Meet Murray

I’m writing today from my sunroom table, my favorite summer writing spot. I’ve mentioned this favorite place before — the light breeze through the screened doors, the farmer’s fields lit up bright green by the morning sun, the robins chirping away. But this morning I had to make myself sit here. Make room on my writing table that is currently piled high with things our new puppy (Yes! Yes! We got a puppy!) either needs or we’re hiding so he can’t chew on them: sandals, leashes, chair cushions, a bungee cord, dog treats, Miracle Grow, a couple of beers, and a now half-eaten rug. The kids are still sleeping, and I’m not tiptoeing one inch because my new canine alarm clock has already been up for three hours and is now peacefully snoring by my feet. So, I guess I’m forced not to do all the things I should be doing — the dishes, making that pile of stuff to drop off at Goodwill today, taking a shower.

Because I can’t not share puppy pictures, meet Murray.

(Seriously, though. Isn’t he just the sweetest?! And I used to say I wasn’t an animal person…)

Just like I cannot not show you pictures of a puppy, I cannot not have at least one blog post that contains a list of (mildly stereotypical?) things this puppy is teaching me. He’s maddening, really — adorable and dreaming peacefully in the corner one moment and the next I’m muttering, murmuring and chasing him around the house trying to get my son’s underwear out of his mouth. (Yes, all you who grinned that sly little grin and nodded silently when I excitedly shared our puppy news — I see you now. Also, you are correct that I am literally measuring my days in minutes since the puppy has been outside and taken care of business.)

And so, if you’ll indulge us, just a couple of lessons from Murray…

Urgency
It is so easy to get messed up when it comes to what really must be done in our lives. I, much of the time, live with a false sense of urgency, an unrealistic view of what is really necessary or stressful. “Just a minute, I need to finish this.” But when the dog is sniffing around the living room with his tail in the air, that email I’m writing does not matter. I am running his butt to the door.

I have a friend whose husband’s mother died when he was young, and she says he is constantly reminding her that “there is big and there is little.” And let’s face it, most of our stuff, even the dog’s pittles on the carpet, are little. We are so good at knowing this and so bad at living it. We know it when Dad’s on the operating table, when we’re waiting on the test results from the doctor, when the phone rings in the middle of the night. We forget it on Tuesday afternoon when the laundry is piled up to our ankles, we realize that bill never got paid last week, the kids are being watched by PBS, and we’re already tired for tomorrow.

When I’m wandering around the backyard with my dog on a leash, no phone in my hands, no memory of what important thing I just got pulled away from, it’s amazing the way I start to breathe again. The to-do list, the work, will always be there, but just for a few minutes, I’m right where I am, too.

The Hard Yes
A huge perk of getting a puppy Memorial Day weekend is that you convince yourself you are doing an awesome job of training your puppy because you are finally outside more than you are inside. Michigan has decided to stop being cold and gray — and instead is lovely and warm: all the neighbors are out and talking face-to-face again, and we’re back walking the sidewalks; we’re at the park, the pool, the lake. It’s wondrous.

But then, a couple nights ago, it rained for several hours. And my husband and I both looked at each other, slightly annoyed and referring to the dog as not ours, but as each other’s, because somebody had to take him out in a downpour. We stood by the front door, staring at each other, umbrella and poop bag in hand for about three minutes before we decided to chance getting up in the middle of the night. We put the pup in his crate and went to bed.

Part of a getting a puppy is having to take him out in the rain.

And isn’t that the way with most yeses? We do things in life — like getting a puppy, having a child, enrolling in classes, remodeling an old farmhouse — with the full knowledge that it will require something of us, but that doesn’t make it any easier when it does. I see this with my students in the middle of hard projects. I see it with brave friends who are taking in foster children, finding space in their homes for refugees. Good yeses are not easy yesses. There are moments — in the middle of the yes — when you doubt, you wrestle, you blame, you whine. But you keep showing up with something that often doesn’t feel as much like hope as it does duty. But in the showing up, grace seeps in.

(And yes! In this case, grace was the pup sleeping through the night!)

But why?
We didn’t grow up with pets, we’ve never had a dog, we’re already busy, and like a million people have warned me, having a puppy is a bit like having a newborn. So, why do it? Why get a dog now?

