No Service

I am spending two days here to, you know, get away from it all.

To enjoy the peace and quiet.

Away from the crowds and busyness and traffic and chaos.

Away from the noise and stress and rush and press.

Away from the piles and stacks and tasks and lists.

Away from all that is of this world.

All of which sounds prosaic and introspective and intentional and even spiritual…a little time for me and Jesus, me and family, me and I, to do some serious reflecting and resting. It doesn’t require much beyond a good book (check), a decent bed (check), and indoor plumbing (check).

So this should be great in every way. It really should.

Except for this: two words in the top righthand corner of my phone screen –

No Service

Nothing. Zip. Zero. Not even half a bar of “can you hear me know now?”

I’m stymied. This has never happened to me before. I’ve always been connected, even if by nothing more than the tiniest glowing arc….just a dot, really, at the base of that rainbow-ish / radiowave-ish / parachute-ish symbol that is the supreme essence of 21st-century existence in a wirelessly connected world.

Huh.

No Service.

How, exactly, am I supposed to fully enjoy and appreciate the peace and quiet of this place – away from the chaos and noise and stress of the world – if I can’t, with the click of a button and the swipe of a screen, pull up a minute-by-minute reminder and replay of said chaos and noise and stress?

How indeed.

 

Thirsty dirt

The earth is thirsty. Cracked across her skin. Parched to her roots.

And we are all crying out for rain. Oh please, God, rain. We need it so badly. (And the crying out becomes complaining and cursing and fists shaking in rage and disbelief.)

But when we do have rain – when things are green and sated and as they should be (indeed . . . so that over time water really does turn into wine) we simply roll along, taking in the miracles that lie before and behind and above and around us.

On May 6, the earth was sufficiently watered (in Indiana, at least) – and in her subtle, surprising way, she was slowly slipping out from under a heavy, dull brown blanket, worn for many months, into a light, fresh green shift (n.a loosely fitting dress that hangs straight from the shoulder; a chemise) that shimmered when it caught the light.

I saw this from a motorcycle, which is sometimes the perfect place for noticing the mundane things that lie to the left and right – for seeing the unexpected way the earth rises and falls, lilts and skips – for seeing the flashing, blinking field rows that fly past – for seeing the unnoticed world that surrounds us – for seeing, well, all kinds of things that one doesn’t normally see.

I wrote this at the time:

Spring Fields

A gently whispered green
tints the earth
and teases the eye
here then gone
seen then not –

a silent ode to human hands
that ever and again
work the land
with patient care –
a soaring anthem to Divine Mystery
where ever and again
broken seeds become bread
and broken bread becomes grace
to any who would take and eat.

CK 05.06.12

I mused, detangled, listened, and reshaped until the rhythm, flow, and words were finished, complete, and just so.

I wrote. I posted. I breathed deeply and (admittedly) felt a certain sense of self-satisfaction at having found something to say and then a way to say it. In a very small way, I had created, and as Dorothy Sayers would point out, that is perhaps one of the most important ways in which humanity images the Creator.

Good for me.

I wrote. I created. I imaged the Creator. And yes, I experienced awe, amazement, and gratitude for the creation God placed in our hands.

What didn’t I do? I didn’t – not even once – stop and specifically thank God for the rain that made the mysterious “whispered green” possible. For the rain that miraculously turns dead seeds into living plants – living plants into fruit and grain – fruit and grain into food and sustenance.

Experiencing gratitude (which I did) is not quite the same thing as giving thanks (which I did not). The one is passive. The other is active. The one receives. The other gives. The one is experienced. The other is enacted.

I do not for one second espouse to some (crack) theology that equates my lack of giving thanks with the current lack of rain. The lack of rain is what it is – a lack of rain. It’s happened before. It will happen again. As I understand Genesis, the earth reaped her own set of unsought consequences from humanity’s fall.

But I do espouse to a faith that can challenge, transform, and grow a person no matter how long they have known God or followed Jesus.

So:I want to live a life defined by thanks rather than complaints – contentment rather than curses – peace rather than unrest. Perhaps a very manifest dry spell in the weather can help reroute a very obscure dry spell of the soul.

