152 Paper Hearts, 7 Kids and 45 Emails (so far): A Valentine’s Day Story

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I remember the very first Valentine’s Day gift I gave to my husband. When I’m putting our laundry away, I can still see it tucked in his drawer beneath his socks. Inside a small box covered in red construction paper, there are 152 red and white notes cut in the shape of hearts, one for each day leading from that first Valentine’s Day until our wedding day in July. Numbered like an advent calendar, each note expressed my love for him, a funny memory or my excitement about soon being Mrs. Jonathan Mather. I took the box out this afternoon and those notes made me smile. I still think that man looks cute in camouflage. And, it’s just as nice as I imagined it would be to hear him breathe at night and to be tucked in close.

Seventeen years have passed since I sat in my college apartment, love and excitement bursting out of me as I wrote those 152 notes. A lot has happened since we exchanged our Valentine’s Day gifts in the parking lot of his dorm. This summer our junior bridesmaid and smallest flower girl are both getting married themselves. We’ll be in the crowd, some of the ‘old married people’ with years of experience that have both sobered us and made us truly excited for the journey these sweet couples are just beginning.

There is nothing in this world like marriage. Nothing. And, just like when God brought Adam and Eve together, I would affirm that marriage is part of what is ‘very good’ in this world. I would also say that there are times when marriage is very hard.

A while ago, Jon and I were talking about a couple we knew that were breaking up. Thinking of the rejection and pain my friend was experiencing I said to him, “Thank you for never hurting me.” He turned from what he was doing and looked at me. “I’ve hurt you many times.”

And, it’s true. He’s hurt me. Many times. And, I’ve hurt him. There have been hurts that I never would have believed during those red and white heart writing days.

Tonight, Jon walked in the door after working all day. I said hello and showed him what I’d left on the stove for dinner before I kissed him on my way out the door. I ran through the blustery February air to my car where our oldest daughter waited to be driven to a friend’s house. But the car didn’t start. So, he came out to the garage and to my rescue and jumped the dead battery. Saying goodbye again, I drove off in one direction not long before he drove off in another for a fire department meeting.

After dropping my daughter off, I drove slowly over narrow roads that plow trucks had been working hard to keep clear. Banks of snow on either side rose chest high. I thought of my brother-in-law, in Maine, who’d just gotten home after eighteen hours of driving a plow truck in their most recent storm. He gets to rest for now but this fight to keep the roads clear of snow doesn’t end until mud season. More snow will come and if it isn’t cleared away traffic will stop. The goal can’t be to remove the problem of snow in general but to keep dealing with it as it comes.

And, I thought, isn’t this like marriage?

When I first met my husband we started making paths back and forth between our hearts. It started with small conversations and getting to know each other. Spending more time together and making more discoveries caused that path to be well-trodden. Soon, it was the one most walked. He became the person I wanted to run to first with both the joys and troubles of life. In the most gentle way possible, we awakened to the truth that a road was growing between our hearts. There was a connection, a bond, a knowing. And we wanted to keep traveling towards each other. By the time he placed a ring on my finger, traveling that road to connection was the most natural thing in the world. It was easy to say ‘yes’ to him. It was so easy to imagine growing closer and older, together. But, just like the roads of New England, it takes work to maintain routes to that kind of closeness.

We have not always done well at this work of maintenance. When we had a houseful of babies and toddlers I would hear people talk about ‘date nights’ with their spouse and to amuse myself I’d try to figure out how many years it had been since our last date. Usually I’d get caught up on whether or not spending time alone at the hospital (before a baby is born) counts and then just give up. Getting out of the house together just wasn’t happening. Missing out on dates wasn’t a problem by itself. Certainly watching my husband become a father made that road between our hearts a highway, paved over, with multiple lanes. We have watched each other work very hard, whether as parents or in the other goals we’ve had as a family. I’ve seen my husband grow professionally, pouring himself into his work, as a student the first year we were married and continuing through the ups and downs toward a job he loves and success as an engineer. I’ve seen him create a farm, digging post holes, planting fields, and building barns. And, when we left the farm, we took on the challenges of living off the electric grid, deep in the woods where he literally keeps our home working as well as our forest managed. This man works hard. And, he’s seen me labor as well.

But, in all that laboring, it is so easy to forget to maintain our relationship. Lately, I’ve thought about what advice I might give to this year’s June brides. But truthfully, I think it might be more important for me to learn from them. Something my marriage needs after all these years is something that comes so easily to these young women; I need to truly see and appreciate and delight in the man I get to do life with.

Jon probably won’t be getting a box of paper hearts for Valentine’s Day this year. But the last day in December he asked me what my New Year’s resolution was going to be. And, he probably didn’t expect my answer. The last year had been a hard one for us. It was full of storms that blocked roadways and both of us sometimes felt like we were shoveling alone and in vain, unable to get anywhere.

But, my new years resolution was a renewed commitment to express my appreciation for my husband. Instead of a paper heart in a box, these days Jon gets a note in his email inbox. Daily, I’m writing down something I see in him that makes me thankful. This is a simple little thing, but it’s been significant. Writing down 152 things you’re excited about 152 days before the wedding is easy. After years of marriage there can sadly be seasons and days when it is hard to think of one thing to be grateful for; those roads between our hearts can feel impassable. But daily, I’m remembering that this is one road that is worth the work to maintain. In order to be thankful, we need to slow down and see. I’ve had to pause in my day to think about my husband and all that he is and does. Just in that act of seeing and thinking, of knowing him, my love is renewed.

