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’

God’s Gentle Parenting (Or Why I Love the Bible)

God’s Gentle Parenting (Or Why I Love the Bible)

There’s a beautiful pick-your-own strawberry patch in Vermont that I love to visit with my children every summer. It’s been many years and many lovely trips, but there is one moment that will always rise above the rest as the most memorable. I had four little ones; a baby strapped to my back and three others under the age of five. We went early but still the strawberry patch was busy with mostly older ladies and couples who were all serious about getting their berries for the freezer and jam. A few gave the kids quick smiles as we passed and went right back to work. I got down to business as well and started picking as soon as I had everyone settled in spots with plentiful red berries. I kept my children in my peripheral vision and they all seemed content and plopped berries in their little boxes.  It was one of those ‘this is the way life is meant to be’ serene moments. Until, my oldest started yelling…. and I do mean yelling… “MOM!!! He’s peeing on the strawberries!!” I’m sure my head wasn’t the only one that quickly turned and saw my little country-raised three year old peeing across three rows of strawberry plants. The next fifteen minutes are fuzzy. Somehow four kids and a half-filled flat of strawberries made it into the van and part way home without me making eye contact with anyone.  I remember driving along thinking, ‘I can never go back there… ever…”

But, somehow, this week found me picking berries at the same farm, with much older children and a toddler (diaper securely fastened!).  My kids are great, hard workers, and they also love strawberry jam, so they were motivated. We were there at lunch time, and the field was full of children and their mothers. One little boy, uninterested in picking, had wandered off; it looked like he might have found a friend his age and started running around the field. His mother noticed and yelled, “Oliver… Oliver, get back over here!” Her voice was loud enough for everyone in the berry patch to hear and her tone showed her obvious displeasure. With drooping shoulders he slowly made his way back over to her.  She directed him back to picking berries. “See… look at those kids over there.” She pointed to my group of pickers. “Look at how those good little kids are picking berries. Why don’t you start picking like them?”  I cringed. I wanted to go over and grab Oliver’s small hands and say, “Little One, don’t feel bad. On a different day you might have seen these ‘good little kids’ running around like wild things and maybe even peeing on the berries.”

This time, we left with three full flats of strawberries and a few quart baskets held in little hands for the ride home. And, as I drove, my thoughts were still on Oliver and his mother. My thoughts were also on my own children and my own heart when I call them or need to correct them. I prayed for us; I want to laugh and play and rejoice loudly but when I need to speak harder words to do so with quietness and close proximity. When I call my children back from wandering, I want to use the same tone that I would use if it were their birthday and it was time to have cake and ice cream. I delight in my children, even when they are straying, and I want my voice to carry that truth.

As I drove, and pondered the value of quietly correcting my children, I thought of times when my husband has had to speak with one of our boys after church when they were getting a bit too rowdy. I’d see him draw the boy away from the crowd; a father’s hand on his child’s shoulder and his knees bent to look in the boy’s eyes. In that moment, his words aren’t heard by anyone else because they are low and gentle. Instead of seeing the boy’s shoulders droop, I’d see them get taller. I’d see him want to be a man and to do what is right. Most people don’t notice the interaction at all. There isn’t a scene, there aren’t raised voices.  There is no public shame. But the boy is noticed and spoken to and corrected in the quiet presence of his father.

And, I thought, isn’t this just what God does with us?

I spent the summer I turned fourteen with my grandmother. I had a little upstairs room all to myself with a window that looked out over a farm pond, a long field and the sunset. It’s the first time I remember really reading the Bible. I didn’t have commentaries, the internet or even a church family to learn from; just a leather covered New King James version and a lot of time on my hands. Maybe in hindsight it would have been good to start with one of the gospels, like Luke or John, that would have been easier for me to read and gain some context for understanding the rest of the Bible, but I didn’t do that. I just picked it up and decided to read straight through from the beginning.