(Image: dupontfieldreports.com)

Me, myself, and more me

Monday – and I am mightily irritated because:

My refrigerator crisper froze my bag of fresh spinach.

My over-the-kitchen-island light fixture needs to be dusted.

My bathroom shower tiles are dingy plus a hint of soap-scummy.

My central-air compressor won’t push the cold air to the upstairs bedrooms.

My front-load washing machine has some mildew on the rubber door gasket.

My grocery store stopped carrying my favorite brand of snack crackers.

My all-in-one printer – scanner – copier is out of ink…again.

My iPod refuses to correctly sort my three favorite albums.

My dishwasher left gritty residue on the steak knives.

My car has a funny rattle under the front dash.

And my gas grill has a jiggly handle.

Really. It’s enough to make any reasonable (read: self-important) 21st-century woman throw up her hands in disgust, mutter unspeakables under her breath, and call it quits. Quite. Who, after all, can be expected to function under these desperate conditions?

Hmmph.

[And now I will square off with myself and do battle with the ‘I’ that looms largely, always ready to rear her haughty head and claim her full share of centrality. I know her well and don’t think much of her. That Jesus willingly died for her is really quite astounding.]

[In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light, Vicky Austin reads these lines by the poet Thomas Browne:*

If thou could’st empty all thyself of self,
Like to a shell dishabited,
Then might He find thee on the ocean shelf,
And say, “This is not dead,”
And fill thee with Himself instead.

But thou art all replete with very thou
And hast such shrewd activity,
That when He comes He says, “This is enow
Unto itself – ’twere better let it be,
It is so small and full, there is no room for me.”

Indeed.]

[*For all you L’Engle fans, there’s been a bit of rumbling about the authorship of this poem. L’Engle clearly attributes it to a Sir Thomas Browne who lived “at least three centuries ago” which would be the Sir Thomas Browne who wrote, among other things, Religio Medici. But in fact the poem’s author is T.E. Browne, a 19th century educator, theologian, and poet. You can read more about the mix-up here and can read the poem, titled “Indwelling,” here on page 82. Just in case you were wondering.]

NYC closets

In case you haven’t heard, you’ll soon be able to rent 300-square-foot apartments in New York City.

Yep – that’s tiny.

Not as tiny as the 112-square-foot cabin we recently stayed in near the Grand Canyon.

Not as tiny as our 125-square-foot spare bedroom.

Not even as tiny as the new 280-square-foot Studio 6 extended-stay motel rooms.

But still, 300 square feet is pretty tiny.

According to a July 12 Business Insider article, the new apartments will be about the size of a large walk-in closet. Uh huh. You read that right. Apparently, somewhere in this world there are people who have walk-in closets bigger than most people’s living rooms. I’ve seen those closets in movies, but thought they were only as real as the Death Star. Or Hogwarts.

I grew up with sliding-door closets, the kind that allowed you to see only half the contents at a time. If you happened to share the closet with a sibling, good luck with that. Still, they were good training for the closet my husband and I shared in our first home, a cute little single-wide planted in the middle of a mobile home park.

Our first raise-a-family house, circa 1930s, had typical closets of that era – little nooks, tucked into the farthest corner of the bedrooms, that provided just enough space for one person’s clothes and shoes if you were willing to store them in vacuum-sealed plastic bags stacked floor to ceiling, sardine style.

Our current house has folding-door closets, the kind that allow you to see all the contents at once. (My, we’ve come a long way.) It also has a 30-square-foot walk-in closet that nearly took my breath away when I first saw it. “Why, I could practically live in this if I had to,” was my first thought.

Which of course is ridiculous because it would take at least ten of those closets to equal one of the tiny new NYC apartments. So I guess it really is all about perspective. Whatever that means.

Reflections from the North Rim

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I am sitting at the edge of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, ever so slightly off the marked path. Off to the right, two people are perched at the very tip of a major outcropping, posing (I suppose) for a Christmas e-letter photo. I worry that if either of them so much as sneezes or blinks or breathes, they will go tumbling over the edge; there go all my hopes of sweet dreams for the next several weeks.