It’s all the stuff you always hear — seeing your kids and your 40-year-old husband giggling and chasing a puppy around in the backyard. Getting home and having a little guy jumping up and down, insanely glad to see you. Undeserved favor, unconditional love, full-out dedication given without question.

That little puppy has my kids playing more, has us playing more. He is a reminder of the good stuff. The stuff that requires no bells or whistles or gizmos to entertain. He’s a reminder that we all have a 10-year-old inside of us. A reminder to pay attention. To slow down.

And the good stuff makes the hard stuff worth it. Which, most of the time, is enough.

At Me

One of the most maddening, is-it-bedtime-yet moments in my parental life is when, most often in the car, one of my kids whines because his brother is looking at him the wrong way.  “He is smiling at me,” they cry and whine.  Or even “He keeps looking at me.” The key words here are at me. The other person’s pleasure is obviously spiteful, rotten behavior intended to make the cranky child more miserable than he already is.

Confession: Too often I find my 38 year-old self slipping into behavior not unlike my five year-old’s. Maybe already feeling a little bit grumpy or irritable, it’s easy to look around and have a feeling that people are doing things at me: posting pictures of dream vacations while I set my alarm for work, having houses that look magazine-worthy (or even clean toilets), being thin while still eating candy bars.

It’s unnerving that I understand what is logical or even what is good for me, but sometimes it seems easier to be the pouting child in the backseat than the adult steering the car.  Sometimes it seems easier to pretend things are happening at me or to me, rather than to exert the energy to guide myself toward adult-like behavior.

My husband and I recently jumped on the Whole30 bandwagon. If you’re not familiar, it’s a 30-day dietary re-set in which we abstained from sugar, gluten, dairy, soy, alcohol – and if you asked us most days – fun. I’d like to tell you it was 30 (or maybe 28.5…) glorious and glowing days, but most of the time, it was just plain old hard and time-consuming. I got sick of shopping, sick of scouring labels, sick of prepping, sick of making good decisions. Much like the glowering kids in the backseat, I too often found myself getting irritable when I had to take the time to cut up the kiwi versus grabbing the chips from the cupboard. And, though my body seemed to be quite happy with some logical decisions I was making on its behalf,  watching my kids eat a $5 Little Caesar’s Pizza was nearly torturous.  Words like accountability and wisdom and discipline can feel a bit like older brothers smirking at me.

Don’t we wish it was easier — that doing the right thing might cost a little less? That kale might call to us like dark chocolate does? That selflessness was as easy to access as it is to talk about? That goodness could flow from us as easily as greed? Or that extravagant kindness would seep from our veins as does competitiveness and jealousy?

C.S. Lewis says it this way: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Trading my tendency from focusing inward to looking outward requires me to realize that I am the “ignorant child making mud pies;” I am the crazy kid in the backseat screaming at someone else for smiling;  I’ve mindlessly got my hand in the Cheetos bag when fresh apples and ripe cherries are hanging on the tree outside. It’s an inconvenient truth:  I am far too easily pleased.

P.S. In case you’re interested, these have become my favorite go-to Whole 30 recipes:

Creamy Salsa Verde Chicken

Brussel Sprout and Bacon Egg Casserole

The Best Roasted Carrots

Shrimp, Snow Pea, and Shiitake Stir Fry

Chicken Tortilla-less Soup

Roasted Brussel Sprouts and Bacon

Whole30 Chicken Tenders
(Have any favorites to share with me? Comment and share a link!)

The Fight for Time

A friend once told me that if you really want to do something, first write down all the good excuses you’ve got not to do it. When it comes to writing, I’ve got a few:

  • All the words have been said.
  • I don’t have the right notebook or pen.
  • People will think I’m a fake.
  • People who didn’t like me in high school will say bad things about me.
  • I can’t teach AND write.
  • My kids keep interrupting me.
  • It’s too late. I should be further along by now.
  • I’ll wait until my kids are older.
  • Nobody cares.
  • I’m not that good.
  • I’m tired.
  • I’m hungry.
  • I just got a text.
  • I should check my email.
  • I’ll look at Facebook instead.
  • I’m way behind on laundry.
  • I should grade papers or revise tomorrow’s lesson or brainstorm a new unit.
  • I have nothing new to say.
  • All the other authors said it better.
  • I’ll offend someone.
  • I’m not spiritual enough.
  • I don’t have time.

