The Shelter of Dying Time

It’s turning on us.

Those long, listless, forever days of sunshine and water are disappearing, lavender fields and hydrangea perfuming the air, playing time with our bare feet pounding over dusty, worn out crosscuts, floating like bubbles that will soon pop.

Those days were warm with heavy rain and deafening thunder that swirled ominous clouds as I gripped the oar handle to throw it to the steel bottom, spread my arms out, and lay back on the canoe as big, fat drops soaked my clothes through and smeared my hair against my forehead, dripped from my darkened skin, pelted my eyelids, and left the scent of

washing,

rinse,

and rebirth.

Those purling clouds came again, churning the deep sea waves in and around and over themselves, belching up black seaweed, broken bits of shell, and rotten fish as I roved the beach with my daughters who are as tall as I am, down to the pier at high tide.  The storm wind-whipped our shirts up around our waists as we hurried back and the humid, oppressive rain started falling in sheets.  We stamped puddles in the elevator and crashed on smooth, white linen beds with the windows thrown open and the ceiling fans whirring as we listen to the pelting summer storm in July.

There was one last swim in September.

It was with my friends on the lake; we were rushing before we faded and the summer dissipated like fog the weekend before the equinox.  We hauled up wooden ladders to corrugated plastic slides fitted with garden hoses and took turns flying down them, ricocheting against the lake water before submerging ourselves in the inky depths as we all hooted and cheered and belly laughed at one another.  We slipped and rolled through the calm underneath, over and under, coming up slowly for air.  We conversed as our arms pushed H2O atoms aside and kicked until we reached the opposite bank of the lake and found bearing with our feet in the sand. I had swum in my clothes and I stood there with my shorts dripping, my shirt plastered, and my hand shielding squinting eyes.  The sun shone warm in these dying days of summer.  That evening it cooled, and we arched our necks to trace the Milky Way, thousands of stars popping out like 3D against the onyx night sky while my friend pointed at constellations with a laser, giving a lesson to our students about planets and supernovas.

The next morning we woke early and gulped thin coffee in the camp cafeteria as I rubbed sleep from my eyes, pushed my clear plastic frames against my nose, and listened to the sound of my male colleagues talk, missing my dad and my brother.  As they shared stories I wrestled my blonde tangles into a messy bun, still sneezing from the water up my nose from the slide run.  My right ear was plugged.  We have a skit to perform in a couple hours I told myself, but my throat is scratchy and my headache is unyielding.  I wouldn’t trade camp life at all.

Those sheltering stars in dotted waves of enveloping galaxy remind me of Sukkot, the feast of tabernacles, as we hunker down into tiny cabins for the night.  The feast commemorates safety given in vulnerability.  We have all been naked and exposed, but Sukkot reminds us we are covered over, sheltered in the wilderness by the mercy of a God who raises the poor from the suffocating dust, carries the slave out of captivity to give them a place, a home of their very own.  In September the Hallel is recited, the psalms that ask why the seas are churned up, swirling, fleeing.

What ails you, O sea? Why do you tremble, looking behind you?

I AM has come.

It is the presence of God that the hurricane waters fear, and they rage.  It is the presence and mercy of God that shelters and covers His people in the wilderness, when the dying time comes.

After those joy days, when twilight races in quickly and the evening chill bites through, leaves start to loose their grip on their lifeblood then crinkle and fall to the grave of earth in finality.  In this wilderness of the dying time, life is sawed away, and we are reminded of the brevity, the fragility, the joy of life, and our shelter can be the Lord only and not we ourselves.

Those leaves are gathered and burned like carcasses, their smoky substance rising like sacrifice to the hovering stars.  Impeding winter comes, but not before we give thanks in rich, blessed fields of harvest that are colored gold and dripping in wealth.

 

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Mercy

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Oh, golden, fragile summer of promise
Settle down into my
organs and marrow
Teach me before you go.
Melt and sink and crash your heat and salt wave into my
bronzed skin and ribcage
Your breezy, brilliant fragrance whipping over my
sunkissed blonde and firmly wash every crevice of my heart.

Oh, God,
Meet me there at the edge of that green mountain,
on the precipice of that pearl-ash water,
at the height of the rolling country road,
and I will meet You if You’ll wait for me.
Your fingers grasping my shoulders and my knuckled palms,
Oh, good God,
Your voice whispering loudly but gently into my ear to let go,
Pulsing breath flicking against my amber freckles and armour plating,
Let it all go and You’ll carry it for me.

