A January Affair

A January Affair

On January second, I’m fidgety and half-panicked; we had friends over for New Year’s Day dinner, and my house is still fully decorated.

It’s time for January’s long, cold, beautiful blank slate —
but I haven’t had time to erase December.

I carry box after box from the basement storage room, still in PJs and nursing coffee. There’s no time to waste.

I cradle cheap glass bulbs and German handblown ornaments alike in yellowed newspaper, soft as oilcloth, worn over years and years of use. I place nativity figures in their original styrofoam depressions and sandwich the two large pieces together; slide them into the box, shearing off bits of white foam.

I stuff unwieldy garlands into large plastic bins and tuck poinsettia linens and candy-striped tapers in amongst them. I bag up the huge pinecones from my sister’s old farm. {How I wish I had a few bowls more of those beauties now, but she’s long since moved.} I package knick-knicks and linens and glassware and more, until all that’s left are bare tables spread with dust and pine-needled floors.

Two days later, I have fully reclaimed my house. It looks larger, uncluttered, fresh. With the kids at school and the husband at work, the silence is so thick and luscious, I could scrape it up and spoon it on toast like jam.

I light candles. Put on classical. Smile.

You see, January is my month — my birth month and my respite month. Though bitterly cold and draped in ice, though filled with days short and dim, January provides a precious and necessary gift:
She provides us with fallow time.

A fallow field is one a farmer plows, yet purposely leaves uncultivated for one or more seasons so the land can become fertile once again. It’s a practice leading back to ancient times, a necessary rite in order to prevent the soil from becoming depleted of nutrients.

Consider January a season-ordained Sabbath:

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens …

What if, this January, we allowed ourselves to tuck the furrowed ground of our distracted minds and burdened hearts under a blanket of soft, white snow?

What if we took time to replenish our ravaged reserves by the simple practice of rest?
What if we took time to savor stillness and be quiet?

Of course, we must still go to work. We must still cook meals and fold laundry and go forth into the world.

But, when we do have a patch of time, it seems only right, only fitting, to curl into the sofa with a hot cup of tea and a novel for an hour {or three} on a blustery January day.

It seems only reasonable to become overly attached to fleece throws and nubby sweaters.

It seems perfectly acceptable to spend an entire weekend by the fire, with a hearty stew simmering away, and a stack of board games to play.

In Denmark, they call this practice “hygge.” Danes are experts, weathering long, cold winters with exceptionally short, dark days, and, yet, somehow, they are known as some of the happiest people on the planet.

No doubt they’ve learned to savor what’s warm and cozy and bright and lovely in a harsh season, knowing that it is precisely winter’s bitterness that makes these soothing rituals so meaningful.

NPR writer Claire O’Neill explains hygge, tongue-in-cheek: “From what I gather, it means something like ‘fireplace warmth with candles and family and friends and food, tucked under blankets on a snowy day, cup-of-coffee conversation, scarf-snuggle, squiggly, warm baby love.’ Or something like that.”

But, in all seriousness, hygge is about lit fires and glowing candles, fragrant comfort foods and hot drinks, time spent with loved ones, cuddling in cozy fabrics, and an attitude of gratitude and joy in the simple things.

This January {and winter} more than ever, I’m giving myself permission to be intentional about slowing down and savoring. I might choose an afternoon with a novel over running errands. You may find me snuggling with my springer spaniel and having a second cup of tea instead of starting dinner. And, it is entirely possible I may be binge-watching a BBC Masterpiece series of some kind instead of scouring my countertops —

it might look like rest {and it is} but it’s much more too.

It’s honoring the process of fallow time.

Upside Down

Upside Down

I feel damp deck wood darkened with rain beneath my bare feet, as I enter morning. I carry journal and pen now, return with coffee and fresh water a moment later.

As I write, ink spotting my hands, my fingers — long used to the efficient tap of keyboard typing— fumble, messy, splotchy, nearly illegible, impatient with the process. I’ve been computer journaling this past year and a half, and the transition to pen and paper has not been easy.

The snapdragon on the table to my right calls attention, as I pause, pen poised, trying to make a murky morning thought clear. Raindrops shiver on her crimson velvet forehead and lips, dot themselves liberally down her thin green stalk of slender leaves.

Perched here on the high deck, overlooking the yard, cataloguing and recording my morning thoughts becomes less important than following the overwhelming urge to enter the moist, green, lush fullness below.

