Friday, December 6, 2013

Guess What?

I was published online in Catapult Magazine!

Check it out: https://www.catapultmagazine.com/celebrate/article/the-stories-of-christmas

And since they didn't include pictures, here are the covers of some of the books I talk about in my article:










Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Slow down and wait

Tonight the Pilot had to go to bed early for an extra-early brief in the morning, and I am left in the quiet house with the lights on the Christmas tree and the Nativity scene on the bookshelf. And I started to wonder, and got my notebook and pen because I wonder best on paper, and I wrote, is loneliness an opportunity for stillness?

These quiet, solitary evenings when my husband needs to go to bed early, perhaps they are my chance to press into the quietness and look for the kind of silence that speaks of peace– the solitude that tunes my easily distractible heart towards the voice of God.

I am slowing down this Christmas. After more than two months of being forced to wait for answers that never came about the Pilot's possible deployment– answers that still haven't come, a deployment that still technically could be possible– I am actually choosing waiting. I want this to be a Christmas I savor, not one where I gulp down the days and then reach Christmas Day with a case of spiritual indigestion.

For the second time, I am reading Paula Gooder's Advent devotional, The Meaning is in the Waiting. Last year my friend Lexie and I read it together– ironically, we had to rush to finish it before she left to spend her Christmas with family in another state. These past four December days, I have tried to be intentional and slow, reading each section out loud to my husband (or he to me), taking in the words and digging for the meaning.
 
I am trying to practice waiting– that long-forgotten art which is practically anathema to our instant-gratification centered culture. Christmas activities which I rushed to accomplish last year I am deliberately putting off this year. We did buy a Christmas tree the first of December, but we let it stand a couple of days in fresh, natural beauty. At first we did this to let its branches settle, but then we realized how lovely it was without ornaments– a strange, unexpected, glorious thing, a living tree in a living room. Last night we added just the lights. Perhaps we'll wait till next week to hang the ornaments. Perhaps we'll take a whole week to decorate it, choosing just three or four ornaments a day so that we can better revel in their individual beauty.

Decorating the house and baking the cookies were both things I did so quickly and so early last year that I didn't stop to actually enjoy them. I was so focused on checking things off the list, I forgot that they could actually be fun. I have a special c.d. of Christmas music which is one of my very favorites, and I've decided not to listen to it until Christmas week. My favorite Christmas piano solo is an arrangement of "Of The Father's Love Begotten" combined with "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming", and I have not yet played it, even though I started practicing other Christmas pieces weeks ago. The arrangement is so haunting, so lovely, that it deserves to be waited for just a little longer.

Paula says that the practice of waiting trains us to become aware of the presence of God in our lives. Our natural response to waiting is to chafe against it, to skip it entirely, or try to distract ourselves from it. We become so totally engrossed with the "next thing" that we cannot appreciate where we are right now. But someone who can see nothing but the "next thing" will never see the hand of God in the here-and-now. Whereas someone who intentionally practices waiting well is more likely to catch glimpses through the veil of what we call "reality" into the grand and glorious story which God is telling, and respond in worship.

I want my life to be spangled with those moments of breathless seeing and worshipful response.

I want to slow down and wait, to abide with the One who is intimately arranging every detail of my life for my best possible good.

I want to see the goodness of God in this moment– not last week, or what I hope He will do three days from now or three years from now, but right now, in my waiting, in the stillness.

I want to hear the silence whisper Emmanuel.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Living in Limbo, Learning to Wait.


I feel like a ping-pong ball
batted back and forth between
going,
staying,
going,
staying
And how do you make plans in Limbo?

We have tried. I have lain awake at night, my weary mind overloaded with possibilities, trying to prepare for the Unknown, and then comes the mental blue screen of death and I try not to panic.

When the Pilot and I started to discuss getting married, he gave me The Talk. No, not that one: the Talk which every military member has to have with the person who may become his or her spouse. The "this-is-what-it-looks-like" Talk. The "you-need-to-know-the-military-runs-my-life" Talk. The "nothing-is-ever-certain" Talk. How confident I was! I loved him– I knew that it didn't matter what the Air Force threw at us, we could take it on together. (Oh, blissful naiveté!)

The Big-Fat-Nasty-D-word has been a part of our lives since March. First, the Pilot was leaving. Then, in July, he wasn't. Then, the end of September, he was again. And we've been living in limbo ever since. Uncertainty has become our most constant companion– a very annoying roommate, which pokes its head into every speculation, ruins every plan we try to make for the holidays, whispers doubt into our ears. It keeps me awake at night.

I thought that the hardest thing, as an Air Force wife, would be kissing my husband goodbye for three months– or six– or twelve–
but I find that is not the case. (Or at least, not yet.)
Because if tomorrow the word finally came "you are leaving next week" I would feel the ache of parting from my other half, but I would feel relief, too. Oh yes. Not relief from him leaving me– simply the relief of being rid of the uncertainty, of having something known, at last. I would get to start waiting for him to come home; and perhaps this is a "grass-is-greener" mentality, but that just seems easier than waiting to find out whether or not he'll leave.

