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The Space to Breathe

weak

(this post was written a few days ago)

At this very moment, there is silence around me.

Truthfully, it is not silent, because there is a ticking clock, the sound of a dog roaming outside, and an occasional chicken chattering in the backyard.  But the normal soundtrack of children arguing and “I’m hungry” is absent, so to me these other noises are still a kind of silence.

We are finishing up five days of housesitting for friends. They only live fifteen minutes from us, but I’m fairly convinced that when you turn onto their dirt road, away from the matching houses of the neighborhood in which their home is nested, you cross a portal into a different zone of living.

A dog reminiscent of a polar bear approaches you as you exit your car.  As you enter their sun-filled house your eyes move from the shimmering honey jars stacked over their kitchen sink (fresh from their own bees) to the big picture window where colorful woodpeckers and chickadees dance on the bird feeder outside and finally your gaze lands on the books, and then more books.

It is a home in which the doors are never locked (that’s not a metaphor, they really aren’t ever locked that I know of). The most striking feature, aside from the generous hearts that run this home, is the room to breathe.   Inside the house there is space.  Outside the house there are benches, swings, hills to climb, welcoming paths and lanterns in the woods.

For our family of six, who live in a small three-bedroom house, space is a gift. For our family, in which a step onto our driveway means we’re practically stepping onto our neighbor’s driveway, space is a gift.

For our son (a young man of ten years with three sisters), the space calls him to adventure. He’s had a challenging winter of hating school and suffocating in a small space with sisters who like to be in charge and highlight his mistakes. Here, he rises early, checks the animals, and heads out to the woods, a sturdy walking stick in hand.  He doesn’t complain about taking out the trash, or cleaning up a mess. He’s more patient and confident, in this space.

For our two older daughters, they’ve left email and other technology behind and now venture into books and board games.  “I haven’t read a lot this year,” my oldest daughter told me last week.  This week she has read for hours, diving deep into stories.

“Can I please play on the iPad,” she asks me when she finally tires of reading.

“No,” I answer, though inwardly I’m wondering if I’m drawing the line too firm. She’s fourteen and I’m trying to loosen the reigns.

A few minutes later she is building card houses on the hearth of the fireplace and I relax.

When their friends spend the night, they gather around me.

“We’re bored,” the four girls stand before me, expectantly.

“I can’t wait to see what you come up with,” I answer, as I continue to make dinner.

A few minutes later they are in coats and boots traipsing out into the wet, cool weather. Soon after that they are in a tournament of card games.

And for our youngest, our six-year-old, her older siblings are actually playing games with her, and being mostly nice about it.  She’s figured out Hot-Cross Buns and Beethoven on the piano (we don’t have one at our house, this house has two), and she proudly walks in with two eggs from the chicken roost. “They’re still warm,” she says.

From a winter that has brought regular strife amongst the kids and a lot of angst over decisions for my husband and I, this pocket of time and space is a bit of healing.  A time to slow down.  A time to remember to play. A time to sit in silence and breathe.

Tomorrow we will have to cross the threshold again, back into the world of work, school, expectations, and technology. But this time has soothed the lingering scabs of a tough season.

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Searching for Answers at the Thrift Store

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I’m looking for answers.  I want clear, specific answers.

My eyes scan the book titles  and I wait for a title to reach out with promises.  Rather than start in the more obvious Self-Help section, I head to a smaller section with a taped label, “Theatre” (on second thought, it’s probably spelled with the American “er”). The section makes for short perusal because this is my neighborhood thrift store. There are thirty-two copies of Julius Caesar, twenty-seven versions of Romeo and Juliet, six slim paperbacks of Our Town, and a bland-looking book entitled Creative Drama that tries to lull me into a sympathy purchase every time I visit.

I call out to the books as I take my time amongst the dusty tomes.

“I need to make some decisions about my life. Who can tell me what activities my children should be involved with next fall?”

Silence pervades, but it’s not unfriendly silence.

I pause in the “Old Book” section.

“How can I get my kids to stop fighting?”