These wilting, heavy, and deadening utterances in my mind
Decay and heartache
Crippled and disabled
All these expectations I fight against but embrace
Tug of war in the bowels that
Silence and shout.

Love unregretfully and fully and with a rebel heart against that
deadending speech
Love wildly and lavishly with revolutionary generosity
Serve with riotous abandon
Even when walls threaten to shut us in and hold us down
Fight.

Chase the forever sunset,
Meet the rising mountain,
Drive over those eternal, rolling parkways,
Be folded over in a reverent gospel washing,
Face the fears that imobilize
Saying yes when it is hard to change.

Especially when it is hard to change.
Bury and cover over that which dies so that it can
Emerge and birth life.

And as the seasons turn and the years run and cascade swiftly
Help me to hold it all loosely, with open hands on my knees
and my face
Uplifted.
Each goodbye a lightning charge across a blackened, cloudy sky,
Breathing in the drenching rainwater like a damaging
Thunderstorm in the summer evening.
Breathtaking and beautiful, dangerous and formidable all at once.

Linger awhile longer after the sunset
Stay five minutes more to contemplate beauty
Cling to truth that builds the bones
Declare and embrace love when it is present
Say what needs to be said when your heart wants to run
Sit in the questions and the uncomfortable, deafeaning unknown

Have mercy upon us
Have mercy upon us
Have mercy upon us, miserable offenders
As You hover over us in a posture of protection.

Oh, golden, fragile summer of promise
Settle down into my
organs and marrow
Teach me before you go.
Melt and sink and crash your heat and salt wave into my
bronzed skin and ribcage
Your breezy, brilliant fragrance whipping over my
sunkissed blonde and firmly wash every crevice of my heart.

…………………..

I read Van Auken again.

And I drove to the little brick church on Perrowville from a century before, five minutes from my home, looking for the IHS on the cross in the graveyard at St. Stephen’s where the man and his young wife were scattered in severe mercy. My hand traced over that smooth, white stone surface where the tree line grew. It was twilight, the golden summer sun piercing through the veins of green, translucent leaves against the backdrop of the rolling, blue-ridged horizon. I pulled my husband’s hand with me to that solemn earth. My body lay over that grass as I breathed in tellurion space and my palms held form, trying to hold loosely and to walk under the mercy.

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Letters

Well, I wrote you a letter, with my words pouring out all over that paper and dripping with loopy pen scrawl.

It’s funny how much my handwriting has changed in twenty years as I sit here and look at it, like going through a time machine.

I did that often, loose-leaf paper and bound to a book because that’s what I always did, always writing to the people around me. And I still write about the same things that I did back then. Joy and comfort, pain and hurt, friendship and love, challenge and courage, death and life.

I am always sharing it, then second guessing it, then wrestling with it, then denying it any existence, then suffocating with words in my chest, then spilling them out on the page all over again. Language is like a deep scar, like a proud battle wound that is also breath and life, mashed and rolled up together, ink scrawled into reality.

Last week I was talking with friends about tattoos, why people get them, that is. Something that someone wants to say, and say it permanently, like a signal or a display—a banner and symbol. My problem is that I have too many signals to display. Too many words to put into the world. I have zero tattoos and never have thought about getting one because my words often change and there are endless words and more paper than skin.

The words are a restless burn, a domino chain that falls interminably.
So I wrote you a letter, breathing out onto the page in exhale and you read it, and then I got you to write back and use your words, and I inhaled. And that letter is still being written, ceaselessly.

We could just sit quietly next to one another and the sunset reached out and touched us.

I’m living my life forward and backward and outside of myself, looking down on it while within it and pulling it through my mind, as if I am zooming out over Google maps and seeing the whole thing from beginning to end in one long arch to find my bearings and head due north. All those words and symbols and banners on hundreds of sheets of paper over the decades.

And here I sit with the sunshine on me, clicking on my keyboard and screen, these little symbols that mean something inside of my head and tug on my heart. This morning I read aloud to my students about the concentration camp, disease and suffering, and hope that is deeper than despair. Black typeset on a clean white page that can horrify, or make eyes tear up and spill. And I’m struck again at the thought of language that can cut deeply but can also heal and soothe.