I am so thankful for my Valentine of seventeen years. He is still the funny, smart, hard-working, faithful and servant-hearted man that girl fell in love with so long ago. But, he’s also the man that has grown up with me, living out our marriage vows. Even when marriage is hard work, I love him more each day, and deeper. There is no doubt that God brought us together, with more good purposes in that than we ever could have dreamed.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Jonathan. I’m so thankful to be shoveling snow and walking these roads to and with you.

God has been so kind to us~

Lara

Grammy Wanda and Not Doing Swimming Lessons

Grammy Wanda and Not Doing Swimming Lessons

“Well, eventually, I’m sure you will.”

Swimming lessons had actually never crossed my mind. My oldest was four years old, and I had two others still in diapers. After telling my friend that we weren’t signed up, her words kept cycling through my mind. ‘Eventually, I’m sure you will…’

What else was I supposed to have my kids involved with that I hadn’t thought of yet? I never had swimming lessons as a child; I just spent hours and hours in lakes and the ocean. I had just assumed that they would learn the way I did. But, as I pondered ‘I’m sure you will…’ I realized that there were all sorts of other assumptions about what it meant to raise competent, happy, socially adjusted children. It starts with swimming lessons, moves along toward t-ball and then by high school it’s a blur of activities and taxi-cabbing. That seems to work well for lots of families. But was that what we wanted for ours?

As I thought, and discussed it with my husband, we both really wanted to be intentional about how our family spent time, and not just get swept up in the wave of what is expected.  What if we threw out the playbook and dreamed bigger? What if our activities weren’t centered on our children, but what if instead we chose activities that helped our children become others’ centered? We started to brainstorm.

And that is how we met Grammy Wanda.

We lived in a town with a lot of young or middle-aged families and went to church with young families and college students. But, we wanted ‘socially adjusted’ to mean more than getting along with our peers or people like us. Our family, and grandparents, lived far away, and I realized that there was a huge gap in my children’s socialization… they weren’t spending time with anyone with gray hair! I remembered my days in college volunteering in a nursing home. I thought of how lonely some of the men and women were and how eager they were to just have someone sit beside their bed and hold their hand, or talk about the photos on their bureau with them. I had a priceless commodity to bring some cheer to a place like that… babies!

It was close to Saint Patrick’s Day the first time we drove across the long covered bridge into Vermont and visited the Davis Home. The owner was excited to have children coming to visit and told us to come after lunch when many of the residents were still in the common room. She brought out leprechaun and four-leaf clover crafts and my oldest two sat with some lovely gray haired ladies and a cheerful staff woman who helped them all stick pieces together the right way. I walked around the room with the baby and said hello to some of the other residents just finishing lunch or sitting quietly. There was one woman in particular who seemed excited to see the children. She quickly became known as ‘Grammy Wanda’.

Grammy Wanda had several children and grandchildren but they all lived a distance away. Her son visited her once a week, took her out to eat and shopping. She showed me pictures of her beautiful teenage granddaughters, saying sadly that she only saw them once a year because they lived so far away. She said she had been a physical education teacher before she retired.

She also told me that she loved us, and that she was adopting us.

We went to the Davis Home almost every Tuesday for the next three years.  I had hoped that visiting a nursing home would teach the children the joy of serving others. I realized pretty quickly that in reality they were just learning the joy of getting spoiled by Grammy Wanda. On her weekly shopping trips with her son she would buy goldfish crackers, stickers, candy and lots and lots of bubbles. Going outside and blowing bubbles together was a favorite activity of Grammy Wanda and all the kids. She would blow bubbles and the kids would chase and try to pop them, and then the kids would blow bubbles and she would chase and try to pop them, and we would all laugh ourselves silly.

There were difficult moments (like when one old lady was in a bad mood and called my kids all kinds of swear words…), but the far majority of the time, bringing the children to a home with lots of older people afforded lots of fun and sweet times. We celebrated a lot of birthdays at the Davis Home, with my two or three year olds being sung ‘Happy Birthday’ by staff and residents and everyone having the fun of watching a little one blow out birthday candles. I found that preschoolers and some of the residents  with dementia enjoyed the same types of puzzles and board games. They liked the same snacks (it was the only time of the week my kids got Kool-aid with graham crackers… they loved that!!). And, just having my children at a table coloring pictures seemed to be entertainment for the residents.  Watching a pudgy little hand placing a fresh crayon drawing in a wrinkled hand, and seeing the smiles on two faces, was precious to me.

I had another baby during those three years and he was admired by all, but especially by Grammy Wanda. She wanted to hold him right away; I wasn’t sure how strong Wanda was so I shot a glance at a staff lady as if to say, “Do you think this is safe??” She nodded back reassuringly and I handed my tiny bundle to Grammy Wanda. She held him close and breathed in that sweet baby smell. She closed her eyes and soaked him in. Then she carried him around showing off ‘her new grandbaby’ to all the residents in the room that were too frail to walk over or hold him. I held my breath the whole time and was thankful to get him back safe and sound. The rest of the day, and many Tuesdays after, he smelled like Grammy Wanda’s perfume. She was his biggest cheerleader when he was learning how to walk. Maybe it was the PE teacher side of her coming out, but she told him all sorts of motivating things and clapped with joy and to his delight at his efforts.