And, miraculously, that young teen understood and fell in love. It was the start of not just time in a book, but of a relationship with the Author. They were my first moments of being that child with my Heavenly Father pulling me aside and leaning over me; telling me the hardest, sweetest, most beautiful story ever told. Pointing out the ways He’s seen my heart and my actions straying and correcting me with a patient gentleness; assuring me of His love for me now. And, I think most significantly, showing me His attributes and His character and allowing me to know Him. There in that westerly facing room, still a child and alone but for the Spirit of God, I fell in love with the Word of God, both written and manifest in Jesus.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14

I remember those moments so well that it’s hard to believe so much time has passed since that first summer. The other night my family was all outside playing; I had been tagged and was frozen. I stood admiring my family and the beautiful place we get to live. I looked up at the pointed fir trees, felt the glory of God in nature, and I wondered, ‘what would I believe if I had never read the Bible?’ I tried to separate out everything I had read from what I felt right at that moment. Later I wrote about it in my journal:

What if I didn’t have God’s Word? That is what I wondered as I stood frozen in our game of ‘ball tag’ tonight. I’d know that there is something more powerful than me. I would know that the world was designed and created. I would know there is a battle between life and death. I would feel it even in myself… the struggle to stay on the side of life with goodness and kindness. I would know that there is beauty… and that I can’t quite enter into it… that it is something outside of myself in an almost painful way.  I would know love… the deep love of a mother. I would see the amazing design in each of my children… I would know they came from me and yet I didn’t make them. I think I would know there is God because of prayer… I would want to speak to him and hear him. But I think I would be afraid. I wouldn’t know if God was good or bad or if He loved me. I would be so crushed by His power and the unknown.

And then, while still pondering, I thought of that little children’s hymn, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so…” Just from studying his creation I would know a lot about God and myself. But I wouldn’t know the gospel… I wouldn’t know that God had entered into His beautiful and yet fallen creation in order to redeem us or of the staggering depth of his love. I might know things about him, but I don’t think I could really know or trust him.

After the game that evening, I sat by our small pond and watched the row boat that had drifted from shore. It was floating aimlessly. I thought of how without the Bible I would have been floating through life on the currents of my feelings. So often, my time in the Word has been that time of being pulled aside and corrected by my Father. The Word exposes my sin; not just the actions but my thoughts and the bent of my heart. I might come to the Word saddened by the evil in the world, or the wrongdoing of others, but when God speaks to me it’s about the tangled knots of sin in my own heart. It’s my own sin that I see crushing Jesus on the cross, and the work Christ did there becomes devastatingly personal in a heartbreakingly beautiful way. “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace and with his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5) God lifts my eyes to see not just my sin there with Jesus but the death inside of me dying with him. The Word made flesh, dying a fleshly death, so that in me, the Word can bring life.

I return to the Word, and to the cross, over and over and over again. This summer I’ve been reading through the book of Hosea, part of the Old Testament and written hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus. And yet it is all about Jesus. From beginning to end the Bible contains the cross, the ransomed life and the Father calling to his wandering children.

Come, let us return to the Lord;

for he has torn us, that he may heal us;

He has struck us down, and he will bind us up.

After two days he will revive us;

on the third day he will raise us up,

that we may live before him.

Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord;

His going out is sure as the dawn;

He will come to us as the showers,

as the spring rains that water the earth. (Hosea 6:1-3)

 

It’s raining again this morning as I sit here reading these ancient words. While the rain pours down outside my window, watering my tomatoes and green beans, the words from this long ago prophet are once again watering my soul.  Since I first picked up that Bible as a young teen, there have been a lot of spring rains, many wanderings and many returns. Throughout it all God has remained the same. He has never been the loud and frustrated parent. He has never been embarrassed by my lack of maturity or ashamed of my fumbles. But He has continued with his effectual call, desiring me to return to Him and to His Word. I don’t think it will ever cease to amaze me that it’s not just for our salvation that He calls to us, but it’s for our and His own delight.

The Lord your God is in your midst,

a mighty one who will save;

he will rejoice over you with gladness;

he will quiet you by his love;

he will exult over you with loud singing.

Zephaniah 3:17

 

 

 

 

Irises… A Poem

IMG_1874

Irises

Purple, smelling like grape juice.
Polly said once, many years ago now,
a neighbor divided the roots,
carried them across a lawn.
“Could you use any irises?
They’re the deep purple ones.
Bloom in June and smell just like grape juice.”
And each spring
they kept dividing,
kept getting carried
to where a neighbor
bent over a garden.
Polly said all the houses on our street
have deep purple irises,
smelling just like grape juice.