A year ago at Christmastime I read an Advent book on waiting– the author argued that it is the times of waiting, the "between-times", that we are shaped, grown, and sanctified the most. In the waiting times, we have a unique opportunity to hear God's voice inviting us into deeper intimacy. In the waiting times, we discover how little control we really have, and are invited to a posture of daily reliance and trust in our Father in Heaven who is sovereign over everything.

The message of the book, while it intrigued me deeply last year, assumes a new dimension now after these six last six weeks. I find myself wrestling, English-major-style, with words.

Limbo is a blank space, a place of emptiness– a void, a waste. Limbo is a place to escape as rapidly as possible. But waiting– that has a better connotation. Waiting means expectancy and hope. It is the artisan who painstakingly crafts patience and endurance. Waiting, like almost any worthy pursuit, is difficult– but its difficulty is a testament to its value.

So I am fighting– I am fighting to shift my paradigm, to retrain my rebellious mind and heart, to replace limbo with waiting. I am learning– very slowly– to lift open palms instead of clenched fists towards my Father in this time, to open my blind eyes and see that any illusion of control I had before this time was just that– an illusion. I am a stumbling, clumsy, awkward apprentice trying to imitate the Master who knelt and said, "Not my own, but Thy will be done." I fail daily– but I fall into the promise of His mercies which are new every morning.

I am learning how to wait.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

This is Home

Autumn arrived in South Carolina these past two weeks– the autumn I've dreamed of since I left Colorado. The Pilot brought us home a fire pit, and excitedly we donned sweaters and sat in the twilight, watching the flames grow brighter as the sky grew darker. There is nothing that quite says fall as perfectly as the snapping, whispering, chuckling, and hissing of fire licking the wood, invading a dull, respectable log and burning it from the inside out, making it gleam and glow and shimmer with molten lava. I discovered that when you toss a handful of pine-needles into the fire, they start coiling and curling like springs, turning bright, pale gold for an instant before they disintegrate into the flames. Paper is fun to burn, too– the flames are feathery until the paper turns to ash.

This past week, for the first time since leaving Colorado, I have felt truly at home.

I came driving home one late afternoon, and the waning sun was filtering through the glade of pine trees which lines one side of a broad curve of the country road which leads past soybean fields and forests to get to our neighborhood. The play of light and shadow danced with the high blue autumn sky cupping the deep gold of the field and the brush along the side of the road. I have driven that same stretch of road a hundred times now, in the past four months, but suddenly something was different, I was seeing differently, and what I saw was home. My home.

This afternoon the Pilot and I got in my car and spent an hour just driving around the roads north of where we live, winding our way through different neighborhoods, taking wrong turns and seeing where we ended up. We call it "spelunking" and it's something we love to do together– a way to get out of the house, away from the devices, chores, and distractions that are always competing for attention, and a way to discover more about the places we've lived. But this afternoon was different. In Wichita Falls and Phoenix our explorations were fun, but the general feel was touristy. Today, rolling through the perfect golden-brown afternoon, I felt quite unmistakably that I belong here.

The joy in that statement is deep for me. I know that home is with my Pilot, wherever that may be– but to live in a place, and to belong to a place, are two different things entirely. I have been married less than two years and this is my third place to live in that time, and I confess I was convinced that I would never feel a sense of belonging in any place other than Colorado. I thought I would live many places, in this Air Force life, and help the Pilot carve out a home in each of them, but always with the sense of being strangers in a strange land, setting up a haven of the familiar in an alien place. But all of a sudden, that's not true any longer. I love Colorado and I will always love the mountains and their ceaseless, ceaselessly changing beauty. But today I find that I love the way the light filters through the pine trees along the country roads in South Carolina, and I love the wildflowers that spring up out of weeds on the sides of the road, and I love the South Carolinian autumn that takes longer than I would wish to arrive, but is worth every minute of the wait when it bursts upon us.

When the Pilot and I turned back into our neighborhood I looked at houses along the street and thought, For three whole years I will get to turn onto this street and think, I'm almost home; I'm back where I belong.

  
I am so thrilled that I belong to this guy
as I now belong in South Carolina!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Musings on Chickenpox, Pain, and Peace

Autumn began nearly three weeks ago, but today is the first day it really feels like it here in Sumter. A cold front moved in last night and today is gray and misty-rainy and windy and chilly. The temperature has barely gotten above 60, and to my heat-acclimated self that is just perfect! I've got all the windows cracked open so that the chilly breeze can blow through the house, and I put on a new crocheted sweater which I bought more than a month ago in anticipation of autumn. It seems the very best kind of day for sitting at home and drinking tea.