I’m pretty sure the muted black and tan book with the jazzy 1960s title: The Man’s Guide to Manly Cooking, just shifted its spine a couple of centimeters in my direction, but I call its bluff and move on.

I walk to the Spiritual section and ask with a little more urgency, “How do I lose a few pounds?”

Even the food-related title, Chocolate for a Christian Woman’s Soul, doesn’t pretend to hold the wisdom I’m longing for tonight, although it does make me think about cookie dough and my stomach rumbles its own response.

I stalk to the Education section, then Cooking and Children’s and eventually land where I should have headed all along: Fiction Softcover.

The reason I didn’t start here is because this isn’t the section I go to for answers.  This is the place I go to forget the questions altogether.  This final destination is a clear sign that I’m surrendering my hope for answers in exchange for the novels in my hand that offer the promise of escape.

It’s more than the other sections have offered thus far.

As I make my way out of the maze of shelves, my arms full, I conjure one final surge of hope and stop in the Parenting section.  Remarkably I find a hardback of the exact book I’d been looking at on Amazon earlier this afternoon. I add it to my stack. The bottom of my stack.

For six dollars and thirty-seven cents, I leave with all I need.

Later, I open up the first novel and my questions pipe down quickly, almost as if they’ve disappeared.

But really, the trick is on me. Inevitably, a dive into the world of fiction, brings me back to the surface of reality with a new perspective on my life and the questions of my heart which, most likely, are different questions than the ones I thought so pressing in the thrift store earlier tonight.

 

 

 

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Beyond the Borders of Mamaland

 

Next month I turn thirty-six and I find it uncomfortable to be stretching beyond my world of mamahood.  If you’re thirty-six and you’ve been a professional of some type and now you’re about to jump into the deep end of parenthood, it’s probably a similar feeling.  It’s less to do with my current area of knowledge and experience and more the growing pains of learning something new.

In my case, I’m not an expert parent, but having been a parent for twelve years I’m pretty familiar with the aspects of my little world. Though I might still occasionaly look at another mama and think, “Hmm, she seems to do that part of parenting better than me,” the thought doesn’t rock my world me because over the years I’ve gotten used to having inadequacies and I know I will continue to have them forever.

Amongst my mama friends, I’m “the artsy friend”.  I have one other mama friend who enjoys writing and a few mama friends that spend time drawing and painting.  Through the years I’ve thought of myself as an artist of some sort-the writer part of me, the part of me that wants to create something with my hands and somehow reflect out, an inner part of my heart.  Maybe months passed between endeavors, but the essence of “artist” remained.

As I’ve spent time in the last year with writers and musicians who work at their craft as a full time job and lifestyle, the gap between myself and Artist/Writer seems to have grown exponentially.  Now, many of you are my friends, so you’re going to try to protest what I’m saying or it might sound as if I’m putting myself down in some way, but that’s not my goal. Most of you would agree that someone who works at a craft sporadically and “when the inspirations strikes” will not be nearly as developed as someone who has put in the hours (many hours) daily, for more years than I have been a parent. And so we’ve arrived at the gap.

As I’ve stepped off the edge into the gap it’s become very clear to me that improving as an artist requires self-discipline.  It seems an obvious statement, but my relationship to art has been “when I can fit it in”, so to face the wall of self-discipline in this area is new and hard. Self-discipline has never been a strong character trait of mine, it certainly wasn’t present in school and I haven’t had to sharpen it too much over the years.  That’s not entirely true, self-discipline is absolutely a requirement in Mamaland, but it looks different than the shade of discipline I’m trying to muster at the moment.  Right now it’s a floppy, ignored muscle and I’m asking myself if I have what it takes to develop it.

Can I write every day, not just when I feel like it? What about the long days, the days with unexpected circumstances? Oh wait, almost all days as a parent fit that description. I’m trying to find a way to bridge the gap between myself and the artists I’ve spent time with in the last year, not for the sake of self-promotion, but to be excellent at the passions that have simmered in my heart most of my life. But the truth is that no one is going to tell me to sit down and write five hundred words or create something with my hands.  It’s not anyone else’s job, it should come from me.

