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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Falling

Oct. 21, 2015

“By facing God, we also face our own inner chaos.”

— Henri Nouwen

It was a warm, fall, Michigan Sunday; what I knew would likely be our last for awhile. Twenty-some family members had just left my house, and the dishes were in the dishwasher, the floor was swept, and my husband wanted a couple of hours to laze and nap. I, on the contrary, had visions of a wistful walk through the woods as a family – basking in the fall colors. You know, something straight out of that Instagram or Facebook post that instantly makes it seem that other people have life figured out, and I can’t quite seem to get it together.

And so, I solicited volunteers – two boys (ages 3 and 6) – and we piled into the car and headed to the nearest nature center. I parked at the trailhead, and we were not more than 20 feet up the path when the oldest declared this walk “boring and stupid.” The youngest meandered and wandered and panicked whenever he dropped one of the 30 leaves that had haphazardly become his prized collection. What’s more, he didn’t even pick the best leaves, the ones I deemed prettiest, but seemed content with the browns and molded yellows.

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We slowly made our way as I tried to appreciate the beauty despite the whining, despite the fact that one son had now disappeared down another trail to sulk and the other would not stop talking (don’t the woods inspire silence?) and was now begging to be carried the rest of the way to the car. I took enough pictures to feel like I had record of the sunshine and something suitable to resemble a perfect family moment (or millisecond).  

Back at home, I walked through the door a bit more tired and a lot less energized than what I had gloriously envisioned when we left. As I stood in the kitchen, contemplating what to feed these boys in my house who had somehow managed to get hungry again, my husband came up behind me and tapped me gently on the shoulder, saying, “You try so hard.”

Trying is my thing: it has always been my thing. I come from a family of hard workers — farmers — who have taught me to get a move on, to get things accomplished, to not slow down (besides, we might fall asleep if we did). We don’t need rest. We have things to do. We are “yes” people. We must have something to show for our time.

But the problem with trying is just that — it’s a try. Trying is not foolproof. Effort alone does not always guarantee expectations are met.  Trying may earn occasional admiration for hard work and commitment, but it doesn’t get any of us across the finish line 100% of the time. Trying can earn us approval, but doesn’t often fulfill our purpose.

And, when we’re honest, we can admit that trying can also feel a whole lot like like bluffing, like pretending. It feels like trying to convince ourselves that we’ve got it under control, that we can do it all, that if we focus and work hard enough, we can fool people — or maybe ourselves — into believing we can keep the world — our at least our world — spinning.  

It can feel a bit like posting a picture of a beautiful walk in the woods when no one can see our kid’s scowl or our own frustration on the other side of the camera.

For a long time, I believed I needed to “let go, and let God,” which is one of those trite phrases that is easy to repeat and has had very little practical applicability in my life. This is mainly because I still envisioned that if I let go, God would make me soar, make me succeed, makes things turn out “right.” God would clean up the mess — rather than meet me in the mess and accept me there.

I’m realizing more and more, letting go looks more like falling than expecting everything to fall into place.  Letting go is acknowledging my shortcomings, acknowledging that trying will probably not be enough, and then accepting that. Maybe even celebrating that.

One of the problems with trying — with that pick-myself-up-by-my-own-bootstraps mentality — is that it isn’t truly compatible with grace, with undeserved and unconditional love. It’s like saying, “Well…I sorta need saving, but I’m doing pretty well on my own. I can handle most of it, God, if you can just help me out with the last 11% or so.” Trying too hard doesn’t truly leave room for grace because both hands never completely let go of the controls. We just lift a pinky at a time and then clench the rest of our fists harder.

And when I’m not ready to truly receive grace, it also becomes harder to dole out. Because if I’m hustling and working, everyone else should be, too. (And that starts to sounds like a lot like competition, doesn’t it?) I’ve heard grace referred to as a “simple act,” but that’s just not true. Grace is a whole lot harder and requires a whole lot more trust and faith than makes most of us comfortable.

The problem with trying, pushing, and hustling to prove our own worthiness is it doesn’t leave room for the messiness of grace, for the gift of rest, for the discomfort of understanding that I will not — cannot — get it all right because the world is broken, I am human, and there will always be more to do.  It doesn’t leave room to collect and celebrate those brown and yellow molded leaves. Or to accept that life rarely can be molded, manufactured, or pressed into perfection.  

