Many Thanks

It’s felt a bit like Christmas, gift after gift, and joy to match.  Two friends who faced cancer were healed.  My foster niece will soon legally be my niece after years of waiting and uncertainty.  Two of our children won a school supply raffle.  Family stepped in to help with tutoring fees for another of our kids.  A friend blessed me with a large bag of fabric to use.  Another anonymously sent me a box of fabric as well (thank you, whoever you are!  So sweet!  You blessed my heart!).  Another friend enabled me to attend an amusement park with my toddlers, while yet another had my kids over for the day.  My son got to spend a weekend at a lovely lake house enjoying boat rides and all sorts of fun.  My husband plugged away at our cottage we’re fixing up in the backyard which will be my soap studio and a sometimes airbnb to help with school fees.  My mother-in-law helped me with running kids about, and took them on special outings one-on-one.  A cousin’s wife gave me black raspberries and eggs from her chickens.

There are always hard things happening; our prayer list is ever-full and growing, but too there is joy and peace and encouragement in the midst of sorrows and trials.  20664553_661313794073816_3145693829644866278_n

It’s All Unexpected

Maybe not everyone is so regularly startled as I am.

I came home from a ten day trip to find that my gardens had exploded with new blooms, clutches of green tomatoes, and dozens upon dozens of cymes of elderberries.  The grapes decided to indulge in a bit of conquest, leaping over the roses and aiming for the sidewalk. It reminded me of the children’s book character Mr. Tickle, who had extremely long arms and used them most mischievously, giggling at day’s end about his tickling pranks.  The sunflowers had thrown their orange petals back in glee and were waiting, swaying and smiling broadly.  I could almost hear them laugh; laugh at their own audacity and pomp.  A flower with a stem the size of a small tree!  The very notion!  In my mind they are the giraffes of the flower world; a small proof of God’s sense of humor.  I digress.

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So that was just walking in the main path.  Then I was assaulted by the sheer number of things, useful and good, that proliferated in my home.  Sturdy pots, a deep sink, machines to wash and dry, toilets to perform humble but ever-useful duties.  The prayer corner, a place that becomes more beautiful with time; this too is an astonishing sight after many days away from it.  There is where home feels most poignant.

It’s all unexpected and I looked about and in my heart the impression was, “Oh, so you’re all here still, I suppose!?  AH, you are so much!  How has this all come to pass?”

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My dear bird was wary.  For a number of minutes he stared back at me as I called to him in our familiar language of clicks and purrs and words.  Then his guard dropped and he pressed his warm little body close to the bars of his cage and purr-trilled back.  It was all unexpected for him, that he’d come home again and be with us all again.  He had no idea of return, of this remembered life being his again.  What joy!  I opened his door and he snuggled under my chin, rubbing his head back and forth.  “Pretty bird!”, he said.

There has been some healing in my soul though I was not aware of any particular treatment prescribed nor followed.  I used to expect too much, want too much; to my shame I truly did have an ugly expectation troll, grumping about in my heart, hollering about what I deserved and stomping around, ruining moments I should have been grateful for, should have enjoyed more.  Somehow he was evicted, and joy moved in, and gratitude. All is in reverse now; it’s a joyful pessimism of sorts…I expect life to be quite hard; I do not expect easy times and smooth ways, and yet, I am almost ridiculously happy with each and every good I encounter.  I do not lay claim to blessings, and yet I find them dumped over my head.

God is kind.  I don’t endeavor enough, I do not struggle enough, I am ordinary.  I did not merit any of this, but God gifts as He sees fit.  It’s all unexpected._MG_5001

 

Perhaps You Got Something Else

It is in this quiet, on this gray morning with gentle rain, that I open the door which is straining on its hinges and release some words, if for nothing else, to relieve the pressure of them within my mind.

“What is the matter?”, he asked, concerned, because I had withdrawn from conversation and was studying the design in the carpet.

“I’m sorry…I’m writing in my head.”

He understands without understanding, the way good spouses do.

My parents have been here from Montana, and I have been a sponge soaking up their presence, their words, their nearness.  When my rarely-verbose father begins to tell a story, we all gather near; we know it will be good.  And my mother, what a hoot.  We had gone to a friend’s reclaimed wood business to pick out slabs for some tables my father is going to make and she and I rode on the tailgate of the truck down from the warehouse to the storefront, holding on to the boards atop the pickup topper as Dad managed to find every low-hanging branch for us to duck and/or get our face washed by.  We roared with laughter, getting smacked with greenery.  Seeing her joy, silliness, and love of adventure is always, and ever, a gift.  Her and Dad are good people; they’re a matched pair,it’s hard to imagine one without the other to reference them by, to echo their characters back to.

