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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Prayer Ring and the Music Box

We would throw our line and fish off the dock with squirmy, dirty, translucent worms on the cul de sac off Landing Way Dr., across from Robert Morris Park on H Ave. It was all new.  The slippery scale of freshwater lake fish against my hands as the sun hung golden in flaming wildfire, and the water was warm at twilight. Will would wrap his fingers over mine to secure and pull the hook and show me how to re-bait and I could smell the dryer sheet fragrance on his cotton t-shirt. Then we would tumble into the steel bottomed fishing boat with the ice-cooler and motor out to the center of the lake with Mark and Wendy, fishing for hours until we were sticky and sweaty as the sun sank and the fireflies came out.  Then we would jump into the dark lake, shadowy with floating seaweed when the heat got unbearable, dipping our foreheads back into the inky-cool recess of the coves, blowing bubbles through our noses, and our laughter rising as we dunked one another before hoisting back into the haul with the dying fish. Late spring always drips and twills with newness, awakening, rousing from slumber–a birthing that melts into the heavy growth of summer. Our first season when we were all just barely legal adults.

We had married in a snowstorm while I clutched pale pink roses down the aisle, the palest I could find, with just a faint hint of blush-like watercolor sweep to Pachabel’s Cannon in D against my ethereal white and bead gown that was fashioned around my waist with tiny silk stitches.  That diapason of piano key was furrowing both of our marrow for eternity, waving through the tall church windows where my grandpa officiated, and out into the snowy garden.  Hushed humanity and candlelight, bodies with rings of promise on their own fingers and heart scars.  Skin and muscle and soul surrounded us and held our shoulders and our necks and looked into our eyes and kissed our cheeks and told us we were beautiful.  Then they sang out in unison as we slipped rings over one another’s hands because they knew what we faced.

With this ring, thee I wed.  With my body, I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Will bought me an exquisitely delicious, wood in-lay music box with green velvet under the lid for Christmas three months before we took our vows. It played the Pachabel’s Canon in D.  I would twist the key with a click-tick and lay back on my pillows and quilt, swallowing its goodness into my ribs as I twirled the white-gold prayer ring against my lip he had engraved, circled with diamonds, and gifted me on my 19th birthday.  He wanted me to remember that he prayed for me.  The men in my life have always been a ballast.

We spent the spring and summer months after our snowstorm wedding fishing in the evenings ,and then flinging ping-pong balls in his Dad’s basement late into the night, with his brother and my soon to be sister in law.  Bill would charcoal grill the fish he taught me to scale on his back concrete step and saute green beans with butter and pepper, greeting me, “Hey beautiful”, and grasping me in embrace.  He still does this every time we go home.

I cried in bed when Will and I had to move away from our hometown and our Gull Road apartment and the ping pong table and his Dad.  I was the one who wanted to go and Will said yes.  We married and then when it came time I wept, forlorn to leave our Peninsula and Lake but more than the land I hated leaving our deeply built and forged past and present of friendship and family.  I felt like I was betraying it all, even though we were sent off in love. It was our people we were leaving and our past that was thrusting us forward when I wasn’t ready to leave.  We searched the new city for an apartment we could afford that didn’t smell of mold and was close to campus.  We settled on a tiny one-bedroom with the refrigerator shoved against the cabinets, washing machine in our bedroom, and our textbooks piled next to the desktop computer, millenials emerging into adulthood while I pushed creeping homesickness down to my feet.  We ate cheap TV dinners from Walmart.  Date night consisted of two dollar shaved ice from the Bahama shack. We went to the dollar theater near campus almost every night we weren’t working, because it was cheaper than renting a video from the Blockbuster.  The first movie we watched at the theater was Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones; Hayden Christiansen and Natalie Portman in the ambrosial divine of Naboo are still  attached to me like a branding because it was the first. I started drinking coffee that semester, scrounging quarters from my red GAP backpack I still carried from high school, blowing the milked and sugared liquid to lukewarm.  (I’ve graduated to black now.)  I was gulping between Western Civ. and American Literature, studying in half moments out near the fountain behind Demoss and the Hanger of old campus, the bookstore, and pulling all-nighters in our apartment.  The old fountain was tucked near the Shilling Center and the education hall, tree branches rustling, and spring blossoms raining their petals into my hair as I lay against the scraggly grass weed.  After classes in the morning I would change for work at the pharmacy, finding relief in seeing people that began to know me even though I was lost in a sea of faces in class.

Everyone has an opinion of Liberty University, and that’s fine by me, but those years are wrapped in a thirsty tenderness. It was our germination, awakening, and birth among Virginia apple blossoms and mountain red bud.

We came home for Mark and Wendy’s wedding three months after our move.  It was November and everything was blazing red leaves, brilliant blue sky, fragrant, moody nights of Autumn.  I sucked in my sorrow because the holidays were upon us and we would be back.