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Guest Post: Poems and Process

Earlier this summer, I wrote about interviewing my grandma with my cousin, Sara Lamers Messink. A poet, a teacher, and one of my first friends, Sara and I grew up bridging the 80 miles that separated us with weekly letters exchanged back and forth. We eventually became college housemates and fellow English majors. We share a mutual understanding and appreciation for those things our family values most: the land, the table, stories. She has taught me to pay better attention to the world and words around me.

Sara and I (a few years ago) on Grandma's orchard.
Sara and I (a few years ago) on Grandma’s orchard.

Sara has graciously offered to share a few poems; below are a few that resonated with me, along with a Q&A about writing and her process.

——-

I phone to say

I’ll be there, Sunday dinner.
Grandma’s reply is wind,
the shudder of trees, birds’
bitter cries.  Like me she cares

little for idle talk, talk
too small to bridge the distance.
The shortening of days,
a chill breaking in.

She asks of a friend, expecting.
I tell the truth: she lost it.
Wait for a lament
that does not come,

just silence first, then a sigh
that shatters miles with bold truth –
It’s for the best.  It knows, the body.
Outside the first leaves begin to turn.

What inspires you to write? What makes you keep going? 

I’ve always felt compelled to write, I think because I have always loved to read and feel a strong urgency to read widely, deeply, and massively.  If I accomplish nothing else in my life except inhaling and digesting books, I’ll be satisfied.   That said, being able to contribute something to the vast amount of writing out there in the world is both an honor and is humbling.  I write to be a part of something a tiny bit bigger than me, in this way.

It’s a challenge to discover new ways to stretch my writing and that challenge is part of what keep me going.  I come from a family with a strong work ethic (yes, workaholics!) and feel guilty when I don’t write.  By this token, then, it can be deeply satisfied just to get some content down on paper, no matter how awful.  A wise instructor and mentor once told me “you’ll have the whole rest of your life to write good poems.”  To that end, focusing on generating material is a way to prevent the “it’s not any good” worries from stopping me from writing at all.

——

Blues on Sunday

You’re at it again,
crowded by peppers, herbs,
oils, pots steaming.
This time a soup:
rich heat, chipotle, cayenne,
this time blues on the stereo,
from room to room it wafts,
sultry pleas and to what
do I owe this pleasure
of staying in, January Sunday night,
snow splayed across the lawn
but no mind, we’re in here, this warmth, this
lovely heat, alive?

The knives you work
like a sleight of hand, garlic,
onion, thyme, tomatoes
diced down, tiniest forms.
I can’t do much but pour
the wine and raise a glass
to vines, black soil, hands that toil,
seared by sun to pluck
this swollen fruit piece by piece
and plunk into buckets
as the chicken stock, olive oil
commingle and scent the air,
flood it, the weight
of the heady voice, horns and sax, wailing
guitar and blustery sadness.
That certain loss.

The “he” who’s gone
and done wrong, left town
with money, with her battered
heart, rent past due,
kids all sick, boss out of line and here
in our small kitchen
the last yellow light of evening
goes and leaves us
warmer than we’ve ever been and
we sink into soup, the blues, its wail, its cradle
stunned with gratitude,
the purest joy we beg
to keep coming.

Can you talk a bit about your writing rhythm? Do you show up at the desk and play/experiment? Focus on a particular project? 

My process depends on whether I’m working in poetry or prose.  Poetry is much slower, but that’s what I gravitate toward.  When I sit down to write a poem, I first spend a large block of time (at least an hour) reading published poems.  This gets my head in the right place.  I like to have lots of uninterrupted, non-structured time for poetry, largely because it takes so long to enter into that mental and emotional space where poems come from.  Ideally, I’ll have four hours or more to oscillate between reading poems; generating new, rough material; revising poems-in-progress; and polishing or ‘picking at’ nearly-done drafts.  I work best when I am working on several poems that are in various stages of done-ness.  I always have lots of projects going at once so that I can bounce back and forth between them – when I run out of steam on one, I take up another.