For those three years Grammy Wanda was part of our family (and we were part of hers). I’ll always regret that those three years didn’t stretch into ten or fifteen. It was just before I had my fifth baby that we stopped making that daily Tuesday visit. I had a seven year old girl and boys aged five, three, and one and a half. I was round and full of my soon to arrive baby girl and having trouble keeping up with my active boys, especially as the winter kept us inside. And, Grammy Wanda was going through some difficult times with her health. It was harder for her to get out of her room and I could tell she felt badly that she wasn’t up for chasing bubbles or playing games. I confessed to the owner that I was having trouble making it over with my active bunch and tired pregnant body every week. She understood. She said maybe this was the natural time to take a break, and that we could come back anytime. Grammy Wanda understood as well. She said, “Just know that I love you.” I brought the baby to meet her when she was a couple of months old. I could tell Grammy Wanda was tired. My oldest daughter came along as well and they visited but I was glad that I’d left the younger (wilder) boys at home. Life got so busy after that. I sent a couple of cards to Grammy Wanda, and children’s drawings, but even that eventually got forgotten in the rush of changing diapers, making meals, running the farm and homeschooling.

A year or so later I ran into one of the ladies that had worked at the Davis Home. I quickly asked her how Wanda was, but she didn’t know. Grammy Wanda had been moved to another facility; she wasn’t sure where.

I likely won’t see her again until Heaven. There’s something both grievous about that and something okay about that. I thought that visiting a nursing home would be a good activity for my children to do; I could teach my children to serve and to be others-centered.  In reality, we didn’t find a meaningful activity or a place to give sacrificially. What we found was a person to love and to be loved by. Something like that never goes away. A skill might be learned for a season, and fade, but loving someone will always change us forever.

Sometimes Grammy Wanda would go on little field trips with us. Ironically, one summer she came along to swimming lessons. I had finally taken the plunge and signed the kids up for swimming lessons with the recreation department. A few high school and college students were giving lessons to children from preschool to diving board ages. Grammy Wanda had given a lot of swimming lessons in her days as a physical education teacher. I could see her itching to jump in the water and use her decades of experience. We sat together at the pond’s edge and she watched the little ones splashing around and retrieving rings. She glanced over at me. “You know,” she said in a hushed tone. “I don’t think they’re learning much. They really aren’t teaching them a thing.”

I smiled. I know, Grammy Wanda. I know. You have so much more to teach us.

Home At Last

Home At Last

“I could not look upon the peaks of Ascutney, Killington, Mansfield, and Equinox, without being moved in a way that no other scene could move me. It was here that I first saw the light of day; here I received my bride, here my dead lie pillowed on the loving breast of our eternal hills.”

-Calvin Coolidge, (on visiting his home state of Vermont)

In Maine, just as the blueberries were nearing their peak, I stood with my family on top of Haystack Mountain. I’ve always had trouble when people ask me where I’m from in Maine, in narrowing it down to a town. What I’d like to say is that I’m from the view off of Haystack.

That July night, after dinner but before dusk, I stood with my mother and we pointed out the places. Off to the east, in Searsmont, it was easy to pick out the patch of earth that was my father’s land. Forty six acres in the back section had burned in a forest fire this spring; you could see a gray rectangle of trees that had been charred and blackened and wouldn’t be bearing green leaves again. Closer to us would be the vegetable gardens, with cucumbers, beans and maybe my father bent over some weeds.

I moved my gaze slightly northward and could see the gap in the trees where the road stretches away to Belfast on the coast. Somewhere there, out of site, rests Islesboro in deep salt water and in the far distance, its steady gaze over both the ocean and the inlands, stood Blue Hill looking back at us.

Bringing my eyes closer again, I could see the Kingdom, where Cram Pond stands quiet and still but remembers when the mills and houses and school stood along the river and filled its shores with people. Stories still echo over the water like the eeriness of loon calls. It’s where my grandmother was born, one of seven children, and where my great-grandmother ran and wept by the waterfalls when she lost her husband. The powerful rush of water still tumbles down, all these years after her tears joined them in their course.

Past the Kingdom runs the road to Morrill. I could see it tucked into the hills in the north, hiding my sister’s houses, my grandfather’s and the church where my husband and I were married. It’s there that my sisters and I used to ride our horses across the side of Frye Mountain, passing one grandmother’s house on Rowe Hill and coming out hours later just below the other’s on Morey Hill. Frye Mountain, like Cram Pond, is a place where stories lie thick. Thirty-seven cellar holes are left up there, with apple trees growing beside in a wilderness. There used to be beautiful old farmhouses, with water running from springs in the side of the mountain into kitchens, and with big barns housing horses, cows and sheep. Once I stood with my grandfather as we looked from his house to Frye Mountain; he told me that he could still remember when there was barely a tree over there on the side of that hill. Looking at the trees covering it completely like a thick, tucked-in blanket, I almost didn’t believe him, though the miles of stone walls where pastures once were tell the same story.

Past Frye Mountain to the northwest is Hogback Mountain. They say that many years ago, two of my great great grandfathers were friends and could bellow back and forth from where they each lived on the side of the hills, having conversations across the miles. There are still stories echoing. They echoed all over, from every direction, as I stood and looked out at the view from Haystack Mountain.