This week I said goodbye to another group of college writing students. And the last words I left them with were: “Find that thing — that thing you don’t think you have time for or that thing you loved but stopped doing when you were 11 or 12 because you didn’t think you were good enough, and make time for it.”

As usual, I was mostly saying words I need to hear.  Giving reminders and passing along wisdom that good teachers and friends have shared with me.

Maybe a couple of them were reminded that they do actually enjoy writing — but for others, writing is not the thing, but it’s something else: dancing, drawing, gardening, baking, yoga, reading — whatever. I tell them, just spend a little time on it, and maybe even release the temptation to think you need to be so good at it all the time. I read aloud this piece by Anne Lamott in which she urges us to find “half an hour of quiet time for yourself…unless you’re incredibly busy and stressed, in which case you need an hour.” And then the students walk out the door to study for exams, and I head home to a house full of people who call me Mom, and the hard work begins — we have to figure it out. We have to fight for it.

Excuses are, of course, easiest when I’m the busiest. It’s so much easier to blame my lack of writing on this family I have (who insist on eating several times a day), the boys’ baseball schedules (three boys in baseball is no joke, just saying), the papers I need to grade (collected 143 yesterday + 17 ten-page research projects on Thursday), and the laundry I never put away (thank goodness for the door on that laundry room.) Oh, and that awful habit I’ve gotten into of checking all things on my phone — email, Instagram, Facebook — one last time before I go to bed.

But the reality is that I make time for what matters — and too often I find myself using my busyness as a not-so-clever form of procrastination. “I would, but first I need to…”

Just because something is good for me doesn’t mean it’s easy for me.

And this is especially true for writing. Red Smith said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

The month of May is a perfect storm for calendars — little league, end-of-the-school-year this and that, deadlines, and, and…but if not now, when? There will always be calendars, always be excuses.

So, I’m committing — on this Saturday morning when I tiptoed out of bed to steal an hour before the rest of my house wakes up — to taking the advice I offered my students about fighting for time for the things that matter in the months ahead. I know summer is coming and the pace of our household will slow a bit, but other things will be there too, including excuses.

Saving Up Stories

Photo: Dana VanderLugt

This blog post was originally published on The Twelve

My grandpa passed away last winter. One of the things I miss most is saving up stories for him.

My family still gathers around grandma’s table every Sunday, and most weeks my husband, kids, and I are there. My Grandpa was never one for much small talk, for casual conversation – but he loved stories, especially those told around that well-worn, oak table, and especially when the table was extended to its full length with a mismatch of chairs pulled up around it. As I grew, I was trained to be attentive, to watch and listen for captivating moments, to save up stories for Sunday and for Grandpa because I knew he would want to hear a good one, and that he’d probably re-tell it over and over to each person who visited that week.

For the past month, I’ve been gathering with a handful of people at the local pub on Monday nights, reading through the New Testament together. We sit around the table with the text open, exploring the story. We read the verses – some of which I admit I’ve read only in isolation in a greeting card – in context. We talk about what surprised us, what we struggled with, what convicted us, what gave us hope. We have better conversation than I’ve had in a church setting in quite awhile – because we’re just talking about the story. We are trying to come to some sense of understanding and allowing lots of space for questions.

This week in one of my classes we were discussing a novel just before I introduced the next writing assignment. One student’s hand suddenly rose. “Does this paper have to have a thesis?” she asked. “Do we have to come right out and tell our reader what our main point is? Because I love reading and discovering it myself, just like in this book we’re reading; I like when the author lets me figure it out rather than telling me what I’m supposed to think.”

Doesn’t it seem that sometimes stories work when arguments fail? That stories have power that facts and statistics can’t hold? That parables, anecdotes, and real-life accounts often make more room for questions and complexities than a 5-point lecture or pages and pages of statistics? As a teacher, I find myself scavenging for good stories, for examples, because facts, figures, and tricky vocabulary often can’t close the gap.

