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

His Old Sweatshirt

I remember the night when I first wore his sweatshirt. He must have felt me shivering on the back of his motorcycle as we were coming back from the ocean. He pulled into the parking lot in front of Kmart or some other store in Ellsworth, Maine.

“You know, I think I need to do a little shopping before classes start up again.”

I followed him in and watched as he found a blue sweatshirt and paid the clerk. No, he didn’t need a bag.

“Would you mind wearing this until I drop you off? It’ll be easier to carry that way.”

And, with a smile, I pulled the sweatshirt on over my short sleeves and climbed on the seat behind him. I don’t know how many times since then that the old sweatshirt has stayed when other clothes have been sent off as donations or to the rag bag.

Tonight I’m wearing one of his t-shirts. It’s the one he was wearing the morning before he flew off on an airplane to Alaska and it still smells like him. Seven. more. nights.

The first night my husband was gone the kids and I camped out in a little cabin. There were kids in the loft and on the floor and two in my bed.

And there was a weight in my chest. I lay awake and listened to noises and wondered if we’d face danger in the night. Bears, bad guys, tornadoes, and UFOs all crossed my mind. My thoughts followed my fears and I imagined what would happen if my husband never made it back. How would I raise seven children alone? Would we stay in our off-the-grid house in the woods or move? Could I learn to plow the driveway and get our own firewood? Before we got married I could change my own oil but I haven’t touched an oil pan since I walked down the aisle. I cut down one small tree using a chainsaw this summer to impress the kids but I had to work hard to not look scared when it started swaying.

And the part of me that was raised in an era of ‘girl power’ is ashamed to say that I depend on my husband for a lot of really practical ‘manly’ things around here. Even as I write this I hear a mouse scuttling in the wall and wish my mouse hunter wasn’t in Alaska.

When he’s not here with us, I feel the weight of what he usually takes care of. If there’s a bump in the night he’s the one who gets out of bed to find out what it is. He’s the one who’s out of the house at 6:20AM and gone for eleven or twelve hours each day so that money magically shows up in our bank account. Sometimes when I have a child in the habit of wasting a lot of food or being careless with something we figure out how long Daddy had to be at work to buy whatever it was. All these things filling our home and our table are things he provided.

For all these years of marriage there has been a man in my life feeling the weight of protecting me and my little ones and providing for all of our physical needs. All those years ago he saw my need for a sweatshirt and he’s never stopped seeing needs and going out of his way to meet them.

Recently I sat outside by the pond talking with a friend. As a young mom she told me about her struggle to know whether or not she should keep working or stay home. She said she’s been talking with a lot of women and all of them say that whatever decision is made you always second guess yourself. Plus, it’s scary not to have a fallback. If you are out of the work force for long you lose experience and skills that translate into earning potential.

So many women are making so many different choices. Each situation is unique and those of us who have the ability to make a choice have been blessed with so much freedom.

But, there is also something deeper. Something that doesn’t have anything to do with income or economics. I’ve felt it. There’s something in me that whispers that I’m not a strong person if I want a man to kill the mice and go first to check on the bump in the night and to bring home a paycheck while I stay home. There’s a little shame that can rise when I say that I depend on my husband to keep my car rolling and wood in the fire and my heart beating peacefully in the middle of the night.

But I don’t have to be ashamed; I can be fearlessly thankful.

Accepting provision and protection and feeling a need for someone isn’t weak. I could set mousetraps and I could find childcare and I could go to work. I could be sure to keep myself from needing him and from the danger of experiencing great loss if I were ever to lose him. If we could just live together but maintain a minimal level of dependency we could feel ‘safer’.

But, truthfully, I’d rather be wearing his old sweatshirt.

The Keeping Strength

The Keeping Strength

I’m not altogether sad to be nearing the end of April. This month I’ve been like the weather; the alternating sunny and gray days when we don’t bother to start the fire and yet the sun isn’t warm enough to completely remove the chill.

Last night it was my turn to go to a church service in the evening. My husband and I swap who goes and who stays home with children. These meetings are something new. Our church has grown and like a plant that has to be divided when it is full of life and outgrowing its container, there are plans being made to plant a new church in a new place. Just like the gospel story itself, it feels like a beginning that is a continuing.