Today I have more words, more than I did back then. Words that waterfall faster and faster, like melting mountain snow flash-flooding the springs coming in a rush of urgency, little gifts that fall onto me like rain showers in the afternoon sun and form rainbow prisms I can walk through and touch. Have you ever touched words?

Words touched me today, like a stream from one person to another, when a friend told me words that made me sad, like a cup, an object that passes from one person to another, to be held onto or let go. The most bitter and the most joyous words we clutch with tight fists and, at times, release.

We want words to go away sometimes. We want words to water us in others. And I feel both deep in me, the suppression and welcoming of words, just like I did when I wrote you letters all those years ago.

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Devil Calls

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Devil calls.

The click and hiss flick.

Pulsing through the city with the concentrated horde gathering over him, hailing him with their hearts and fingernails scraping, shoveling him into their dry and dusty throats with shouts and pushing, their flesh in decadent decay.

Lazarus’ rotting lungs expanded and burst with jagged gasps when a clear, strong Voice called him, burning oxygen deep in the cavern of his wasting ribs and his heart clutched and released again full of blood, like in the Beginning except this was the in-between after agony had already erupted in Christ’s boundless chest and He had wept in strangling grief, lamentation mingled in the choking dust because He dearly loved him. And He loved Martha.  And He loved Mary.

That Devil calls.

The click and hiss flick tongue.

Jesus rose and discarded His outer garments, descended, and sopped that aggregate dust from their mortal feet with a rag and water, cleansing their hearts in a stroke of tenderness, Voice gentle, eyes lustrous as a mirror, and then told them to love one another.

“Do you know what I have just done?”, and they stare, breathless.

“One of you will betray me.”   It was night.  “I am going where you cannot come with me, but I am not alone.”

The suffocating dust of the earth, we collective, and I, gulping, swig. The dust of the good, fertile earth tainted. Judas abandoned the heavy room with brazen insolence and accumulated his obscene, contaminated silver, ready to simper with that sinister Devil hiss and kiss Jesus in an embrace of betrayal, dredging the grimy pit for sustenance.

That seductive, elusive, Devil calls.

His ratchet click and piquant hiss flick tongue thrust like riven shards.

He accumulated the soil as He prayed in the garden, His hands thrust to the filth and ash, bathing in it, pulling in sorrow and the anticipation of agony, cradling it to His body, and it sunk into Him. He sucked their pain into His tissue,

like doubt.

like torment.

like utter anguish.

like foul hopelessness.

Peter retaliated when they came for Him, but Jesus uttered in hushed tone, “no. no, Peter” and healed the man Peter had mangled.  He was seized and taken where a man would ask Him what Truth was, but did not listen.  First, He was beaten. First, He was tortured for staying silent against no crime other than giving unbelievable promise to the dying.

Blessed are the poor, whose spirits have been crushed and emptied, the mourning, whose lives have been overturned, those who hunger, who have been spat upon and lied about, those who make peace always, the pure in heart who see the coming of heaven when others cannot. Throw sin away, love those who do not deserve.  Be that stirring, distant light that touches and strikes close among that bitter, utter, and salty blindness.

The Devil hisses, slithering as he watched the ripping of Jesus’ skin from His soft back by those laughing evil in their bosom, spewing madness that Jesus’ own blood be rained over them in a washing and spilled out upon their children after them, cursing generations with callous darkness.  Peter was no longer there.

He dragged in oxygen, rasping, absorbing each one before Him with His mirror eyes. Skin forceably ripped from His ribs; He held tight. These people of dust and despair who had merely touched His garment and mending power flowed out of Him, and into them, to heal their dust.  The grit grinding down into His open wounds.

This Man.

Naked, bleeding, stripped and raw, with His strong arms, hands flexed in grip, His erect back now slunk forward, shuffling the stained beam to the hill where smoldering death rose like incense. This after feeding and healing the desperate, telling a mob of men to step away from a woman they surrounded with stones clenched in their fists, correcting them when they sought to banish children, and invited the most hated and infected to walk beside Him.

That seductive, elusive, arrogant, evil Devil laughs.

Open mouth like a sepulcher, teeth like rounded tombstones, waiting while the Son of Man’s hands and feet, bound to the cross beam, were punctured with nails and driven, and Jesus cried out at the tears that stained horrified faces and disbelief curtained the onlooker’s reason.  The cross was lifted and sunk into the shaft that held it fast, with two others on Jesus’ right and left, hell on display as the nails ripped forward.