There is no doubt I’ve been fed physically around my grandparents’ table throughout my life – buttery rolls fresh from the oven, ham garnished with horseradish, apple crisp made with Cortlands from the family orchard. But words have filled me there, too. It’s where I learned my voice, learned how to spin a tale – what details mattered and what might be better left out. I grew up on a steady diet of familiar fables, of images and lines worth repeating. Those stories shaped me and gave me an appetite for more. Stories nourish; they fill us up in a way that arguments don’t. They introduce us to new flavors, new ideas, different ways of seeing the world. There’s space and mystery in a story – it’s not all given to us; there is not one right answer. Stories provide a way back to each other – and make room for the rough edges of life.

When life is complicated, when there is wrestling and uncertainty, when there are disagreements with those across the aisle – or the dinner table – stories are the sound of chairs moving and of making room for each other.

Photo: unsplash.com

 

Hidden Hope

 

(A version of this piece was first published on The Twelve.)

During the summer, my schedule permits me to take a walk nearly every morning, just after sunrise. I pop in headphones, tune into a podcast, and head for my favorite path. Quiet neighborhood sidewalks open into a paved trail that winds through a farmer’s field, sometimes dotted with freshly-rolled bales of hay. I make my way around a small pond (albeit a former gravel pit with condos along one side), cross a bridge over Buttermilk Creek, and then veer off to a two-track under a canopy of trees.  I rarely make it back home without a feeble attempt to capture a shot or two with my camera phone – it might be the sunlight reflecting on the water or a purple wildflower standing proudly in a drainage ditch.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the snow had melted enough to allow for a February walk along this same trail. The sun couldn’t find its way through the clouds, and the gray sky matched the barren trees, but I caught myself snapping pictures of details I hadn’t noticed before – just as the voice on my podcast spoke of how almost everything has an “underbelly,” a hidden side we avoid or don’t know as well. I noticed tree roots twisted into the creek banks, the shimmer of ice hugging the pond’s shore, and that same canopy of trees – in shades of gray instead of forest greens.

I found hope on that walk. Hope in the beauty of the gray: like God gently tapping me on the shoulder to remind me that things don’t have to be shiny and perfect to be good, that grace meets us where we’re at, that creation still cries out in the midst of a dark day. And it’s led me this week to notice more of this, to keep a list of hopeful things.

Extra chairs pulled up to a table.

The sudden, distinct memory of my Grandpa’s deep voice singing his favorite hymn.

A student with down-syndrome, who passed a basketball to a student in a wheelchair to make a basket. Bleachers full of middle schoolers filling the gym with cheers.

An eight-year old shaking the hand of a refugee, no words exchanged, just shining eyes.

A well-written 8th grade literary analysis. The thesis: there is beauty in the ugly. And ugly in the beauty.

The yellow of a sunrise on a barren, winter field.  

The friend, an atheist, who found herself in a church pew at the request of her son, and said she just may come back.

A child dancing without music.

A driver who stopped, smiled, and waved me through an intersection.

The Writer’s Almanac. A poem each day standing calming amidst a cluttered inbox of advertisements.

Bible Study in the brewery.

Friends who listen. Who need say little more than, “me too.”
On Ash Wednesday, I’m remembering that author Barbara Johnson says that we are “Easter People living in a Good Friday world.”  That even in the dormant seasons, God’s story – for redemption, restoration, for the world to be made right again – is not at a standstill. We wait and we work with hope, grateful for a God who shows up in small and big ways.

See something, say something

All photos in this post are courtesy of my mother-in-law and gifted photographer, Audrey VanderLugt

 

The world feels extra fragile to me lately. The big and the small — so many cancer diagnoses in my community, a contentious election and now inaugagration, unnerving daily news reports, an especially dark January, and my own kids constantly picking at each other.

We had an Ice Day today – with school called off – and I’m grateful that I could let the kids laze around for a few hours this morning and for an extra day to recover from a head cold that has lingered for more than a week, making the already muddled world feel a little fuzzier.

As I sipped my coffee this morning, I clicked on one of those Facebook links I might usually pass over as too fluffy, one that promised to make me cry.  I started to watch, remembering seeing this one before — but I was compelled to stick with it — a story about a father who died in a car accident just weeks after his son’s birth, with that infant son critically injured. The story followed the mother’s journey as she went back to the hospital, to the aero med crew, to the entire team of people who had saved her son’s life 10 years earlier to thank each person face-to-face. She then threw an extravagent thank you party for these people who saved her son by doing their jobs well.