I find that the more you know and learn and understand about writing, the harder it becomes to actually do it.  I don’t believe in waiting around for ‘inspiration’ to strike – you have to show up and force yourself to do the work.  (I have also been influenced by several writing teachers who have impressed this notion upon me).  With poetry, especially, I have carved out habits and patterns that help me to get the work going: I have to write in the writing room in my house (I can’t work on poems anywhere else) and I work by hand (as opposed to via a computer) throughout most of the process.  It’s not until very late in the game that poems find their way to the computer screen.

When it comes to essays and fiction, I’m less married to single process, though in both of these cases I need to complete an entire “messy” draft of the thing before I do any revision – I’m not a revise-as-you-go type.  Right now I’m working on a second novel and have borrowed a lot of ‘rules’ from the National Novel Writing Month (which takes place in November each year) guidelines: I set a target word count and don’t quit for the day until I’ve reached it.  I love being in the middle of many projects at once (all in various stages of complete-ness) because it prevents me from getting bored and helps me return to each project with refreshed vision.

——

I Never

got to see them kill the chickens,
my grandparents’ farm eighty-some miles

from home.  Though some summer days
I helped feed, the coop a gray half-dome

tin igloo, low and strange,
that bright tunnel all straw and sticks.

The water they drank floated in plastic jugs
sliced to halves, there was corn they’d jab at,

pounding wings that kicked up dust and straw.
Cousins told me of the killings, how some Saturdays

they’d do as many as half a dozen, hand out
fresh hens to aunts for Sunday dinner.

Grandma tearing feathers from hot bodies
like tangles from a comb.

It was the way the legs still ran after the head
was severed that amused my cousins most,

that panicked race-without-a-finish-line,
survival-of-the-fittest in reverse.

I never saw it but can see my grandparents,
hands careworn, easy with the blood,

the mess, the stench – none of it too crude
to manage, the picture as real to me as

our grandmother, those same summer months,
pressing milkweed to our hands as we walked

through orchards, tugging back the petals
down to the bumpy pod, saying Look:  

These could be fish if we really wanted
them to be.  And we never dreamed
of arguing.

 

How does the process and practice of writing impact you personally? Do you write for an audience? Is there a feeling or maybe even a word that describes what meets you as you write?

Well, I write for myself, primarily, and not for others.  I never once think about an audience or reader when I’m drafting.  I write because I have to do it and feel compelled to do it, and it is satisfying to (finally) do it well.  Publishing is not all that important to me, especially when it comes to poetry (it’s publish or perish in academia, so my motivation to publish there is mainly career-related).  I’d rather make effective art than publish it at all.  I do benefit, of course, from feedback from others – that’s a hugely essential part of the process.   I’ve not yet published any fiction, but do hope to.  My motivation here is to meet the challenge of producing effective writing.  If others read and enjoy it, that’s all the better, but I’m not dependent on a reader – or a reader’s approval – to keep going.  It sounds trite, I know, but it’s the intrinsic reward that pays off the most.

That said, writing – whether it’s poetry, fiction, or nonfiction – is a way to understand your world and to wrestle with the dissonances in your life.  It’s a way to work toward making sense of things that cannot be articulated in any other way.  Writing provides an opportunity to put the rest of life on pause, to step out of the endless, busy stream of life and to reflect and ruminate on the larger picture, on the important things.  It’s a way to record and also think through the various phases and stages of life, which I’m grateful for.  Making art is one of the most spiritual things you can do, at least this has been true for me.  It forces you to be honest, but also connects you to something bigger than yourself.  

Out of tune

 

Photo courtesy of Unsplash.com, veeterzy.com
Photo courtesy of Unsplash.com, veeterzy.com

I was in choirs when I was a kid. I loved to sing, and I thought I was pretty good at it.  Along with my cousins or youth group friends, I’d even perform “Special Music” (a phenomenon of 1990s West Michigan church culture) at night services, and was always among the first to try out for solos at school.

But sometime around the end of middle school, I realized that my performances weren’t so cute anymore. No one cringes at a slightly out-of-tune 3rd grader, but the judgement — or awareness of judgement — sets in around the age of 12, 13.  As I grew older and more self conscious, I quit all choirs, and started to sing quietly in church, making sure my voice wasn’t heard outside of the crowd, outside of the other muted voices.

