A fruitful endeavor

Photo: C. Kirgiss

This year, what with the drought and all, my raspberry bushes were a bust. Nary a single blossom or berry did we get.

Sometime in mid-summer, just when things normally begin to get exciting in the berry patch, the bushes simply fell over into a collective droopy heap of dry, shriveled, sad, exhausted, and bare canes. Where berries should have been was nothing more than small, darkened, hardened, undeveloped blossoms.

We don’t harvest enough berries to brag about – just an added dash of bright red in fruit salads or atop ice-cream treats. But that’s enough to make us feel productive, farm-ish, and connected to the earth in some small way. That’s enough to marvel at the sweet burst of flavor. That’s enough to revel in the mystery of dirt-plus-rain-plus-sun-equals-bounty. That’s enough to be reminded of God’s goodness.

That’s enough to make this year’s non-harvest a source of disappointment.

It was – and still is – quite heartbreaking. I need to get out there and prune back the dead canes so next year’s berry crop stands a chance. But it’s depressing to look upon that pile of despair, to think about what could have been, to realize that the miracle and mystery of nature doesn’t always have a joyful ending.

I don’t particularly like the image.

It hits rather close to home.

It echoes the truth about my humanity.

It reflects what too often happens in my own life.

Droopy heaps of dry, shriveled intentions…of exhausted, bare emotions…of hardened, undeveloped thoughts…of dead, fruitless endeavors…these are the natural result – the only possible result – of a soul’s drought.

Bearing spiritual fruit is a miracle so far beyond dirt-plus-rain-plus-sun-equals-bounty that it’s nearly impossible to comprehend. How can broken creatures such as we produce beautiful things such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?

We cannot, of course. On our own, left to our own devices, life is nothing more than a perpetual, deadly drought.

Thank God we are not consigned to live on our own, to scorch and shrivel and droop and rot in a pile of dry death.

Thank God we are invited to plant ourselves along the riverbank, to drink deeply of the water of life, to fill our souls with the truth of Christ, and to experience the breathtaking miracle of a fruit-filled life.

Thank God we are not subject to nature’s shifting weather patterns but instead are showered with the endless grace of Jesus.

Thank God we are loved and redeemed and transformed and cultivated in spite of ourselves.

Thank God indeed.

The Original “Pin It”

I’m not on Pinterest, mostly because I don’t have a reliable sense of moderation.

I love beautiful things, quirky things, creative things, fun things, DIY things, innovative things, retro things, thrifty things, unexpected things, thoughtful things, crafty things, contemplative things, bookish things, encouraging things, all kinds of things.

Love-of-many-things + inherent-lack-of-moderation = Self-Imposed Pinterest Prohibition.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t pin. I’m not legalistic that way. In fact, I’ve been pinning (actually) long before Pinning (virtually) came into vogue –  with actual, not virtual pins. The wooden kind. For clothes. Maybe you’ve heard of them.

They’re perfect for pinning that tiny homemade Guatemalan doll onto the kitchen curtains.

Photo: CKirgiss

Or for pinning a cardinal’s feather onto the edge of a robin’s nest that graces an end table with its presence.

Photo: CKirgiss

Or for pinning a quirky ornament onto the quirky tree branch in the quirky pot in the corner of the living room.

Photo: CKirgiss

Or for pinning old family photos to the clothesline (used for Christmas stockings during the holiday season) strung across the mantle.

Photo: CKirgiss

Or for pinning stamps and receipts and notes and other important things to the front of bookshelves.

Photo: CKirgiss

Or for pinning a lovely, wondrous, magical dedication page (torn long ago from an unknown book and saved in a drawer because, well, it’s so lovely, wondrous, and magical) onto a tree branch in the backyard where perhaps the wildlife will appreciate it.

Photo: CKirgiss

Or for pinning necklaces onto a flimsy, useless-for-towels towel rack.

Photo: CKirgiss

Or for pinning the recently opened bag of cinnamon-and-sugar pita chips (which is rarely done because, let’s be real, these chips tend to be consumed in a single sitting even though, if one serving equals one sitting, the bag should last eight times longer).

Photo: CKirgiss

(And yes, that is a box of Red River hot cereal lurking in the background.)