Forgive them, Father. They do not know.

The clouded darkness spread ominously over them as Divine Man exhaled, with His heartsick mother wailing there and John held her.  The Voice cried out, because He was then all alone, rain discharging in a torrent, cooling the hot and dusty hill, the temple curtain ruptured and split, the veil between man and God forever removed while the Devil slithered over Jesus’ expired body in triumph, shadows pouring forth as the Voice hung silent.

Devil calls.

The click and hiss flick.

And that despairing dust settled and sunk into the dormant tomb as Jesus’ hand choked and rung that slithering Serpent trolling His body and went to war with the Devil, descending to Hades with a thunderous outcry, wrestling Death with effectual words: finished.  And Jesus judged Devil abhorrent, ugly, vanquished. The sun called life back out to grow and the Voice raised Himself.

He appeared to those black sheep He had wandered out for, they touched His wounded hands, and Thomas put his fingers to Jesus’ pierced side, eyes aghast, drinking mystic glory.

“Do you love me? Then go love.”

The Voice drown-thrashed that tawdry, pimping Devil’s call, crushing it with golden sunrise and freedom that drenched the atmosphere with absolute victory.

 

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Conversion

For me, church was wood paneling and white brick, tall narrow windows and pews with crosses etched into them.  I can still smell the expanse of that place as if it lived in me for my almost 40 years. Church was familiar faces, choir robes, signing the blue guest booklet, being asked to sing ‘Living for Jesus’ with my cousin Autumn, stacking little plastic communion cups of grape juice, singing out of the hymnal, and drawing a picture of my grandpa while he preached.  And, miracurously, I am an early millennial who owns these things deep down, incredibly deep and protected in my soul.

Of course, I didn’t know I was millenial.  I was just a kid born at the end of 1981 who was raised on Steve Green and Great is Thy Faithfulness, the earliest generation of children who grew up with computers, Star Wars, and Inspector Gadget but with a grasp on the old way of life…a foot in two separate worlds as a child. I can very tangibly feel the old life versus the progressive.  I am a container of these two normalities of culture into one anomaly.

Forming me into a child who loved my histories and classics with abandon, connecting me to the greats, but utilizing the future, a nostalgic user of social media.

Again, church was wandering up to the balcony and opening the door to the tiny closet of a sound room where the services were recorded and my dad would let me sit with him to record if I didn’t touch anything.   It was touching the covers of all the books in Alice Smith’s church library across from Grandpa’s office and checking several out every week.

Church was my mom telling us to quiet down and my dad rubbing my arm, humming to the sound of the organ.  It was my dad being the last one to leave after shutting off every light and locking every door while my grandpa shook everyone’s hands with his soft, tender smile of compassion.

Most of the cassette tapes of my grandpa’s decades of sermons are lost.

It was hearing about my grandpa’s plane crash in Papua New Guinea, or his belongings stolen out of the trunk of a car in Paris, or wondering if he was safe in the jungles of Togo.  It was hearing his tender stories of the people in those places, touching the 5×7 print pictures of natives in those countries and feeling like it was so very far away.  It was begging God He wouldn’t send me far, far away.

It was living up to the suffocating expectations of a pastor’s family, even when the pastor and the family are more grace filled and forgiving. It was caving under the pressure and begging to be let out and then being welcomed back in and embracing every difficulty, every sadness, every pressure, every memory.

Church was eating my grandma’s pot roast after morning service some Sundays, tramping through the treeline that bordered my grandparent’s backyard, playing wiffle ball, and peeking into the den to find my uncle Paul napping while the baseball game flickered on the television.  The Sundays we didn’t go to grandma and grandpa’s we pulled up to the HotnNow drive-thru on Westnedge next to the Putt-Putt, ordering twelve cheeseburgers to take home. It was every Sunday, all day, every Wednesday, every weekend, every summer full of VBS day camp, sleep away camp up North, youth group road trips and missions trips and evangelism.  It was all around me and through me.

It was being everything for all people, as the Apostle Paul says.

Church was sitting with my cousins, being dunked in a bathtub full of warm water, wandering potluck tables, and knowing very deeply in my subconscious that my family was collectively rooted down into church community like the brick foundation of the building, like being chained down into Michigan Avenue and the city my family was planted in a hundred years before.  When I was fifteen I wanted to run far away from it.  Two years later, I embraced the Father as the prodigal.