One of the women in the story, a nurse, mentioned that she had never been thanked by a family member, “not after;” commenting how you usually don’t “see people.”

Just yesterday, I received the kindest text message from a substitute teacher who had been in my classroom while I was out sick, complimenting my students on their thoughtful questions about a story they read aloud with her. She wrote, “I know I don’t deal with the ‘darn dailies’ as you do, but I love the atmosphere that you have cultivated in your classroom.”

She made my night — not just with kind words — but by reminding me why I do my job in the first place, reminding me of the potential and value of each of those students who fill the desks in my classroom everyday. By reminding me that while the daily work of those long winter months can feel tedious and wearisome, it’s important. That the best stuff can look mundane and be easily missed.

These thank yous, these intentional words of gratitude, turn things around for all of us —  those who take the time to pause and notice, those who receive the words of gratitude, and the bystanders who watch it unfold.

Last week we learned of the horrific shooting in an airport in Fort Lauderdale and were cautioned that when we “see something” we need to “say something.”

But what if we did this not just when we are scared or fearful, but when we witness the goodness of humanity in front of us? When we see a student stop to help another in the hall, when we notice that mom juggling her crying toddler and her groceries in the cashier’s line, when we’re served by a waiter or waitress who continues to smile as she manuevers a busy restaurant?

We have excuses. We avoid speaking up because of fear (“but I’ll sound weird”)  or busyness (“but I didn’t notice/have a chance”).  Yet, maybe those aren’t great excuses.

Our world is fragile and healing rarely happens in sweeping movements, but in the quiet, consistency of kindness that comes from showing up, seeing people, and just saying something.

P.S. Extra shout out of gratitude to that substitute teacher — it’s a rare thing to find someone who enjoys walking into an unfamiliar middle school classroom and following someone else’s lesson plans (for not-so-great money). What a gift — and a lesson for me in doing the everyday things with great care and love.

 

 

 

Still

Truth: My Christmas tree is adorned with Nerf bullets.

My New Year’s Resolutions (or New Year’s Good Intentions) are often like my housecleaning  — I walk in one room to vacuum, then bend over to pick up a few Nerf bullets strewn about from my kids’ last battle, and suddenly I am gathering up old magazines I meant to recycle yesterday, but on the way to the recycling bin I notice the dishes I had started 20 minutes ago. Oh, and yesterday’s laundry is still damp in the washer after I forgot to transfer it to the dryer.

In other words: I can be scattered. There is much to compete for my attention, and I’m easily distracted, easily called in different directions.

Instead of a list of resolutions, I’ve taken a cue from the folks over at #oneword365 and found I do better with picking one word of focus – “one word that sums up who you want to be or how you want to live.”  Tomorrow, I’ll challenge my eighth graders to do the same. We’ll dream, free write, brainstorm, and then they’ll tape index cards featuring their words in their lockers.

This year I’m choosing STILL.

/stil/ Old English stille; from a base meaning ‘be fixed, stand.’

  1. Noun: deep silence and calm.

Quiet is not my default setting. Silence does not naturally abound in my life – I teach 8th grade and I have three young boys at home. But, I’m asking myself, how do I create more calm in the chaos? How can I clean out a bit of space in my soul, even in the midst of noise? I could blame all the commotion on everyone else in my life, but that’s not fair. I fill my calendar too full. I’ve gotten worse at waiting. (I once heard someone say that he wished when a light turned green all the cars could just go simultaneously so that no one had to wait…and I laughed. But since then, I’ve caught myself wishing the same thing.) We live in a world of instant gratification, and I fall easily into its traps. I have to remind myself, sometimes force myself, to pause and then react. I want to practice this kind of stillness in small ways this year: wait to put something in my shopping cart to see if I still want it next week. Avoid rushing to grab my phone the moment it buzzes — or turn it off, set it aside. Wait to open and respond to emails until I have the time to do it well.  Breathe before speaking (or snapping or screaming), or maybe just choose silence instead. Allow a day or two to meditate and pray on decisions.  Active stillness may look a lot like more like doing nothing when my instinct is to do something now.