Clothespin pinning may not be as fancy or flashy or fast as the other kind of Pinning, but it has a charm all its own, for this kind of pinning extends beyond what one pins to how and where one pins. In that sense, the possibilities are endless. The pins, however, are not, and that’s good news for a person who lacks her own moderation.

You’ve (not) got mail

Photo C.Kirgiss

This is what came in the mail yesterday:

  • a shoe catalog (addressed to the previous homeowner)
  • an Extended Service Plan offer for my 5-year old washing machine (LAST CHANCE!)
  • a flyer for Sear’s 1-Day Sale (HURRY IN!)
  • a “Customer Appreciation” letter from a car dealer (WE WANT TO BUY YOUR CAR!)
  • a Special Financing announcement from an appliance store (ZERO DOWN! NO INTEREST!)
  • a credit card offer (YOU’RE PRE-APPROVED!)
  • a utility customer service questionnaire (WE WANT YOUR FEEDBACK!)
  • an offer for prescription insurance (SAVE EVEN MORE!)

In other words, nothing.

In other words, a big stack of recyclable junk.

In other words, another let down.

I remember the days of waiting expectantly for the mail to arrive, an event that looked different as the years passed. While growing up it meant reaching just outside the front door to the small black box mounted on the house. In college it meant walking to the main campus building, descending to the basement level, and peeking into box 992. In apartment one, it meant unlocking box #3 in the main floor entryway. In house one, it meant walking to the end of a long gravel driveway. In apartment two, it meant driving to the post office and unlocking box #73. In house two, it meant waiting for the loud “CLANK” of the brass mail slot door in the front entry (along with a blast of cold Minnesota air in the middle of winter). Now it means walking to the end of a short paved driveway and wrangling with the honeysuckle growing up and around the mailbox post.

“Mail’s here!” has always implied a certain amount of junk mail, even when I was a kid. But it also referred to real mail. Letters. Notes. Cards. Today, though, “Mail’s here!” is pretty much synonymous with, “Meh. Why bother?”

I love technology. I love cyber communication. I love social media. But I bemoan the death of real mail, the excitement of receiving a colorful postcard, the joy of ripping open a hand-addressed envelope, the delight of reading and savoring and re-reading a lengthy letter from a friend or relative.

I have five shoeboxes of letters stashed away in a dresser drawer. Some are my own, some have been passed down from relatives now deceased. Each one is a treasure in so many ways. I can hear the writer’s voice in the lilt of the phrases, the slant of the words, the rhythm of the thoughts. The letter – held in my hand, read with my eyes, consumed with my soul – keeps the writer alive in a small way (or, in the case of the New Testament epistles, in a large way).

This is what came in the mail today:

  • the schedule for a 2013 conference (BE SURE TO REGISTER!)
  • a coupon for an oil change (BE GOOD TO YOUR CAR!)
  • a collection of recipes from a local grocery store (KEEP YOUR FAMILY HEALTHY!)
  • a reminder to renew my driver’s license (TIME IS RUNNING OUT!)
  • a 12-page mattress ad (THE BIGGEST SALE OF THE YEAR!)
  • a flyer for a new area dentist ($25 GAS CARD FOR NEW PATIENTS!)
  • a mortgage refinancing offer (YOU QUALIFY!)
  • … and … a letter – a real-live, genuine, hand-written letter from the only friend I have who still writes such things.

The dishes can wait. The laundry can wait. My email can wait. My voice mail can wait. Even my favorite book can wait.

I will be busy for awhile, soaking up the lilt of the phrases, the slant of the words, the rhythm of the thoughts. And then I will soak them up again, several times over, before folding up the pages neatly and storing them away in one of my shoeboxes. The hand-written word (oh, thank goodness) isn’t dead quite yet.

Watermelon Roulette

Here’s the thing about watermelon: it’s both the best and worst of summer treats – the best when it’s sweet, juicy, and pip-lite, the worst when it’s, well, not.

Here’s another thing about watermelon: each one is a gamble, a crapshoot, a white-knuckle round of roulette that is just as likely to drape the annual family picnic in a disappointingly tasteless pall as it is to launch the collective tastebuds into a surprisingly savory orbit.

[NB: Yes, my metaphors are mixed. Further, they break all the the rules of “write what you know” for I gamble not, live still, and embrace earth’s familiar solidity. That’s blogging for you.]