Even if it weren't for the weather, I would have a good excuse for staying in– I'm recovering from the chickenpox! Last Friday my good friend called me to tell me that her son, whom I had seen multiple times earlier that week (and also picked up, held, and kissed because of his exceeding cuteness) had the chickenpox, and she knew that I had never had it. The very next day, right after the Pilot and I arrived at Edisto Island to spend the weekend with his family in a delightful old beach house, I started running a high fever, so my vacation was spent on the couch– no boats for me! Actually I'm very thankful– it was just that one afternoon and evening where I felt really miserable; by the next day my fever was mostly gone and though my arms and legs were itchy, I wasn't actually breaking out. Now I feel perfectly fine, if just a little tired, and the only place I've actually got "the pox" is on my fingertips and knuckles, and (more disgustingly) in my throat. My throat was very sore Sunday and yesterday, but today it feels a lot better.

Every time I am sick with something, it reminds me of how much I take a normally-functioning body for granted when I'm well. Now that I have tiny red bumps sprinkled over some of my fingers, bumps that sting slightly when I apply pressure (trying to cut my sausage with a fork was challenging at breakfast this morning!) I find myself constantly noticing just how much I use my fingers. That sounds kind of obvious, but I think it's true that the more "normal" something is, whether the use of your fingers or your eyes or any part of your body, the easier it is to feel as though we somehow have a right to be able to use those fingers or eyes or whatever. Whenever I get a cold and my nose is stuffed up at night and I go to bed and find myself struggling to breathe, I think of how many hundreds and thousands of nights I've gone to bed giving no thought to how miraculous it is that I can breathe.

I've been following the blog of a lady who is a dear friend of one of my dear friends and mentors. Kara is the wife of the pastor of the daughter church which my home church in Colorado planted last year, and she has been battling breast cancer for about as long. Not long ago they found out that her cancer, which they hoped was gone, had actually metastasized, and the prognosis is very grim. Kara, however, is not. Even though I've never met her, I can taste her hope and peace and joy in Jesus which sings out from every post of her blog, even as she is very honest about her pain and her fear. God has been using her blog in the lives of the Pilot and I in multiple ways– we have mourned together over the hard news of the cancer's metastasizing, and prayed for Kara and her family for several weeks now. I think God is teaching us something about what it means to be part of the Body of Christ, His church– that we really do rejoice and mourn together, and that being followers of Jesus makes us into a family that transcends any kind of earthly bond, even for those of us who have never met each other.

God has also used Kara's story to bring perspective to my own heart as the Pilot and I face the uncertainty over whether or not he will deploy in the next month. Seeing Kara's peace and courage– which she would be the first to say do not come from her own strength but from the Holy Spirit within her– as she very possibly faces death, has helped me realize that God will give me the grace, strength, and peace I need to face the separation from the Pilot during his deployment and everything that goes along with that. It doesn't mean that it will be easy, or that I will feel strong or peaceful. Jesus says in John 14:27, "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid." Strange as it might sound, the most comforting part of that verse to me is that Jesus says that the peace He gives is not the same as the world's. Too often I want the world's version of peace (which is really just a flimsy imitation of the real thing)– a conglomeration of feelings of tranquility, the absence of anxiety or stress, a sense that all is right with the world. But the world's peace is deceptive– it tries to minimize problems to make you feel better. The world's peace is also selfish, because it tells you to insulate yourself from circumstances and people who might disrupt your tranquil feelings.

But Jesus says explicitly that true peace does not mean a lack of trouble. In John 16:33, Jesus says, "I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world." Weird as it sounds, I love that Jesus promises trouble. When I encounter pain and trials, whether that means a difficult relationship, or the uncertainty and danger of my husband's job, or separation from him, or anything else, this verse means that I don't have to be surprised. When I hear about things like the deadly illness of a sweet mama of four who loves the Lord and has been a blessing to hundreds of people, I don't have to be afraid that God is saying, "Oops, how did that happen?" Pain and sorrow, in the myriad forms they take, are real, and the answer is not to try to escape them, withdraw from them, hide from them, or despair because of them. Jesus gives us the answer: "... in me you may have peace." Nowhere else. Not in more control, better circumstances, healing, or resolution of the conflict. True peace, real peace, is not the absence of trouble or stress or anxiety or even fear. Jesus doesn't say, "Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not feel afraid." No, he says do not be afraid. In other words, don't let fear reign in our hearts– we can feel fear, of course we will. But fear doesn't have the last word, it doesn't define us, because whatever our pain and struggles, Jesus is our peace. Our circumstances and feelings change, but Jesus doesn't.  Real peace is found only in the presence of God, in trusting in His sovereignty and His goodness, in feeling fear and pain and anguish and loneliness and choosing to believe Him and trust His promises more than we believe and trust our feelings.

I wish I could say I was perfect at this. At night, when I'm lying awake and the Pilot is asleep next to me, I so easily surrender my heart to fear, choosing to play the "what-if" game and let my feelings dictate what I believe. But I'm learning, by tiny little baby steps, to take those emotions (such tricky, changeable, fickle things!) and those very real fears, to my Lord and Savior who is no stranger to suffering, who experienced pain and anguish to an extend I will never comprehend, for my sake– and I'm learning to lay those emotions and fears at His feet, and ask for His strength and His peace.