Driving there, I’m all alone for the first time in weeks. I remember I haven’t been in the Word. I’ve let endless lists of things to do before the day is done crowd out my time to read and be still. Maybe that is the gray that’s been clouding over me. I turn off the radio and sing “Great is Thy Faithfulness”. I grasp in my weak memory for a verse. I find Psalm 103, memorized when I was in college. “He redeems my life from the pit and crowns me with love and compassion.” And, like it always does, the Word starts reaching in and pulling me back. Redeeming. Too often I see myself still in the pit. Or on the precipice about to fall. But He doesn’t see me that way. He sees love and compassion instead of thorns encircling my head.

April was our maple sugaring season. It was late this year or maybe it’s always late here in the woods where the feet of snow keep their grip longer on the trees. I’m still finding my bearings in these woods. On the farm we had great, old maples; huge trunks that my arms only reached halfway around. Late in February they would start to send the strong stream of sap from their deep roots and our buckets would be overflowing. Our trees in these woods are young. We’re careful to put just one bucket on many of the trunks as they don’t have as much to give.

While I put syrup in jars I think about my marriage. I think about how we started out like saplings and we couldn’t handle well any extra strain on our resources. Tree rings of time and babies and laughing and fighting and being disappointed in each other and finding that our faults were gifts to mature each other; we are probably one bucket trees now. And what flows when we are pierced is sweeter.

I’ve heard that when someone reaches the same age that a parent was when they passed away, they can experience a sudden sense of their own mortality. I’m near the same age my parents were when they divorced. As I drove alone last night I had not a sudden, but a familiar and lingering, sense of my own faithlessness. I was thinking about a new church and my own weakness and how much I believe. How there are a hundred ways I could fall away, hundreds of lies that I could believe that could hurt my family, my friends, my church, the name ‘Christian’; a strange mixture of being sure of Truth without confidence that I will keep believing.

But I made my way to a folding chair and sat with believers and felt hope stir. A question was asked by someone behind me. “What is going to make this church different from all the others that have disappointed people?”

What does make this different? What makes this church or this marriage or this soul different?

This morning I had a waking dream. Half asleep and half aware, I saw a green bottle that was my ‘growing up’ family, broken on the rocky coast. Shards of glass lay in pieces; my mother, my father, my sisters, and me, sharp and edged and incomplete. And, then I saw waves and sand and time. And years passed and the edges were smooth and rounded and treasures to be found as sand is sifted through hands on a summer day.

The day had dawned with a little clarity and before our school day began, I sat in a circle with my own children and a jar of sea glass on my lap. Glass collected from the rocky shore of Maine on days when I would sit and watch the waves and dream of my ‘today’ family. I placed one of the smooth, still salty, pieces of glass in each of their little hands. I told them the story of a bottle broken and the glass that would have pierced a bare foot and the story of the waves and the sand and the time. I told them how when God created the world he made something beautiful and that it was broken. We are each part of that broken beauty. That sometimes we rub against one another and as broken shards collide we will hurt each other. That sometimes it feels like we are tossed and turned and pressed on all sides. But God is like the waves that continue forever and he is the One who washes us against the sand. He makes us His treasures.

And we read from Romans 8, “For God works all things together for good for those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…”

He knows us and he has always known us. He is doing whatever it takes to conform us… to change and smooth us… to take broken pieces that hurt each other and make them treasures to be gripped in tender hands and gazed upon, pointing to the power and the glory of the sea of grace that is shaping us.

The love of God, the love that He showed us through the death and resurrection of His Son, is not the young love of limited resources. It is the love of the Ancient of Days. It isn’t even the strength of maturity like a husband and wife of many years can find but it is the strength of eternity that can only come from God. So I can rest and work and love, knowing that the one who calls us loves us with a keeping strength.