Just behind me, a young family is making the trek out to Angel Point with their 2- and 4-year old sons in tow. And I do mean in tow. Except at just a few outermost spots, there are no safety rails or guards here. The only thing between you and the bottom of the canyon is a few inches of pathway and several thousand vertical feet. I briefly looked into the eyes of that mother as she wrangled with her adventurous 2-year old. She wants to go home. She wants to take a nap. She wants to strap her children into cushioned chairs and plant them in front of an electronic device. I don’t fault her for this. She is probably a wonderful mother who spends time doing creative and educational things with her children; who lets them run and jump and play and climb trees; who reads to them each night from the pages of classic literature. But this is the North Rim and there is no space for a wildly alive 2-year old to do anything except get dragged and pulled and contained and restrained by a wildly protective parent. There go all her hopes of sweet dreams for the next several weeks.

I am here without children and so am free to be still and quiet at the edge of the Canyon for as long as I want. So here I am, settled under the cool shade of God’s wings woven into the very being of a tree whose branches spread over me like a fringed embrace even while their needle-tips seem to kiss and caress the canyon wall miles away. I am overlooking a landscape whose majesty contains and reflects the very thumbprint of God Himself, but whose expanse can’t even begin to contain and reflect more than a mere thumbprint of God’s own majesty.

My North Rim stillness and quietness has shown me this:

It is impossible to fully take in (let alone fully describe) the immensity and grandeur spread out before me. Even with photographs. Perhaps especially with photographs. Trying to transfer and contain such colorful and variant and immeasurable depth, width, height, and length onto a two-dimensional surface – no matter how large – is futile. (Perhaps this explains in part previous generations’ universal dread of Other People’s Vacation Slide Shows, those drily-narrated and flattened-out Kodak Ektachrome versions of three-dimensional miracles that were powerfully spoken into existence.) (Which, in turn, might explain the genius of social media photo albums, those drily-captioned and flattened-out Instagrammed versions of life that are entirely optional for viewing.)

And also this:

I am small. Very small. A speck, in fact. I know this in my soul – for I am but one of trillions – even as I can see it with my eyes – for my outstretched hand (just inches away) is but a dot on the canyon wall backdrop (miles and miles away). I am but dust, the unmeasurable (because of my smallness) surrounded by the immeasurable (because of its magnitude).

When I consider the sight before and beside and below and around me (which is but a grain of sand among the Lord’s creation), I am left breathless. I am undone. Entirely.

Because of this:

God knows I am here. Knows my name. Knows me. And even still considers my unmeasurableness worth a full measure of His love and grace.

And this:

Inside this small speck of my unmeasurable self resides all the fullness, not of the immeasurable creation before and beside and below and around me, but of Christ Himself…the very creator of the immeasurable creation that is before and beside and below and around me. (Or at least as much of His fullness as I make room for by emptying myself of self, a daunting task indeed.)

What manner of mystery and miracle is this? That the Creator of the Cosmos – the only true God – not only reduced His own self to a fully human speck (so that we could be saved), but even further, compressed his own spirit to dwell within fully fallen, flawed, broken, and small specks of dust (so that we could know real life)…?!

IN-N-OUT

I was born and raised in the Midwest. I still live in the Midwest. I have no pending plans to leave the Midwest. I love the Midwest for lots of reasons.

But the Midwest does not have In-N-Out Burger.

And the Midwest, as far as I know, is not planning on ever getting In-N-Out Burger.

So I am not holding my breath waiting for this stupendous non-event.

But I am allowing myself to be disappointed because In-N-Out Burger is very good for the soul of people who have a hard time making decisions. People who freeze up in the hair-care aisle. People who are paralyzed by the bread section. People who would rather eat glass than deal with all the tooothpaste, deodorant, margarine, and peanut butter possibilities. People who view extensive restaurant menus with all the joy of extensive dental work. People who want all the details of life to be perfect and so get caught in a tangled web of over-analysis (that, let’s be honest, does not always result in the expected perfect payoff).

Reading labels.

Checking ingredients.