P.S. I would encourage you to check out Kara's blog, Mundane Faithfulness. She is a living testimony to God's faithfulness and peace in the midst of the brokenness of the world. Two of her recent posts that touched my heart greatly are The Dream and Combating Lies.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Appalachians and Other Adventures

I told the Pilot that I thought the Smoky Mountains looked "squishy".

They do! See:

I grew up in the shadow of the Rockies. Which are aptly named. In Colorado, mountains that don't have a tree-line aren't mountains. They are Very High Hills.

Seriously, though, the Smoky Mountains ought to be named the Squishy Mountains. They are like masses of green gumdrops– if you were to fall into one of those mountains from an airplane, surely you'd bounce!

On a side note, I know why everyone calls them the Smokies, but I still prefer the Appalachian Mountains. Appalachian is a delicious word– folksy and fruity and wild all at once.

Anyway, Labor Day weekend was my first experience of them. The Pilot had come home, a week prior, and said, "I get a four-day weekend! Where shall we go?" and I said, "The mountains!" because of course I'm homesick for mountains. Planning just a week in advance meant that most affordable-yet-not-creepy hotels in most of the little towns we might want to stay in were already booked, but when we looked at Gatlinburg, there was a Super8 with a room to spare, so that is where we went!

We drove the scenic route through the Smoky Mountain National Park, and I had my first experience of being on a winding road leading very steeply up a mountain side, but being unable to tell just how far up we were because the winding road was pretty much a leafy green tunnel. Fortunately, the kind people who made the Smoky Mountain National Park provided convenient pull-offs at the Scenic Views.








This butterfly kept flittering around me before it kindly consented to pose for the camera. 

A nice middle-Eastern couple offered to take our picture if we would take theirs. 


We drove to the Clingman's Dome trail parking lot and hiked the short trail up to the observation tower. It's the highest point in the park. The trail is steep, but perfectly paved, so this Colorado-girl didn't have any excuse for puffing or panting... and I didn't much. And I giggled to see the people who had walking sticks and tons of gear for a 40-minute round-trip hike– of course they might have been hiking the Appalachian Trail, which crossed over our path at one point. 

The sad-skeleton trees are ones that have been eaten up by some kind of beetle.



The curve of the ramp leading up to the observation tower. It was fairly empty when we were there, and the Pilot said we got lucky: usually on holiday weekends it's so jammed you can barely get a place at the edge to see the view. 

There are just as many trees at the top of the mountain as there are everywhere else, so they had to build an observation tower so that people could actually see the views!



After this it was dinner-time, so we left the park for Gatlinburg– which I was surprised to see is literally directly outside the park beginning. I hadn't expected it to be in the mountains, and I enjoyed the picturesque backdrop to a town that is the most perfect archetype of a Tourist Trap that I have ever been in. Not that I didn't enjoy it! Tourist Traps can be quite fun in their own way, particularly if you like people-watching. I felt like I was once again in Rome– a city I remember particularly for the crowds of people swarming like ants out of anthill. You never got to the end of the crowd. Gatlinburg was similar, in a smaller, very American, redneck sort of way. The main thoroughfare of the little city is lined with restaurants, candy shops, arcades, haunted houses, shooting galleries, hotels and motels, "Old Tyme" photograph shops, and other attractions that give the whole place the effect of a carnival that moved into town and forgot to move back out again. The street was jammed with the cars of those unfortunate enough not to be situated near enough to that main funnel-street to walk. Fortunately, our humble Super 8 was just up a sidestreet, within an easy walking distance. We had a rather inedible dinner the first evening at Shoney's and made up for it with Orange Leaf frozen yogurt and miniature golf. The miniature golf course is very aptly named "Hillbilly Golf" and the course was built along the sharply-ascending mountain side. We had to ride a miniature trolley to get to the top, and then zig-zag our way through the holes back down. Certainly the most unique game of miniature golf I've ever played!

Hiking Day came next. We had packed a picnic in a cooler from home, and we set off into the park to find a trail that would satisfy the Pilot's wish of being challenged, my wish of not being exhausted, at the end of it, and our joint wish of not being absolutely swarmed with tourists. Abrams Falls looked likely, so we drove fifteen miles through the park to get there. We were delayed on a one-way scenic tour loop when, inexplicably, all the cars ahead of us slowed to a dead crawl. When we got through the obstruction it became apparent that somebody had seen a bear close to the trail and decided it would be a delightful idea to get out of their cars and chase after it, and thirty or forty people behind them followed suit. We saw them traipsing back through the field towards their vehicles as an irate park ranger chastened them, and the Pilot and I made some rather uncharitable remarks to each other about rednecks feeding the bears.


This was our healthy picnic! (Note in particular the sugar-snap peas.)

Whenever my family and I went on hikes when I was a child, I would always pretend to be a pioneer girl in a wagon train, blazing the frontier. This was a good trail for traveling back in time, imagining what kinds of people wandered under those trees and crossed the river.