We talk of our places of being, such as being American, or a Texan, a Virginian, an Alaskan, or a graduate of our alma mater.  A firefighter, a librarian, a teacher, a stockbroker, a lawyer, a doctor, a clerk.  I can list many things that I am or was, but if I go back far enough and deep enough, I was born Christian, in a household of faith as we call it.  I knew deep in my rebellious soul all those years ago that I could never escape it.

He has not lost one of those given to Him.

So while church was all of these tangible things, it was more than them, too.

It has been many years since I’ve stepped foot back into the church where I was born, baptized, raised, graduated, married, brought my children, and remembered my grandfather at his passing and the people came to see him.  There is something about that building that makes me feel like I recognize myself when I’m there.

I recited Bible verses and played my oboe there, I sang Pachelbel’s Cannon in D and Lo How a Rose Er Blooming. I sat in the prayer rooms behind the baptismal and pushed on the footpedals of the organ and sat under my grandpa’s desk and smelled diesel while cleaning out the blue bus.  It’s probably been almost fifteen years since I’ve sat through a Baptist service there.  And why?

Well.

The church I grew up in is gone.

And that’s painful.

Jesus tells us to love people, and my grandpa joked once that feeding His sheep was difficult at times, because sheep can be stinky.  People hurt one another and disagree, and then they pray together and can shake hands and live through the years of life side by side.

But I am a person of place and tradition.

I can remember sitting on the lakeshore sand in my early twenties, shifting it through my fingers to remember every July of my childhood wash over me as it slipped from my palm and I looked out over the clear water of Lake Michigan from Whitefish Bay.  I carry the smell of the cottage as if I was walking through the door right now.  I can feel my thighs shifting against eachother with grit from that lakeshore sand and jumping to the rocks and crashing into the waves with my brother and my cousins, the same way my dad and my uncles and their cousins did before us.  My grandmother walked through that cottage and her presence filled that space.   I remember the summer my uncles took us hiking through the Door peninsula picking wild strawberries and teaching us songs.

I ran my hands over the brick of the church that was built up around me, and I left it after 20 years.  Dana Arledge sat dumbfounded when my husband and I came to him asking to join, at 23 years old, the even older Bethel Baptist…the church that founded Berean.  We were looking for something familiar and solid under our feet that we could remember.

And I read Steinbeck and Dostyevstky and Lewis and Hemingway and Tolstoy and Dickens and Austen and so many.  So Many.  There, that was comfort to remember place.

When I stepped into a liturgical service for the first time ten years later, I cried.

I was washed and I wept. My emotion and heart finally erupted, something I was seeking, missing, and knew deep within my spirit, but no longer existed in modern America.

Yet, there it was, solace in the midst. It is why I am now Anglican and kneeled before a priest for confirmation. It is why my son was baptised as an infant.

Only this past Sunday, in that stained glass chapel, we sang from the hymnal and I inhaled ‘He Leadeth Me’ on cello, violin, and piano.  A lamentation of my short years that I breathe deeply and know astutely.

Now I understand my grandpa was truly half Baptist, half Anglican. He married us all from the Book of Common Prayer.  He read the Eucharist from 1 Corinthians.  It is why I feel so completely at home in both.

I took my upbringing for granted, really.  While many of my Baptist contemporaries remember their childhoods laced with large doses of legalism, what I remember is people trying to make sense of life with God.

The way of a pastor’s family is that of prayer, and understanding, and above all, taking on other’s cares into their being.

Months ago I told my grandmother this….I am thankful for the church I was purposed to grow in, for it has birthed me into revival. It gave me a compass for what to stay true to.

There is Word and Truth.

There is the Creed.

There is the Baptism.

There are the hymns.

There is the stained glass beauty of the chapel.

There are the people.

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The Gift Certificate

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For Christmas I received a gift certificate to a local book shop from a student.

Think of it.

This was not a plastic, credit card shaped rectangle that could be thrown into a shopping cart along with milk and toilet paper at the local grocery store.  (If that is how you shop for teacher gifts, I am not judging you.  That’s how I shop for gifts in this season of my life, and I know how precious a commodity time is.)  It was an actual paper certificate that was signed in ink by one of the store clerks for a twenty-five dollar value.  Someone had to go into the store and request it at the counter.  This was precious.