During a recent Sunday morning during worship, an adult with some cognitive impairments stood a few rows behind me, singing over the crowd. Her voice was out of tune and out of rhythm — and beautiful. It was raw. It was real. With this voice behind me, I dared raise my own voice a bit. Add into the chorus the sounds of a baby babbling  nearby, and I really felt free to air my own imperfection.

Maybe this is more of what our churches need, more of what I need. We need to welcome more out-of-tune voices, more babies crying, more messes in the pews, and through the doors.

I recently had the chance to interview Gregg Taylor. Gregg is a friend of my church, and currently serves as the President of the Board of the National Association of Christian Recovery.  He’s also works with Houston reVision, an organization that helps gang-effected youth and kids on the edge to revise the stories of their lives toward a hope-filled future. Prior to joining reVision, Gregg was the pastor of Mercy Street, a church in Houston that creates a safe place for the hurt, the lost, and the seeking to experience  radical grace. 

Gregg told me the story of how he ended up working at Mercy Street after spending 17 years in campus ministry. The experience is best shared in his own words from an interview we did together:

I’m an adult child of an alcoholic. My dad was a child of an alcoholic. My mother was a child of alcoholic. Our family could be a case study. (Laughs.)

A friend of mine, the founding pastor of Mercy Street, was transitioning out, and he called to see if I would talk with him.  And I said no; I like it where I am. But he pushed and pushed, and I finally relented. He said, ‘Just talk?” And I said, ‘Fine. I’ll talk.”

I knew of Mercy Street, but I’d never been there. As I sat down in that service, I thought, ‘Wow. This is the kind of church where Jesus would show up.” It was raw, it was celebratory, it was broken, it was a mess. There was an energy of palpable grace and connection.

But the kicker for me…My dad passed away right before I accepted the job, and he was sick during this entire conversation. My dad was 10 years sober when he passed away, and those last 10 years had been great, lots of reconciliation. When I was explaining to my dad about the possibility of coming to Mercy Street, I said, “Dad, there’s a bunch of drunks in this church and people in AA.  And he goes, “That sounds like the kind of church I could go to.” And I said, “Yeah, dad, that’s the kind of church that would welcome you with open arms.”

You see, he grew up in a hellfire/damnation, shame-based, fear-filled church. His Dad made sure he was at church on Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, Wednesday nights — every time the doors were open — but then at home, his dad would beat the hell out of him. And my grandfather would beat my grandmother. This spiritual toxicity had seeped into his soul, and he didn’t want anything to do with God. There was a lot of fear and shame; he was beat down, but AA helped him recover from that and return to himself and God. AA became his fellowship of faith. By the time he died, he was no longer atheist or agnostic, but the God of his understanding was compassionate, grace-filled, and loving. My sense was that if Jesus could show up at Mercy Street, and this was a place where my dad could show up and be welcomed with radical hospitality, I could say, “Yes.” And so I went.

Gregg went on to share stories with me — stories of a homeless woman with no teeth learning to serve and smile, stories of bringing his own son to rehab and feeling love and compassion rather than whispering gossip about a preacher’s kid who needed help.

Gregg said a church that welcomes recovery “creates a space where brokenness is not a problem — whatever brokenness we bring is actually a pathway to grace. God doesn’t turn his head to that, but it actually becomes the conduit to where compassion, restoration, and grace flow.”

The truth is that we’re all in recovery. We’re all dealing with junk. We’re all cracked and broken. And grace is available to all of us. But those who are willing to admit when they’re broken soak up that grace a little more easily.

As a rule-following, oldest child with a history of trying too hard, of trying to control situations and manage the people around me, I’m not always being very good at admitting when I need help or when things aren’t going well.

In his book, The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out, Brennan Manning writes, “Our huffing and puffing to impress God, our scrambling for brownie points, our thrashing about trying to fix ourselves while hiding our pettiness and wallowing in guilt are nauseating to God and are a flat denial of the gospel of grace. Our approach to the Christian life is as absurd as the enthusiastic young man who had just received his plumber’s license and was taken to see Niagara Falls. He studied it for a minute and then said, ‘I think I can fix this.'”

Showing up real and vulnerable to God — or anyone else — is impossible when it becomes all about trying to have it all together, all about performing.  Especially because we’re out of tune much of the time.

