Forever Changed

My son missed the bus. It was his second year in high school after having been home schooled since fourth grade. I was still homeschooling my two younger children. I would have to wake them up early to drive him to school for 7:23am. My husband had already left for work. It was very cold outside.

My son was apologetic, and his siblings woke up without grumbling. I was the one grumbling, but I tried to keep it to myself. On the ride to school, my nine year old daughter marveled at the ice crystals still on the trees, sparkling in the peachy glow of sunrise.

Later on that morning, my sister contacted me. There had been a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. My pulse raced. I got a lump in my throat. My husband taught at Newtown High School, just down the street from Sandy Hook Elementary. I grabbed my laptop and stayed glued to it all day, horrified by the surreal events unfolding, wanting my husband home safe with me. I gave the kids independent work to do. I couldn’t teach them that day, and I couldn’t tell them about the nightmare that their father may or may not have been involved in.

He texted me later. He said he was safe and he’d be home as soon as he could. I told him there were hugs at home waiting for him. He replied, “And kids.” My heart ached for those families whose kids would not be coming home that day. It was so close to Christmas, too—the season of anticipation of joy and wonder, the expectation of warm family gatherings. It would be so different for those families now. So different for us all.

That night with my husband home safe, he related some of the story to me. His class had been in lock down. He and his students huddled under desks in a corner of his classroom. The doors were locked and black paper covered the windows. He prayed. Over the coming days, weeks, and months he would share more memories of that fateful December 14, 2012, but that night he told me only what he could manage to say and only what I could manage to hear. Then I left him on the couch and tended to my chores in another room.

As I vacuumed I realized how blessed I felt to be able to do even a mundane task. I could process the horrors of the day while I cleaned up crumbs from the floor. So many moms would not have the strength or the desire that night to bother with such petty things. And the fact that my son had missed the bus that morning, well, I saw it for the blessing it was—an opportunity to spend a few more minutes with my kids.

Two days later, we searched for a Christmas tree at a local farm. Again I felt blessed by the sheer act of walking quietly through rows of evergreens with my family. It was peaceful. Although our hearts were broken, we were whole. We were together. Along with the peace, I also felt a little guilt.

When Christmas morning rolled around, my husband worried, as he always does, that the kids would not be happy enough with what he viewed as sparse offerings beneath the tree. I reassured him, as I always do, that the kids would be happy with their gifts. I reminded him that no one in our house should be anything but completely grateful that day. And every day.

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The Defiant Pen

Three gifts for today. . .

    274. geese on open water in late November

        275. a son’s safe journey home

            276. the soft weight of a thousand prayers pressing in through the stitches of a                                knitted shawl

Lying in bed on the edge of slumber, ten minutes pre-alarm, I fantasize crawling back in after the family has gone and defying the day behind closed eyes, keeping the light out and the darkness in, or perhaps getting lost once again in a book. Meandering with Queenie Hennessy in her garden by the sea seems like a pleasant escape from today’s reality, the reality of the past few weeks. I wonder how I managed during school vacation to pull myself out of bed and walk/run two miles every day when today the former is daunting enough, the second–unfathomable.

But I do it. Fighting the urge to completely shut myself away, I accomplish the arduous task of hauling my weary body and battered spirit out of bed. Why was it so difficult today? Because the weight of the world is pressing in like the down comforter, pressing me down. But not keeping me down. Love propels me forward to help my husband and the kids and get them off on their way.

Once up, there is coffee to brew, sandwiches to make, buses to catch. When they are gone, and I have pause, I sit down and cry. I wasn’t expecting to, but the weight of everything comes crashing down and manifests itself in a sudden gush. Like a huge storm cloud that just can’t hold any more drops and lets go in a sudden downpour. Today the forecast was not for a chance of showers. A tearstorm was brewing, I just didn’t know when it would make landfall.

After the tears, I rest my head on the table and sit at the feet of Jesus. Not moving, just sitting. I guess I am not doing nothing. We are kind of having a quiet conversation. I tell Him more of the same. He tells me to breathe and rest in Him. He’s going to take care of things. It’s a good chat, but I still need to get motivated, get unstuck, get on with my day. Exercising a second act of courage, I pick up a pen and make myself list at least three things I am thankful for.

Wait a minute. . .

Give thanks now?

In this mess?

Yeah, Self, now.

Even as you stand knee deep in all the rubble of this broken castle of dreams wondering why God let it happen and what He’s going to do to fix it. Paul said to give thanks in all circumstances, so do as you are told and start writing.

I pick up the pen and blow the dust off the list I started last year when things were hard but not this hard, when expectations were fractured but hadn’t completely shattered and come crashing to the ground like they did just the other day. How was I going to be grateful for this? I lift my eyes from the dusty dreams and start intentionally searching for blessings. Surely there must be some tiny thing right in front of me I could be thankful for and name it. I am determined to find something, anything, and write its name on paper before despair can totally constrict me.