Comparing prices.

Weighing options.

Evaluating relative artistic value of product packaging.

(Approaching self-induced consumer lunacy.)

It’s enough to send a person Over The Edge.

Except at In-N-Out where the options are limited to whether you want your burger (the only sandwich choice) with or without fries (the only side choice). Even taking into account the various hamburger choices – single or double; cheese or not; onions or not; protein-style or bunned – a visit to In-N-Out pretty much boils down to this:

Burger, please. With fries. And a medium drink. And also a sticker. So that I can remember the mental ease of this place. Thank you. The end.

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Magnetic poetry

Every now and then, I refashion the refrigerator door.

This is something that I imagine organized, intentional, and purposeful people do on a regular basis.

In my case, the motivation has more to do with either 1) avoiding some other necessary and unpleasant task or 2) being bored with (or similarly overwhelmed by) the current refrigerator fashion.

The side of the refrigerator rarely gets such personal attention. With its sidelong stance and hoarding tendencies, it lives a prodigal life of its own making. (Which is to say, I have neither the will nor the stamina to tackle 8 years worth of haphazardly displayed this-and-that.)

The fridge front is currently in a Magnetic Poetry season, a season that usually lasts anywhere from 6-9 months (because it’s so intellectually fulfilling with all of its semantic possibilities) and then gets packed away for 2-3 years (because it’s so pragmatically and emotionally taxing with all of its potential organizational disasters…like when the standby adverbs and adjectives start mixing it up so that I can’t even think straight for all of their renegade whimsey).

Words are just about the best thing ever, which makes sense since God used them (in some perfected and sacred form, I presume) to speak the universe into existence.

With all their inherent power, then, the best writers know how to transform them from individual units of nothingness (dry as dust until someone breathes life into them) into startling and exquisite bolts of energy that can be surprisingly life-giving even as they knock us to our knees in breathless amazement.

Proof:

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

[No digressive Tolkien tangent to follow. Simply this: go here and listen to Tolkien read about Gollum. And this: read The Hobbit if you haven’t. Please. I beg you. Before you see the movie, which is, remember, an adaptation of the book.]

“Oozy smell.” Perfect. Wonderful. Miraculous. Nine letters. Two words. Infinite possibilities.

I recently hosted a play-date with my five-year-old neighbor friend. The plan was to do typical five-year-old-play-date kinds of things – books, snacks, stickers, crafts – but instead, she spent two hours at the refrigerator, choreographing a linguistic dance of sorts with what she dramatically referred to as “all these words that have vowels and competents in them!” Two hours of enthusiastic magnetic lexical ballet thoroughly dismantled the (neurotic) demarcation lines between nouns, adverbs, and adjectives (a good excuse to refashion the refrigerator door in the coming weeks), but it left unscathed the topmost semantic creations from the recent months:

Wild angel worship pierces my night with a vision of sweet eternity.

Translucent and smooth poetry whispers to me and surrounds my broken heart like ferocious love.

Deliciously sacred words dance through the universe and celebrate deep in my blood like fresh morning stars.

And that just about says everything a person could ever hope to say (on a refrigerator door, anyway).

Of muddy boots, cricket calls, and grandma’s love

In case you haven’t heard, it’s too hot to breathe across much of the US. That, plus the fact that my grocery store is no longer stocking one of my favorite snack foods, has pretty much killed today for me.

Except for this: the heavy heat, plus the sound of evening crickets, plus the faintly pinkish tinge of the sunset, plus the dried mud that I had to dig/smack out of my work-boot soles (it’s been there since May so was especially stubborn, with all of its stray grass clippings impishly poking out from the edges as though daring me to try and remove them), plus the smell of an old book I recently picked up at a junk shop, plus the smell of outside (cut grass and dryness and weeds and the field across the way), plus post-travel refrigerator reality (a lot of stuff but nothing to eat) all converged – collided, really – into a tangled mass of stuff that reminded me of my grandmother, which has pretty much resurrected today for me.

Technically, I’m old enough to be a grandmother myself (which is too weird to even contemplate). Certainly, I’m old enough to be past the granddaughter season of life.