Most of my questions about myself and self-discipline remain unanswered.  The starting place I’ve found is humility. In this world beyond the borders of Mamaland I’m not “the artsy friend”, I’m the amateur.  Accepting that I’m in these early stages of development feels crucial to calling out for help and for putting the hours in to grow.  I need to strengthen my writing muscles the same way I did my parenting muscles, one day at a time.

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Grown-up and Still Growing

I’m usually in the middle of a sentence when it happens.

My ten-year-old and I are discussing a math lesson gone bad.

“You know when you’re this frustrated, you can’t process the assignment anymore, you need to find a way out of the frustration first-”

Her face is red, her tears fresh.

I open my mouth to continue.  I close it.

When did I last demonstrate a healthy way to deal with frustration? I should really tuck that away and think about that later, I tell myself.

Here’s another recent scenario:

“Your biggest challenge in the next few years will be to find out who God made you to be.  You, Mookie.  Instead of worrying about what other people think, or trying to please and impress the kids around you.”

“I know,” she answers, with an understanding groan that confirms this is a regular struggle for her.

I open my mouth to continue.  I close it.

Don’t I still deal with that all the time? Didn’t I recently get to know a new community and  feel the urge to prove myself and say the right things to show I’m a person who has something to offer? I daily choose between moving toward the person God made me to or losing myself to comparison.

A third scenario:

“You’re beautiful just the way you are.”

“I just wish I were different that I am,” my daughter answers honestly.

I open my mouth to continue,  I close it.

How do I view myself every time I look in the mirror? Do I see beauty or flaws?

When I try to teach a lesson

Usually when I’m attempting to teach my children life lessons, I interrupt myself, thinking, “Hey, that’s a good point, I should really work on that myself.” It can be disheartening because I think a Mama should dole out the principles both in word and by example.

So what’s a Mama to do?

I feel like a mama caterpillar trying to teach a baby caterpillar how to turn into a butterfly while I’m still in a chrysalis, still in the midst of being transformed. How do I teach about transformation when I’m still in the middle of it? Do I stop instructing because I’m still learning and making mistakes? Or does the knowledge that I still need growth even as an adult, lead me toward grace toward myself and my kids?

As I think about it, that’s exactly what God offers in the Bible.  “No one should sin….but when he does sin, Jesus will be there to understand, comfort, forgive, and again, instruct.” Forgive and instruct, forgive and instruct, it’s a cycle that lasts an entire life, for each of us, no matter how many gray hairs we’ve acquired.

 

 

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The Day I Didn’t Get Discovered

 

Each year as I watch the Oscars or the Tonys, I am fifteen again, dreaming.  I imagine the style of dress I’m going to wear when my name is announced (my mom will sew my gown since I can’t afford high fashion). And, of course, I practice my acceptance speech. I thank my high school theater teacher, I’m witty and make people cry, and for my speech only, the orchestra holds the music to allow the power of my speech to finish in awed silence.

The inkling of these dreams began when I played a pointy-toed elf concerned for Santa as he contemplated leaving his job in the classic 5th grade play “Santa Goes Back to the Future.”  That same year my teacher gave us the weekly task of concocting a short story with our vocabulary words. The assignment sharpened my youthful writing skills as I blended Hamster, Circus, and Automobile into the same story.  That year, as I stared at the clouds with a wall of stiff bangs usefully blocking the glare from the sun, I saw glory in my future.

Two decades later when glory still eluded me, I thought to myself, “Now they’ll no longer say  ‘I can’t believe she’s so young!’ when I write my first play or book, instead they’ll say ‘Wow, she’s sixty!”.  The abundance of my years will be my legacy, instead of my youth, I lamented.

Nowadays, I continue on in the land of Mamahood but remain open to the possibility of being discovered.  When I saw Kevin Costner in our local pancake joint last year, I stuck around after the pancakes were gone to give him a little extra time to turn on his movie spy senses and notice me.  I gave him time to saunter over in his scuffed jeans and cowboy boots and tell me I was perfect for his next movie or that he’d like to co-write a screenplay with me (clearly I was attributing a strong spy sense to him).  That day it didn’t work out, but I like to keep my options open.