I walk, barefoot, pajama’d, beckoned by a sense of promise, of mystery, of beauty in the fresh and fertile hour before the children wake. I feel the brush of humid air to bare skin, inhale the moist earth grounding me, walk back to overlook the creek, rushing full and brown, always responsive to the rain.

In this rare, quiet moment of being, I feel perfectly content, not straining towards what’s next, but, rather, quivering like a crystal raindrop on a light lavender hosta bell — round, full, shimmering, alive.

hosta-raindrops

****

I never saw this coming.

Just a few weeks ago, a quiet voice whispered a long-held secret into my ear. It was both an unexpected departure and a long-awaited homecoming, wrapped together and presented as the most exquisite gift:

You’re not Martha, you’re Mary.

I have been on a rollercoaster of self-discovery since December of last year, and this revelation seemed to cap it all.

It had begun innocently enough, as these things often do. A conversation with a friend. A question casually offered: Maybe you’re an introvert?

For years, I’ve categorized myself as outgoing, because I’m generally friendly and social. But what I begin to realize — after extensive research — is that your introvert/extrovert status is not determined by how sociable you are {or are not}, but rather, by what nourishes you:

Do you get energy from being around others? Do you thrive with lots of social interaction and wither in solitude? Or, rather, does quiet time and alone time stock your depleted reserves and make you feel human again? Do social situations — however diverting — leave you feeling like you need an escape?

However hidden I was to myself at this point, this much I knew:

I craved solitude, adored it, needed it, didn’t get it enough, and had felt, at some points — when dangerously long deprived of it — that I would go to shockingly dramatic lengths to get alone time. It was as essential to me as breathing and fed life-giving oxygen to every part of my being. When I deprived myself of this introvert-oxygen, parts of me wilted and began to die.

I won’t tell you all the versions of me I tried on and discarded as I began exploring personality typing. But, I will tell you that what started to emerge was this:

I had been living my life so fully given over to who I thought I should be, that my real self had been deeply buried. I was excavating my identity, layer by layer, to find who I really was, at my core, who God created me to be—

not who I wished I was,

not who my family wanted me to be,

not who the world thought I should be …

You see, I have long identified with the capable, bustling Martha. In fact, I have always been very uncomfortable with the Bible story which extolls Mary’s virtue. But don’t you see? I think: The meal must be made! The house cleaned! There are things to do, and Mary is not doing them.

So, I do the things. I teach the Sunday School, I co-lead the Girl Scout troop; I volunteer at school; I cook the meals; I organize the toys; I manage the schedules — all good and necessary things, for sure — but I do them to the death of Mary me. I place Martha tasks over Mary time, again and again. And, why am I surprised when there is no Mary me left to write, to reflect, to sit at Jesus’ feet?

God has been patiently revealing to stubborn me that my inherent skills and natural temperament align more with Mary, no matter how much I want to be Martha.

I wish I derived the same satisfaction from gardening that I do from chasing down a well-turned phrase.

It would make so much more sense to spend my spare time volunteering at school or church, instead of writing poetry.

It would seem only logical that I spend the money I use on hosting and domain fees for this tiny spiritual blog to help pay off our vacation instead.

And, so I hide. I hide my Mary tendencies. I take my stolen Mary moments and feel I have to wrap them in veils of productivity and practicality. Instead of talking with shining eyes about the beauty of a morning spent praying and reading and wandering ‘round my damp yard in my PJ’s taking imperfect close-up photos of raindrops on flowers, I talk about anything and everything else.

I almost never admit who I really am, what I really do. I hide behind my Martha.

****

This morning I pull out my “real” camera {vs. my phone camera} and attach a set of inexpensive metal extension tubes that allow my digital SLR to take extreme close-ups. The metal tubes can’t talk to the automatic focus, so I’m stuck with turning the ring manually to bring my subject into relief. (Unfortunately, manual focus has never been my forte.) Because my lens hovers mere millimeters from my subject, and a slight breeze can drastically change the shot, I am never quite sure what I will get.

Sometimes I get this.

hosta-blurry

Or this.

hosta-blurry-2

I end up deleting most of these largely blurry, uncomposed images.

Photographic amateur that I am, this exercise is about adventure. It’s about what the lens shows me, rather than what I plan to capture. Sometimes I am surprised; but, other times, like today, I am astounded.

This is what the camera shows me today:

hosta-upside-down-close

A tiny, inverted garden, reflected in a shivering raindrop.

Mary not Martha.