It was that next, first Virginia spring of 2003 that I fell in irrevocable love with seed-time in Appalachia and the Blue Ridge: heavy, warm rain and so much electric green and damp bark, diving into Main Street Eatery to encounter decadent cheesecake and lose ourselves in the spaghetti mess of Lynchburg roadways before GPS was a thing.  We purchased laminated maps of the city and stashed them in the glove compartment of our Buick, learning the names of the streets and what they wound into, up and over hills and valleys and waterfalls.  Will would drive and I would tell him where to turn, so I learned direction and names faster than he did.  And then when we weren’t in class or working or at the theater or lingering at the bowling alley, we were in the bookstore gulping more coffee and studying textbooks and fat stacks of flashcards.  Flinging the windows up, my favorite was to sleep with them open all night, the sound of rain pelting the grass and shrubbery outside our bedroom window like a lullaby.

Years crept by in slow motion, filled with faces, working through each, confronting this life of ours.  Moving back to our family, moving back to the South, and all the pages that could fill up between those lines.

Then, this summer, sixteen years later, we returned home to the hot, hazy summer in Michigan with our three children.  We camped out with family, dipped in pools, and laid sleeping bags out on rankled grass to watch fireworks with our teenage children, Mark and Wendy, and my Dad.  We do this every summer, but for the first time in a decade homesickness washed over me in a feverish wave.  It was palpable and tangible, resting in my rib cage and burgeoning.  It made me telephone my parents weeks afterward and speak for hours into the night, like when we first moved away and unsure of myself and desperately needing wisdom and missing my youth.

Will and I found ourselves back on campus today, situating ourselves comfortably in the upholstered booths with our fat laptops, feeling a bit out of place in this city of twenty somethings and their razor thin monitors.  I look at him as he works, grey in his beard coming through, and I smile.  We have lived another lifetime since we were here before but we still are partners…moving through the next shift of our lives together.  That Pachabel’s Cannon in D swimming between us.  We traded our Buick of days gone by for our silver Dodge minivan, parking in the same spot behind the dining hall across from the train tracks, but now it is a four story parking garage.  Everything is so familiar, but incredibly different from back then: the dusty parking lot of David’s place, the paint chipping off of the fountain near the Hanger where we used to buy cheap fried chicken and I’d lay in the grass between class, and the dimly lit education hall– all are gone.  It is state of the art these days with Jeffersonian architecture and precision.  A massive student union with rising stone steps extends off of Demoss.  Instead of plunking away on a desktop computer in the small Demoss computer lab, I’m plugged into an outlet and a USB in the ample studying space that spreads throughout a four story tower library.  We peer through glass into the immense depths of the robotic system: several stories and uncountable rows of steel boxes filled with books that a robotic arm can retrieve with a request from my click on a screen.  My fear of heights kick into overdrive when we descend the glass, floating staircase that hovers over the terrace level.  Glass windows ranging four stories give an expansive view to the waterfall and lake behind the Vines center.  I slip into the quiet, still, and silent Reading Room to find my beloved classic literature and pull a few titles from the shelves I’ve started to familiarize myself with.  It is a far cry from the basement, warehouse library I used to frequent during undergrad and even my master’s degree days.  It is a picture of our lives in many ways…these humble beginnings and blessings that are so great we cannot recognize fully, except that we have so much to give and pass on.   It still takes my breath away.

I feel as though we are back in time, but this is better.  We’ve lived, we’ve despaired, we’ve had joy, we’ve had heartache.  We know enough not to take for granted, and we still embody that tenacious motivation to push forward together, given to us by parents who worked hard and a God who gave us mission.  We have settled into the Blue Ridge valley, with our children and our dog on a plot of half acre.  Will and I planted seedling trees that border the property and have grown three times in a year as a result of the Virginian summer rain.  And it is not lost on me that I am a Swedish-Dutch child from the celery flats of Michigan in her bones, and we planted trees that will grow thick roots here in the Southeast.  I look around and take it all in, knowing it does not always stay, so I can be thankful in all things.  This marriage, this love, this family, this work, this writing–all that God has asked of me to observe.

These days my music box sits atop my antique dresser and I twirl the key to hear Pachabel’s Canon in D, shifting my prayer ring around my finger, nestled between my engagement and wedding bands…a remembrance of a forever vow to pray for one another.

“To stick to my work and have every confidence in it, this I am learning from his (Rodin’s) great and goodly example, as I learn patience from him; it is true, my experience tells me over and over that I haven’t much strength to recokon with, for which reason I shall, so long as it is in any way possible, not do two things, not separate livliehood and work, rather try to find both in the one concentrated effort…”- R.M. Rilke

 

Face Collector

Tilt.

Raw.

Prick.

Plague.

Writhe.

Desolate.

I don’t keep things. I clear them.  But I fill up my body, like a pitcher to the brim, with words and faces and whispers and eyes.  Memories of people I’ve touched with my fingertips and in arm-length embraced, and I’ve looked into their soulness and listened to the words roll from their creased lips like water as they burn into my shoulder blades.  Do you know this, that people can burn into you, even your kidneys, your blood?  Pennies and keys and lint from their pockets, the way each person’s nailbeds are unique unto themselves and their teeth form in curves, the sound of their walking stride…they seep.

Contact.

