like they love most of my free-range children’s outrageous activities. Some friends comment, “Your kids are having the best childhood.” By which, I guess they mean my kids have lots of room to play and explore and test their wills against the wild, wild world.
I always laugh internally, though, when others (usually mothers) make comments along the lines of, “I admire how much freedom you give your children to create.”
Hah, I think to myself, You’re assuming I have a say in the matter.
Prayer can easily become an afterthought, a hasty sentence, a laundry list of all the things we want. But what if prayer is a time to find out what God wants for us–and for our world? What does it mean to pray that the kingdom would come here and now as it is in heaven? Explore these questions in this study, and learn prayer practices that nurture intimacy with God and sensitivity to God’s dream for the world.
Follow this writer, spiritual director, and mother of four as she dives into the deep end of chicken farming and wrestles with the risks and rewards of living a life she loves. At turns hilarious, thoughtful, and always compassionate, Chicken Scratch will change the way you see the mess and chaos involved in living life to its fullest.