I stopped singing loudly  for the same reason many people never want to step a foot through a church’s door again. It’s hard to pretend you’re good when you’re not. It’s hard to show up and be a mess. So often, we get very good at pretending or we shut up, we stay away. And too often, grace and love — radical hospitality — aren’t the first thing people feel when they walk inside a church.

We can learn a lot from our friends in recovery. We could learn a lot by admitting we all are in recovery. It isn’t a place for pretending to be perfect or whispering quietly  — it’s a place to be honest and broken enough to be fully present, fully known, and fully loved. It’s not only about showing radical hospitality, but accepting that gift, too.

Gregg Taylor blogs at meditate-this.org. Visit him there. You’ll be glad you did.

Photo courtesy of unsplash.com, by Geetanjal Khanna
Photo courtesy of unsplash.com, by Geetanjal Khanna

 

 

Mundane turned Miraculous

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Upon the death of our trees,
I learn the Hebrew word for orchard is paradise

I’ve grown up watching my father eat apples
straight off the trees.
His mouth wide,
he’d take one giant bite,
tearing the skin,
exposing the belly,
carving out one side of the round, crimson masterpiece

with the sharp of his teeth.

Then, baring the pearl white
of its insides,
and without noticing his own arm,
he’d toss the fruit
a few rows behind him, an offering
of half-eaten McIntosh,

Ida Reds, Galas, Spys.

We could afford this.

They were ours.
We could take only one bite and
throw it down, throw it back.
We had no reason to finish every bite,
to eat all the way to the core, to the seeds.
  ~
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I wrote this poem in 2001, before kids, before meeting my husband, before college graduation. It was about that time that I started writing about my family’s apples, our trees. My grandpa was an apple farmer, and when the orchard he managed closed up, when the equipment was auctioned off piece by piece, when the fall came and no one was out picking, I became keenly aware of how much of me and my family was wrapped up in that land, of how those rolling acres were the setting for so much of our story. 
 

Now, several years later, my mom and dad have planted apple trees on nearly every available inch of their land. And so, when I get to witness my boys playing on the farm, picking apples, or riding the tractor with Papa, I well up with gratitude. And I remember the words I wrote late at night in that college dorm room nearly two decades ago:

The miraculous can be so close to mundane that we often miss it.

I’ve grown up watching my dad grab a fresh apple off a tree, take one giant bite, and then throw it back into the tall grass surrounding another row of Spies, Ida Reds, Galas.  It seems he would do this without even noticing the apple, or maybe with the deliberate arms of a man who knew he could take only one bite, a kind of taste testing of a masterpiece.

I’ve started to take pictures of them now, of the trees, of the apples, of the baskets we carry them in.  I’m terrified of losing them. My kids may not grow up with the indulgence of taking just one bite, then throwing the apple back, knowing there are millions more hanging on the trees.  They may not get the chance to go for rides in the back of the pickup truck on Sundays, with their Grandpa driving, aunts and uncles and mothers and fathers sitting on the back of the cab, ducking under low-hanging branches, getting off while Grandpa tries to drive the raggedy truck up the hills.  They may not be hushed to spot a couple of deer nibbling off branches, to be quiet so that everyone can get a glance at the timid creatures before the white tails run, bouncing farther into the trees. They may not know this. They may not live this.

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But my kids are living this, I’m still living this, and this time – miraculous or mundane – I’m not missing it.  Each fall, I’m extraordinarily grateful not just for the sweet taste of apples, but for the memories my kids are planting – for the the dirt under their fingernails, the holes in their jeans, and the sticky chins I’m washing.

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Our apple crisp

Apple Crisp is my go-to fall dish. It’s much faster and easier than pie, and the smell that fills the house is almost as good as the taste. My recipe is a combination of my Grandma Lamers and Betty Crocker — Grandma skips the oatmeal; Betty uses less butter.  Serve with a dollop of whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

  • 5-6 medium tart apples (I like Paula Reds or Courtlands)
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup old-fashioned oats
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1 stick butter, cold & sliced thin

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease sides and bottom of a pie pan or 8×8 square pan.  Peel, slice, and scatter apples in the pan. Eat a few as you work. You’ll have to cut up a couple extra because your kids will walk by and steal a few, too. It’s okay — they’re good for them.