Gentle.

Oscillate.

Carry.

Predilection.

Surge.

My Jesus, he healed by touch, by knowing acutely and seeing.  The woman who grasped his cloak, he turned to her.  

He turned to her.  This catches me in my lungs.

Then I sift. Words are shifting and ground down under my fingernails, and some of them I backspace or right-click cut and delete and begin again pouring, pouring words.

Well no, I pour faces.  And I always have since childhood. I inhale faces and then write words.

Words that harbor colors, and faces, and emotion with their accented tone and vibration, a resonant stroke.  One tiny word, a blip, that holds hundreds of attachments. So I select them, clip them like singular lavender stalks, and hold their delicate buds in the folds of my upturned skirt grasped in my small palms against my knees, inhaling their speech and poetry. Words sing to me.

Jesus went to every town and village and spoke of His Father’s kingdom, healing their sickness. 

I know your face, I have words for it–

I know your hands, your voice, and your eyes.  I have words for those, too–

When I was young, teenage, I sifted through words in my journal scribbled fat in pencil lead.  Intrepidly, in hushed tones and shy eyes, I whispered to those who were near me those delicate years, long ago back then. Were you there? Because you built me.  And now I grow, folding outward toward sun-speak, noisily and distinct in testimony, this floating boat that sails through wind and storm to stand robust, in banner for the kingdom she was ransomed to in birth. My dear soul-sister teacher once told me to write, and write, and write furiously and with distinction, crystallizing and exact, to name the people who’ve touched me in every recessive pore, and to not be afraid.  I’ve never looked backward for a second.

Thank you, Myrna Jean.

I told my students this week that it is mystery, wonderful, beautiful that God speaks in language to us.  This dialect, this vernacular tongue, that sifts my muscle fiber like a  charge. When I say this to them I use my hands in erupted gesture the way my husband has taught to me, and I whisper the word mystery as I smile, and they sit so quietly hanging on to the next narrative I exhale, this breath from God blown out.  Inhale these paragraphs of gospel mixed with crunchy leaves, recorded history with starry beams of light across vaulted sky.

Even more, I see faces of colleagues who teach me….life in speckled inhalation of Gods image and breath breathed out and I gulp their experience and story and am blessed.  Why am I so profoundly sanctified and resurrected by their testimony of our Savior? Because we breach the barrier and connect, even when we want to hide.  Well, that’s why.

Run through that river, child. 

At the gas pump a still, small voice tells me to go, so I grasp hands with a man who introduces himself as Wesley.  They say they are just passing through and have run out of gas, squatting near their van, and I choose to believe them because giving or holding on is more about my character than theirs.  I look into Wesley’s face and there are deep wrinkles, his hair is long, his smile is kind, and I am thankful for the verse that reminds me of entertaining angels.  What if they are?  I have words for him—leathered, coarse and unwashed, eyes like pools and courteous.  He holds my palms and dips his head in genuflection before meeting my face. Another image of my own God that walks this Shadowland of darkness pierced with heaven-light.  His skin feels rough with creases, a story that touches my own fingertips, as I look at him and wish him well.

Jesus touched the blind man’s eyelids with his own hands. 

These faces like journal pages that I flip through, connected to truth substantial and unfeigned, and if I’ve known you ever or only even recently, you are there, too.  I keep them, these loose-leaf, rolling through my mind’s eye, praying for faces that explode into dreams late at night and when music or scent pull me back to memories, or phrases and stories bring me to recollect.  Do  you know an old dear friend sent me a video of speech memories and you parents, you grandparents, you cousins and family, you friends of my dear youth and also of my age, you teachers of mine, you colleagues…well.  We are the collect of those who have come before us and against us and weave their lives into us side by side.

To pray- beseech, appeal on behalf of, invoke, petition, supplicate…..cry for.   Yes, I cry for you, dear friends.

God spoke and created in His image and then came down in flesh and touched his disciples’ bare feet and then He whisper-asked me to follow Him, my Lord who prayed to the Father, hallowed be His name. 

And so I, the prodigal, am forgiven and redeemed without reason or of my own accord, to be set down low and implore in my humility, lying prostrate to the concrete.  A friend tells me, “I believe God raises up and lays low” and how I resonate, my life surrounded by push and pull, lesson and mercy, depth of despair and rise of joy.  My tears come quickly these days, those eruptions that tell me I feel.  When I was young my face would redden to scarlet when another felt embarrassment or humiliation, embodying, mirroring their emotion before I even knew what it was.  When another tells me of their grief, tears slip over my freckled face without pause.  Your face is collected and I pray, your emotion is felt, dear.

They came, imploring, touching his cloak, and he healed them with with words and a touch, compassion. 

I am merely an impoverished woman with everything starting in my skin, with everything woven through my muscle that tenses and spasms, with all these thoughts of faces and my Christ sitting in my throat.  And the Devil screams at me that I am reckless and I come on too strong, that I destroy, but then my God comes with his words living in me, silently, Kingly, enveloping these lonely places and livening them to full and complete.

He healed and then sent them on a mission to touch others and give words to those who needed hope.