The wooden bowl on the table holds a couple handfuls of hazelnuts. I love hazelnuts.

Could I list that?

Could I name hazelnuts as one of my blessings?

I have to start somewhere. I scratch it on the paper.

    Hazelnuts. . .

I look for something else.

       Smiling faces of snowmen on the place mat. . .

Gratitude awakens and swells a little in my heart. These are simple things I see every day, but I never think to thank God for them. I continue to list even the most mundane things within my sight, those that bring me some kind of satisfaction, some slight upturn of the lips, when I really focus on them. That’s when things start looking different.

Picking up the pen and naming the blessings, counting the gifts, marking in ink all the ways I am blessed, pulls me back into the present. Like the whooshing special effects in a movie when the main character gets transported through time, I move from visions of the dashed expectations of the past and crippling fears of the future, back to the now.

I feel the sturdy wooden chair beneath me and my feet in woolly socks planted firmly on the floor as my favorite pen moves smoothly over white paper with blue lines in a seventy cent notebook, the ink flowing, reminding me there are beautiful things here. There is life here. Even when I choose to focus on darkness, that choice doesn’t negate the truth that life abounds. There is always something to be grateful for. It’s cliche, but this moment is a gift, life here and now is the present, the gift list becomes the “Is” list.

“This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

~Psalm 118:24

Posted in 1000 Gifts, Ann Voskamp, Gifts, Gratitude, Grief, Love, Patience, Priorities, self-discovery, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Scriptophilia (and Harold) made me do it

Confession? I quit NaNoWriMo. Wednesday, November 15 was my last day. I wrote (and fudged and outlined and talked to myself on paper) for fifteen days and 24,002 words, and then I decided to stop kidding myself. I had (have) an idea for a work of fiction. I wrote as much as I knew about it, and, yes, discovered more about the plot and the characters while I actually wrote the story, but I couldn’t continue. I had my writer’s group meeting Saturday, and because I spent so much time working on a single, large work for NaNo, I didn’t have time to prepare a short finished piece for the meeting. So I quit Wednesday, and Friday night I worked on a small piece from a draft I had started in between things earlier in the month. In working on that piece for the meeting, I found myself having fun. My fingers were lighter on the keys, whimsical ideas were flowing, I think I was even smiling. Realizing sudden joy, I thought This is what I’ve been missing! This is why I write! This is what keeps me enamored with the craft!

The other reason I quit was because another suitor was waiting in the wings. While hunting with friends for some promising used books, I was introduced to a book by a friend who said he had read it and loved it: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. I took it home as my newly- adopted book orphan. I held it and loved it and made it my own–(Like Lenny in Of Mice and Men–only I didn’t it “George”)–without reading it. I couldn’t because I had to do NaNo. That was consuming most of my “free” time. But I was curious, so I examined the cover and read the accolades from the critics. “Impossible to put down,” said the NY Times. If it was impossible to put down, how was I going to read it and manage my 1667 word quota a day for NaNo? So I resisted. But as usually happens with books (and chocolate truffles), my willpower took a hike. I picked up the book and started reading about Harold.

(***Don’t worry. No spoilers here that you can’t read on the back of the paperback.) Harold Fry sets off on a walk from one end of England to the other to save a friend’s life. It’s comic and absurd and, at the same time, full of the kind of truths that each of us faces in some form at some time. Harold and his wife Maureen are characters in this work of fiction in another country. They are a little younger than my parents, and yet so much of what they say, do, and feel resonate with me.

Normally, I would wait to finish a book before writing about it, but this time I’m making an exception. (Besides, my willpower hasn’t returned from across the pond.) It seems fitting to write about it while still in it–about halfway at this point–because I’m learning once again the importance of the journey. Isn’t that where the rubber meets the road? (Figuratively and literally. Usually we talk about tire rubber. In Harold’s case, it’s boat shoe soles.) I’m happy I quit NaNo. I’m happy I’m reading Harold. It is the right time for me to take this pilgrimage with him. I can’t wait to find out what happens next. He’s got a kid going through stuff. I can relate to that. I want to see how it turns out for them just as I want to see how it turns out for us. Joyce is a talented writer who knows me. How is this possible? I can’t say, but she is insightful and probably very honest with herself and her feelings. And also very observant to the world and the people in it.

NaNo was a journey. I’m glad I did it. Even if it was only for half of it. I learned a lot. And that’s what it was about for me. I wanted to write as much as I could about my idea, but, more than that, I wanted to learn something. I learned that the reason I write is because I love it. When I realized the color was draining from writing while doing NaNo, that defeated the purpose for me. But I also learned that I can make the time to write 1667 words a day. If I can do that for NaNo, I can do that for other writing as well.