Mix remaining dry ingredients, adding butter last and cutting it into the dry mixture. Sprinkle the mixture liberally over the top of the apples.

Bake about 40 minutes, or until the top is golden brown. Serve warm. It reheats just fine.

That first hill

Photo credit: Priscilla Westra, unsplash.com
Photo credit: Priscilla Westra, unsplash.com

 

It took me awhile to enjoy rollercoasters.

I was a nervous, cautious kid, not one to take risks — and it wasn’t until high school that I remember being talked into venturing onto a rollercoaster and walking off the platform with a smile on face. My problem was that as soon as I reached the pinnacle  — that moment of the first drop, as soon as momentum picked up — my stomach went under, and I would panic and forget to breathe.  But eventually, by laughing and screaming with a good friend beside me, I came to realize that if I could will myself to let out my breath as we plunged down that first hill, I might actually enjoy the ride. I might get why people waited hours in lines to ride these things.

(Now, as I near forty, my brain and my bladder would rather me speak metaphorically about this experience than get in line to prove it’s still true.)

For teachers, August can feel like that slow click, click, click up the first hill of the rollercoaster.

I’m excited, I’m nervous, I’m anxious, I’m anticipating — I know the steep drop ahead of me. I know I will have 140-some names, faces, and stories to learn. I know I will trade my summer sunrise walks for earlier-than-usual alarm clocks and lessons that I am inspired to revise while in the shower that morning. I know that my email box will fill quickly, and I will decorate my desk with sticky notes of to-do lists. I know I will finish the first day and sit down relieved, only to grasp the reality that I get to do it again the next day. (More than a decade in, why is this continually a surprise to me in September?)

And so this weekend, I’m mentally rehearsing my breathing. I’m reminding myself that the joy is in the work, that the reward is in showing up — and that the fantasy of finishing it all or doing it perfectly is silly.

Because that’s not the point.

I most enjoy teaching and my students most enjoy learning when I remember the basics — when I keep it simple and share my passion for reading and writing. When I don’t overplan or push too hard. When I honor the slowness and the messiness that is learning.

My tendency to forget to breathe is a symptom of trying too hard to control things that are not mine to control. My tendency to tense up and feel overwhelmed is a symptom of forgetting that life is, in fact, not an emergency. That teaching is an art, not a science, and that I’m working with adolescents, not machines. That the beauty — the fun of the ride — is easily missed when I’m closing my eyes, holding my breath, and clenching my hands too tightly.

Tuesday morning I’ll walk into my classroom to teach, but I’ll also send off my three sons to their own classrooms. Like me — like their teachers — they will be a little nervous, a little tired, a little afraid, a little excited. Let’s all promise to breathe, to laugh, as we take this first hill together.

A past first day, minus the youngest, who will be a preschooler this year.
A past first day, minus the youngest, who will be a preschooler this year.

 

Questions

 

Grandma, about 60 years ago.
Grandma, about 60 years ago.

Earlier this summer my cousin, Sara, and I sat on my aunt’s couch with my 86 year-old grandmother between us. We asked her questions and then listened as she talked about her life growing up on Seneca Street as the eighth of ten children, about playing hopscotch and paper dolls, about how she wished she had stayed in school past the age of 16. She told us about rationing during World War II and about how my grandpa bought his first Ford and then started “coming around” to see her. She admitted her years of worry and how she’s not ashamed to say she’s “done a lot of praying” for her children, grandchildren, and now her great grandchildren.  This woman whose life has centered around her family, her table, talked about how she preferred a full table, a noisy house. “I was always glad to see you coming, and hated when you left,” she said. “And the more that came the better.” She lived a life of practical hospitality — always making enough dinner for whomever she expected and then some extra for any guests — or strangers — who might walk through the door.

It was a beautiful day of listening to a woman who isn’t always the first to speak, one who is usually standing in the kitchen while she pushes everyone else to have a seat, one who has never given a lot of unsolicited advice.

My family is very close, but not overly affectionate. We are rational, Midwestern apple farmers. We gather — whoever is able to make it — weekly, but few “I love you’s” are spoken, though they are known. Few hugs are given, unless someone is leaving for months. We value stories, laughter, and being together, but we don’t always know how to say all that. We are good at showing up, but not always good at talking about it.