I have spent countless hours scouring bookstores in my lifetime.  I like to run my fingers over book spines like they will imbibe a sort of energy into me, or vice versa, and to smell their pages before purchasing.  I have been a book smeller since I first smelt the glorious fragrance of my mom’s childhood copy of Skip after sitting in a box in the basement, gathering a patina of must, moisture, and age over years.  Skip is the story about a dog, and this particular copy was printed in the seventies with a yellow and orange watercolor background, though I never read it because I was not an animal lover like she was.  However, a secondary book that I pulled from that box was her copy of 101 Dalmatians.   (Anyone sensing the dog theme of my mother’s youth?) I read that book and loved it purely because it had lost its dear little cover and the first pages were filled with ink drawings of dogs walking in the park with their look-alike owners among pruned trees.

Not all books live up to this fine age.  Certain books have that horrid smell of a chemical laser printer.  There is a difference between book smells that renders them good or bad.  I’ve categorized the good ones down to four: forgotten library dry, basement hoarder musty, dark corner brittle, and freshly printed ink.  I’ve thought entirely too much about the smell of books.  I would buy a perfume called “Book Smell”.

Can I patent that?

Back to the point.  I’ve spent a lot of time in bookstores.  I’ve purchased quite a few books but not as many as you might think, because I’m carefully selective.  There may be reasons for this, like how I treat books like loyal friends verses mere aquaintances, but it is mainly due to the fact that I am not wealthy.  Of course, I have the ability to max out my credit card on books and build a pretty stellar library in the cabin level of my home.  However, I am much too practical and responsible for that, as much as I would love the instant gratification of such a room.

(Sidebar confession: I look at homes for sale based on the acreage of the lot and two story library.)

In being selective of what books I actually buy, nothing hurts me more than to spend $100 on a textbook that I have to slog through.  That’s at least four, if not five, brand new hardcover releases or special edition classics.  That’s ten to fifteen classic novels printed by Dover or Signet.  Oh, the pain.  The unsufferable agony.

I’ve always been a classics girl, quite skeptical of new books on the proverbial block.  Like, where did they come from?  Who do they think they are?  Prove your worth to me, you newbies.

I know, I know.  The classics were new releases once themselves and sold very well at some point, which is why they are, well, classics.  I wouldn’t have my beloved classics without new releases.  Nevertheless, I am an old soul at heart and therefore, the language and the atmostphere of the classics is like being home.

I’d like to know why that is.  Why do I feel at home with a book that is at least over fifty years old?  Why, when I was young, did I wish that I grew up during the time of the Titanic? The Civil War? Edwardian England? What influenced what?  Was I changed by the books or was I drawn to the books because of who I was?

Moving on.

I took my lovely gift certificate, neatly tucked into my lightweight backback, ready to splurge on a new, hardcover book.  I was going to step out of my comfort zone and purchase something recent.  I was clothed with brazen zeal and motivation, like Don Quioxte riding into misadventure. I spend about forty-five minutes perusing and while I picked up a five dollar copy of Austen’s Persuasion, I could not decide on a hardcover book over twenty dollars.  I picked up several, felt spines, and inhaled pages…my usual custom.  I carried around a couple, put them back.  I held Persuasion until the bitter end.  Apparently, five dollars is nothing for me to spend on a book; it’s practically loose change — free, no sacrifice.

But fifteen?  That’s painful unless absolutely doubtless.  Twenty-eight to thirty-two dollars, the average price of a new release on my estimate, is like piercing my heart with a double bladed dagger.  What if I were to spend my entire gift certificate with the store clerk’s personal signature on it on a gamble…on a new release which hasn’t been fully reviewed and vetted as gold?  What if I buy it and hate it?  I know that you all have read the introduction and maybe a chapter or two of numerous stacks of books on the nightstand or coffee table like I have, and we never finish them do we? All because of time or boredom or some other reason.  I did not want this gift certificate to purchase one of those risky books.

Instead, I returned Persuasion to it’s proper place next to Pride and Prejudice and left with nothing, informing my husband I couldn’t decide which book to buy, because I know I can check out Austen at my school library any time I wish.  I had found plenty of books that caught my eye, sounded interesting, or would inform me in ways that would be beneficial.  But were they truly worth the beloved gift certificate?