 

This tall flowering plant is, in fact, Phantom Joe Pye Weed. How do I know that? Because my mother-in-law and I picked it out and transplanted it into our back garden patch last month! It was growing everywhere around the river– often in clumps reaching up to three or four feet high, like this picture.


The waterfall! 




We were nearly at the end of the hike when the plastic covering of the sole of my athletic shoe actually separated and started flapping in protest at every step I took. I was delighted– I've had those shoes for six years now and I want to get new ones, but when anything is still technically usable I feel guilty throwing them away. Now I didn't have to! I left them in the trash can of the Super 8.

That night we had dinner in a delightful, ritzy restaurant, making up for the previous evening's travesty. If I was a culinary dish, I would want to be caprese salad. The crisp bite and tang of arugula paired with  sweet tomatoes and soft threads of fresh mozzarella, all drizzled with balsamic reduction that is so yummy I just want to drink it– but I digress.
After dinner we rode the Sky-Lift up the side of the mountain and watched the lights of the town start to twinkle as the sun went down, and saw the swarms of people looking very much like ants scurrying along one of those ant-tunnel kits.





On our way home the next day, we stopped for lunch in downtown Asheville. But for the absence of the Rockies in the background I could almost have sworn I was in Manitou Springs. I had not realized that one could encounter rednecks and hippies in such profusion in the same part of the country! We ate at a restaurant called the Local Taco and I had a taco made with duck medallions. No doubt the ducks were locally grown. And then I had a taco made of portobello mushrooms, and I know those were local because this was on the wall:

I wonder kind of a man Keith Byrom, Mushroom Forager, is? I am sure that he has a long dark beard, and wears a corduroy cap. He is probably a vegetarian, too, and keeps rabbits as pets.

For dessert we indulged ourselves at the French Broad Chocolate Lounge– I had "sipping chocolate" which was exactly like drinking a glass full of cool liquid truffles. I convinced the Pilot, who hadn't had coffee that morning and was therefore inclined to be a zombie, to get the "Jitterbug", an iced concoction involving pure chocolate and two shots of espresso. Needless to say, he was abounding with energy the rest of the afternoon.

This is what happens when I tell him to "look French".



The last place we went was a little stationary shop, because I am an English Major and a nerd. I found this line of products, which were just too utterly weird and unique not to buy.



I mean, what self-respecting writer can resist a little book of Mr. Elli Pooh's Elephant Dung Paper?


Thursday, September 5, 2013

Looking for Stories



One of the saddest things about our American culture is the shallow veneer with which we gloss our lives– airbrushing out all that makes us human and real and photo-shopping ourselves into caricatures, mannequins. Mannequins don't have stories at all, and caricatures have only the gross exaggeration of stories, jagged scrawls of a plotline, devoid of real pain, real joy. We ogle the caricatures on the fronts of magazines at supermarket checkout lines with voyeuristic interest in their lurid scandals, break-ups, affairs, and the glossy sheen of their (short-lived) marriages and successes, but it is the same interest we take in the characters of Downton Abbey, or any other scripted television show (and sometimes the fictional characters garner more attention than the "real" caricature-celebrities. Anyone read some of the articles after Matthew Crawley "died"?) Tabloid headlines promise us "the real story", but what they really promise is a kind of pathetic comic-strip. We are a culture that has forgotten how to listen to real stories. Real stories of real people bore us. They are too tedious, too ordinary, too ugly, too uncomfortable, too full of the kind of stuff that fills our own every-day lives. We want to be titillated, entranced, shocked, horrified– we do not want to be touched, we do not want to be saddened, we do not want to feel truly or deeply, because to feel truly or deeply is to bring to light the immense neediness of all humanity, including ourselves, and our deepest horror is of being needy.

Is this part of what causes us to push each other away, to appropriate to ourselves the superhero's spotlight (because the superhero is the one who has no needs) and to consign everyone else a bland, blank supporting role– essentially a mannequin– as though all others existed merely to supplement our own existence, as J.T. Bushnell wrote in a recent Poets and Writers article. We cannot stand to acknowledge the needs of others because we are too busy protecting the dirty little secret of our own neediness. When we enter into the wounds, the tragedies, the battles of others, we risk bringing to light that we are not as strong, as polished or airbrushed as we want to be, that we too have our wounds, our tragedies, our battles. And even then, if we dare to let those things come to the light, it must be in a dramatic, glossy way– the kind of way that makes us look noble and long-suffering and heroic and strong. Weakness is forbidden. When was the last time you read a feature in a newspaper or magazine about someone's battle with cancer or racism or poverty that emphasized the person's weakness?

But there is another, darker side to our airbrushing of real stories, real lives, into comic strips. Even if, in our own lives, we manage to acknowledge the existence of real stories and real need– it is our own story and our own need that absorbs us. Learning to stop airbrushing our own lives is difficult, but learning how not to automatically airbrush the lives of our neighbors takes the regenerative power of the grace of God. We need to see our essential neediness– true– but stop there and we will drown in our own selfishness. How do we begin to see the needs of those around us?

