Renewing our Vows

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(I read this at our wedding vow renewal ceremony on October 13, 2017.)

 

“Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Genesis 2:18

 

I often quote this verse in jest when DJ loses his keys or the glasses he now has to remove to read anything or put them back on again, or take them back off. He asks “Where are my keys? Where are my glasses?” And I pull myself up to my full five foot two and ask “What would you do without me? See? Even God knows you can’t be alone. He wrote it in His Book.” I joke, but I know it’s as true for me as it is for DJ. I have also found in this verse affirmation that I am the perfect wife. For DJ. Listen again:  “I will make him a helper fit for him.” Fit for him. I think over the years I’ve learned how to be a wife fit for DJ, just as he’s adjusted himself to take care of me. He does things for me that maybe other women don’t need their husbands to do. He knows what to say to make me feel better when I’m down. He knows how I react (or don’t react) when a crisis arises. And he knows my triggers. “If I said that, you’d blast me.” Yes, you’re right, I would. Because he knows me. And the amazing part, he loves me anyway. And isn’t that just like God with us? He knows it all, good, bad, and grotesque and He loves us, Adores us, anyway. That’s looking with love on another person. That’s grace. DJ, thank you for showing me grace.

 

Paul said: “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situations, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” Philippians 4:12

 

This Scripture applies to marriage, too. Together we can weather the storms of life when we draw strength from Jesus.

 

My friend Diana asked me what I was preparing for tonight. I said I wasn’t exactly writing my vows, I was more like summing up our life together. Briefly. She asked me how I was going to be brief about summing up 23 years and three kids. I tossed “brief” out the window and promised I would try to be entertaining and throw in a dash of mild hysteria. Welcome to our life.

 

I’ve never been to a wedding vow renewal ceremony, but I always knew I wanted to do it someday. When I broached the subject over the summer, DJ asked me a common question–why now? “It’s only been 23 years. I thought we’d wait until our 25th anniversary.” When I asked “Why wait?” he didn’t really have a good answer, so I won, and here we are.

 

I was also thinking about how broken relationships seem to get so much air time and healthy ones, well, maybe they’re not as interesting? Or we take them for granted? Like “yeah, mom and dad and mom and dad have been together forever, and. . .?” Well, it’s a wonderful thing! And all those wonderful things should be celebrated. So let’s do that tonight. Like the apostle Paul said in Philipians 4:8: “Whatever is  true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy,think about such things.” That’s what we’re doing here.

 

More than anything, I see tonight as a time to just stop and breathe. A time to stop and say, “Hey, look at how God has been faithful to us.” A time to reflect with gratitude on His goodness. A time to say Thank You to Him and to all of you for being here and supporting us on this journey.

 

So I decided since this was a ceremony with which I have no experience, I hopped on Pinterest for some ideas. Some people go out and buy new dresses. Some buy new rings. Some even take a second honeymoon. Even if we could afford to do those things, they seem like they would detract from the purpose of the vow renewal ceremony–the actual renewing of the vows. Having said that, I would not be offended if we did this again in twenty years at our Tuscan villa. You’re all invited to that one, too.

 

But this one is streamlined, without the frills. I remember when DJ and I were dating and something difficult came up, I can’t remember what it was, but I remember my mom saying that “The only thing that matters is what you two say to each other.” There was a lot of wisdom in that; that’s probably why I remember it even now. To me that’s the point of this–what we are saying to each other. It’s what we said 23 years ago, but to me it means even more today because we’ve got some life under our belt and we are still saying “yes” to each other.

 

When we got married twenty-three years ago, in front of about two hundred people, without knowing what the future would hold, we made promises to each other. Then we walked out of the church and started our life together. DJ got a job at EHS Engineering. I got a job teaching preschool at St. Thomas School. We started to understand “plenty” and “want.” Then, at different times, we both contracted Lyme disease. God saw us safely through it. And then one night DJ ended up on the floor in excruciating pain because he had thrown his back out. I could have sworn I saw angels attending him in the back of the ambulance. Thankfully, that was the only time in 23 years, we’ve had to call the ambulance to our house. We learned about “sickness” and “health.”