So, when my cousin brought up the idea of inviting my grandma for an interview, I hesitated. I quietly worried Grandma would think it was silly, worried she wouldn’t want all that attention, all that feeling. But as Tuesday afternoon ended, she must have thanked us no less than 10 times.

I’m still processing that afternoon and there are 10 more essays I could write about the experience, but my mind keeps coming back to that simple act of acting questions and then being quiet enough to listen. I’ve been thinking about all the questions I’ve missed asking because I’ve been busy talking, doing, or thinking.

As a teacher, I do lessons on questioning. I encourage my students to ask “thicker” questions as  readers, to dig deeper, to push more. I more often need to take my own advice.

When my own sons ask me a question, I’m too often too busy to listen or looking for the quick answer, the right answer, instead of questioning back, instead of taking the time to stop and wonder together. While a bit of space from my kids is healthy and needed (those times when I say: go down to the basement, outside and I don’t want to see/hear you for 30 minutes), it’s those moments I slow down to sit with them, to be with them, that they have a chance to say the things I don’t hear amid life’s usual background noise.

In this wild world of violence and terror and division,  (and that just covers the presidential election) we may need to stop and ask more questions. When someone says something we disagree with, our initial bent is almost always toward defensiveness. But maybe we don’t need to fix it. Fix them. Maybe we can just ask more questions.

There is almost always more brewing below the surface than we can first see — and a lot of ground can be made up in the space created between questions and answers.

Grandma's first selfie, after our interview this summer.
Grandma’s first selfie, after our interview this summer.

 

Broken

 

broken image

It was just a few minutes after I had shooed the boys outside when I found them – all three – peering down into a trash can that had been dragged into the garage. The teamwork and silence were a clue that this scene needed further investigating.

At the bottom of the bin I saw a small robin, struggling for breath. The details were fuzzy, but involved a Nerf gun, the bird (which I gathered from later confessions may have been injured or slow) and its transport to our garage.

For an instant, I wondered if this was just a “boys will be boys” moment, but as I looked into the faces of my little guys and down at that little creature, I found my eyes glassy and my voice shaking. Their original faces of bewilderment turned toward panic, and my oldest began to cry, promising “I didn’t mean to”and “I didn’t know.” My middle, whose emotions mainly display as anger, turned bitter, his voice short, and voluntarily lifted the bird and carried him back outside to the green grass. The bird still made no attempt to fly.

For the next several minutes, we had a few more tears, a little more anger, and too much lecturing from me. By filling the silence with noise, I justified moving on quickly from anything too messy. By telling my kids how they should feel, I rescued them from what they already felt. By naming the situation before they could process it, I found a way to assure them – and myself – everything was okay, when maybe it wasn’t.

Leaving the bird be – with hopes would miraculously wake from its daze and fly away – we all piled in the car to run off to whatever thing we had planned next. Driving out of the neighborhood, with a bit of fresh air coming through the windows, I finally remembered to quiet down, perhaps long enough to allow room for some empathy, some room to just be broken.

It’s a tricky path to navigate.  Protecting my kids’ innocence, while still wanting their hearts to be tender enough to ache.  Remembering my job is not to squeeze them into a mold.  Restraining from fixing my third grader’s spelling errors so he can write his own drafts before Mom gets out her red revision pen.

In a broken world – with war and unrest and children sitting alone at elementary school lunch tables – I desperately want my boys to be safe, happy, and loved, but I also want to allow them to feel discomfort; to not be so protected, numb or self-absorbed that they don’t recognize the pain of people around them.

It’s moments when we stare down at a dying bird or overhear a news report on school shootings that our little ones need a chance to ask a few questions. And while I’m not advocating trading in PBS morning cartoons for CNN, it does seem like kids deserve adults willing to wrestle with them through the hard stuff. Though I want to protect my sons from pain and harm, I also want them to see that the world is bigger than their neighborhood and that there are tragedies bigger than running out of Frosted Flakes in the morning.
On returning  home, my oldest son went back outside to check on the bird.  I wobbled between trepidation and pride as I watched through the window as he stooped to pick up that little creature, walk it slowly to the trash, and then make his way back into our door.