I find, again, that Story helps. Stories literally humanize us– in perceiving the story of another human being, I am acknowledging their humanity and dignity (and at the same time their need, just like my need) and in that acknowledgement I become more human and less selfish caricature. When I stand in the checkout line at the grocery store, I tend to behave (in my mind) as though I am the only "real" person in the place. The woman in front of me is Obese. The cashier is Slow. Those teenagers over there are Annoying. That child is Cute but Hyperactive. And by airily assigning them their caricatured parts to play, I thus dismiss them all the better to focus on what really matters– namely myself– my own perfection or my own need, depending on which I prefer to dwell.

But what if I stop and ask myself– what are the stories that lie behind the outward appearances of these people whom I so blithely wrote off as unworthy of a second glance– suddenly I am moving towards humanity and humility. What battle might lie behind the face of the weary woman in front of me? What do I know but that it might be an act of incredible courage, or fortitude, or self-sacrifice, that she stands with her cart in the check-out line at Walmart? What wounds lacerate the soul of the cashier who is fumbling with the produce? What fears hound those teenagers into their jaunty flaunting? To ask what are their stories? is to ask what are their needs? 

When we ask that question, we are close to learning how to love our neighbor as ourselves.

In some instances, like standing in checkout lines, perhaps I can offer nothing to to the needs of people around me but to see them as real, to "outgrow the notion that other people's existence merely supplements my own". To stop looking at the outward appearance, and hesitantly stumble towards the attitude of the Lord who looks at the heart. I remember, those short five months I worked in fast-food, what a difference it made to me when someone came up to order from me, and smiled and called me by the name emblazoned on my name-tag, when someone asked me kindly how my day was going. God forgive the selfish excuses I mumble about being an introvert and not liking small-talk with strangers, that have kept me from ever imitating that behavior when I am the one standing in front of the counter. It is not about introverts or extroverts– it is about seeing people as real, and seeing human interaction as an opportunity either to bless or to curse. Every time I treat a fellow-human being with disdain or even with total indifference, am I not defacing someone who bears the very Image of God? 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

September


As Sleigh Bells seem in summer
Or Bees, at Christmas show --
So fairy -- so fictitious
The individuals do
Repealed from observation --
A Party that we knew --
More distant in an instant
Than Dawn in Timbuctoo.
~ Emily Dickinson



It is has been September for three days now. Since my summer began in March (which is when temperatures in Phoenix start to hit 80) I believe I have had above and beyond my fair share of this season. I find it most illogical that the autumn equinox is at the end of September. It seems hardly fair– September bespeaks the crunchy tang of apples, the tinge of gold brightening the trees, cool nights and crisp mornings, that moment when you realize that you can pull out your favorite sweater from last year and put it on. The sky ought to get higher up and farther away– a more distant blue, as the earth, weary of the sun's company, tilts away. This is what September means, which is why it is very aggravating to wake up in September and find that I still have three weeks of summer to go and no apparent let-up in South Carolina's heat or humidity.

My birthday is in September, too (fortunately, on the other side of the autumn equinox! I do so love having a fall birthday) and so it always seems as though the weather owes me that shift which I desire.

Sigh.

But if we Julian-calendar-abiding members of Western Civilization want to go on with our summer weather for three weeks more, then I propose that we shift the calendar three weeks backward– allow September 1st to fall on Fall, so that at least by the end of that magic-spicy-golden-sounding month we'll have some hope of putting our summer shorts and sundresses away for the year. Of course, that would make my birthday September 3rd (or 4th, depending on if the present equinox is on the 21st or 22nd) but I would be willing to make that change.


This is what I want to wake up to in September. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Changes, changes!


I feel I ought to begin with some sort of explanation for why it's been three whole months since I've graced this poor blog with a post. There are a number of reasons...

1. The Pilot and I moved! The B-course (F-16 training) in Phoenix ended, and once more our possessions disappeared into a mountain of cardboard boxes and brown paper. We stuffed what was left over into suitcases and took off for South Carolina! Glory hallelujah, we decided to ship my car so that we wouldn't both have to drive 2,000 miles, and that turned out to be a splendid decision (though the our car-shipper apparently didn't have his trailer license updated, and my poor car almost ended up impounded somewhere in New Mexico... fortunately it all worked out, and we got a nice discount.) 

2. Related to reason #1– I find it very difficult to write in the midst of disorder. I am not exactly OCD, but when my house being in chaos or my life is in the midst of major transition, I find it difficult to sit down and form thoughts on the page that I would actually want someone else to read. 

3. I have also been struggling with writing in general (not just blog posts) and questioning whether I am a writer, whether I was ever supposed to be a writer, what being a writer means, and if writing is what I ought to be doing right now. I have had a convenient list of excuses for the past year and a half for not pursuing writing in a disciplined way (...I had to finish school...my brain was fried from finishing school... we were going to move again so wait till that was over) but now I have run out of excuses. 