Before we left I took my spade,
dug deep into the soil
next to the kitchen door;
the one for neighbors.

Yesterday
a little girl came running
“Mommy, there’s a purple one!”
She always tells me of new flowers.
We’ve had tulips and trillium,
one little lilac and a long path of pink lady slippers.

I smile at her,
here in the woods,
not a neighbor in sight.
“Smell them,” I say.
“They smell just like grape juice.”

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.’

Younger and Older: Counseling Women

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One morning last week, after tossing and turning and unsuccessfully trying to fall back to sleep, I rose out of bed early and came out to the kitchen with my journal to pray. I wrote, “I feel like I’m too much for people right now. I’m so needy for love and wisdom and healing- desperate to bear my soul and hear words of truth and love. But, I feel like that is just too much- the layers are too deep, too much to burden anyone with. It would just suck the life out of friendships.”

Am I the only one who feels this way sometimes? Or maybe this why we have such a booming counseling business in our country?  Somehow, we know that in order to overcome what is inside it needs to be exposed to someone else. We need to reveal the reality of who we are and we desperately want to find grace and understanding. But we don’t want to risk hurting our friendships by exposing too much neediness or vulnerability. So, we pay to have someone on our side and if we give them money, and make it a professional service, we don’t have to feel guilty about the burden we also hand them.

I think there is a good place and a need for professional counselors, along with their training and skills that give them insight and the ability to teach helpful ways of coping with difficult things. But, I’m becoming more and more passionate about the kind of counseling that I have seen continually transform my darkest days of life into fruit-bearing and light shining seasons.

When I was in college I read a book about spiritual mothering. I don’t remember a lot about it, other than it left me longing for a mature Christian woman to take me under her wing. I wanted someone who would be committed to helping me grow, be invested in my life and a resource to come to with all my questions and needs.  She would of course be wise, and would have likely homeschooled her own large brood of children, could clean, cook, garden, organize and decorate, and she would check in on me frequently and offer her jewels of wisdom and practical assistance at just the right times. As a young wife, realizing that marriage, even to your best friend, was more complicated than I thought, and then as a young, exhausted mother, this longing turned into an idol in my heart. If only I had that ‘spiritual mother’, someone with all the answers and able to devote time to teaching me how to be a wife and mother, then I would be a better Christian. I would grow. I would be healthy.

It’s a misplaced hope to think that one person could swoop in and meet all of our emotional and practical needs. That spiritual mother I was looking for didn’t exist. I felt like God was withholding something good from me for a long time, when really, he had provided something much better that I just didn’t recognize. He made me a part of a diverse, beautiful, growing church. Last week, I once again overcame that fear of revealing my mess and leaned hard into relationship. And, once again, I was left in awe of the wisdom of God in placing us in community. I came away with a better understanding of what was at the heart of my problem, and a deeper appreciation for the friends God has placed in my path as counselors, along with a deeper love of the gospel, which gives insight into human nature, and helps us to not be surprised by sin and brokenness. Not to mention, my friends make me laugh. What a gift from a happy God.

In the book of Titus in the Bible, the church is given a model for how the older women are to teach, or counsel, the younger women. I find that I’m both that older and younger woman now… somewhere in the middle and so blessed to be both walking with women in seasons that I’ve already experienced, while also learning from the wisdom and experience of women a step, or a few steps, ahead. I have something I would love to say to both…

To the younger women:

First, please be brave. As hard and as intimidating as it is, you need to reach out to more mature women you respect. You need to ignore the thoughts in your head that tell you that they are too busy, you are too insignificant, or that you would be a bother. If you are living in a season we’ve already been through, your problems don’t scare us. But, you need to take the initiative and the risk in reaching out. Too often, we as older women don’t assume you need or want our counsel because we don’t always recognize either your need or our insight.

Also, please be open-handed. Don’t let your need for counsel develop into a utilitarian view of women with some experience and insight that you want to learn from. Remember that they are your sisters in Christ, in need of the encouragement and friendship you can offer as well. Look for ways to bless them, especially through your prayers for them. And, as you pray, God will mature your heart at the same time. You will take their burdens, some that you haven’t faced yet– like an empty nest or the care of an aging parent– and your heart will wrestle with these issues on their behalf. You will be more ready to face them yourself someday because of your faithful prayers for older women. Look for ways to bless and care for them even as you let them know how much you need their love and counsel.