Following Hogback, and coming closer West again, my mother pointed out the place where her own house sits in Montville. We moved there when I turned ten. That same year one sister went off to college, one sister left to get married, and my mother got remarried herself.  She and my stepfather bought the Montville house together, and moved my little sister and me to a new town with a new school district. It seemed at the time like I had been torn from my roots; all that was familiar and loved had been left behind. Now, it blends easily into the landscape of home as seen from Haystack Mountain. Even the house itself sits in a place that echoes family history. When my grandmother was a girl, her mother a widow, they left the Kingdom and moved right to the spot where my mother and stepfather dragged me so unwillingly. When my grandmother came to visit us that first year, she told stories of when she lived just down the hill and used to walk to attend school in what is now the house across the street from my mother’s.  She said something like, “I’ve been right here in this room before. The lady who used to live here was a seamstress and she was doing some sewing for a little girl. She saw me going to school and thought I was about the same size as that little girl. She asked me to come in so she could size a dress.” And in that spot where I felt so far from home, my grandmother said, “I’ve been right here before.”

Leaving Maine, and the view from Haystack, was difficult this time. Sort of like when I was ten, and didn’t want to leave Morrill, my heart kept crying out, ‘but that is home’.  And I shed some tears, and I had some attitude about living away, and I finally decided that I didn’t have to be on top of Haystack to look back toward home. I started looking for the stories. I decided to research and write about those places, and was drawn especially to the forgotten and echoey places like Frye Mountain and the Kingdom that are so rich with history.

And, I’m finding the stories. I’m finding that so many people have been right here before.

There are old family papers my grandfather collected in two briefcases with finicky latches, photos and newspaper clippings, letters and genealogies spreading over pages like branches or roots. A library archive of interviews about Frye Mountain were waiting like treasures in a mine; I’ve been pouring over transcripts that hold voices of a generation that is fast disappearing, telling stories of generations that they are the only ones who remember. There are maps marked with family names and old names on roads and corners and gravesites. Names copied from family Bibles, names from lists of men going off to war, names with just dates of birth and marriage and death. Names that are all we have left of each life full of stories. Names that tell us that so many people have been right here before.

Spending time with these names, and the stories that I have in pieces from times past, is helping me with my homesickness; maybe even by taking it to a deeper level that is truer. It’s reminding me that, despite how firm a stake in life we feel like we have as we work and entertain ourselves, we will only hold our place here for so long; day passes day and it wasn’t so long ago that others stood on these hills surveying the landscape. It isn’t so long before our turn will be past and others will take our place. And perhaps in a surpassing way, when we reach heights where we can see beauty and expanse, our hearts are moved by longing. There’s an echo in the air of a deeper, greater story. In a way, no matter where on earth we tread, as we strain our ears for the rest of the story, there’s a pang of homesickness in our souls. It’s okay to not be totally satisfied. There’s appropriateness in not feeling a sense of complete belonging. There’s a call in the air but it hasn’t been answered. It isn’t the time yet that we can finally say, with those who have gone on ahead of us, that we are truly ‘home at last!’

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…”

CS Lewis, from ‘The Last Battle’

Overcoming the Cold

The cold seems to make things quiet.

Outside, the evergreens are weighed down by snow that doesn’t melt; the maples and oaks each stand with arms outstretched and still as if in silent sentry. The only trees left with leaves to chatter when the wind blows are the beeches; they keep gripping them, even all curled and brown. The world is white on top of white with splashes of gray and glimpses of pine green. The chickens stay huddled in the coop and the only tracks we see near the house belong to the dog and the occasional rabbit. Most things are settled down somewhere, quiet.

We’re huddled down, too.  Sometimes we push through and layer and cover and trudge out. But we don’t stay long when it’s below ten degrees and the wind is picking up. The littlest one puts on someone’s boots and a hat on crooked, along with one mitten, and he pats my leg and points to the door. But I scoop him up and try to distract him with a book or a snack or something to make a mess with. The older kids sit near the fire. Two boys sit side by side on the rock hearth. One holds ‘The Return of the King’ and the other holds ‘Prince Caspian’. I think of Tolkien and Lewis an ocean and an epoch away, and something in me is proud of my boys. They are the type that could wear magic rings and do battle or walk through wardrobes and live in castles. We’re huddled together and dreaming bigger.

Something in me is quieter, too. This is what I dreaded in the fall; a cold, snowy winter with cancelled appointments and visits and church. And somehow it’s okay. Maybe because the seed catalogs are appearing in the mailbox every other day. Maybe because I’ve started planning and making sure we have everything we need for making maple syrup. Maybe just because something in me, deep down, has settled like the layers of snow from half a dozen storms.

Yesterday we woke to another foot of snow and an email saying church was cancelled. Before clearing the driveway, my husband helped me bundle little ones and put boots on the right feet. We strapped on snowshoes and loaded up the ice fishing sled with the ones too short to walk in the deep snow. It was bitter. In the woods the cold was biting but when we would come into the open it sliced through the layers with brutality. We made it only as far as the children’s Falkonhurst, a town they’ve created out of sticks and branches and forks in tree trunks. We peeked in each of their ‘cabins’ to see how well they were holding up, and then retreated back to the house to stand by the fire and thaw.

Today, I saw on the news that a woman just a little younger than me was hiking in the mountains not far away yesterday. By 3:30 in the afternoon she was somewhere on the ridgeline and knew she was in trouble. They tried to reach her but with temperatures reaching 30 below last night and unbelievable winds, they couldn’t. It’s one of those news stories that leave you aching.

We are all so much more fragile than we want to believe.