And life, well, my goodness, that’s a journey, too. It’s not about where we’re going. It’s about what we do and think and how we love and help along the way. If we’re lucky–if we’re thankful–we’ll discover joy in the journey.

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Broken and Giving Thanks

 “Eucharisteo–thanksgiving– always precedes the miracle.”

~Ann Voskamp

There are people who speak God’s truth to me in my language. Not just my native language, but my heart language. Ann Voskamp is one of those people for me. And, once again, not only were the words right–the timing perfect. The title drew me in: “How to live through anything these holidays when you’re finding it hard to even breathe.” She actually posted it yesterday on annvoskamp.com, but I read it today. Good thing, too, because yesterday was already full up with emotion.

So I’m reading along, and I come to it there in bold print. And I stop. The tears waste no time coming. For a minute, I see nothing but the words:

“What you think you can’t handle–might actually be God handing you a gift.”

Ann, come on. What are you doing to me?

I know she’s right.

She’s right, and I believe what she’s saying, but I cannot for the life of me understand it. I’m thinking I should. I should have some lofty wisdom by now. I’ve followed Ann on the journey through counting our blessings in 1,000 Gifts and not being afraid of broken things in The Broken Way. I’ve even led studies on these books with our women’s groups. But I gotta tell ya–preaching and practicing–they’re two different things.

Life’s been bumpy lately. I look at the broken car on the screen and the image of the adult-kid who was so tired he allowed his life and that shiny new car to swerve off-course. He walked away unharmed but also seemingly unphased by the miracle. This kid with the broken heart even his mom doesn’t know how to fix. I look at broken dreams and broken families and shake my fists and stamp my feet and wonder how on earth can these things be gifts?

I’ve talked to people and heard their stories of God redeeming their shattered lives. Taking the years the locusts have destroyed, all the times they allowed themselves to be led astray, and redeeming them for their good and God’s glory. I have heard these things. I know God is in the business of miracles. I believe it. I pray that God will help my unbelief. What can I do in the meantime? Until he restores another tiny morsel of my faith, what actions can I take to propel me through the mire? Sure, I can listen to my life verse, Psalm 46:10:

“Be still and know that I am God.”

That’s all well and good, but I’ve physically sat here and prayed, and my mind is still antsy. What is that stillness going to look like this time ’round? What actions can I take to be still? Then I remember my gratitude journal, and the way it changed my perspective last year. Yes, that’s what I need, a change of vantage point. I’m stuck in the quicksand of doubt and dread. I want to be up out of the spirit-sucking muck and up on eagle’s wings getting a God’s-eye view. I make a list of the parts of this tragedy that I am grateful for. Maybe I can’t be thankful for the whole kit and kaboodle right now, but I can find pieces, tiny blessings embedded in the muck.

I’m thankful that:

  • he’s ok
  • my mother was praying for him before she even knew what was wrong
  • no one else was involved the accident
  • we have phones
  • my husband loves his family
  • my son loves his family
  • we are healthy
  • love perseveres

I listed even more blessings, and then I looked at what I had written. I was surprised that even though this was a terrible, traumatic thing that happened, if I looked for it, I could find God’s hand at work even in the emergency.

When I looked up the origin of “emergency,” I found that it comes from the Latin emergere meaning to “rise out or up.” It is widely understood that emergencies are occurrences that arise and require immediate attention. We know that. But what if we also knew deep in our souls that we are the ones doing the rising up and out and seeing “emergencies” as God does–as gifts, as opportunities to give thanks? When I remember to practice naming the gifts, a little more of God’s truth sinks in. I need that. I think you do, too.

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Golden Bowls

“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

~Psalm 51:17

We’ve had a rough week. Yeah, another one. This time I actually shared my heart with some more people than I did last time. Interesting social experiment, I’m realizing (although that wasn’t my intent). I’m finding that when one shares the details of some family drama or crisis they are experiencing, the responses from the listeners will fall into one of a few different categories: some will offer their own advice on what they would do if their kid had screwed up so royally, some will maybe find the issue too big and scary or too alien to their own experiences that they can’t relate so they just offer a sympathetic shake of the head and an “I’m sorry” or “You’ll be in my thoughts,” some listen with their hearts and then share their own stories with you letting you know that they (or their kid) has also led a dark and dangerous life at one time and made it through to become upstanding, respectable citizens. Then there are the people who do all that they can to empathize and even take it a step further by offering prayer and scripture. Finally! Something I can use!

A good friend sent me a blog post written by a mother in a situation very similar to mine. It was so similar to mine, I’m now beginning to wonder if she hijacked my story or plagiarized it or was following me around for the past three years. No, just kidding. But still. . .one has to wonder. Anyway, my friend loved me enough to send me this post that didn’t “should” me but gave insights into her own experience and what worked for her and, even better, what God taught her through it. She quoted Revelation 5:8:

“. . .the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down  before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.”