“And it feels like the church isn’t anything more
Than the second coming of the Pharisees
Scrubbing each other ’til their tombs are white
They chisel epitaphs of piety

Oh, there’s a burning down inside of me
‘Cause the battle seems so lost
And it’s raging on so silently
We forget it’s being fought

So, Amen
Come, Lord Jesus
Amen
Oh, Amen
Come, Lord Jesus
Amen”

-Andrew Petersen

 

 

 

 

Brother

I am 35 years old and so is my husband, with three children and a dog, living in our four bedrooms and two point five baths in a wooded, hilly neighborhood in the Piedmont valley when my brother comes to visit.  He has driven down from DC, arriving late in the night, and now he locks himself in the hall bath to shave clean and clip his hair close.  I knock on the door, “Are you done yet?”, because some things never change.  Even when we were teenagers his hygiene ritual was impeccable and precise.  Always order. Always.

His voice has sounded like our dad’s on the phone for the last ten years.  He steps out with his skin smelling of aftershave and his lower scalp smooth.   I just want to hold him in close embrace, and I do. In the morning his Charlie uniform will be pressed and pristine, all hardware and notions in place without error, the tie clipped to his breast, the collar starched, carrying his clean cover in his hand as he waves and closes the door.

The night prior we were landing lines back and forth from the random movies we grew up with: Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in The Great Race and Jerry Lewis. The theatrical production of Peter Pan with Mary Martin.  It is our mother’s fault we are so oddly familiar with 60’s film.  Hello Dolly, My Fair Lady. It is something she still loves to witness–the quick banter that streams back and forth as if we are back in time twenty, no, thiry years.

When he was in boot camp, 2002, he stood east at attention toward the Atlantic coast and sang happy birthday to me, his older sister he admired, and then wrote me a letter telling me he did so.  Two years later that same weekend would hold very different memories for him.

I learned when we were teenagers that I could no longer pin him, straddled, and hold him down–tickling his ribs with one hand and holding his hands with my knees until he screamed, and then spitting in his open mouth.  Older sisters are cruel until they stand in the shadow of younger brothers who grow taller, that’s for sure.  But as we solidified our friendship in high school he still loved Star Wars, Die Hard, Rocky, and all the others; always jumping and skate boarding and wrestling and joking and running.  For my 16th birthday he gifted me the Rocky soundtrack.

Now, 15 years after signing the contract, he is in formation at Quantico with his wife looking on in pride, his children reaching out their tiny, eager fingers to him to be picked up, and he is honored for all of his youthful adulthood that has been dedicated.  He holds his wife close and tenderly kisses his son with the same care he cleans and loads his weapon.  And his voice is singular and sure, just as it should be after all these years, directing troops under his guidance.  He has lost comrades in combat, he has lost his mentor after returning State-side.  My dad cries proud to see his son.  My eyes choke.  I always see my brother as sixteen and silly in high school, and yet here he is a man, and I am more proud of the boy that I grew up with than I can ever even say.

On November 8th of each year he goes off grid and meets the others, the Semper Fi palpable as they toast those brothers they lost in the desert a decade before who cannot be forgotten.

They cannot be forgotten.

Firework explosions and sounds in the night are different after sleeping near the enemy, and dodging bullets meant for your flesh, and living when your friend is sent home draped in a body bag–these are only able to be recovered in time.  And maybe even time doesn’t erase entirely. To honor them he folds flags and presents them to weeping families year after year, saluting at attention, every shot damning him to remember service and protection.  But he keeps his mouth shut in public about politics and bureaucracy, struggling with a nation’s ignorance, even though he fought for their right to own it.

I am so proud of my brother my body aches.  He is a hero.

I feel safe when he is in our home visiting.  In the dark of night, with the doors locked and madness on the television, a Marine sleeps at attention.

This is the man who, as a young teen, used to ask me if his shirt matched his pants every morning before school, as he stepped out of the half bath plastered in brushstroke 90’s wallpaper.  Erin, is my  hair okay?  I’m not sure why he asked me…I rolled out of bed with the confidence of kings, running a toothbrush over my teeth with sleep in my eyes, and slipping on rumpled, baggy, Ambercrombie and Fitch charcoal khakis, my long blonde hair in tousled, sleepy waves like Kat from 10 Things I Hate About You.

No, literally.  I was Kat from 10 Things I Hate About You.  Thankfully, we’ve both grown up.

Then I would yell at him to get in the car for school…his morning ritual was precise…legendary, if you will.  I’m not sure where I gained this over-confidence and complete lack of the typical older child, Type- A personality.  We were the sweet Baptist kids who wore matching clothes for church directory photographs before eating at hot, sweltering summer potlucks in blazers and pantyhose.  He looked up to me while acting as a protective older brother…the best and most loyal friend of my childhood.

The thing about friendship is that when it is pure and simple, you see each and every flaw, you fight terribly, and love fiercely.  He would ride in my grey hatchback, or I would jaunt with him in the old Taurus with the automatic seatbelts, and we would belt out Five Iron Frenzy or Yellowcard, dreaming of Cali…the place I’ve still never lived to see, but he has been numerous times to report for duty.  Every time I would take in the recognition of a boy in high school, his insides would go rigid. When I married, he was sick, just sick, with nostalgia….Why do things have to change?  Why must we leave at all?