Last week I met with a friend.  She’s a friend plus a Real Writer.  I showed her a few pieces of writing I’d been working on, she gave me some positive feedback, and between our next meeting time, I dreamed of exactly how my Big Discovery would happen.  Maybe she’d encourage me to write a book or in the very least ask me to write something for her blogging community. Oh the possibilities, I dreamed.

This week we got together and we talked again about those pieces that I had handed her last week.  Last week those pieces carried a little gleam around the words because they were filled with promise. This week unraveled a little differently.  The first piece was solid but as she gave me her honest feedback about piece number 2 and 3, the glow dissipated.  These were not the pieces of promise.  It turns out, I’m much closer to the beginning then the middle or end of getting to my Big Discovery. Her words were truthful, and even as she spoke with grace, I knew every word was true.

As the hope of the Big Discovery grew cold like my forgotten cup of tea, my heart swung into motion to close-up and close-out.  But the Lord had already been at work in my heart all week, getting me ready for this moment, and I was able to recognize the gift of this friend.  She had taken a risk.  Did I wish that she’d told me my mediocre work was actually brilliant? Instead she told me how to begin the process of moving from mediocre to great (or at least better).

In the weeks since the-day-I-didn’t-get-discovered, I’ve been working my tail off to improve.  When I thought my skills were better than they were, I didn’t work very hard to improve them.  So it was also the day that I discovered that I could, and would, stick to the process even if it wasn’t the instant gratification of striking gold, but an extended excavation, a painful process to get the work done. So, I’ll work.

However, I’m still open to discovery over pancakes or maybe at this Starbucks as I finish this sentence.  And I plan to keep honing my acceptance speech.

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The Risk of Failure on the Heart

I hold my fingers above the computers keys, wondering, will I have anything to say, or should I just read someone else’s book, or blog, or play.

I flip the pages of my sketchbook and remove my mechanical pencil, pause, and wonder, will the pencil marks amount to anything really good or original?

I watch the film, mentally moving the camera to a different angle and adjust the order of the storyline, as the movie plays on, I wonder-what if I put my own hand to theater only to find my work has no truth or beauty.

Would my heart be safer without dreams?

What about a world without dreams, I wonder? No dreams, only duty. No longing for anything greater than myself, just the reality of the hard and fast world in reach of my fingertips.

To dream means to hope and to hope means to risk.

As I enter a season of taking my dreams and unfurling them into the daylight, the door to my heart tries to close hard against the risk. To keep the dream a dream, nothing more.

What am I risking?

Failure.

When I type the word it’s bathed in red light, it’s reaching out to me as vivid and invasive as a 3D, high-def movie.

This nauseous pit of fear lodged somewhere between my stomach and my heart has been with me ever since I said yes to test-driving one of my dreams.  Well, the “yes” was exhilarating.  The need to vomit came about 30 minutes later.

As the day approaches, I take out my fear and I look at it again and I send a searchlight out for my dream and it’s still there, pulsing.

I think of the parable in the Bible when the character buries his talents in the ground until his master returned, thinking himself safe and wise. Imagining my dreams inside of the cool, dark earth instead of the burning light of day sounds very tempting.

Which leads me back to my original question.  Would a world without dreams be safer?

But this time a second question shoves it’s way in.

Am I called to lead a safe life?

Is a safe life an abundant life?

A world without dreams may be safe, it might protect me from rejection and heart pain.

But as I imagine this dreamless world further, I imagine a life without invention. Without beauty. Without poetry. Or stories. Without the grace that arrives when dreams die and are resurrected into a new hope that couldn’t have been born without pain.

A world without worship because a safe heart has no need to worship.

It’s a daily choice to keep walking toward the risk instead of toward the hole in the earth ready to swallow my hope as if doing me a favor.

It’s good to be both awake and dreaming.

I feel alive.