2. Adjective: not moving or making a sound.

As I sit writing this on the final eve of my Christmas Break, I’m all too aware of the pace — the movement — waiting for me tomorrow. But maybe stillness is more of mindset, or even a discipline, than a physical state.  I often measure my day in to-do lists and items crossed off the calendar. I awake to an alarm on my phone, and the glow of that device is the first light I see. I find myself, first thing in the morning, scrolling instead of praying and centering — checking messages instead of stretching, breathing.  I may need to resist the temptation to fill up every window of my day with noise or a screen – often false productivity. To set limits for myself and the people in my house so we look each other in the eyes and talk more often.  Set limits so that I pick up more books, read more poetry, and put the work (that will surely be there tomorrow ) aside and go to bed at a decent time. I want to create space to pay better attention, to live deeper rather than just scratching the surface of my days.

3. adverb: nonetheless; despite/in spite of.

This past April, my dad had major heart surgery. Once he was safe and sound in recovery, my husband, siblings, and I went out to lunch, where we sat talking about the enormous sense of false urgency that usually governs our days. Nearly losing my dad hit a reset button for all of us; it was a reminder that our usual stresses were trivial compared to what mattered at that moment. I don’t want to lose that awareness — I want to think about what still, what nonetheless, what truly matters. I recently made a sign for my house that reads, “Life is not an emergency.” (It sits in my bathroom, hanging next to my toilet — get the irony?)

4. verb: make or become still, abate, subside, ease up.

Last, I’m going to have to ease up on myself. Because STILL is a work in progress. It’s tiny steps. It’s January 2, and I’ve already snapped at my children too soon, stared down at my phone in the car instead of having a conversation with my husband, and looked at Instagram too many times today. I know that when I need silence and calm most is when I’m quickest to get short and snappy with others. The calm and serenity of morning is often challenged from the minute I wake my darlings to get dressed and ready for school.  I will still need grace. I am still not in charge. The Psalms say, “Be still and know that I am God.” Or, as my favorite author Anne Lamott interprets this verse, “Put a sock in it—you are in charge of very little.”

Late this morning, two of the boys and I went for a walk. It was cold, but the sky was blue, and that barely ever happens around here in January. It was marvelous. I remembered to breathe, even when I had to wait while they threw sticks in a creek for 20 minutes and my fingers were frozen, and the little one’s legs broke down and I had to carry him on my back the last half of the way. But by late afternoon, the skies had turned grey, it was already getting dark, and a cold rain began. I had to think about backpacks and making lunches for tomorrow – which is for no good reason my absolute least favorite chore in the whole world. Then I stopped to flip back through the pictures I had taken from our walk earlier in the day, and I was reminded that high beyond those grey clouds, there is still blue. That we can’t always see the big picture. That some days we just have to sit and breathe in and out while we make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but there is solace and assurance and even restoration in the small, everyday things of life. Still.

A messier manger

It was nearly five years ago when Caleb and I participated in a craft night at church to make a nativity scene. I remember that when it was time to draw the faces on our little wooden figurines, I cringed as he grabbed the black Sharpie and haphazardly scratched in the eyes, noses, and mouths. I did a couple for him, including the baby Jesus, to try to show him the “right” way to do it.

This year, when I took that little scene out its box, I was now cringing that I had helped him at all — that instead of two more faces drawn by the little fingers of a kindergartener (who is now as tall as me), I had two smiley faces drawn by a 30-something mom more intent on giving advice than letting her child play.

And two days from Christmas, I’m fessing up that this is still my struggle. Like with that manger scene, I’m always trying to clean these days up, make them a little warmer and fuzzier and more manicured than they want to be. But listen closely and you’ll hear the sounds of my boys fighting over the strains of Christmas music. Ride along in the car and you’ll hear me lecturing about materialism as we run yet another errand.  Look closely and you’ll see I have three strands of lights attempting to cover the burnt-out ones that still hang on my tree.

We press expectations of perfection upon Christmas — a day that at its core is about meeting us in our mess, about light entering a world of darkness, chaos, and brokenness.

Everywhere I’ve gone this week, I’ve been given nudges to let go of the polished “Silver Bells” version of Christmas (where everything is shiny and hustling and bustling). I’ve been noticing not just the beauty of the imperfect, but our need for it.  Without acknowledgment of our brokenness, of the dark, dark days of December, who needs Christmas? Who needs saving — who needs a savior — when we’re trying so hard to sculpt perfect Christmas moments that we live under the illusion that we can sanitize and save ourselves?