Because we have people to grow into and become and do good in this world.

For a window of time I felt like I had a life I was destined to live, simultaneously leaving him behind to figure out life on his own, as if it was a betrayal. We both moved to opposite sides of the country within two weeks of each other…I to Virginia with my new husband, he to California for boot camp.  We were still kids at 19 and 20 years old.

Today, when we get together, David and I repeat movie lines. Rocky, Paulie, Ernest, Joe Fusco.  Push the button Max. As if we’ve lost no time at all.

These Marines, these vets, are such normal, real people.  But they are also the fiercest, and most loyal, ready to protect and stand in defense in an instant.  My brother never talked about being a Marine while we were growing up.  I cannot remember one time at all that he alluded to it.  Unless you take 007 on Nintendo 64, Sonic the hedgehog, and skateboarding as indication.

A year after 9-11 he signed his name at the recruitment office.  I had sat plastered to the television late on an early, September evening into the dawn after witnessing the plane crash live, eating breakfast.  I remember the people jumping…jumping from the twin towers to death as flames hurled above them and seeing the TIMES cover plastered with their last moments.  The collapse of the towers is burned into my memory because I witnessed it in real time.

And my brother said, I will go.

The Marines, they call themselves brothers.  But my brother, he is mine, over and above all. We grew together through disparate years of burgeoning lives…and I am proud, so proud of this man.

He is my brother.

Colorado

When I was 15 I went to Colorado.

We drove for over two full days in two (or more?  my memory is sketchy) 15 passenger vans across the Midwest.  It was unbearably hot and sweltering.  There were a handful of twenty-something chaperones and a myriad of high-schoolers gunning for the wilderness.  It was glorious.  Open Road is actually a fictional recount drawn from our insane drive across the United States and the emotions that matched it.  In fact, there is more from where that came from.  Wink.

It was June, summer. We recouped at base camp before spending three days hiking the Rockies with only what we carried on our packs.  We rock propelled off the mountain surface, white water rafted the treacherous rapids, and dealt with the elements for several days. Then we sat at base camp in tepees, rolling our t shirts and shorts in tight compression before setting out into the utter unknown. I remember after miles of hiking my legs were aching, thousands of calories burned,  and sitting at the campfire with orange Tanga in our hot mugs, which was just everything.  Everything.  We thought it was just comfort food, but our guides knew it was sustenance   We also ate ration soup.

Our two wilderness guides taught us how to keep warm at night.  The trick counters what would think, but you wear just your underwear and then stuff your cocoon sleeping bag with your remaining clothes around you. You don’t wear them, but stuff them to the outer edges of the bag.  Somehow they conduct heat.  Every morning I would wake with the cocoon bag wrapped around my body, cinched over my face with the frost outside, toasty warm within my triangle tent barrier from the elements on the edge of the Colorado Rockies.  One morning there was snow and we woke in amazement that the packing clothes in our bags actually worked!  We were warm and it was pleasant in our bags.  The mental struggle was to come to the fire in camp set by our  two guides.  We drank hot Tanga again for breakfast and applied corn adhesive to our ankles before packing camp.  I remember one our of our guides’ names was Mara: bitterness.

There was one day that was incredibly damp.  I was heavy with moisture in my wool boot socks and thin, cotton shorts as I trudged the muddy, rock-strewn trail.  My 80 pound pack dug into my shoulders.   I pictured Sylvester Stallone as I set my face to the task, a favorite inspiration for my brother and I.

But despite these internal, mental struggles, the path was breathtaking.  When I felt trod down I would tell myself, at fifteen, to look up.  To look at each water droplet that slid and sunk from the electric green leaf to the beauteous, grey-brown rocks below.  It was like an orchestra, the falling rain to the mountain we ascended.  Soul-catching.

I was envisioning Rocky (my favorite movie character)  and my boyfriend at the time who told me I could do it, and to persevere. I had been tasked with carrying the stove and propane which made me carry quite a heavy load for a 100 pound girl.  I was carrying almost twice my weight up a state park mountain.  I put my head down and got to work.  This was my playground.

We pitched our tents near a mountain stream, filling our water bottles.  We dropped iodine tablets into them.  A trip to the bathroom included a shovel and pine cones.  I was in the beginning of my month and could leave nothing behind.  Our tents were mere tarps over the muddy mountainside, a triangle canvas hovering on a slope.  It down poured for over 12 hours.  I remember sitting in the tent for hours with Deborah.  I had flashcards in my pack, the writer that I am I always had something to write on, even at 15.  I wrote down songs that we streamed out, laying on our backs on the hard ground, laughing our way through the evening of damp, wet, cold, mountain tenting.