If you only had twenty five dollars to spend on books for an entire year, what would you decide on?  How would you decide?  Would you impulsively buy a best seller with the click of your touchscreen on Amazon or a new release with its attractive, glossy jacket?  Would you buy a few cheap paperbacks?  Would you splurge on a nicer copy of one of your favorite novels, with a cloth and board cover?  Would you find a used book store to shop?  When I am unsure of what I really want, I go and check out twenty books at the library, drag them home in a laundry basket, and palm each one, feel the page thickness between my fingertips, inhale the guts of the thing like a fine cigar, read the first few pages, and decide if I’m committed.

I mean, would I love this book?  Would I marry it? Would I die for it? (I’m only half joking…remember that saying, ‘If you love it so much, why don’t you marry it?’)  Or I sit in the corner on the floor and my legs crisscrossed in the library until I decide what to drag home and possibly, if I love it beyond all comprehension, buy my own copy to reread and reread again.

Which begs the question…do you reread books?  Novels?  Nonfiction?  Do you reread poetry?  Theology?  Philosophy?  Myth?  Science?

What exactly do you reread?  For those books that you reread tell who you are.

I don’t reread nearly as much as I want to.  Well, that’s not true.  I tell myself I like the idea of rereading and knowing a book inside and out, cover to cover, chapter by chapter, but the only books that I know that well are the books I teach every year.  Do you know how many times I’ve read Dicken’s A Christmas Carol by this point? I’ve lost count but has to be over ten times, which is a lot to read one book, if you really think about it.  Likewise for Anne of Green Gables and The Hiding Place.  The only other book that comes close to being reread that much without having taught it is To Kill a Mockingbird. If I’m not teaching a book, I tell myself I do not have the time to reread it, because there are so many books that I haven’t read yet and want to.  But it is a discipline just like anything else. I have to force myself to reread books in order to savor them the way that I want to.

This goes for writing, too.  I have to fight to sit down and work intellectually if I don’t have a deadline to meet.  I’m a wife, a mother to three children of differing ages and needs, vacuuming up after our 140 pound mastiff, driving to the horse barn at least four plus times per week, teaching full time as a middle school classical instructor while simultaneously

helping my daughter with her math homework

and playing cars with my son

and having a heart to heart with my other daughter before

spending time with my husband one on one in the evenings and then, well, then I have to sit down and

research an online database and write a few pages for that paper due at the end of the term

and submit it for feedback from my professor.

Nevermind that work meeting I need to attend and the accreditation report due Tuesday or the five loads of laundry waiting to be shoved into the machine.  The dirty dishes are getting crusty.

This is my brain on coffee.

This is how I tunnel down the rabbit hole into all the reasons why I have no time.  But everyone has the same twenty four hours and I still have the same twenty four hours I did ten  years ago, or twenty years ago, it’s just utilized differently.  Stopping myself in my tracks when this list of reasons pops up to derail my best intentions has been helpful as I transition each day to my reading and writing.  I’ve also decided that anytime I’m about to complain out loud about anything at all, no matter how big or how trivial, I will pray instead.  I’ve got some work to do.

To which my husband evokes Bill Murray’s Phil Conners statement to Rita: Gosh, you’re an upbeat lady.

You see, I did this several years ago with reading. Being intentional, that is.  I grew up reading everything I could, from the school to the church library, writing my name on the checkout cards during card catalog days.  R.L. Stine, to Max Lucado, to the cereal box.  I know, right?

As I entered motherhood and didn’t prioritize my time, reading and writing fell off my list in a major way.  I gave myself excuses as to why I couldn’t invest in either, which is just a bunch of malarkey and fear, because reading and writing costs zero dollars and is pretty easy for me to come by.  Wake up early, stay up late, shut off the TV, whatever.  There’s no gym membership fee, no drive to get somewhere to actually take part in reading.  It’s actually one of the easiest hobbies, jobs, and careers to have, in that sense.  The pain and difficulty of being a reader and a writer is that you have to get out of your own mind and just do it.  Even when the book or the writing is uninspiring, uninteresting, unexciting.  Even when you are rejected.