Maybe that’s a strange thing about a cold winter. It shows us things about ourselves. We see how dependent we are on that shrinking firewood pile next to the house. But then, we feel tough as we rush out to grab the next armload. We’re kind of dipping back and forth between feeling like dependents and conquerors.

Sometimes faith feels like that, too.

Another news story made my heart ache today. Twenty one men lined up along a distant shore. In the photographs, you can see the waves rolling in behind them. Twenty one men on their knees, the only words on their lips being, “Help me, Jesus.”

And they were conquerors.

Somewhere inside something has settled in me. It makes me quiet. Prayerful.

This world is cold. There is such a thing as evil and it wants to kill and destroy. It wants to whisper lies. It wants to numb us to what is true and put fear and hate in our bones. It wants to make our temperature the same as that of the world in a winter chill.

But that’s not all there is.

Last night I woke up and heard the wind battering the house. My husband and I were nestled close under the weight of wool blankets. I knew the woodstoves were probably getting low as it had been several hours since they had been loaded and the dampers shut. I thought of my little ones upstairs and downstairs and my husband asleep next to me, all waking up in a few hours. I took the plunge into the cold air and tended the fires.

This winter I’m getting more settled in my need to tend those fires.

“For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.  And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:8-9)

The cold of this world wants to creep not just through the walls of our house, but wants to creep into my mind and my heart.

The cold wants to numb my affections for Christ; to have me doubt that my faith will be sight someday. The cold wants to chill my marriage with little resentments here and there that go unspoken and unforgiven. It wants to bury my joy as a mother in the mundane tasks that seem more important than snuggling and listening and speaking kindness into little hearts. The cold of this world can make me weary.

But Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world.”

The cold doesn’t have to numb and chill and bury and weary. He has overcome the cold.

It’s okay to grow quieter; to be stilled by the cold. But it needs to drive me to tend the fires.

I tend the fires of my faith by drawing near to God; to have a heart that is not quiet toward Him but quiet before Him. It’s opening up the damper when I pray with honesty and rawness. It’s placing seasoned fuel in the fire when I open up the Word and read it until it is saturating my soul more than the drafts that come from circumstance. It’s stirring the coals and blowing fresh oxygen onto the flames when I don’t let snowy roads or a chilled heart keep me from reaching out to loved ones however I’m able. And, as I obey, I can watch the flames leap up and warm my heart so that I don’t give up and so that I can pour the warm harvest of the Holy Spirit into the cold world, starting with those closest to me.

Father,

Thank You for the reality of life beyond this cold world. I know this season of separation is so brief… Only You know when we each will breathe our last breath and what our first moments in the reality of eternity will be. Please let us live our lives close to You so that when that moment comes, it is just a continuation and increase in the intimacy we have grown to experience here. Let us not grow weary in doing good while we have the opportunity. Please let me love my husband and children well while we’re close together in this small house in the middle of winter. And let the love that You grow here, in the quiet and stillness of these woods and of our hearts, overflow into the lives of those we love in other places, and those who we don’t know yet but will love Someday.

Amen

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The Wave Song

She grew up outside of the fog. Where her house sat, there were fields of cows and fields of grasses growing tall for hay. Always surrounding these were hills covered round and green by the tall pines. But on the way to town, before they came to stores and to the only stop light, she would see it; a cloud starting to lift below. The ocean was just ahead; a bay cut deep into the rocky flesh of mid-coast Maine.

In the heat of July and August, sticky sunscreen would be packed beside Italian sandwiches and she could play for the day on the shore. Even before she had words, the waves made poetry deep inside; they lapped against rocks in a steady rhythm that said ‘this is so big and you are so small’. Over and over and over again, the tide coming up unrelenting (stealing shoes if it could) and then releasing its grip on the shore (leaving shell-treasure in recompense).

In school, she sounded out words to tell the story of a sea-witch and wound the tale around with waves and weeds and dashed wickedness. When she turned in her paper, she watched from her desk as her teacher read it, saw her smile and leave the room with the story still in her hands. And the girl wondered and didn’t know.

Little Lara at the Beach

Later, she didn’t have to sound out her words anymore; they were emotions decoded and thoughts sorted and composition books were stacked under her bed. In her first creative writing class, teenagers sat in a circle and she read her poem aloud. When she looked up, her teacher had tears streaming down her face and left the circle for tissues. And the girl wondered and realized that words aren’t just for her to sort but that they connect and stretch across space and bring people close.

In college, the girl would drive her car to the ocean. She sat overlooking the bay and wrote poems about sailboats and the wind and being on the shore. One night she stayed with a friend in a little house where she could hear waves and smell salt. In the morning she woke to the thudding sound of lobster boats. As she scrounged for breakfast, she watched the pretty sea gulls circling over the boats and scavenging as well. She scribbled out a lobsterman poem and, even though a Mainer all her life, as she thought of them pulling traps out in the chilly morning, she realized she was just a tourist at the sea side.

That fall she met a boy with hair bleached blonde from working all summer on the ocean. He called sea gulls rats and didn’t think they were pretty at all. He teased her about her little bay with the gentle waves and showed her the ocean where the waves were wild and crashed and where when you look out into the ocean it was like looking up at the stars in the sky, seeming to stretch on and on for infinity.

Soon, she started writing poems with a ring on her hand and delicately put the word ‘fiance’ in her prose whenever she could make it fit. There was marriage and moving far from the ocean and a baby was born. She held the new little one in her arms and again, felt the wave song swelling up inside, “this is so big and you are so small.”