‘The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.’ Psalm 103:8

The Path Home

I’m sure I first fell in love with my husband on a walk in the woods. Which walk I can’t say because there were so many that first summer. We’d pull on long sleeves and pants over our shorts before climbing on his motorcycle (no need to mention the motorcycle part to our kids!) and then be off. Most often our trip would partly consist of being jarred uncomfortably along a dirt road leading to a far part of the woods in northern Maine (north of Bangor anyway). There was the memorable ‘appliance graveyard’ hike where we wound ourselves through a plot of old refrigerators, ovens and other remnants left to rust in the woods and ended up on a boulder in the wilderness as the sun set and darkness settled. Then, the coyotes started howling and we howled back in a conversation only they understood.

Often on our adventures we would look for a mountain to climb and then sit victorious at the top, looking west as the sun set and watching the stars come out. We’d see the distant glow of light from a town far away and feel like we were somehow separate from the rest of breathing, drudging humanity; closer somehow to the coyotes and stars. Maybe it was the effect of sitting with someone who was gently being revealed as the man I would be united with for life, or the stillness in the cooling air, but those moments after the sun set seemed to stand still. They were miniature eternities where time seemed peeled away and I felt that all that had come before in my life and all that would follow, even for generations, was surrounding us as we sat together. They were moments when we would speak in whispers even though there were miles stretched between us and any other listening ear.

But then, a breeze would break through with an extra chill, or a mosquito would bite and one of us would have to look at our watch and time came back.  We would have to make our way back down the mountain.  Always without a flashlight we’d start back down the rocky, often unfamiliar trail.  He always led the way and I remember being thankful for his white t-shirt reflecting the little bit of moonlight on a particularly dark night.  Ours was an unordinary falling in love.  He didn’t hold my hand until the following winter when he placed a diamond on one of my fingers.  So instead of a finger grip, my eyes stayed fixed on this man as we made our way down.  With the night closed in around us, in a far and unfamiliar wood, I just kept moving one foot in front of the other.  There were stumbles, branch scratches and the occasional fearful shiver when I thought about the dark trail behind me. But my eyes kept searching and fixing themselves on the man I trusted leading me home.

Years have gone by, babies born, boxes packed and unpacked and here I find I’ve followed him into the woods once more. The trees surround our cabin-house and we can watch the sun set over distant hills in the west. Instead of just two adventurers there are nine of us now and someone often speaks the words, “Let’s go for a walk in the woods.”

This is a sweet, happy, busy life we’ve been blessed with. But this isn’t all.   I have unwrapped countless gifts in this life.  I have been blessed with the fulfillment of nearly all the dreams I had as a young girl.  But strangely I’ve found them wanting.  The greatest joy in this life is dulled by the brokenness of living in a world where sin and death have entered in.  Its the pain of holding a great treasure in your hand only to watch it fading slowly away.

This life, with all its blessing, is being used up.  We can grasp it only to have it slip through our fingers. My hope isn’t found by looking at the great gifts in my life though I am deeply thankful, beyond words, for each one.  My hope comes from remembering that I’m not really home yet.  I’m on a path where even my dearest, most beloved friend can’t blaze the way. 

Ultimately, the journey my soul makes through this life is not one I make as a wife or a mother or a sister or a friend, but I am journeying on this path as a follower of Jesus.  He said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”   His road home isn’t always what I would naturally choose for myself or for those I love.  Sometimes I think there must be some other way.  I start looking for hope in some other place but always there is emptiness and a darkness when I turn my face away from Him.  Its like trying to satisfy my thirst by eating sand.  I get more parched and long again for the life giving water.

I can’t escape that I am a believer.  A questioning, praying, stumbling, fumbling in the dark, believer.

But he keeps calling and there is grace.  “Light is sown for the righteous and joy for the upright in heart.” (Psalm 97:11)  He calls me, covers me with his own righteousness and lights my way.  This gospel is simple and hard and so often I feel like I can only see a glimmer.  It’s a bit of light springing up along the path like a seed that was sown.  It’s the encouragement to keep following.  It’s the seed of light that grows into faith and blossoms into joy.

So, here I am, just starting to share my journey, hoping that those little seeds of light in my life might send a glimmer of hope to another soul like me, in a far wood but on the path leading Home.