Life is different on the east coast; many times I am out of step with cultural norms or ways of reckoning.  Many times my lack of university education shows and I feel shame, almost as though I wear a scarlet letter “U”, for “uneducated”.  I am always around my betters, and I know it.  Being around my parents reminds me, however, of the goodness from which I spring; of the generosity of spirit, the adventurousness, the good humor, and hard work ethic.

Once, in a self-pitying frame of mind, I was comparing my background with that of an English novelist friend.  Where he had been brought up in London, taken from the age of four onward to the Tate and the National Gallery, sent traveling on the Continent in every school holiday, taught French and German and Italian, given access to bookstores, libraries, and British Museums, made familiar from infancy on with the conversations of the eloquent and the great, I had grown up in this dung-heeled sagebrush town on the disappearing edge of nowhere, utterly without painting, without sculpture, without architecture, almost without music or theater, without conversation or languages or bookstores, almost without books.  I was charged with getting in a single lifetime, from scratch, what some people inherit as naturally as they breathe air….

How, I asked this Englishman, could anyone so deprived a background ever catch up?  How was one expected to compete, as a cultivated man, with people like himself?  He looked at me and said dryly, “Perhaps you got something else in place of all that.”

Wolf Willow, Wallace Stegner

 

I watched as my three older children charged upstream through the swift current.  They had found a fishing lure and attached line and were hunting a good stick to tie it to.  They spent the next hour fishing in the clear stream with their hodgepodge pole.  Their Grandpa told us how to best remove a hook if they got snagged, and that launched him into a related story.  I watched the smoke go up from the campfire and let his rich voice paint a scene in my mind, and I was glad for what I got, “in place of all that.”

 

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The Older I Get

It’s pie dough between my fingers and I’m tucking it under, slowly working my way around the dish.  I find it beautiful; the way the fat and the flour and the water do a half-dance and leave a lot undone; swirls and whirls of color which become airy pockets, flaky crust.

It’s his laugh as I push him in the infant swing under bronze fall skies; an identical giggle each time I catch his eye on the forward swoop.  He doesn’t tire of it; he can’t get to the bottom of the novelty, and neither can I.  The older I get, neither can I.

How many times have the November-defiant roses stopped me in my tracks with their unseasonable magenta pink?  They keep raising their audacious faces to the sun, to the short-lived fall sun, and they say, “Who cares?  I’ll bloom yet.”

_MG_4741 And the older I get I agree with the roses.  Who cares?  I’ll bloom yet.  I’ll enjoy, I’ll see, I’ll live, who cares if the mums have come and gone and the grapevines are shriveled and dry?  There’s still sun, see?

And there’s still swirls of fat in the pie dough and YouTube compilations of cats being afraid of zucchinis and children, oh dear children, saying all sorts of things, and you’ve just got to tilt your audacious head back and laugh from your very marrow.

The older I get and the more dear ones I’ve seen tucked into their graves, the more I encounter with joy those honest pleasures of life, pedestrian and exquisite.  The warm feeling in my throat after the first swallow of coffee in the morning.  Flipping the pillow to the cold side and sinking into it.  The warm cheek of a sleeping baby against my lips.  It affects me so, this novelty of living; of tasting and smelling and doing and being.  What a lark it is to have a body and to move it about in the world.

As I get older, I am the child with a bulging bag of piñata loot, hopping with joy, and I am oh-so-thankful.

Wishing you and yours a very alive, very lived, Thanksgiving.

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Bread, Butter, Coffee, Joy

broken4It never takes all that much

to fill the soul to over-brimming

spilling joy

if levels be near the top; if the depths have risen.

But to that one

with empty cavern yawning

all good things fall soundlessly

to an imperceptible bottom.

Swallowed without digestion.

Oh, dear one

here I glory in my bread

butter

coffee

and baby’s sounds

while your tears fall on a sunny day right steady.

I would tilt my overflowing heart

and spill it into your famished one

but it doesn’t work that way, does it?

No.

Knees hit the floor and the ache in them is a holy pain.