The boy knew his wife missed the cow fields and hay fields and before long they had a farm and a farmer’s family; half a dozen babies trying to help pull weeds and mend fences. She was so happy she forgot all about the ocean and the stories. Her hands were too busy for pen and paper. The ocean was only thought of on those hot summer days when they stacked hay bales and longed for a cool sea breeze to dry their sweat. Sometimes, when the hay field was past due for mowing, a light summer wind would send rippling waves through the grass. She’d catch her breath and for a moment, as she watched the timothy bend and bow and lift again, she was beside the sea again. A poem would start to swell like a wave but then there was lunch to make and a baby to put down for her nap and the sheep had broken the temporary fence and were in with the cows. Her thoughts didn’t need to be sorted as much as the laundry waiting in piled baskets.

But then, came a summer of breaking on the farm. The boy and girl sold their animals and old farmhouse and their farm kids became kids with tree forts and hatchets. Their new house sat on a pine covered hill with big windows looking west. So, she would gaze over the rolling hills below and into the big sky above with her back turned to the ocean. She didn’t think about waves or salty air, but she thought about miles and dirt roads and stars in the sky. The miles and the dirt road would sometimes taunt her with their song, ‘you are so alone, so far away’. But every now and then, the stars would whisper to her the wave song, ‘this is so big and you are so small’. Slowly, a swell of stories started to rise inside her heart. Sometimes she walked with her children in the woods and told them stories; a fairy named Perchance had been blown away from fairy land during a storm (when she didn’t listen to her mommy and come inside) and was now wandering about the woods. She was shy but lonely so she loved to follow children and would sometimes leave little gifts in the trail for them. And the farm kids turned woods kids would walk with quiet feet and try to catch a glimpse. They would look in stumps and under leaves and they would find Perchance’s gifts of acorns and shiny rocks and funny shaped sticks.

And the girl-now-mother-in-the-woods started filling her journals again. She even wrote a poem or two. But she was still looking west out her windows and the dirt roads still taunted her with loneliness. She remembered how her teacher had cried and how her words had gone out of her heart into someone else’s and connected them with strings of understanding. She decided to share her ‘walk in the woods’ and would sometimes find a story pressing in and out. So, she would take her heart and put it into words on a computer screen and when she pressed ‘share’ somehow her words bypassed the long dirt road on their way to other screens and into other hearts. And sometimes, words would come back to her. Sometimes other hearts would be put into words and a wave of connection and love would swell.

Sometimes the girl even started to feel wise. When she wrote she would pray and have the Words of the Master of all Words by her side. His Word came in like a tide at the ocean; where there was once a tangle of weeds and rubbish the deep waters would come and rest. And then, as the tide receded she found it had taken much of the debris and left behind treasures of truth glimmering for her to pick up and make her own. She started longing to share these treasures gleaned from the deep tides rolling over her soul. This longing could possess her; she craved the tides and the washing and the sharing and the hearts being strung together with strings of wisdom. She started wanting to spend her day stringing together words and checking and rechecking them.

But she was still a mother and a wife and a housecleaner and a schoolteacher and… on and on it could go. One night, she and the boy sat face to face with their New Years’ sparkling cider in their hands. And, they talked about the year ahead and she knew there was more to do than she could ever, ever do. She looked at this boy whose hair was brown now and who worked so hard and she wanted to do whatever she could to make their life happy in the woods. So, she decided to cut out the words and the stories and the sharing. She would make her hands busy with dishes and laundry and school books and diapers and do it without the distraction of the stories pushing up and in and out.

And she tried. She put schedules in place and made her hands as busy as they could be. And her house was a bit cleaner and she thought, ‘Yes… this is right. This is what I needed to do.’

But at night, she started dreaming of the ocean. The waves woke her from her sleep and she was thirsty with desire to be standing on rocks with salt air blowing her hair and wild waves crashing below.

And, neither the girl nor the boy was happier in their tidier house in the woods. After a while, her heart sank with this knowledge. She could do and do and do and do and do and all the while there was more. One day, she took an old board and painted the words, “Our home, a place to BE” and hung it on the wall. And, throughout the day, she would look at the crooked letters and wonder how to ‘be’ and how to let others ‘be’.

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And all the while, she prayed that the Master of all Words wouldn’t wash over her with His tide. She couldn’t bear to see the treasures shining and know she had given up stories. They were the only thing she could think of to let go because dinner needed to be made and children needed to be snuggled and socks needed matching. But she didn’t need to write.

Though at night, she kept dreaming of waves and sometimes they were gentle and sometimes they came crashing down and made her afraid.

Just before she sank down under the weight of the doing and the crashing waves, the Master of All Words gave her counselors kinder than those of Job. One was on her way to the ocean, and gave her the gift of listening and belief and confidence in her stories. Another wrote from the desert, and sang songs over her like the tide washing up and over and around, strengthening and stilling.

And the girl knew. She needed to write. She needed to weave stories while walking with her children and write love letters to her husband and to let the Word wash her and speak it back in ways that connect her to people beyond her long dirt road. She needed to let go of ‘doing’ her writing with its checking and rechecking and trying to be wise and to just ‘be’ and write like she inhales and exhales. She wouldn’t write to teach but she would write for healing and to love. She wouldn’t worry about her grammar or style or being pretty for other people… she doesn’t have time for all of that. But she would write like she was standing by the shore and listening to the waves crash.