 

We had Tim. It was then, when we became parents, that we began to get the slightest inkling of God’s immense love for His children. If we as flawed humans, could love this little blonde-headed bundle so intensely, how deep and far and wide must be the Father’s love for His children?

 

In 1998, we had the house fire. God protected us by keeping us safe at Scot and Ginny’s picnic until we got the call from my sister. I crumbled, but I remember DJ holding it together pretty well. It’s pretty cool the way God doesn’t often have both of us losing our minds at the same time. Kinda works out, you know? Good thing because it was another lesson in “plenty” and “want” and displacement.

 

We lived with Jan and Darry for a year and a half and Darry and a crew of angels helped us build a house bigger and better than before, and I just loved it. I loved it so much, we had another kid. David came along and blessed us with his imagination and blessed Tim with a brother. Thanks for filling the position, Dave. I believe you’re the right guy for the job. I’m sure Tim would agree.

 

I left teaching full-time after the fire. DJ switched jobs a time or two–or ten–I’m terrible with numbers. He served in the Navy. That was a little scary, but God kept him safe there for us, and that herniated disc kept him out of active duty and good thing, too, because along came the beautiful baby girl he had pictured filling in that empty space next to the boys in the Sears photo. It was time to add a room to the house but it was dwarfed by the room in our hearts taken up by our three children. Remember how the Grinch’s heart burst out of that gold frame and nearly exploded out of his chest? PING! Yeah, it was like that! Still is. Goodness, when I hear these kids together, laughing, playing music, goofing–it doesn’t get any better. And that gives me hope. It reassures me that one day when we are old and senile, you three will still remember each other (so you can remind us what your names are when we are too old to remember).

 

We’ve seen cats, followed by fleas, a hamster, up to forty chickens followed by rats, tens of thousands of honeybees (and evidence of one greedy bear.) We’ve attended four different churches. And, Char has informed me held fifty children’s birthday parties. (Tomorrow will be fifty-one)–how many chocolate cakes is that? We’ve lost all our grandparents, but, look! We both have both of our parents. And their memories are better than mine, what does that say? AND our parents are still the originals. I’m so glad they have staying power.

 

It looks like we have it, too. And it’s not just because we made those promises to each other. It’s not just because I’d follow DJ’s aftershave to the grave. It’s because God knows how hard this life can be, and He helps us every day keep those promises.

 

VOWS TO KIDS:
We promise to always be here for you, to love you and to listen.

 

 

 

 

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Phlox of Patience

“Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them.”~Winnie the Pooh

It’s the middle of August. The garden phlox are out in abundance. When they were still growing tall and before they flowered and unleashed their glory, a friend thought they were weeds. As much to say “Why don’t you cut those things down?” I was aghast. As defensive of those flowers as a mother of her children. “No, no, those are phlox. Give them time. You’ll see.” And so they grew and grew, their green leaves outstretched bilaterally all the way up their stems, soaking in the sun’s radiant energy. Some stems almost reached my shoulder. Their little buds appeared one day, swirled up like closed umbrellas. And then finally, the unfurling.

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Now the garden is a riot of pink. Bumblebees, hummingbirds, hummingbird moths, wasps, they all love the phlox. The rain comes and bends the stems. We brush past the blooms on the brick walk, a dozen flowers confetti to the ground. Compliments abound. “These are pretty. What do you call them?” “Oh, these are phlox,” I say, matter of factly, like the mother of some of the fairest maidens in all the land. We take in the wonder and the fragrance and revel in the pink party. And all because we were patient. And waited. Love is patient. It knows how to wait.

LoveIsPatient

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No Snow Birds

(This story was published in The Green Mountain Trading Post on August 23, 2017.)

It’s misleading for people who only come up here one week a year–Fourth of July week. Everything’s pretty and blooming and green, temperate and comfortable. Gentle breeze. Nothing to do. Living is easy. And you daydream. . .wouldn’t it be nice to live here? And you think about it the way you know it–in summer. Knowing all the while, there are three other seasons and, coming to your senses, you know winter lasts six months or more up here in the Northeast Kingdom. Maybe it’s because of those tough winters that it’s so beautiful up here.