“Fill, Father, where emptiness

and misery

and darkness reign.”

When He fills, dear one

you’ll know it

from

the startling green of an everyday leaf

the song that water sings meandering into the gutter

how the wind glides over your bare arms

as a caress

the shock of joy over simple bread and coffee

Almost like an assault upon your senses

the world in all it’s common beauty

smells, scenes, faces, all

is lit within, see it?

We were meant for such living, even

East of Eden

Even through a glass darkly.

Such is His signature, see it?

Joy.

The Beautiful and Hard Kindness of God

It was as I picked twenty-five pounds of tomatoes in my garden that I noticed, my breath catching in my throat, the huge celosia flower.  It’s also known as cockscomb, and though you can often find a small, plume-like version of it, getting it to grow as big as a brain is another matter.  I’d tried many times without success to grow it from seed.

But right there, in the side flower boxes along the raised bed garden, my seed-grown celosia had put forth a mega bloom.Photo on 9-18-14 at 2.01 PM Dry, feathery, and deepest magenta it was, a color it will keep as it dries out.  “Oh God, You are so kind”, my heart said, while my dress sagged heavy from a load of tomatoes in the skirting.  Kind to make such a beauty out of my bumbling efforts, right there in my weedy, riotous garden.  I like that God’s gifts are not anonymous…they are fully intended to make us turn our smiling faces to Him in gratitude.

Later that day as the ten quarts of pasta sauce were cooling on the counter top, after all those tomatoes had been peeled and chopped and simmered long, after the day had run right over me on it’s rush toward bedtime, I heard the jars pinging, sealing themselves tight and it came again, “God, You are so kind”.  Because He reminded me to put the citric acid in the jars, without which all my hard work would have been spoiled.  And there were no exploded jars in the canner (which is an awful, awful mess), and the musical pings kept ringing in all His mercies that day.

Of course He loves us; don’t we hear that always?  Sometimes we wear out the sentiment, the sense of it.  We can become immune to how amazing it really is.  Like seeing a whole field of celosias in gigantic bloom every day and no longer being held captive by a single flower.  Immunity to the good stuff is just as soul-numbing as immunity to the bad.

“I assure you: Whoever does not welcome the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”  Mark 10:15

 

The other day I filled the kitchen chalkboard with “Ten Things I Love About My Sophia”.  She read the words with a joyful-painful smile, the smile young ladies have on their faces when they’re a little embarrassed by their worth being recognized and praised. She bounded from the kitchen and clambered onto my lap, tucking in long limbs which had outgrown lap-dwelling years ago.  She just wanted to tuck into me in all her joy and bashfulness, and I quite wish I could do the same with my Father in Heaven, though I don’t think I’ve ever quite outgrow His lap.

But that’s the right response, see?

What if she had mocked the words?  What if she had shook her head and said that it wasn’t true, that she was a nobody and a good-for-nothing and didn’t deserve it?  What if she was too occupied and busy to notice the words at all?  What if she had called everyone over to the chalkboard and boasted about her obvious worth?  There are so many wrong responses.  And one very right one, running, bounding to the blessing-giver, in thanks and pleasure.

God is kind.  On purpose.  I think of all His mercies to me, personal ways that He’s demonstrated over and over that He cares for me and delights in delighting.  I think of the honey harvest, and Henrik’s healing diaper rash, and the soap-making adventure which is filling me with wonder that fats and lye can come together and make a wonderfully beautiful and useful thing.

IMG_2598 Photo on 9-18-14 at 2.02 PMGod is kind, and I speak that as one who has walked valleys in my faith that were dark indeed.  When prayers fell back down on my bent head and the Heavens resounded with silence.  I’ve felt the withdrawal of comfort and peace as tangibly as if someone had taken a warming blanket right up and off of me.  I have shaken my fist at Him more times than I care to remember.

What do we say to a child who wants to keep on snacking, keep on filling up before dinner?  We say not to spoil their appetite.  And God in His kindness does care about our appetite growing strong enough to relish a hearty meal, a hearty faith, a hearty love.  The valleys make us ache for the mountains, the darkness makes us ache for the light, and the small plumes of celosia make us gasp at the mega blooms.  He wants us hungry because He wants to satisfy; more than satisfy, delight.