And, while her windows still face west, she’s holding tight to something better than the ocean welling up inside. She has the One who thought of the seas and spoke them into being with His Word. She has the One who looked at the crashing waves and told them to ‘Be Still’ and they quieted. So, she can listen to His song in her heart, and write to and through and for the One who calls out, over and over and over again, ‘this is so big and you are so small.’

Camp

I took the key down from the nail where it’s hung for decades and opened the door just as I’ve done a hundred other times.  As I took a step inside, my chest felt heavy and I fought back tears, not because it was different, but because it was so much the same. The yard sale finds on the shelf beside the novels, the rugs on the floor, the pillows on the couch, even the silly talking ant from ‘A Bug’s Life’ that the kids love; they were all there. It’s as if they didn’t know things had changed.

I used to find the ‘sameness’ of camp every year comforting. Even when I was a little girl I recognized it. When I was ten years old a dozen things changed in my life.  My two oldest sisters moved out, one to go to college and the other to get married. My mother also remarried and bought a house with my new stepfather meaning a change of neighbors and schools. Even my dog had to be put down. I felt like I had been shaken out of everything that had seemed steady. I remember walking through the same door to camp that long-ago summer, sitting down on the couch and noticing some plates hanging on the wall. They had pictures of a fish and a bear and a deer and I thought about how I had seen them my whole life and with a sigh of relief, I realized that camp doesn’t change.

Before we made the trip last week, one of my younger sisters cleaned and vacuumed. She filled the bowls on the counter with candy and treats so they were just the way they always had been. When I set the key down beside the bowl filled with ‘Devil Dogs’ and Hershey’s minis, the tears broke through.

It’s strange to me how food and grief go together.

The kids all came running in with their sleeping bags and backpacks and chattering voices and stopped short when they saw me. The three year old turned back and I heard her say to my husband, “Mommy’s sad! Mommy’s sad!”

So, I breathed deeply and dried my tears. I reminded them that this was the camp that belonged to my Grammy and they understood and the chattering started again and I got busy helping with all the negotiations of who sleeps where.

I’m thankful for how children and life go together.

The first night at camp was hard.  Jon slept in the middle of the sea of wiggly sleeping bags and told stories into the night so that the baby and I could sleep more peacefully in Grammy and Grampy’s room. I didn’t pull back the covers of the bed that Grammy might have been the last one to make, but slept on top with my head on one of her pillows. I saw some sheets and a decoration left on her bureau like she had been working on something and moved on before she finished.  Her camp shoes sat behind a chair next to the wall, the soles worn smooth. Her hairbrush sat in a basket.  I thought of Grampy, who says that nighttime is always the hardest, and heaviness pressed in around my heart as I closed my eyes and slept.

Many mornings I wake up with something like a theme song for the day in my head. Sometimes it feels like inspiration, sometimes it feels like a little joke from my subconscious. When the baby was teething a couple of months ago, and I hadn’t had adequate sleep for days, and the children had been bickering more than usual, I woke up with ‘a little ditty about Jack and Diane.’ My first conscious thought of the day was, “Oh yeah, you know life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone…” But, thankfully, that first morning at camp, I found myself singing the line of a different song as I woke.

Jesus has overcome

The grave has been overwhelmed

The victory is won…

 Until I got home tonight and searched for it online, I couldn’t remember the rest of the song. (It’s Chris Tomlin, ‘I Will Rise’.) But, those few lines were what I needed that moment. It was the reminder that death isn’t the end. I know there is something beyond the grave because I know Some One that has passed through it. The victory is won.

Last summer some work was done on the camp’s foundation. Grammy isn’t here to help with the landscaping but Grampy said he’s trying to do things the way she’d like them. He planted some perennials and showed me where he had started some flowers from seed. One of the neighbors at camp had included a package of forget-me-not seeds in a sympathy card and Grampy planted them this spring. They are starting to grow, just little seedlings when I saw them yesterday, but those forget-me-nots are making their way up from the soil next to the bleeding heart plants.

Flowers and grief and life seem to all go together.

I cut a little stem off of Grammy’s rose bush in front of camp before we left today. I’ve never tried growing a rose from a cutting but I’m going to attempt it. It sat sticking out of a water bottle in the console on the long drive home. Like a little birthday gift from Grammy.

When I was growing up, I was happy to have a summer birthday because it meant that I got to celebrate it at camp. When I was a little girl some relatives would gather and there would be presents and singing and Grammy’s marble cake. Even when I was a teenager I would invite friends to celebrate with me at camp and we’d play music and swim in the lake and still Grammy would send over a marble cake. This year, I woke up at camp on my birthday, and I knew that there would be no marble cake. This year, even if the camp is the same and sits steady on its new foundation, something has changed. Something has shaken.

But there are still unshakeables.

Jesus has overcome

The grave has been overwhelmed

The victory is won…

This morning the loons were calling as I woke up. I quietly put on a swim suit and tiptoed past the still sleeping bags and made my way out of camp and down to the shore. I love mornings at the lake. Everything is still. It feels sacred to be the first one to break through the glass-like water and send the first ripples of the day into the lake. This morning I waded in slowly, remembering past birthdays and wondering about the year ahead. I stopped when the water was up to my knees and I looked out over the blue to an island and then to some tall pines standing on a hill to the east. The sun hadn’t quite reached over their topmost branches.