[NB2: Another thing about watermelon: it’s one of those weird countable and non-countable nouns, depending on the context. “I like watermelon” is okay but “I like banana” is not. “I grow watermelon” and “I grow watermelons” are equally acceptable (though I don’t). “There will be hotdogs, beans, chips, and watermelon at the picnic” works. So does, “There will be hotdogs, beans, chips, and watermelons at the picnic,” though it sounds weird in the plural. That’s English for you.]

Like so many others, I was taught that a well-delivered thunk on its thick rind was a foolproof way to pick a watermelon. If the thunk rings hollow, grab it. If not, ignore it. Just exactly what a hollow thunk sounds like has always been a bit vague to me.

After having delivered countless thunks with my knuckles to the rinds of countless watermelons, here’s the truth: the thunk test is rot half the time. Some hollow-sounding thunks result in breathtaking deliciousness. Others – last week’s for example – result in something with all the taste and texture of styrofoam soaked in formaldehyde and lemon extract.

[NB: I’ve never actually tasted styrofoam soaked in formaldehyde and lemon extract, but sometimes imaginative hyperbole is the only literary device that will do. That’s creative non-fiction for you.]

Watermelon is (watermelons are?) just about the biggest fruitified mystery of my life. Bananas are easy. Apples too. Grapes can be tested (surreptitiously). Berries can be doused in sugar if need be. But those watermelons (countable noun) are out to get me 5 times out of 10.

In gambling, those might be good odds. At a fruit stand, they stink, unless (fingers crossed) the thunk is a winner in which case the sweet smell of success is matched only by the sweet smell and taste of melon.

Psalm 23 re:mix

I know nothing of sheep (Psalm 23) or vineyards (John 15), but much about music lessons. I believe the heart of God is revealed just as beautifully in the best attributes of a piano teacher (and so many other roles) as in those of a shepherd or farmer.

The LORD is my piano teacher, I have nothing to fear.

He starts me on the easiest songs so I can make true and simple music even as a beginner.

He teaches me my scales (I hate them, I do!) so my fingers know when to cross and tuck, over and under, and I will be ready for the difficult music that lies ahead.

When I stumble and cry because the music is hard (but I practiced! so much and so long!) he comforts me, then breaks it into smaller pieces that I can work on little by little, one by one, over and over and over again. He never ever tells me I am hopeless, untalented, and a waste of his time (like some other teachers do). But neither does he stop challenging me, stretching me, and molding me into a real musician. (Truly, it would be much less work for him if he didn’t care so much about my progress, if he just let me twiddle around in Book I, playing what I already know, never moving beyond 4/4 time signatures in the Key of C.)

When I stumble and err because I did not practice (but I was busy! so very, very busy!) he patiently waits while I mumble my excuses, then helps me get back to work so I can someday make a joyful noise. He never, ever slaps or slams the piano lid on my fingers (like some other teachers do). But neither does he look the other way, pretend all is well, and say “well, well, you are truly wondrous” just so I will feel happy. (Indeed, it would be much less work for him if he didn’t care so much about his students, if he just enrolled them methodically, lectured them dispassionately, listened to them unaffectedly, deposited their monthly tuition checks promptly, and called it even.)

When I play well – and it does happen now and then, miraculously, only because of all he’s taught me – he doesn’t offer cheap, worthless prizes (oh joy…another plastic bust of Liszt) but instead gives me new, more beautiful, more exciting, and more difficult songs to learn.

He is not content that I simply be a piano player. Instead, he molds me into a musician who loves music from deep inside my heart, makes music from deep inside my soul, and hears music from deep inside my being.

Sing! Shout! Make a joyful noise! The LORD does wondrous things for even such as I!

Dry cereal delight

Fact: sometimes there’s nothing more satisfying than dry cereal. The snacky kind. Not the breakfast-is-the-most-important-meal-of-the-day kind (which, let’s be honest, doesn’t really even exist since there’s nothing remotely healthy about processed, packaged, preserved ready-to-eat-grain-in-a-box, regardless of how many vitamins are pumped into it. Ninety percent of them are nothing more than candy / caramel corn / cookies dressed up as Real Breakfast Food (in other words, delicious). The other ten percent are nothing more than crackerish / popcornish / brannish chunks (in other words, blecch) requiring so much sugar to be edible that in the end they’re no healthier than the pastel-colored-candy-called-cereal and are a lot less appealing to the eye, sort of like moistened dog food suspended in a milky sop.)