My entire world captured in stunning, miniaturized detail — beautifully, perfectly upside down.

Tiny Toads and Big Skies

Tiny Toads and Big Skies

A week ago I walked head back to receive an expansive blue sky spread wide over a meadow-panorama of tall grasses studded with morning glories.

A week ago, I bent low over a muddy pond edge to scoop up a thumbnail-sized brown toad, marveling up close over its tiny bright eyes, diminutive spots, and four impossibly small toad feet.

A week ago, I tugged the long pistil from a honeysuckle blossom to taste the sweetness of a single, perfect drop of nectar on my waiting tongue.

honeysuckle 2In the country, it seems, things are both bigger and smaller than they are elsewhere.

Big skies, open fields, majestic oaks so thick we’d have to join several sets of hands to hug them all the way ’round. Tiny gem-like wildflower blossoms, subtle fragrances, quiet, far-off whippoorwill calls. The country woos me with her large and showy and her quiet and small.

She does them both so very well.

In some ways, it reminds me of a sermon I recently heard. The pastor mentioned two seemingly opposite but parallel threads that run through the Bible — grace and responsibility.

{So, this tension between opposites plays out not only in nature, but in Christianity too.}

meadow

He assures us, that, yes, they can co-exist. They don’t have to cancel each other out. The Bible isn’t all grace, nor is it all responsibility.

If it were all about grace, we’d never take up our crosses and follow Him, we’d never stretch ourselves, we’d never grow, we’d never experience the closeness God desires for us. We’d continue along with our checkbox religion, putting tick marks in front of go-to-church-on-Sunday and say-grace-at-meals. We’d go through the motions once a week and then continue on with our comfy, secular lives because if it’s all grace, then, really, what does it matter?

If it were all about responsibility, we’d quickly grow discouraged trying to serve a stern, never-good-enough God whose standards of perfection we could never hope to attain. We’d fall down and decide never to get back up because it would be simply hopeless. We wouldn’t have a Savior who holds out His hand to help us back up, whether we deserve it or not.

morning gloryWhile this theology tidbit was shared in a sermon whose main subject was something else, I can’t stop thinking about it. That tension between grace and responsibility, the acceptance that two seemingly opposite concepts can run side by side throughout our Christian lives — well, it’s what I’ve been searching for.

I’ve spent time in Responsibility churches and they drove me out into the world, rather than closer to God. And I’ve spent time in Grace churches, and they made me feel comfortable and complacent and didn’t push me to grow. Church was either a slap in the face or a pat on the back, and, frankly, neither fit.

Since I know that a life — or a church — that falls too heavily on either path doesn’t work for me, how do I embrace this holy paradox? How do I walk two paths at the same time? How do I know what percentage grace and what percentage responsibility I need?

***

At the farm, I help Dad drape green mesh over the entire blueberry patch to protect the ripening berries. The berries have just started to darken, a few blue-black orbs tucked amongst the green, and the birds are ready to eat their fill.

So we take the flexible green netting and drape it over the trellising already in place for the berries {wooden crosses with thick wire strung between them}. “Wait,” Dad says before we get started. He takes a tool to the gear at the end of the wood post and ratchets it down so the wire is nice and taut — our scaffolding is ready.

jasper field

If we loosen up either end too much, the wire collapses and is useless. If we tighten either end too much, the wire breaks, and the whole thing falls down.

Isn’t that kind of like our dual lives of grace and responsibility? Some days we may need to ratchet down the grace end, while other days, if we’re honest, it’s time to tighten up on responsibility.

I don’t know how to do this dual grace-responsibility life, so I scramble to figure it out. Take this away, add this in here; do this, don’t do that. And, I quickly find I’m playing God– rather than praying to God. I realize there is no easy five-step method for balancing grace and responsibility {though I wish there were}.

It’s not about our perfect performance as much as it’s about walking these parallel paths with Him;
it’s about relationship …
about learning to desire Him as He desires us …
about knowing that His thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways — and learning to sit with that, even if we can’t fully comprehend it.

thumbnail frog 2Back at the pond, I’m on the hunt for wild black raspberries. It’s too early, and I only find green cluster after green cluster. I ramble along the woods edge, a lush, large growth of honeysuckle and wild berry vine {and probably poison ivy}, searching for a tiny black gem. Finally, I uncover just three ripe berries, tucked under some leaves.

I tuck one, then two, into my mouth and relish the tiny explosion of sweetness.