And that is so important… let it be known. Be honest. Go beyond the point of comfort. Peel back a layer beyond the one that feels safe and experience grace and love entering into a deeper place.  Even if you feel like you are taking more than you’re giving, keep asking. It will bear fruit and before you know it you will be that older woman yourself, pouring out what you have received.  Be brave.

To the older women:

Please be kind. Please notice the younger women around you and ask them how you can be praying for them. They want to tell you and they need your prayers coming from a place of understanding.

If you understand the gospel, and it is the hope you cling to for all of life, then you are both qualified and needed to give counsel to younger women. The gospel allows you to step in with the truth about hope: that hope comes from God loving us in the midst of the messes. You have no idea how much just the fact that you have survived the season we’re in means to us younger women. There’s hope for us. And, if you’re honest about your failings along the way, that’s even better and gives us even more hope… we aren’t alone in our failures.

Please be careful of how you speak about others. We’re listening, and if we hear you divulging personal information about others or speaking disparagingly, we won’t feel safe coming to you with the things that are closest to our hearts. But, if you let us see your heart for others, and it’s one of grace, and your words communicate your care and concern, we will want to be added to those you know and love. 

Maybe sometimes we try your patience with our immaturity. Please keep being patient. In seasons to come, there will likely be the most fruit hanging from the branches that need the most growth now. Those are the areas the gospel still needs to penetrate and transform. Speak truth into our lives gently but boldly. We younger women don’t want to think we are right all the time about what we are thinking or feeling; we want to know the truth that brings hope- the truth that we are sometimes wrong and messed up but that we’re still loved and that God will keep working in those areas.

Remember, we don’t need perfection. We just really need your presence and availability. Take us seriously when we send you an email or make a phone call to tell you we are struggling and need counsel.  It means the perceived need is significant because it is so intimidating to take that step. Please be kind.

So, those are the things burdening my heart for both younger and older Christian women. They are coming from a passion that continues to grow and longs to see the church –the community of God’s people– thriving as a place where life-transforming counseling takes place in natural relationships being strengthened with His supernatural love.

But, even with that passion growing, I know that these relationships are imperfect. That morning, while I was sitting in the quiet kitchen, afraid to burden my friends, as I prayed I was reminded of another Counselor. One we don’t reveal ourselves to, but One who reveals us to ourselves.

In the sixteenth chapter of John’s summary of the life of Christ, the words of Jesus are recorded for us. He told his disciples that he had to leave, but that it was for their benefit that He would no longer be physically present with them. Shortly after this, Jesus died on the cross, paying with death the cost of sin and breaking its power to separate us from God. His sacrifice and life dramatically changed how God’s people would commune with Him. It was a turning point in all of history. There was a reconciliation so deep that not only can our sins be forgiven, but the Holy Spirit can draw so close that He abides in us and teaches us truth. He is our ultimate Counselor.

When I am feeling lost or puzzled, broken or hopeless, tired or frustrated, insecure or anxious, or any of the other countless emotions we as humans will experience, the first and perfect Counselor I need is God who has made his abode right here with me; He is here, always available, always wise, always pouring out truth and grace and always coming with life transforming, undeserved love. All because Jesus paid my counseling fee in full. I don’t have to worry about burdening Him beyond what He can handle, because He held the burden of the sin of the world on the cross. I don’t have to worry about Him growing weary with me, or giving up on me, because He chose to make me His when I was repulsively stuck in self-centered sin. He says He will stay with me and carry me through to completion. He knew me before I took my first breath, and he knows who I will be after my last breath is exhaled. Isn’t that encouraging truth? We are known and we are loved by the only one who knows us completely and can love us perfectly. That is transforming truth and that is the message of our deepest counsel to one another.

You have searched me, Lord,

and you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise;

you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;

you are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue

you, Lord, know it completely.

You hem me in behind and before,

and you lay your hand upon me.

Psalm 139:1-5