Because I descend from immigrant farming stock, I grew up eating oatmeal (read: lumpy mush), Cream of Wheat (read: grainy mush), and Cheerios (read: stinky mush). Because at least one of my immigrant farming ancestors had a sweet tooth (sprinkled sugar on his lettuce and tomatoes, my grandfather did), to each of those various mush varieties I added a hefty serving of sugar – brown for hot, white for cold – so that the oatmeal and Cream of Wheat looked like tanning-bed regulars, and so that when the Cheerios were gone, there remained a layer of gritty silt settled in the milky dregs, thick enough to trench with my spoon. As an adult, this sounds pathetic. And dentally irresponsible. But as a kid, it only made sense.

On very rare occasions, my mother was gripped with indulgent impulses. The result? Lucky Charms, that duplicitous candy-plus-grain concoction that besnookers all attempts at simplistic categories, the only cereal that doesn’t lie about its candy contents (“Featuring Brilliantly Dyed Stale Marshmallow Bits!”) but instead increases their celebrity status by hiding them among a crowd of pale and shapeless oat commoners. Marketing brilliance.

Lucky Charms provided my training ground for dry cereal snacking. One hour of after-school TV, a big bowl of dry Lucky Charms, and immigrant farming stock genes taught me this: plow through the pale and shapeless oat commoners first, then savor the brilliantly dyed stale marshmallow bits en masse. Delay gratification. Save the best for last. That kind of thing.

I’m older now. And immeasurably wiser. I know that cold cereal is one of the biggest scams of the grocery world, that the prescribed serving sizes wouldn’t satisfy an ant, that the added nutrients are essentially worthless, that the marketers have shamelessly targeted young children, and that I would be better off eating two eggs and 4 strips of bacon (or a donut).

In spite of all that, every now and then dry Lucky Charms is what I crave. Because I’m older and wiser, though, I no longer eat the duplicitous concoction in two phases. I have neither the time nor patience for that kind of neurotic precision. Which is to say, I have neither the time nor patience to waste my snacking energies on pale and shapeless oat bits, but I have all the time in the world to pluck out the brilliantly dyed stale marshmallow bits.

All of them.

As an adult, it only makes sense.

No-run zone

This Summer Olympic season seems like a good time for non-runners to declare themselves.

So, I do declare. Proudly. Boldly.

I. Don’t. Run.


My reasons are straightforward enough:

Joint pain

I’ve heard about how to overcome all these issues, but I’m not interested because the overcoming strategies sound equally painful, sweaty, exhausting, and bor(yawn)ing. I’ve also heard about all the amazing benefits of running, including the euphoric runner’s high that one eventually achieves (at some point after the aches, sweat, exhaustion, and boredom, which seems a little late, don’t you think?), but I have a secret stash of dark chocolate which offers plenty of benefits, thank you.

My running friends swear that running is the best thing ever. But I just recently discovered the joys of hard-steamed eggs – no green gunk around the yolk and a peel that literally slips off – so, sorry, but “the best thing ever” has already been spoken for.

My running friends assure me that running is good for whatever ails me. But I have a giant soaking tub – and approximately 837 books – so, sorry, but “whatever ails me” already has a remedy.

My running friends promise that I’ll love running if I just give it a try.  But I have tried it, on no less than three different occasions (as a kid – the obligatory “I want to be an Olympian” phase; as a mom-of-toddlers – the obligatory “I’m getting back in shape” phase; last year – the obligatory “I’m still getting back in shape” phase) all of which ranged from lackluster to dismal failure (not an Olympian; got in shape but killed my shins on the pavement; flew off the treadmill while adjusting the speed and incline) so, sorry, but “giving it a try” was a great big downer. Times three.

But my running friends are still my friends. Even though I don’t run. Even though I just walk. Even though I move at a different pace, with a different gait, for a different reason. Even though I am not just like them.

So with all the other non-runners of this world, I declare this:

I. Do. Walk.

And that’s just fine with me.

NB: For those who are tempted to read into this post some sort of veiled analogy about the recent culture wars, please don’t. There isn’t one. Truly. This is really just about being a non-runner. A content non-runner. A bookish, J.S.Bach-ish, nap-ish non-runner. A devoted, devout non-runner who, nonetheless, is glued to the media coverage of every single Olympic running event. Huh. Life is funny like that sometimes.