4. I realized that I have locked myself into a certain expectation for my posts on this blog, and I further realized that I will not be committing treason if I allow myself some variety. 80% of my posts on this blog have been essays/meditations on working out my faith into my life. I enjoy writing those kinds of posts, but in order to write them there are certain requirements: first of all, something has to have happened to inspire that kind of reflection, and then I have to achieve enough perspective and distance from that happening to write intelligently about it. I also have to feel comfortable with other people reading about it. Lots of things have happened to me in the past three months to challenge me and grow me in my faith, but I'm not yet at a space where I want to write publicly about them. 

5. At the same time, I've been jealous of some of my blogging friends who use their blogs to write about the things that happen in their life, but not necessarily in a reflective/meditative way. I have friends who, like me, live far from their families, and who often use their blogs to give their families a more intimate glimpse into their lives. Tonight I awakened to the fact that there is no rule that a blogger can write only one type of post in her blog, and that much better than limiting myself to writing only reflective/meditative/essay-type posts and thus writing very little, I ought to just write what I feel like writing (like newsy posts!) That might seem painfully obvious, and I can only say that when I'm thinking about writing, the mind games I play with myself are often painfully ridiculous.

So, to waste no time, here's a short narrative of our move (with pictures!)


My friend Angela and her husband Pete, who was a couple of B-course classes behind my Pilot, were gracious and lovely friends who let us move in with them for the last five days in Phoenix, so we could empty out and clean our house. Angela and I met each other after I moved to Wichita Falls, and we got to spend seven months drinking tea together and deepening our friendship in Phoenix.                           

Pete is going to fly with the National Guard in Wisconsin. At the moment it's not unheard-of for an active duty pilot to do a 3-year assignment with the Guard, so I have fantasized about that happening to us so that Angela and I can live near each other again and spend long afternoons over tea and conversation. 

With high hopes (and a feeling of "just-in-time" as the Phoenix temperatures crept up towards 115) the Pilot and I commenced our long trek across the country! The best part of the trip was being together in the truck. We listened to a lot of music– as the DJ for most of the trip, I took turns indulging each of our eclectic musical tastes. The Pilot is fond of up-beat pop music and down-home country; I mixed it up with bluegrass-Celtic crossovers, my "wailing woman" music (as the Pilot calls Florence+Machine) and my "anemic" music (as he dubs artists such as Joshua Radin and Coldplay.)



After three days on the road cruising through New Mexico (mountainy and beautiful), Texas (icky), and Louisiana (so many trees!) we arrived in Jackson, Mississippi for the day I had been eagerly awaiting for several months– the reunion with my younger sister. Maggie and I had not seen each other in over a year, and really we hadn't had any quality time with each other since before the Pilot and I got married. So short though it was, we made the most of the day we had! 
 

The best thing about sisters is that no matter how long it's been since you've seen each other, you can immediately be as wacky as though you were still living in the same house!

The Pilot was an excellent photographer... and he obligingly held our purses while taking our "aren't we just disgustingly cute?" picture.

 





Maggie played us a preview of part of her senior recital– Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. As I watched her hands, powerfully belting out some of those excruciating chords, I was awed not only at her skill, but at her humility. I'm not just being a bragging older sister– my li'l sis is talented! But she's also the furthest thing from full-of-herself you can imagine.










After we bid Maggie goodbye, the next stop on our (nearly) trans-continental journey was to Atlanta, to stay with the Pilot's parents. What fun to celebrate his birthday with them!


Our plan was to drive up to Sumter the next day. Since I was the one who picked out the house, we thought it would be nice to arrive the day before closing so that the Pilot could see the house in person before we signed away our lives for it. But a mysterious stomach virus inflicted itself upon the Pilot and we ended up spending an extra day in Atlanta in an UrgentCare and the ER. We were both so thankful that it happened while in Atlanta with his parents, who knew where to go and took excellent care of us– it would have been so much more miserable if it had happened earlier on in a city where we didn't know anyone.

Given that hiccup, we managed to arrive in Sumter two hours before we closed on our first home...



... the Carolina Cottage!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Shortcuts

This weekend the Pilot and I took a much-needed vacation up in the mountains, to Prescott, our favorite Arizonan discovery. Prescott is a small town nestled in among the mountains and foothills in northern Arizona, where the breezes sweep down from the peaks and keep the air fresh and cool, and the streets are hilly, and there is always something going on in the square in front of the courthouse where the great trees shade the gazebo and the statues and the walkways. We have fallen in love with Prescott and were sad to say goodbye (and cherish half-formed dreams of someday living there). But first we had to get there.

It seemed that half of Phoenix was fleeing the heat up into the mountains this Memorial Day weekend, and we had scarcely started the climb up out of the desert before we ran into traffic backed up along the interstate because of a bad accident. Victoria, my trusty Mitsubishi Galant, was going about 25 mph, and we could see the unbroken line of cars and trucks twisting up hills on the interstate in front of us like trimming on a hemline. But in this day and age of smart phones and GPS, we were undismayed. As official navigator of our expedition, I was already searching Google Maps for an alternate route, and soon, I announced that we should take the next exit, since I had found way that would take us far enough to get around the accident and then back to the interstate where the traffic should be moving more quickly. At Black Canyon City, we took the exit, smiling smugly at our cleverness. The Pilot pulled over momentarily so I could show him the route on my phone, and then off Victoria glided, free from traffic, her two occupants happily convinced that the shortcut around the back-up would have us heading towards our destination at full speed.