But the fact remains that I will always be Viola’s granddaughter, and certain things will always remind me of her. Certain smells. Certain sounds. Certain words. Certain people.

Except for the first three years of my life, I lived several states away from her and saw her only several times a year. Still, she taught me lots of things, like how to braid, how to knit, how to manually beat egg whites into frenzied peaks, how to polish Grandpa’s Sunday boots, how to wash and dry dishes by hand, how to sift flour, how to skim fat off the milk, how to hang clothes to dry, how to save things (ALL things), and how to use an embroidery hoop.

I rarely utilize any of these skills in my daily life.

She also taught me how to pry dry mud out of boot soles using a combination of hard smacks on the cement and the rigid, rounded tip of a dinner knife. This is a useful skill indeed.

So tonight, when I headed outside with my month’s-old muddy-soled boots (and a dinner knife), I thought of her. And when I breathed in the hot, grassy, dusky, pinkish, crickety air – air that smells and sounds and feels almost Nebraskan – I could almost hear her voice and her laugh though they’ve been silent for many years now. What an unexpected, surprising, and sweet gift.

And I caught my breath with both sadness and joy, for I miss her dearly because I loved her much.

Such is the mystery of memory. Such is the power of a grandmother. Such is the grace of God.

Grandma love

Keep breathing

For the past several years, I’ve been fascinated with (and severely sidetracked by) the idea of breathing. Not just breathing, really. Breath. Life. Spirit. Breathing. God. New life. That kind of thing.

When something captures my attention, it’s pointless for me to try and redirect. I find it best to just hang on tightly and see where the ride takes me.

This ride has been quite something. Quite something, indeed. And I suspect that it’s nowhere close to being over.

The thing about breathing is that it’s so, well, normal. Everyday. Ordinary. Unspectacular. Mundane, even. Which is right up my alley.

I’ve always been enamored with The Mundane. As far as I’m concerned, the seemingly mundane things of life are where it’s at. Things like junk drawers, frozen brown bananas, old Reader’s Digest Condensed books (just the covers, actually), and public library book sales are as interesting and profound as the things many intellectuals hold up as revered sources of Signification and Ontology and Elevated Discursive Topics (That Very Few People Care About Or Understand). Measured in terms of its excitement value or its rarity, what could be more mundane than breathing?

[Jesus, by the way, is the main where-it’s-at thing in my life, but I certainly do not categorize Him as mundane. I do, however, find it interesting that He spent so much time talking about and paying attention to things and people and ideas that in His day were likely viewed by the masses as mundane.]

The big things in life wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the small things…the mundane things…the unflashy things. In that respect, then, there is nothing small, mundane, or unflashy about them. And so it is with breathing.

In. Out. In. Out. Minute after minute. Day after day. Week after week. Month after month. Year after year. For a lifetime.

It’s a bit boring…or breathtaking…depending on one’s view of the mundane.

I believe breathing is a very Jesus-y thing.

God created humanity and breathed the breath of life into them. They are made. They are alive. They are loved by God more than anything else in creation, to such a dizzying degree that King David muses: “When I consider the night sky, the glorious works of Your hand, the stars and planets and universe at large, I have to ask you, God…who am I that You would pay any attention at all to me, would care for me, would even notice me?!?!” But He does. If I read the Bible rightly all the way from Genesis to the Psalms to the Gospels to the Epistles, I can only conclude that humanity takes God’s breath away, so deep is His love for us.

Then humanity – in very human fashion – proceeds to unmake itself by saying to God (much like the younger son of Luke 15): “Thank you very much (or not), but I’d like my share of the estate. Now. All of it. Mine. So long. Outta here.” Humanity, spiritually speaking, is dead. Unbreathing.

But rather than abandoning humanity – which is what it has asked for and earned and deserves – God says: “Don’t panic. I’ve got this. I’m on my way. I’m here,” (my paraphrase), shows up on earth as a human Himself and willingly goes to the cross where His love for us literally took His breath away when He breathed His last and finished the task only He could do.

Well…that’s just the start of this whole breathing thing. More (of the mundane) to follow.