Like watching an older married couple dancing at a wedding. You admire the way they move together, instinctively anticipating the others’ moves. Together for forty years? Fifty? And you think How nice! Wouldn’t it be nice to sit across the same breakfast table from each other all those years. Same coffee cup. No need to speak. She knows how he likes his coffee. No need to ask. Her hand on his shoulder, his turn of the head and slight smile were passionate kisses twenty years prior. Oh, they still have those, too. But not every day. And it wasn’t forty or fifty years of peaceful coffee mornings and easy, seamless dancing. There were upheavals. When you saw them dancing at the wedding? That was the cottage-at-the-lake-in-July glimpse everyone else saw, too. The real work comes the other three seasons. Summer love, like summer living at the lake, is easy.

The pastoral winter photos in the tourist-trap gift shop seem idyllic. But you know it’s also cold and unfriendly even while you’re lost in the reverie with its crystal clear brook babbling by, the log cabin tucked between snow-covered hills, a curl of smoke rising out of the chimney from what must be a cozy fireplace inside. What you don’t see are the blizzards, the bone-chilling cold that doesn’t leave you, the kind that can’t be melted with wool socks. You just can’t shake it until that first spring thaw when you dare go outside and shed the cloak and soak in the once again warm sun and leave behind the twenty-six below zero nights, the busted pipes, the silence except for the lonely loon on the lake after Labor Day when the merry-makers  have gone, the fireworks have faded, the burger grease on the grill is all that’s left.

So, what about that old couple floating gracefully around the dance floor? There were times, especially just starting out, when they felt the chill. Maybe not quite twenty-six subzero, but days when they weren’t quite in sync. He stepped on her toes. Maybe she protested. Maybe just grinned and bore it. But they figured it out. And sometimes he’d lead, and sometimes she’d lead, but eventually they fell into step. At times, they were so close, they couldn’t see themselves. Then they’d remember to pull apart a bit to see the other more clearly. Careful not to drift too far apart and lose sight of the other.

Summer’s all but gone now. Folks will be packing their souvenirs and memories, taking a final glance around at the mountains loaded with balsams, taking a deep lungful of that northern air, and heading down the interstate. As I look out at the lake, I wonder about that old couple. They move so well together, but what did it take to get to that point? There’s time for that. See, my guy and I, we’re still new to this. We’ve only been together thirty years. The water on the lake’s getting a little choppy. The wind’s starting to pick up. We snuggle closer. The colder it gets, the closer we get. It keeps us warm. Let the water get rough. Let the cold wind blow and the temperature plummet. We’re not the type to fly south for the winter.

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One Inch

“all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame.”

~Anne Lamott

 

I’m reading a wonderful book. An award winner. At one point, the sheer poignancy of the words touched me so deeply, I had to put the book down. (Good thing they’re short chapters!) I’m only about 150 pages in. At this rate, I may never finish if I have to keep putting the book down to recover! Knowing it was so highly acclaimed, I decided to look at some reviews. The positive reviews did not surprise me; I agreed with most of them. The negative reviews, on the other hand, shocked me. I wasn’t shocked that not everyone liked the book. Literature is, after all, subjective. What disturbed me was the fact that here was this beautiful work, and some people were not appreciating it for what it was but criticizing it for what it was not. I guess that’s the nature of criticism, but it bugged me.

It is historical fiction. It is not a history book. Not a biography. Not a newspaper. I am defensive of writers, most artists, in fact, who pour themselves into their work and then open the door and share it with the world. What an amazing act of bravery! I know writers who won’t let anyone read their work for fear of criticism. I get that. We are all human, susceptible to pain, vulnerable to an attack on our ego. Courage is born when the desire to share one’s gift with the world outweighs that fear. Opening the door leaves the creator vulnerable to attack. Only those with the mental fortitude to endure such criticism will continue in their craft.

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.”

~Ernest Hemingway

Understanding the fear and only beginning to understand the courage, I come to the defense of those writers, those artists, less appreciated. When I write something that’s say, 1000 words, I am only giving a snapshot in time and place and only from a certain perspective. (And, even though I’ve never written a book, I assume it’s similar. What is true of 1000 words might also in essence be true of an entire novel.) I can pretty much only say one thing at a time. There is so much I’m not saying. And telling the whole thing is not the intent. It’s not to give a play-by-play of the whole ball game, a day-by-day account of the whole war, a feeling-by-feeling diary of a whole life. Just one thing, one aspect. Maybe illustrated in various scenes, but still limited. If you’ve never tried it, maybe you don’t know how difficult it is. If you have tried, maybe you can fathom the breadth of the task, and it scares you out of your wits and that’s why you don’t try it again. But if you do, maybe you’ll appreciate that author who zoomed in and told–showed–that one thing so well, you had to close the book for fear the brilliance of the words would blind you. The experience of that moment for most of us writers and also for those of us readers who willingly “suspend disbelief,” however briefly, and allow ourselves to be lifted into other worlds–ah!–that is where joy resides.