When, after about a mile, the gray ribbon of the asphalt road was abruptly snipped off and a brown ribbon of dirt begun in its place, we were unperturbed. For a dirt road it was quite smooth, and we charged on ahead, winding around and down a few hills. The road began to get a bit rocky, but the Pilot skillfully guided Victoria around the worst bumps, and we spoke cheerily about how adventurous we were and how it was worth it to get around the traffic. We could still see the interstate off to our right, and pretty soon we would get to the connector road which would take us back over. I couldn't exactly verify this, since we were in a dead zone for cell phone service, but the road had not looked too long on Google Maps before we set off.

After about five or six minutes, not only did our shortcut lead us out of sight of the interstate, the ratio of dirt-to-rocks on the road took a dramatic downswing. Remember the Rocky Road ice cream flavor? Clearly whoever named that mixture of velvety smooth chocolate ice cream interrupted only occasionally by the stray nut or marshmallow had no idea what he was referring to. Picture, instead, a bucket full of granite-hard walnuts (you can forget the marshmallows) cemented together with the most freezer-burned chocolate ice you can imagine, and call that Rocky Road. That is what the Pilot was trying to maneuver my poor car (who has neither the tires, the suspension, or the build for off-roading) over. It was after he had snaked us down a particularly steep road where the rocks gaped like teeth just waiting for us to stumble into their bite, that we realized that not only was this shortcut the dumbest joint decision we had made in the whole course of our marriage, it was also now too late to turn back, because we doubted our ability to get back up the hill we had just maneuvered down.

Grimly, now, with all mirth silenced and cheer forgotten, we crawled forward. The Pilot was intent on avoiding the worst of the rocks, while I, a navigator rendered useless by a phone with no service (and thus no capability of seeing just how far along we were in this fiasco), clung to the arm rest and prayed that Victoria would not get a flat tire, that we would reach the interstate soon, that God would have mercy on our thwarting of our own intelligence, forgive us for our impatience that led us to such rash stupidity, and deliver us from getting stuck in the middle of nowhere. The whole idea of "praying without ceasing" becomes so much more understandable when you've been extraordinarily dumb. Our one comfort was that there was a car in front of us and one behind us who had, apparently, had exactly the same idea as we did, and we were jouncing and bouncing up and down those hills flanked by two other cars whose occupants were just as dumb as we were.

God was merciful– we didn't get a flat tire. Loud rang the hallelujahs when finally we sighted the paved road that would end poor Victoria's ordeal and get us back to the interstate. Humbled, chastened, we swore off all shortcuts forevermore as the Pilot coaxed Victoria through the last reef of rocks and rolled her out onto the asphalt road. A guy in a big pick-up truck, waiting patiently for us to pass so he could go off-roading with his dog, gave us a grin and a curious look as Victoria limped by. "Yes," I said, though the windows were closed and we were already past him, "yes, we are just as dumb as you suspect."

It was an adventure, of course, and one that, a couple hours later when we were fairly certain that the only long-term damage that had been sustained was to our egos and not to Victoria's tires or suspension, we were able to laugh at. And though it is a tiresome thing to be always pulling morals from the stories, (and perhaps really the best moral of this story is that God has grace for our moments of nitwitery and featherbrainedness) it seems natural to point out that shortcuts tempt us not just on road-trips, but on all sorts of roads in life. When circumstances appear to grind our lives to a halt, when things aren't progressing as we think they ought to be, it's easy to assume that we know how to "fix it" and careen off onto the shortcut that we think will get us what we want or where we want to be. Most of the time, though, what appeared to be a quick and easy shortcut can batter and bruise us– and humble us (which isn't such a bad thing. There is grace and purpose even in the battering and bruising.) Wisdom lies in sticking with the slow, quiet, patient path, in being content with the story as it is now and not trying to skip several chapters ahead. I know how difficult this is– I am a dreamer, an idealist, and I struggle with taking the journey step-by-step, the story page-by-page. I want to take the shortcut, I want to skip ahead in the book. Staying patient, staying content, living the present life, in the present day with the present struggles may feel, at times, dreary and tedious, as tedious as a slow crawl on a backed-up interstate. But the present life is also where I experience the real joy of today's grace. Because I can never experience anything in the future but only in the present moment, if I am so caught up in the shortcut towards tomorrow I am too distracted to see that today brings real grace– present peace– and true joy.


This isn't a picture of the actual road we were on, since while we were on it I was too busy praying for mercy and repenting of stupidity to think about taking a picture. But it gives you an idea– just think rockier. And steeper. And three or four miles long.