So I decided to read voraciously again the year I turned thirty.  I read every classic book that I could spare time for, which turned out to be a whole heck of a lot.  Capote’s In Cold Blood ,Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.  Steinbeck, Dostoevsky, Sinclair, Camus, Austen.  My husband and I would hit the university library every week with our outdated alumni school ID’s, pulling volumes off of the grey, metallic storage shelves located in a lower level warehouse space.  We would check out several at a time and then go home and just devour them, sitting side by side and sipping coffee on the sofa or on the patio chairs out back on mild evenings.  When I finally worked up the guts to apply for the teaching position that I wanted, they asked for a book list of what I had read over the past year.  To this day, five years after getting that teaching job, my colleagues still bring up that daunting reading list.  And I look back and think, how easy was that?  I mean, yes, I had to finish my master’s degree to land the job.  But if all things being equal, that’s what they remember.  That crazy reading list I had a blast investing in and conversing with my husband over countless hours about what we found between the pages.

Which brings me back to my gift certificate that I have not spent yet, because I cannot decide what book is worthy of such a splurge.

Maybe I should go to the library.

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Celebrate

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The energy was high today as students across our schools sang Christmas carols in unison. Classrooms were swept of crushed peppermint candy cane and sugar cookie crumbs after wiping down counters from custard and eggnog spills.  Twinkle lights were shut off and packaged gifts gathered into piles as students, parents, and teachers alike waved and wished “Merry Christmas!” to one another.  Freezing rain was falling, but spirits were high as the school semester closed and Christmas holiday officially kicked off.  The celebrations have just begun.

It has been a long month.  During the season of Christmas anticipation and Advent, students become more and more restless in expectation of the coming break from classes.  What I love about my school is that while it would be easy to employ desperate measures to entertain fidgeting students, or to give in to the temptation to “check out” and put aside assignments, our hallways were humming during the weeks before Christmas holiday with the familiar routine: readings and recitations, discussion about big ideas, the scribbling of pencil on paper, the study of flashcards in preparation for exams.

Yet if you were to step in from the fringes on the outside into the classrooms themselves, you would observe Advent and Christmas tidings seeping in subtly and intentionally.  My students came into class three times a week and took their seats to continue transcribing Luke 2 into their composition books, the account of the Messiah’s birth, as Handel’s Messiah and O Holy Night played quietly in the background.  They memorized and dramatically recited Sir Walter Scott’s famous poem, “Breathes There the Man with Soul So Dead” about the “wretch, concentered all in self” that so perfectly describes Ebeneezer Scrooge before his miraculous transformation.  Every morning they would take turns reading Charles Dickens’ rich prose, dripping with irony, personification, and imagery. Or they would ask me to read it to them, softening and slowing my voice as I read about the fog and ruddy candlelight, quickening with fright at the ghostly entrance of the unforgettable Marley.  At eleven and twelve years of age, they are taking in the spirit of restful contemplation while the world around them is bustling in quick-paced fashion.

Over the last few weeks, treats and gifts were selected and packaged with care into postal boxes for our adopted troops spending their Christmas in Afghanistan.  Instruments were tuned and harnessed into submission as these young masters transfixed their listeners with carols and hymns to celebrate Incarnation.  As he sent us off today, our headmaster reminded us the breathtaking reality that Our Lord is celebrated all over the Earth this week. It was a remarkably stirring thought.

I have a natural tendency to feel guilty about celebrating excessively, and that it is better to do all things in moderation, or even conservatively.  Perhaps this is the residue and remembrance of years in which we had to make do with much less, and I still feel the need to celebrate conservatively in order to be “responsible”, because those years are not long-distant.  I’ve felt the deep desire of wanting Advent brings in my gut, of a difficult and pain-filled world at my doorstep and in my own life in very difficult ways. Advent has been lived for the better part of my adult years while I wait for the promise that all things will be made new again. But I was reminded this week (on Twitter of all things) to celebrate-–and then celebrate some more.

I was reminded in the character of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, who so eloquently shares:

“There are many things from which I might have derived good by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew, “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas-time, when it has come round-apart from… the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that-as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”- A Christmas Carol, Stave I

Threfore, celebrate all of the things.

Celebrate with warm and colored lights, fragrant trees, roaring fires, and exuberant, hearty feasts.

Celebrate with great laughter,  loud and rousing games, and with dear, close family.

Celebrate with toasts to newness and hope and peace.

Celebrate with colorful packages and abundant gifts covered in bows all spilling out of stockings, and by tucking children deep into their Christmas Eve covers with whispers about the morning that awaits.

Celebrate with traditions and movies and wishes for crisp, pure snow.

Celebrate the coming Messiah in extravagance for the King of Kings, who is Love that came down.

Adeste Fidelis

Glory to the newborn King!

“And God Bless Us, Everyone”- CD

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