In the morning we ascended the peak and the wind whipped harder than anything that I have ever felt.  It was like life ripping through me. The feeling…it was like I was standing on a photograph: the cuts, rivets, and valleys of the Rocky mountains alive with snow and evergreen, and I was on top of it all.  My size 7 booted feet upon the Rockies that Lewis and Clark marked and mapped two hundred years before.  My breath was caught within me.

And in the end, we gathered around the broad river, the night fire blazing among us as we gathered.  It is in these glorious moments we are pulled back to the glory of the Creator, as well as the searing of souls together.  For that, dear Lord, I am thankful.  That creation breaches nature and draws in my neighbor.  I praise Thee.

The River

We float down the James on tubes for hours in the late, Virginian summer as it is dying out gracefully.  It reminds me of lukewarm lake days in Michigan when I was young– warm, protracted, endless, dusky evenings–riotous with fireflies as we jumped off the slippery, mossy dock.  I like to think I’m still young, because I can recall those memories and emotions flooding back so easily with the sight, or smell, or music in my ear of something familiar.  That cool, tingling, summer rain on my bare skin that brought steam and heat out from the pavement as we twirled our faces upward in a washing.  They are like a film reel in fast motion–this life of past tense but still sententious.  The truth is I am to turn 37 this year.  I know I will recall and see myself young when I remember my 37th year, but today I feel age as my daughters near high school so swiftly.  It was not so long ago that they were swaddled in our arms and I inhaled their skin scent.

The water is tepid and trickles softly.  The sun shovels into our flesh and reddens the surface, beckoning my amber freckles out in thousands. As always happens with sun on water it plunges, bottomless, into our layers without feeling.   Elongated tree roots dredge the riverbank, intertwining hook and peg within one another.  They look like gnarled fingers, knuckles holding steadfastly to one another like lovers in old age.  I take a profound breath inward and hold it… these tree roots make me pause in my conversation with my dear friend. Dead stop.  I close my eyes taut and forthwith hold my palm over my face; I melt those tree roots into my soul with purpose.  I actually see them lengthen, intertwine, and hear them tighten down like rope stretching tight and screw down into my brain’s sulci folds where I hope they can never leave me, stapled to my soul.

I begin to envision how to write, to paragraph this majesty.  Trees and buried roots into earth are like a grounding for me.  As John Steinbeck and Wendell Berry write of the bowels of earth, I grasp them in my very marrow and life blood.  I dip and bob along the river with words pinging and cascading over me like a piano gliding through scales to retrieve from my mind’s eye.  I descend to the water and drink deeply.  Cryptic persuasion.  Mystery.

The hot breeze pulls the postponed summer and green leaves from the branches; they swirl over the talking, ripple water that skids the mossy rocks, poking their arches above the aqueous surface.  My warm tube lulls and rocks on shallow, mineral-gold boulders just under the surface.  And the sound of water splashes and plays like our laughter and shrieks as we twirl and balance and crash, drifting under the concrete bridge and the blue sky full of cloud.  We float for hours, laying back with our eyes closed beneath our sunshades.  I get so hot I remove my shirt and float in my underclothes, the sun and vitamin D enlivening dewy skin.   In between silence we talk and splash and kick our legs in the river, aurulent and dark, like late summer dying but dying joyfully.   The deep roots dig into its water life blood for survival and the trees shade the banks surrounded by dusty, red dirt.  The sunlight flickers and illuminates in waves and I squint to see.

Dear sun and water and tree and earth, you wake me, jolt me severely, and my heart violently ricochets into my throat…I sit up onto my elbows in my tube and pay attention as if I am in high church looking at stained glass, signing the cross, bowing my head, and hearing doxology.  Jesus baptized and the spirit dove descends and I am here alive, but what He did then matters now.  He walked on the water and calmed the storm.  It calls to me loudly, yells at me…and I remember alive after years of rest, and sleep, and healing in the safety of my bedclothes, and fire hearth as water now plunges over me in the historic James River of the Virginia Piedmont.

I remember back to that summer spent riding  four-wheelers on the edges of the golden cornfields late into the evening, the buzz of crickets as the sun sunk below the horizon. Please, please, give me more than I was living; in tears and working long hours I pleaded.  How are these innocent things like worry and doubt forgiven when they were worked out in distraction?  Have mercy upon me, have mercy upon me, have mercy upon me, I pray before the Eucharist.

The next summer we were driving north on 9th street up to W. Main and he suddenly turned left at the traffic light toward the Lake.  It has been twenty years and I cannot recall what we talked about on the drive, but the freshwater waves were cool to the touch of our ankles.  We pulled an old, unzipped sleeping bag out of the car and laid it on the hard sand after the tide had gone out, and he pulled my face close and asked me if I would marry him.  This man, whom I had fallen in love with a year before, was asking me to be his forever and I never even hesitated for a second.  We had written to one another  over months, he leaving me long letters after late nights at the restaurant and third shifts at the hotel that he stuffed under my windshield wiper.  And I would sneak responses to his Grand Prix, two writers invoking faith and love and hope to awaken, a language only deciphered by one another.  He told me once after we were married that we were soul persons.

In a world of self-love and expression, it is absurd to say out loud on this page and to the critical world that I am not my whole self without my husband, that we are two fragmented versions of one.