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One Quarter

tiny bookThe idea of writing a book scares me. So big. So many words. It’s like I have a writer’s form of agoraphobia. But here’s the rub– I have a story to share. Some characters to introduce to the world. How do I write the story without scaring myself? Without scarring myself?

Well, I don’t have to write the whole thing all at once. I don’t have to do it in a way that is too daunting. I can do it in baby steps. And to show that to myself, I will write a little book first. Oh no, not something with petty themes, mind you. I can take my big ideas and write them on small paper. Then it won’t seem so ominous.

It kind of started casually. I had an idea and jotted it down on a piece of scrap paper. Then I had another idea for the same story and wrote it on another piece of scrap paper. This continued to happen for a couple pages, and I came to an important realization–writing big on small paper wasn’t so scary after all. So, to give myself some more space (but not so much that it would frighten me), I grabbed a couple more pieces of scrap paper and stapled them to what I already had. A tiny book.

Now, I must tell you that I have a stack of scrap paper that is all the same size. Call it going green, but before an 8 1/2 x 11 piece of paper hits the trash at my house, I intercept it and, if it’s blank on one side, I cut it into quarters. The result? A stack of 4 1/2″ x 5 1/2″ paper that fits nicely in the basket on my writing desk. This is what I’ve been using to jot these notes for this “book.” Scary even saying it, but seeing a similar stack of “books” on the writing shelf in a kindergarten classroom, confirmed it was a brilliant idea. If a kindergartener isn’t afraid to write a book, I shouldn’t be either.

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Quiet Keyboards

Writing was more of a sensory experience when I was younger than it is today. In middle school, I would use a pencil (a pen if I was lucky) and write notes in a paper notebook. After filling a page, I’d turn it to find it bumpy on the other side. I’d run my hand over it, feeling the imprint of my words, my thoughts, pressed down in for all time. I still like to use a spiral notebook and pen. It’s gotten more sophisticated, though. These days, I use a luxurious (and yet inexpensive) gel pen that glides gracefully across the page. It has to in order to keep up with my thoughts. There is an added benefit. Do you know they say you are more creative when you write long hand? You’re utilizing the right side of your brain–the side that controls creativity– when you do. You use the left side–the analytical side–when you type. Since we need to use both sides of our brain, we should know how to both write long hand and type.

I learned to touch type in high school. Of all the classes I’ve taken, that one has served me (still serves me) the best, even after thirty years. I use this skill everyday. But it has changed. It’s not the same sensory experience it was back then either. In class,we typed on electric typewriters. We would learn the home keys first, alternating hands. A, ;, s, l, d, k, and so on. And we could hear ourselves. Clicking and clacking away. We would practice the “widget drill” with Mista Foley (he was from Massachusetts, you know), wrapping on the desk with the long wooden pointer, calling out the letters we were to type without looking at the keys. Clickety-clack. Even those electric typewriters were easier than their predecessors, the manual typewriters, where you had to press the keys much more forcefully. Not only were manual typewriters “noisier,” the keys also left impressions on the paper. Electric not as much, but you could still hear yourself more than you can today.

When I started using a laptop, I was uncomfortable. It was too easy. I barely had to press the keys to type words into being. It was too quiet. I wondered if I’d be able to write loud enough for people to hear my ideas. Still do.

We’ve lost something in our quiet keyboards. Do we notice the weight of our fingers on the keys? The weight of our words? The sound of our own selves putting words on paper. Putting words–ideas– in the universe. Usually we don’t even write on paper anymore. In essence, we write in the air now. Silently tap, tap, tapping our thumbs on our smooth phones. Our thoughts going almost directly from our heads to our screens. No sound or sensation in between. Without feeling ourselves pressing thoughts into communications, without hearing the lyrical clickety-clack, we might wonder if we still leave an impression for posterity. Words still have weight. They can slay or edify, discourage or inspire. Our words leave impressions even if they don’t leave physical impressions on paper. We might not hear them initially, but our thoughts might just echo through time.