How beautiful is that! How did I not see it before? Do you know who those saints are? We are the saints. Followers of Christ are those saints. This verse says that my prayers become incense in golden bowls. Those prayers, my prayers, flow up to God when I offer Him the concerns of my heart. I had never considered my prayers in this way. Over the years, I’ve changed the way I pray. I’ve learned that God is not some cosmic Santa Claus waiting for me to send Him my wish list so He can give me everything I want without regard for what God deems best for me. I’ve learned to seek His will before my own (“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” Not my kingdom come, my will be done). I’ve learned that his thoughts are higher than mine, His ways not mine. So hopefully, I’ve progressed to the point where I’m not pestering Him too much or throwing spiritual temper tantrums. Ok, who am I kidding? I have my own book of lamentations. Point is, forward is forward, right people?

So I read the verses about golden bowls and wanted to hold fast to that image, wanted to have it ever before me, wanted to plaster it as my background image on my laptop screen. So I googled it. A number of images came up of shiny ancient golden bowls, and then a picture came up that I didn’t expect. It was a picture of the famous photo “Grace” by Eric Enstrom. Somewhere around 1918, Enstrom photographed an elderly man who appears to be praying over a simple meal. Why did this image appear when I searched for images of golden bowls? Because Google seemed to make the connection between the Revelation reference and the photo. That man sitting at the table offering thanks for the loaf of bread and the bowl of soup or asking God for forgiveness or lamenting a prodigal child is filling golden bowls. If he has faith, he knows that God will honor those prayers even as they offer Him, our Heavenly Father, a sweet aroma.

 

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A Long Way to Go with NaNo and Frodo

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

~E.L. Doctorow

It was pouring. I stood outside the grocery store still wearing my church clothes and ballet flats, my cart full of the week’s provisions. The car was so far away. When I had arrived, it wasn’t raining. I had considered bringing the umbrella. But it was a large golf umbrella. A ripped one, at that. It wasn’t really going to be worth the struggle to maneuver the umbrella with a full cart, so I left it in the car. I wondered why they didn’t make grocery carts with canopies.

Taking a deep breath, I realized I didn’t have a choice. I’d have to go through it. It reminded me of the children in Michael Rosen’s kid’s book Going on a Bear Hunt. In search of a bear, they encounter tall grass, a river, mud, a forest, and a snowstorm. Realizing they can’t go over or under these obstacles, they bravely proceed through them. Like many well-crafted children’s books, that one carries a profound message for adults as well: Be brave. Of course, I ventured out to the car with the full cart in the pouring rain. That was the only way I was going to accomplish the task.

Now I’m facing another challenge–NaNoWriMo. I committed to writing 1667 words a day over 30 days to end the month of November with a 50,000 word novel. Yes, there are other things I’d rather be doing. Come to think of it, I’m fond of sleep and sanity, but this is a promise I made myself. I knew it would be difficult, but I didn’t realize how difficult it would be or why. Now I know. It sounds juvenile, but it’s difficult because it’s a lot of words to write in a day. I’m writing fiction, and I don’t usually write fiction at all, let alone a long work. But I had an idea that wouldn’t let go, so I decided to see what it had to say. The thing is, it develops as it is written.

So, I sit down and I know I have to fill my word quota for the day, but even with an idea and an outline, I have almost no idea what I’m going to write. Most of it is a complete surprise. And most of it is terrible. Even as I write, I think You know this is terrible, right? You know when you finish you’re going to have to revise the whole thing because this stinks, right? Yes, I know all that. But I’m doing it anyway. Yes, I want the 50,000, but I’m also learning things I wouldn’t have learned if I didn’t do it, and it’s only been a week. If I stick with it, I’m bound to learn even more.

I have a greater appreciation for writers. Even the bad ones. It’s so easy to criticize someone else’s work when you haven’t attempted the thing they’ve done. Once you’ve tried it, you can see what they went through. Maybe they didn’t do a great job of it, but at least they completed it.

So far, it’s been seven days. I’ve written over 11,000 words in 27 pages. I’ve never written that much before in a single document. It reminds me of that scene in The Fellowship of the Ring where Frodo and Sam are setting off on their adventure and Sam says if he takes one more step it’ll be the farthest he’s been from home. I hear ya, Sam. I passed home about 8,000 words ago. I guess if I’m accomplishing things I’ve never done, that’s progress. The only way to do it is to go through it. Butt in the chair. One word after another.

 

 

 

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NaNoWriMo? Yes!

Psst!. . .I’m just sneaking over here to let you know that if I’m not blogging lengthy tomes this month it’s not because I’m not writing. Au contraire! For the first time, I am participating in NaNoWriMo. Oh! Never heard of it? Check it out: http://www.nanowrimo.org

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