Who am I to say such things?  How do I always know that I am intertwined with this person forever until death, when I am not even in my middle ages?  But it is so.  Cryptic persuasion.  Mystery. 

These sacred things whisper to me each night, their melody in my ear like an orchestra from God, this legacy we live.  It haunts me to excitement.

Each time that I felt dirt under my fingernails,

the rush of salt water as I plunged the board under the waves paddling out to surf,

standing on summit of the Rockies feeling the wind whip through my thin tshirt, cascading my body,

the spray of Colorado whitewater and the grip of the oar,

smelled vanilla pipe tobacco as it curled around his face,

drove across country, stopping to refuel, smelling the hot pavement and wiping the smudge from tired eyes,

stepped across slippery mountain rocks grasping hands and shouldering packs,

puffed hot breath into my frozen fingers after brushing snow from the windshield,

gulped my breath in prayer at the plane’s takeoff and forced myself to look out the window,

sat translucent in the sunset on the ridge in the dark,

hiked to pitch tent and camp, and hot ration soup over the fire,

heard the rustle of bears and the howl of wolves in the middle of the night,

pulled into gas stops while sleeping on bench seats and leaning on shoulders for comfort,

drew stick figures while others scrawled notes in the empty space of our math books,

chalk dust and pencils, the boys wearing ties for game day,

tipping that supple, new ball just over the net for side out,

sand showering a halo as the buggie skids and swerves and we scream,

driving further and further, talking with my dad the way we always did,

dressing up for boys and holding hands tight,

my mother’s hands over folds of fabric, sewing my wedding gown,

playing street hockey with taped sticks, blasting pucks against concrete,

riding rollercoasters in the hot summer- hours long lines before squeezing eyes shut and feeling the drop in the stomach,

listening to the lisp of speech in my daughter that melts me, those little girls who stole me with their play pretend and singing,

standing with my husband and holding his hand and feeling grateful and strong as we read psalms at the microphone at Grandpa’s funeral,

speeding through cornfields on fourwheelers, hanging on tight around waist and laughing,

all those letters—letters that poured love to me and our future that were wedged under door handles and wiper blades awaiting me after work,

Preparing the fishing lines for slippery, descaled, gutted, and grilled fish over charcoal with my dear father in law,

Tasting cinnamon almonds mixed with the smell of burnt rubber and cigarettes at the race track,

Working out sadness through words scribbled furiously,

Soaking in the Florida sunshine on bicycles over the boardwalk,

Sparkle and patent leather everything in ninth grade,

Ice cream in bed and PS4 videogames in our college apartment, then working late into the night on term papers,

Wrapped in the Tennesse Smokies and heartache photobooths downtown, stores full of oddities and interests,

Riding subways and clutching pennies and the railing as we ascended the Statue in New York,

Walking through floods of Bears’ gear in Chicago, the World Series at Wrigley, hailing uber cabs late into the night,

Sliding my palms across wet walls, chilled by cold cavern breezes in Kentucky,

Rhythmically rocking on my sick grandma’s lap–she is pat, pat, patting my back,

Sleeping in the hot, sticky Impala with melted crayon on the dash, dad plunges a coathanger for keys down the elevator shaft after sunburns and sunwashed hair,

starfish and lobster in Maine before gravel ripped my knee open,

chips and cards and chinking at the casino tables,

sprinting from home to first base after contacting ball to bat, my arms vibrating and legs swift,

a family parade and fireworks on the freshwater bay and bikerides through the woodland trails and singing with the uncles, cheese curds and the yearly fish boil,

driving to the tiny library with Ingrid Michaelson singing in my ears and cows braying in my sight and sun hot in July,

crystal ice trees and a light snowfall, and mittens for warm, the defroster cranked high to melt the ice,

driving the girls to the barn, observing them brush, and feed, and care for horses,

sitting in the grassy outfield behind the house, watching game after game each summer, just beyond my backyard,

locker combos, and shaving cream fights in grassy lawns on the last day of middle school,

dropping eggs from the roof with our science teacher and marching out Civil War battles around West,

sitting in a whitewashed chapel filled with bare, wooden pews, surrounded by gravestones and singing Holy, Holy, Holy in unison,

oboe reed dipped in water to soften while scrubbing white shoes clean for performance, hooking arms with my best, dear friend of those years who did not forsake me,

words and verses pouring in by memory, reciting over and over and over, branding my soul when I wore ponytails and friendship bracelets,

boat tubing bumpily over rivulets along the following propeller, sipping drinks seated on the hot vinyl seats and sunglasses,

the sway of the boat below deck in the night, the daytime sails pulling us out to the dolphins,

rubbing my hands over old, vintage, wooden drawers with Grandma, sanding off ages of stain,

smelling the books, always smelling the words and the pages,

black and white photographs of young, and pure, and free,

winding through the wooded road with my best friend smelling of coconut suntan oil and lipgloss singing country with the radio,

my son searching for me at night, holding me tight and curling into my lap,

pouring warm rain in Virginia spring sprinting into air-conditioned theaters with popcorn and soda,

and there is more.