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Of Reeds and Strings and Other New Things

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I’m learning violin. I’m forty-six. I’ve never played an instrument. Why now? I’ve always wanted to learn violin, and one day this very instrument made its appearance in my life as if to announce It’s time. I had heard violin was a difficult instrument to learn. It’s true. And for a person with a third grade understanding of how to read music, it’s even more difficult. I ask myself What’s the problem? There are only four strings. Right–G, D, A, E. The G is the top string, the lowest note. The E is the bottom string, the highest note. Where are the other notes? Well, you use the same strings, but you finger them differently, and that gives you the different notes. Uh oh, something else to remember. A lot of something elses to remember. And then there’s the matter of applying the right amount of pressure to the bow, oh, and proper handling and placement of the bow and speed and playing only one string at a time. What?! And that’s after you’ve properly tuned the violin and tightened and rosined up the bow. I begin to wonder if I can do it. I wonder if it’s worth it.

And then I think of my daughter. Our family has learned a lesson in perseverance from paying attention to Sarah these past few years. I home schooled her until she was in fourth grade. Upon entering public school, she had her struggles academically. She worked hard and overcame many challenges. We applauded her persistence. Then she set another goal for herself. At the end of sixth grade, she announced she wanted to play an instrument in seventh grade and join the school band. She added it to her course selection when she met with her guidance counselor. This surprised us because she had never played an instrument and had little knowledge of how to read music.

Sarah decided she wanted to play the clarinet. My husband DJ had played clarinet in school but certainly didn’t remember enough to teach her. But things worked out. Our son’s girlfriend Celeste not only knew how to play clarinet extremely well, she also had an extra instrument for Sarah. Through the summer Celeste gave Sarah clarinet lessons, and in September Sarah joined the school band–just like she said she would.

This new undertaking presented Sarah with a new set of challenges. Most of the members of the band had been playing instruments since fourth grade. They knew their instrument, how to read music, how to play in a band, how to balance music practice with homework assignments. This was all new to her. But she persisted. She even took private lessons with the band teacher during school. She didn’t give up, and we were all rewarded for her diligent efforts when we attended her first band concert that winter.

As the house lights in the auditorium dimmed and for the first time we watched one of our children perform in a band concert, DJ and I were so proud of Sarah. But it wasn’t until this summer, six months after the concert, that we really began to comprehend the triumph of that day because we ourselves decided to learn something new. For me it’s the violin. For DJ it’s the bagpipes.

It’s not just that we are learning something new. It’s also that we are remembering something old. As we embark on music lessons essentially for the first time, we are recalling what it means to be a beginner at something. Here we are at midlife and we are pretty adept at most things we do on a regular basis. We know how to drive, how to keep house, how to write a research paper. We’ve been doing our jobs and cooking our meatballs for a while–we feel competent in those things. Maybe we can even say we’ve mastered a few things by now. And those we haven’t, like, say, parallel parking, well, we find we can pretty much get by without perfecting. We just drive around the block and find another place to park. But kids don’t always have that luxury.

Kids have to learn new things. Sarah learned the clarinet in seventh grade. Learning is a lifelong pursuit of not only those things that bring us joy, but those things necessary to operate as citizens of this planet.  Think of preschoolers and kindergartners and all they accomplish those first years they’re in school. Not just how to decode squiggles on a page and realize they are symbols that represent ideas–a process we call reading–but also how to wrap their fingers around a pencil and replicate those squiggles themselves when they learn to write. In addition to these extraordinary skills, these young people also learn about math and science and, a huge life skill–how to interact with other people. If we never encouraged children to try and try and try again, where would they be? Where would we be?

If we don’t try new things every once in a while in our lives, we run the risk of forgetting what it’s like to struggle and fail and struggle and fail and struggle until finally, one fine day, all those hours of toil and trouble culminate and we lay the bow on the string, play that first clear note, the one we always somehow knew we could. It’s just the beginning.

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