I thought of all the people, here and gone and young and young once, that this place has meant something to. And I thought of the One who knows us all. I prayed. I prayed for them and for me and was thankful for Him. The quiet of the water became the quiet of my soul and I whispered the words, “Into Your hands I commit my spirit,” and I dove headlong into the water.  As my face met the surface once again, the sun was just rising over the tops of the pines.

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The Farmer Poet

The Farmer Poet

Most of the farmers I know are poets. There is poetry in dirt and seasons and calves being born and butchering day and manure and seeds and cold mornings with cows bellowing and the itch of hay chaff in the linings of a pair of well-worn gloves. You need to have some lines scratched on your soul to keep going with the sun rising and rain clouds on the horizon and where the seasons are always changing and before they do you need to have hay in or fields turned or fences up. You have the makings of a poet when something in your drudgery is beautiful to your soul and when your helplessness doesn’t keep you from doing the next thing.

I remember an old, blue Leyland tractor, the doors to the cab wired shut for double protection against being bumped open. Four of us could fit when it was time to ted the hay; little boys with baseball caps and t-shirt tans standing on either side of me. I focused on gears and getting the speed of spinning forks just right to spread the rows of hay into fluffy piles to dry without beating them into dust.  The clacks and rumble would put the baby strapped to my chest to sleep and I would feel her breathe and the sweat would stick us into one, round, flesh again. Once in a while a boy would point and shout about a bird or that he wanted to get out the next time we came nearest the house so he could run to the cool basement and retrieve a popsicle from the big freezer.  Mostly though, thoughts just jostled around in our minds and often even there a quiet settled. A quiet that is hard to achieve when you wake up early to pray and you remember about the phone call you need to make before noon and that you are low on milk and maybe the kids will be okay with toast instead of cereal and what will you need to print out for the history lesson today? While the tractor made circles, my spinning thoughts, like the drying timothy and clover, fell into rows of order and rest.

We planted a huge garden in long rows on the farm. At the end of June I stood in the middle of a mass of overgrown weeds and searched for rows and vegetables and paths.  Life was everywhere but it was choking out what was planned and worked for and supposed to be in jars in the pantry come fall. I cried overwhelmed, frustrated, disappointed tears and knew I couldn’t catch up. On the first of July we had strawberry shortcake for my birthday and then headed out to the garden where my husband pulled weeds and chubby hands pulled weeds and I pulled weeds with a baby in one arm. And there was a path and sun on tomatoes and a heap of weeds to compost.

This spring I planted a little raised-bed garden here in the woods. There were ample sticks to mark my rows of onions and hills of squash and even though the soil is rocky, I have hopes for jars in the pantry this fall. This little garden patch feels manageable. But, as I planted seeds in rows I remembered something a friend said recently. ‘Gardening is just another form of dependency.’ We plant seeds but we are at the mercy of the Life-giver to make them grow. I think of how the same brown dirt grows a deep, purple-red beet, a firm white potato, and leafy, green lettuce. This is a deeper magic than can be conjured with a watering can and a hoe.

A little boy asked if he could help and I gave him a row of beans to plant. He took a fistful of seeds and worked his way down the row. There were more rows to plant but he’d had his fill and happily bounded off to ride his bike. I was left alone with the packet of seeds and thought about how this is a hobby. If the beans don’t grow there is the grocery store and they’re cheap to buy and nine year old boys used to plant beans or else they went without. For a minute I wondered if I should call him back.

When I became a mother I didn’t have time to read for pleasure. There were parenting books to read and how-to-have-happy-perfectly-lovely-successful-children manuals. And the sun shone and the rains came and I was crying overwhelmed tears on my bed and I knew that children don’t grow in neat rows and around us and in us there’s a wildness that makes me afraid the harvest won’t be what I had once dreamed. I don’t have the deep magic to make people grow and the manuals don’t hold the right spells either.

Seven times I’ve been handed a baby, like a seed, fresh and new and unknown. And, each time, my heart wanted to break through me and cover them with fierce love like a thick, rich soil blanketing them from the elements. But soil is just a place to grow roots. It is stretched and moved and changed in its nourishing of the new life.  In the love and the breaking and the helplessness, my children have grown me into a mother-poet, leaning hard into the only Life Grower.

There are days when I feel overwhelmed. Like the weeds are going to take over. There are nine of us growing together and there are messes and hurt feelings and school work that sits unfinished along with the dishes. Daily I’m aware of my powerlessness to change hearts or to force kindness or to speed up maturity or to make our lives neat and orderly and safe.

But, a mother-poet leans into the deep magic of the Life Grower.

The lines scratched on my soul are changing from ‘keep them safe’ or ‘’raise good kids” into ‘tend them faithfully’ and ‘love them well’. It’s the knowledge that the only thing I have to offer is the gospel that I still need myself.

The gospel that makes me a mother living moment by moment by moment leaning into grace, offering grace, pleading for grace. It takes me out of the ‘what will be’ and into the ‘what is now’. It is the prayer and the grace to understand the seasons. To know the time to shelter, to plant, to weed and to water; to keep them close and speak truth and discipline and to shower with loving-kindnesses. And to know the seasons to let the plants break through the soil; to bear the pain of release over and over and over again. It’s learning to trust, to do the next thing, to lean hard into the Life Grower.  That Great Poet writing His story, bearing His fruit, reaping His harvest, in each of our farmer-mother-child souls.