“You must once and for all give up being worried about successes or failures.  Don’t let that concern you.  It’s your duty to go on working steadily day by day, quite quietly, to be prepared for mistakes, which are inevitable, for failures…”

Anton Chekhov, quoted by the character David in L’engle’s Certain Women

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Hibernation: A List Poem

I’ve spent 13 years in Tennessee.  The trade-off for the hill-topped horizon line and the simmering hues of the Autumn trees is Winter.  Darkness and despair at 4:30pm and days empty of anything but gray.  Rather than adjusting to it, I’ve grown more and more offended by it.  You can tell me that I need the gray season in order to appreciate the pomegranate and apricot colors come Fall-you could tell me that, but I would wait until Spring arrives because right now I might have an unpleasant reaction.

At the moment I’m contemplating migration or hibernation.  Neither of which were designed for humans.  I’m still entertaining the possibility. Hibernation seems tempting since it knocks out any reason for grocery lists or cleaning the house.

Human Hibernation: A List Poem
One incredibly, cozy down comforter
An Electric Blanket  (the color of a faded fireball just like the one I used as a child),
Books,
Books,
More Books,
An occasional peppermint hot chocolate (delivered, of course),
Children (optional, depending on their need to be fed and ability to remain cuddled).

There is still a little time left to decide.

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There is No Green Room at Hutchmoot

*please forgive all of the botched paraphrased quotes, I did my best to catch the essence.

After Hutchmoot 2012: Day 3

If New York is the place where everyone is really an actor, and just a waiter “on the side”, then Nashville is the town where every other person is a graphic designer, but what they really want to do is play music professionally.  By this I mean that it’s a city of ambition.

One would think that if one attended a conference with musicians, songwriters, and authors, in Nashville, it would be one big schmooze fest of making contacts and getting oneself noticed.  (I’ll admit, I wouldn’t have minded getting noticed.)

When I came here I introduced myself by my professional name, but by day two I found myself introducing myself as Matt.  I realized I was not making business contacts, I was making friends.  When N.D Wilson introduces himself here he introduces himself as Nate, Andrew is AP and, Pete (the Moot Master) is just Pete.”  These are the words of one Rabbit on the last day of Hutchmoot and they’re a great introduction to the atmosphere of this gathering.

“There is no backstage, we’re all out here together,” declared Andrew Peterson and his description was not just a pretense of humility.  All of the musicians and writers were standing around in the general hubbub and there was no special table for Charlie Peacock or Steve Talyor, director of the recent film Blue Like Jazz.  Is this possible in Nashville, where every artist has a clause for the kind of drink or furniture he wants in the green room?  There is no green room at Hutchmoot.

In the same way that Jesus knelt down to wash the dust and grime for His weary disciples’ feet, I saw the leaders of Hutchmoot serving the guests.

I want some water,” I said to my husband, getting ready to look for a cup of refreshment. Pete, who is not just a Head Rabbit but also the author of two outstanding books, apparated from somewhere to the space beside me and asked, “You need water?”  How had he gotten there and why was he concerned for my needs out of the other 180 attendees?  I tried to reassure him that, yes, I did indeed need water, but that, no, I did not need him to retrieve the beverage for me.  He pointed me toward three locations where fresh water was available, then apparated to the bathroom to refill the toilet paper.

Didn’t these leaders find their self-worth in the artistry of their books, songs, and films? Weren’t we supposed to lift them up and remember that we humbly come with nothing but hearts to learn from their wisdom of the ages?

In session after session I received this heart-probing message,”Go use your skills, but don’t define your worth by what you do.”

In the theater session, a profession that begs for praise and adulation, Stephen Trafton reminded the room, “Your worth and identity come from God and will never come from anything you make or create.”

And in Phil Vischer’s testimony of broken dreams he quoted C.S. Lewis, “He who has God plus many things has no more than he who has God alone.”

The capital “R” rabbits were also quick to share their weaknesses.

In my first session, one of the pastors confessed readily that he struggles with the longing to boost up his vanity at every Hutchmoot as the other staff have books and cd’s to show on the tables but he doesn’t. “I don’t mean I used to struggle with this, I mean this morning, about 4 hours ago, I struggled with it.”