Guest Post: Margaret

In honor of the final weeks of summer, here’s a piece by a good friend and fellow teacher-writer, Jen Haberling.  Enjoy! ~

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I didn’t know then how wise this woman was.  I didn’t realize how much her influence would permeate my own mothering.  Her sass is infamous.  Her one-liners, legendary.  And her red bikini, well, that’s another story altogether.  Margaret Ann McPhillamy Schaeffer, the youngest of13 Irish children, runs through my veins.  Her grit, her work-your-hands-to-the-bone mentality, her youthful attitude, her charisma and confidence, her competitive nature.  And sometimes even her flair for the dramatic.  I am proud to call her my grandmother.

Sharing shopping and lunch with Grandma was a tradition that my mom instituted while my sister and I were young, filling my elementary-librarian mom’s two personal days. The three of us would drive from Kalamazoo, after conspiratorily calling in “sick” to school, to meet in Grand Rapids for shopping, mostly at the ever-elegant Rogers Department Store, then head to Arnie’s for lunch, then more shopping at Woodland. I looked forward to the tradition every year, as I knew it would pad my middle school closet with Izod and Calvin Klein and ESPRIT.  That tradition had waned into my college years, though, as Mom’s cancer enveloped and finally defeated her frail body.

Grandma rarely called me, especially in my early married days, but I always looked forward to seeing her and sharing some time catching up.   It had been at least 15 years since Grandma and I had spent the day shopping and lunching.  On this day, however, it didn’t seem to be a leisurely shopping excursion she was after.  “Jen,” she said as I picked up the phone.  “Pick me up.  I have something I need to get at the store.”  The urgency in her voice led me to believe she needed a prescription refilled, or was out of milk– or maybe even out of beer.  She had lost her ability to drive in her early 90s, so I knew this must be an excursion that required a ride.

When I arrived, she met me at the top of her steps, the front door latching behind her.  She had one foot in my car before I could even greet her.  “Let’s go,” she commanded.  “I need to show those ladies at the Y a thing or two.”  I had no idea what Grandma was up to, but this didn’tseem to be about prescriptions or milk or beer.  Whatever she was up to, her competitive nature was clearly in control.  She clutched her handbag and directed me to 28th Street with curt and pointed turns, no time for chit chat.

We pulled into Rogers, walked through the haze of old-lady perfume that hung in the entrance, and headed straight to the juniors section.  This was not where I expected to go with Grandma. “Where are the swimsuits?”  Grandma asked.  I knew Grandma had a funky style all her own, but juniors-sized bathing suits?  The look on the clerk’s face following Grandma’s inquiry confirmed that I was not crazy– though Grandma might have been.  The clerk tried to steer Grandma to the older-woman section, but she would have none of it.  As she surveyed the racks lined up like summer-time soldiers before her, she demanded, “No– I don’t think you understand.  I want a red bikini.  Not an old, skirted grandma suit.  I want a spicy hot, resort-style, red bikini.  I have to show those ladies at the Y that I still have it.”

As she plucked three or four hangers from the rack, she invited me into the dressing room to help her select just the right style.  These were no modest tankinis.  They revealed more about my grandmother than I had ever seen.  As she adjusted her voluptuous bosom into the cups two handfuls at a time, she added a running commentary warning about the dangers of thinking oneself old, mingled with the wisdom of staying in shape.  “It’s all in your outlook, Jen,”  she reminded.  “You are only as old as you think you are.”   This was one of Grandma’s many mantras.  She kept pace with women a third her age, swimming daily and walking everywhere.  Her vanity revealed itself in her Este Lauder skin care regimen and embarrassment when anyone saw her hair prior to a proper combing.

I will never forget the look on that clerk’s face as she up-downed my 93-year-old grandma at the register, handing over the Baywatch-style, ruby-colored scraps of fabric.  I was clearly more self-conscious about this purchase than my grandma.  The clerk’s confused grimace haunted me all the way home, until I had time to call my sister and relay the unbelievable story, celebrating this vivacious woman who was the matriarch of our family, who I would later come to admire instead of question.

The notorious red bikini.  Like Grandma,it’s a story that will live on in the collective McPhillamy history.  It makes appearances at nearly every funeral or cousin gathering.  I’m sure she did show those ladies at the Y a thing or two– probably more than they wanted to see.  And she certainly showed me how to live well, to embrace myself, to walk confidently and to wear the red bikini with flair.

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