Weekend Retreat

Weekend Retreat

I spent this past weekend on a muddy patch of land out in the middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania. I slept poorly in an ill-lit cabin with squeaky plastic mattresses, dined on mediocre cafeteria food, and spent all day cooped up inside working for 14 hours straight.

It was fabulous.

The weekend-long scrapbooking retreat provided our group of women with the two most precious commodities — time and space — to work.

If you don’t scrapbook, forget what you imagine scrapbooking to be. In fact, don’t even call us scrapbookers.

Call us visual story-tellers.
Call us paper artists.
Call us family biographers.

Armed with tweezers and a precision ball-point glue pen, I watched the young woman across from me create her wedding album with finely wrought die-cut lace and letters, sequins, and handmade flowers, melding the accoutrements with an artful presentation of photos.

Myself, I took the 300+ photos I’d carefully culled from the 3,851 photos we’d taken in 2016 and printed them in preparation for the weekend. But, first I had cropped and edited them in PhotoShop, adjusting lighting and occasionally cloning out glares or other pesky photo flaws. I turned about 130 of those photos into 25 pages that showcase events from a STEM competition to soccer season to a dance recital to a chance encounter with a baby chickadee. {Lest you be too impressed, recall I have the rest of those photos — around 170 by my count — to still deal with.}

I’ve been chronicling our family history in this way for 12 years now and have completed over 13 albums.

I’ve gone from traditional (paper) scrapbooking to digital and back again. I’ve gone from creating elaborate pages that involved shaping thin metal wire into letters and hand stitching through paper— a labor of love where a single page could take hours — to making simple collages online, printing them, trimming them out, and quickly adhering them to a coordinating background paper.

I’ve learned there’s no right or wrong way to do scrapbooking.

These days, I land somewhere in between elaborate and bare-bones. Some pages shape up in no time, quick and simple. For others, I may diecut a custom title or element, add brads or eyelets, ribbon or washi tape. Occasionally, I go the full nine yards with glitter and sequins and fabric flowers.

There’s something joyful in the messy, colorful melange of ribbon and paper and stamps and staples and scraps on my work table. There’s something satisfying in taking a few ho-hum photos and {through the creativity of editing, cropping, arranging, and embellishing} transforming them into an engaging page that documents the event, tells a story, and looks beautiful. It’s a case where two plus two doesn’t equal four — but quite a lot more.

For me, that’s what scrapbooking is all about— multiplying the magic of a few simple photos through skill and artistry.

***

But, more than the artistry, this weekend I was struck by how, in scrapbooking, as in life, we can get hyper-focused on what’s in front of us and forget the big picture {no pun intended}.

Here are two key points I was reminded of:

Lesson #1:  Tell The Story

This weekend, I was showing my friend Amy a close-up photo of a juvenile red-tailed hawk and telling her all about it, and she said: “Don’t forget to tell that story.”

It was a well-placed reminder. I had gotten overwhelmed with documenting the never-ending holidays, sports, birthdays, and outings and was just going to slip the hawk photo into a sleeve without explanation.

I was skimping on the enchantment of the seemingly small-yet-momentous encounters. No doubt there will be only one time in our lives that we get close enough to a red-tailed hawk to touch it and end up saving its life with some hastily defrosted raw hamburger meat.

And, so, I told that story.

I think this lesson transfers over to our daily lives as Christians as well: How well and how often are we telling the story? 

I struggle with evangelism, I do. I often stay silent when I should proclaim. I say my part here, online, and fade into the background in real life. It’s easy to praise God in Bible study or one-on-one with your Christian friends, but how often do you share what Jesus means to you and how faithful He is with others outside that safe, like-minded circle?

If your answer is, “not nearly often enough,” you’re not alone. I’m right there with you. I get it. There’s a fine line between preachy and powerful.

So, how do we go about sharing our faith?

It’s easy to espouse a Hallmark-card version of Christianity with pat Christian-isms and inspirational quotes. There’s nothing wrong with “Let Go and Let God,” or “All I Need is a Little Coffee and a Whole Lot of Jesus,” but an honest expression of who — and whose— we are, and how that plays out in our lives … well, that’s priceless.

Put simply, I believe we are all called to share testimony of God’s goodness in our lives. 

Lesson # 2:  Allow Yourself Joy

At some point during a crop {scrapbook-ese for a scrapping session}, you are going to do it. You are going to look at the person across from you whipping through spreads like there’s no tomorrow and moan: “I’ve only done __ number of pages.”

She’s done twice that.

We all need to be reminded that it’s not about how much you get done. Can I repeat that?

It’s not about how much you get done.

You will always be “behind” — in life as in scrapbooking. There will always be more {errands, cooking, cleaning, office work, exercise, hobbies, etc.} than you have time for. Personally, I‘m always struggling to fit in another training run {half-marathon in T minus 13 weeks} or a weekly yoga class, as well as time to write, time to read, time to pray {the cooking and cleaning, not so much}. 

But, we can get so addicted to the product that we steal all the joy out of the process. We can become so enamored of checking things off our to-do lists that we rarely do things for the sheer pleasure of it.

Don’t force yourself into scarcity mode every day, struggling to fit 34 hours of living into the 24 hours we are allotted. Be a rebel: Plan a whole day of nothing and see how it opens you up to greater productivity {ah, the irony!} and happiness for days afterward.

Our God “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” He desires for us to find joy not only in our love for Him and our obedience, but also in the simple things that surround us on His exquisitely crafted earth.

I’m a firm believer in taking joy in small, everyday things:

  • Don’t clean the bathroom, but do make homemade brownies with fresh, real whipped cream and eat dessert tonight by candlelight— just because.
  • Do go for a quiet walk ALONE in the closest woods you can find, instead of hitting the gym.
  • Do take an entire afternoon, evening, or day offline; read a juicy novel curled up next to your dog, cat, husband, etc. 
  • Do create one or two elaborate scrapbook pages that make your heart sing instead of 10 that leave you cold.

This is a sampling of my joy-list — yours probably looks entirely different. The point is this: Allow yourself to savor life and fully appreciate God’s abundance.

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.