One musician shared openly about the many dark places of his depression, and  all around I heard men and women release their breath as they realized they didn’t have to hide the mess in their lives to be accepted or prove their artistic significance in order to start using their gifts.

This is a new kind of community, or maybe, a very old one.

 

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What’s A Story Without the Hard Parts?

(spoiler alert: major plot points of Jane Eyre are revealed in this post)

I re-read books.

I love to re-read books.

There are some books that have been such intimate friends over the years that I can pull one off of the shelf, open it to any page, and be transported to the world of my favorite character, the colors and details as vivid as a movie playing on a screen.

Sometimes I read selfishly, savoring the first half of the book, the build, the love story when the love is still new and unblemished, when the characters are still true to themselves and each other, and then I stop.

I stop before time travel moves from excitement to terrifying for Henry and Clare in the Time Traveler’s Wife. I click off my book light before Jane Eyre leaves Mr. Rochester and spends months in pain instead of newfound joy.

And then I flip to the end. I have the right to do it, I’ve already read the book a dozen times, suffered with her, I’ve earned the right to skip if I want to.

But the end is never as exhilarating if I skip the hard parts.

The first time I walked with Jane toward Mr. Rochester when they finally meet again-well, there weren’t any words for that moment. Together we’d chosen starvation over sin and then faced the temptation to forsake our hearts altogether for a life and marriage without love. I might smile and nod happily when I skip those parts and turn to the last chapter, but take away the hard parts and where’s the story that stole my heart to begin with?

I’ve begun to see my own story in the same way. What is my story without this middle part?

I spend a lot of time running away from pain, either present pain, or past pain, anxious to get to “the good part”. But when I look back at my story of 34 years, which parts do I skip? The past that I once wished to leave closed, present chapters included, are all intricately connected. Events, moments of impact that once (and sometimes still) cause me to cry out, “Why?”, don’t make any sense as individual stories.

When I look back now those collection of moments resemble the Extreme Dot to Dot that my 11-year-old finished last week. 636 dizzying dots that eventually revealed a complete picture. I don’t know the number of days of my life so I don’t know how many dots are left to connect, but enough to know that God’s plan has been purposeful, not one extraneous dot in this book. Each moment has brought me a little more faith, trust, love, and hope, sometimes while the pain is fresh, sometimes later.

“You cannot amuptate your history from your destiny..my past is something Jesus takes hold of and makes into a destiny.  That’s called redemption.”

Beth Moore

While reading someone else’s painful story this week, I felt challenged to be a steward of my story, instead of running from it.  As I read Mary Beth Chapman’s book about the accidental death of her 5-year-old daughter, she spoke of God making her and her whole family a steward of their story. What an amazing response to the pain allowed into their life (deeper pain than I’ve ever experienced). And they have done just that, through their lives, through their books, through their music, through their ministry. They didn’t hide, they opened their story to the world, their whole story.

Stories, both real and fictional, don’t make sense without the hard parts.

What story has God made you a steward of?

 

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Thirteen Years Later

In the early years we were lumps of clay, not yet formed into anything recognizable.

In love, yes, with our rose-colored glasses firmly fixed, we ate, drank, and lived young love.  For a couple of months.

For the last thirteen years, we’ve been squeezed, rolled, allowed to set in our ways, and then pressed into helpless mounds all over again.

If a prophet had told us that in the 13 years following our wedding day we would experience trials that would strip away every ounce of surface love (for one another) and superficial faith (in God), our lumpish selves would have denied it.

Through circumstances we would never have chosen for ourselves, the Lord has gifted us with love so much greater than what we pledged in our vows.

We continue to eat and drink love, the blinding glasses removed.

We taste the Lord’s love, sometimes in tears, often in awe.

We’re smothered in the messy love of our children,

We exchange love with our eyes across a noisy dinner table,

we receive it in acts of apologies,

we give it with words of encouragement,

we hold onto it in times of pain and laughter,

we linger in what we know of each other that nobody else knows.

Two misshapen mounds of clay merging into one flesh, all by God’s perfect design.

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