Redefining Brave

Redefining Brave

 

She Who Is Brave Is Free.

Hello Adventure.

Live Out Loud.

I know these sayings will appeal to my tween daughter and her friends. I carefully align the cardstock, smooth it down, and load the mat into my diecutting machine. I cut the sayings in black, pink, and turquoise, and diecut some trendy arrows as well.

On Saturday morning, I carefully lay out the sayings, arrows, chevron papers, foam brushes, and both matte and glitter mod podge on the table labeled “Make Your Own Canvas.” Nearby, is a station for the nail lady to do her thing, and the other table, covered with a couple yards of white jersey printed with a feather motif, is our “DIY Dreamcatcher” station, complete with beads, feathers, fibers, fabric strips, and metal macrame hoops as bases.

When the girls arrive for Julianne’s 11th birthday party, all is ready. The basement is so newly finished, wood stain hangs heavy in the air, and sawdust still lingers in corners. Brush strokes mark the one-coated white trim, but we are simply too excited to wait for perfection.

11 bday

The girls — all 13 of them! — arrive and busily head for the stations.

I whip up a batch of mom’s punch (cranberry, pineapple and orange juices spiked with ginger ale and dolloped with lots and lots of rainbow sherbet, which melts into a delightful pink foam) and deliver the snacks to the new basement wet bar area, within easy reach of the craft stations.

The girls loudly sing along to Julianne’s music mix while they arrange papers and apply mod podge, tie fabric strips and slide on beads, and have their nails done.

***

Later, I think of the wild and free tribal motifs and sayings that so appeal to my girl and her friends.

Paired with cute graphics on tunics and matching leggings, brave’s become a fashion statement. Mixed with burlap and feathers, chalkboard and arrows, brave’s all the rage in trendy decor.

dreamcatcher sign

But, I can’t help but by struck by how unpoetic true bravery is. It’s hard and scary and messy. It doesn’t come with a matching fringed handbag or glitter nail polish.

  • It’s speaking the truth you know in your heart — even when the other person won’t understand — and certainly won’t agree.
  • It’s standing up for that truth under the intense weight of another’s scrutiny or disappointment, or, even, anger.
  • It’s being excruciatingly honest with yourself and listening to God, even when it takes you way out of your comfort zone.
  • It’s asking: “Really, God, are you sure?” {because you think He has to be kidding}, but scraping together just enough resolve to follow His leading.

A friend who is kind and gentle, yet fiercely brave, sent me this blog post from Sarah Bessey a few weeks back. Sarah says:

In the moments when we wonder why we bother, when we feel futile and small and ridiculous, when we feel misunderstood and mischaracterized, when we are paying a price, it’s in those moments that we learn the truth about being brave: it doesn’t always feel good. … I think we like to talk a lot about being brave because the actual doing of it is so freaking terrifying. And tiring. And ordinary.

We tend to think of brave as lightning-bolt bold, when more often, it’s everyday-ordinary — small-yet-resolute, incremental steps toward a goal or decision.

Me, personally? I like the lightning bolt. I like obvious and definitive. It’s easier. It’s certainly more glamorous.

But, being faithful in small, listening to God’s quiet leading, taking little steps — it’s hard. We want satisfaction now. We want results now. We don’t really want to go through the slow, steady, messy process of sorting it all out.

We want to trust in God big at the outset and then fall comfortably back into our good old lukewarm faith, so we can get back to business as usual.

But, He has other plans. He desires slow, steady, and subtle, because
in this, we depend on Him.
In this, we must trust in Him.
In this, we are tied to Him

every.

single.

excruciatingly.

slow.

step.

of.

the.

way.

And, in this, we grow closer to Him, and stronger in our faith.

This process of real-life bravery isn’t tidy or neat. It can’t be summed up in a stylishly Pinnable image or confined to a acronym-laden hashtag.

Our lives of brave faith will be continually complicated and evolving and hard to explain to those not in our shoes.

Our lives of brave faith will be a run forward and a slide back, and then two slow steps forward, and another step back.

Our lives of brave faith will be unique to each of us and will never look like what the Christian next to us is doing.

Our lives of brave faith will always require of us open eyes, minds, and hearts– but, also, the sheer tenacity and courage to slog through the days we’re tired, the days we question our own decisions and others question us too, the days we don’t see any progress, the days we fall down.

Our lives of brave faith will require us to continually turn back to God, the source, because we are in no way equipped for this.

And, that, I think, is exactly what He wants.