My pastor reminded me last week to be “startled by wonder.”  Not the wonder of a magazine-cover holiday, but the wonder of an inside-out Christmas. A reminder that Jesus was born into hopelessness, brokenness; he was born in a smelly cave, not a stained-glass cathedral. And that the news of this birth first came to dirty shepherds: those who didn’t count, who didn’t matter, who were ignored or disdained.

And so when things the next few days –or few years — don’t go exactly as planned (because they won’t), maybe I can remember that God comes into our mess, invites us into other people’s messes, because don’t things have to get messy before they can get good? Isn’t that the heart of the gospel?

I’m not a fast learner, but the reminders keep coming.

A few days ago, I scolded my youngest for writing on the pages of my brand new notebook, for not using scraps of paper (that I can covertly recycle after he’s in bed.) But then yesterday, I got out my notebook to scratch down thoughts about imperfection, about doing more things badly, but with passion. And I found these doodles.  Perfectly imperfect evidence of a real, abundant life. 

Let me keep being reminded this Christmas that I don’t need to clean up so much, that I don’t need to sculpt every moment into something Hallmark-worthy. Because the good stuff can only be found when there is also room for the mess. 

 

P.S. Giving credit to Jack Ridl for inspiring me to get that notebook out yesterday, and passing along this gift to you, as my cousin Sara, did for me yesterday. This is from a couple of years ago, but it begs to be watched today, right now. Jack is one of the good, good teachers I’ve had, and his stuff about “with” is wisdom I try to carry with me everywhere — into my classroom, my home, my marriage, my writing. I need to hear these words about showing up, showing up perfectly imperfect almost all the time, but especially in December.

Thankful: the sacred mundane

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One of my favorite parts of teaching is writing with my students. In my Hope College class this fall,  we did a series of writing experiments — assignments more focused on exploration than perfection. One of my favorites was an imitation of a piece called “Thankful” by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. The piece is published in Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life — a ecletic memoir told through a series of Encyclopedia-style entries.

In honor of Thanksgiving, I’ll share portions of our experiments in gratitude here. First, a compilation from a few of my students:

Thankful

I’m thankful for sunsets, hot coffee, sugar cookie dough, and happy endings. For allergy medicine and athletic shorts.  I’m thankful for my mother’s home cooked meals, especially when they involved mashed potatoes. For hikeable mountains and swimmable lakes. I’m thankful for handwritten letters. For forgiveness. I’m thankful for mac ‘n’ cheese, washing machines, and spontaneity.  That my family loves baseball. That baseball exists in the first place. I’m thankful for starry nights. For fireworks. For sunflowers. I’m thankful for the kindness of strangers, XL t shirts, and Instagram. For laughter that makes your stomach hurt and books to get lost in. I’m thankful that at the end of each day is sleep. For people who miss me when I’m gone. I’m thankful that children mispronounce words and for warm towels just out of the dryer. For chocolate cake and dirty white Converse that never get old. I’m thankful for sarcasm. For failure. I’m thankful for grace.  

With thanks to my students: Sarah Altieri, Josie Rund, Jamie Westrate, and Taylor Dolan.

And my own gratitude list:

I’m thankful for new pens, for vulnerability, for fresh salsa. I’m thankful for the stray cat in our neighborhood who hunts the mice that would normally find their way into my house. For dark chocolate. Red wine. That my husband has decided he likes roasted brussel sprouts. I’m thankful my children will not fight in my backseat forever. I’m thankful for dreams that haven’t come true. For Lake Michigan. For flowers. For the pile of books next to my bed and podcasts.  For strangers who smile back and those little grocery belt dividers.  I’m thankful for seasons, for soap, for the window above my kitchen sink. That my son has my grandpa’s mannerisms.  I’m thankful for the kindergarten teachers who tie the shoes of kids whose fingers haven’t managed the task yet. For insects that survive bike rides in kids’ pockets, tattered photo albums, music, and mornings I can wake up with the sun rather than an alarm. I’m thankful for bedtimes stories and boys who snore softly before the end of the chapter. For those who truly know me and still choose love.

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Stumble: trip or momentarily lose one's balance; almost fall. Grace: Undeserved redemption, sweetness.