“That is what the Scriptures mean when they say, ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.’ ”  I Corinthians 2:9

What I Can, While I Can

The afternoon was warming and the elderberries were darkening crimson and I’d gone out to collect some ahead of the birds.  If you wait too long, the ripe berries, just the size of peppercorns, cascade to the ground with a stiff breeze.  Near half of them feed the birds and I can’t begrudge that.  So you have to go out, see, when half the cyme is still green and harvest what you can, when you can.

Sirens were in the distance and the sun beat down and the mulch was damp under my feet from the morning rain.  The sirens neared.  Police cars came up our street, lights flashing, officers huffing up the street counting down house numbers, looking for a particular place, across the way, a few houses down.  A man opened his door and waved them in.  More sirens pierced the air from far off.

The man paced in the front yard as the officers brought bags in from their cars, a yard brimming with flowers and bushes.  Arms waving hopelessly I heard him tell another neighbor what was going on.  I heard snatches of his words.  My sister.  Unresponsive.  Heart attack.  Gave her mouth-to-mouth.  Just nothing.

I had laid the bowl of elderberries aside and joined a knot of neighbors on the hot sidewalk.  I watched a man’s heart being broken on a sunny afternoon.

The fire truck came and after an eternity of minutes, the ambulance.  Grim-faced paramedics sped in with more bags and a plastic gurney.  When they didn’t rush her out with speed, when the pace of it all slowed way down, when the fire truck pulled away, and the officer escorted the brother to a side yard to write down details, I knew.

I didn’t know the woman; all I know is that she was in her sixties and that they didn’t know how long she’d been in the state her brother found her in.  We all walked back to our homes; death is too sacred to be a spectator event.

The grapes are ripening next to the elderberries.  They’re a small variety, sweet with an edge of bitter.  Tougher skins than grocery store grapes that are bred to uniform perfection.  I slip some into my hands and chew them in the hot sun on a day that that man won’t forget.

Life; we don’t all get a hundred years of it and it can end swift and on a sunny day no less.  We don’t get uniform lives, predictable ones.  They’re full of sweet bits and bitter ones and the whole deal looks nothing like what’s advertised, does it?  But it’s good.

So, I can’t farm, I can’t have chickens, I can’t breathe life into our dwindling accounts, and I can’t just run back to South America where life had so much life and color and purpose.  But I can make soap.  Stay with me now.

What can I do while I can do something?

I have a hundred dreams, so I pulled one out of storage.  Making soap.  I love good soap, but unless I find a screaming deal on some goat milk or triple-milled french stuff, we can’t buy it.  I knew it would cost some money to get some equipment, but not much.  So I sold a hutch I’d refinished (that I’d picked up from a curb for free) and an antique ice crusher on craigslist.  I had ninety-five dollars to make a dream come true.

Thirty-five went for a good quality digital scale, the only precision instrument needed.  I weaseled my husband into agreeing to build me some soap molds out of scrap wood.  I plundered my cooking supplies for extra pots and measuring containers that could be dedicated to soap-making.  I watched YouTube videos and checked books out of the library.  Long gloves from the dollar store.  Safety glasses left over from fireworks.  And fifty-nine dollars left over to buy fats and lye and essential oils.

It truly is something to be able to do something.

Now it’s just a matter of deciding what kind to do first…lemon-lime-coconut shampoo bar?  Honey-oatmeal body bar?  Tea Tree-Sweet Almond?  Peppermint-Goat Milk for Christmas gifts?  Should I open an Etsy shop?  Try to sell locally?  Just make for ourselves and friends?  Or maybe slow down and see how my first batch turns out, crazy self??

But, I CAN DO SOMETHING!  That’s the joy and the hope of it.  I’m not trapped by our fences, but free to create within them.

And I realize that in the past year’s time I’ve seen many dreams come true…I am now an amateur beekeeper and supplied our household with a year’s worth of honey with extra to give away.  I got to take a pottery class and feel all that slippery clay yield to my shaping hands.  I taught myself candle dipping and have now both white and deep yellow beeswax tapers aplenty to light our way through winter.  I wrote a short story that I love; the first story I’ve ever exposed to public view without cringing.  I started this small corner for writing, for spilling words and exercising my writing muscles.

All of this happened as many of my dreams came crashing down about my ears.  Oh the irony.  Oh the grace.

So I will do what I am able, as long as I am able, and I’ll count it as joy.  Because it really doesn’t matter how wide our fences are, but how we live within them.