More of these moments that come in waves- moments happening in present time, but are extensions of what has come before and what will be.

Much more of this life that leads me.  Music, and language, and art that burrows so deep it aches into the soul.  This charging river flows continually through me, changing and articulating and teaching.  And it brought me to my marriage and to my children and then taught me gratefulness in my heritage.  This covenant and Baptism, they never escape me, but rather resurrect me.

Does marriage resurrect?  Ah, now that is a marvelous beauty to behold.

My Dear Mr. Blum

My dear Mr. Blum,

Junior year of 98-99 is very vivid in my mind for many reasons, your Bible class being one of them.  Juniors and seniors gathered into room one of the first modular of Cooper campus, a jaunt down the road from Gil’s and the old Cooper café.  Our shoes crunched over pea gravel and scraped the concrete before we crammed into the middle schoolers’ desks. I can pull from the cluttered shelves of my mind so many images: the brown carpeting, dusty chalkboard, teenagers scribbling notes, boys with bleached hair flinging rubber bands and launching paper airplanes, girls fixing their ponytails in the narrow bathroom and painting their finger nails.  But when your booming voice signaled like a bell for us to take our seats, all attention was drawn to your mesmerizing way of relating Biblical history to a motley crew of doubtful disciples. We sat silent like young children enthralled with daring tales, legends, and heroes of King Arthur’s court or Troy’s ancient war battles. This was all True and was Big, plunging more depths than we could have dared to hope.  

We all came from various backgrounds and homes.  Yet we were still young men and women who had grown up in churches and had various Christian influence which had drawn us all together into a disjointed, disproportionate body of brothers and sisters forced to grow up together and empathize, love, trust, and forgive to prepare us for higher things still.  (God is so kind to us to give us these glimpses of heaven.) We knew Sunday school stories and had doggedly memorized verses, but then you asked us ethical questions. You brought up moral dilemma. When we thought we knew the right answers about sin and death and suffering and eternal life, you told us to ‘hang on a minute’ as you held your hand up in the air to pause the class and asked us another question right back.  You challenged our preconceptions and assumptions, taught us not to gloss over words like ‘therefore’ or ‘in order that’ within Paul’s letter to the Roman church, and I will never forget your historical explanation of the Roman guard outside of Christ’s tomb. For a band of malleable seventeen year-olds, it was like frantically sucking ragged breath into lungs that have been underwater for far too long.

There are people who can sing ancient things to life with their passion and faith, and you, Mr. Blum, did that every day for your students.  Heritage has this achingly dear place within my soul, and it is precisely because we went to school in dilapidated old trailers where humble teachers rolled their worn sleeves and went to work on what was truly good and beautiful in life, instead of worrying about outward appearances or perfection.  It was so palpable to me my senior year that I dreaded leaving that sacred space. I can never, ever repay that ministry and sacrifice except to do the same in my own classroom of students. I believe that we are the collection, the living legacy of those that go before us, who teach us, who pour into us.  So thank you for that before I was wise enough to know to ask for it, and for seeing the image of God within each student when they often don’t recognize it themselves.

Most affectionately,

Erin (Daam) Uminn – Class of 2000

May, 2018

The History of Home: The Neder Lands

The Dutch rise to wealth and prestige growing out of colonial expansion, Rembrandt, Reformation, and global trade of the 16th and 17th centuries was fading out when Napoleon came to power and the French period began.  While much could be said about the transition that flooded through the country as a whole, the Groningen province villages were incredibly unique.  This province birthed a massive exodus to the United States.

The village province of Groningen is similar to American counties.  While there was and still is an urban city of Groningen close by, several rural villages freckle the agricultural countryside that date back centuries: Zandeweer, Uithuizen, Uithuizermeeden, Rottum, Usquert, among several others. The days are often overcast, cool, and temperate. These villages are several miles apart but close enough that families would relocate over their lifetimes or send their children to find work in the nearby villages.  The landscape is flat, with ancient, powerful windmills rising against the gray horizon.  Located on the most northeast point of the country, the province sinks to meet with the Waal Sea to the north and Germany and Denmark to the east. These lowland villages were heavily written about by Paping.  In his research, he refers to the region as the Groningen clay province.

The agricultural farmland of the Netherlands can be split into three main areas by soil type: sand, peat, and clay.  After centuries of building up the soggy, stagnant acreage with peat digging, water-lifting mills, and dikes, the land was fit for greater settlement.  The Groningen province villages and borgs (farm castles) were built and settled on the rich clay soil; some still stand from as early as the 14th century.  The borgs were constructed  in the Middle Ages to store and house their wealth in crops and create strong fortification against invaders and thieves.  They were profitable and successful during the Dutch golden years into the 18th century.  Even early industrialization did not immediately impoverish the farm villages that were tucked away in their own isolated domain.  In fact, they were so secluded that they remained stable for a relative while.  It was the urban centers of the Netherlands that were first impacted by the industrialization of the world in the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Tjarks Hindriks Kremer was named after both his mother and his father.  Tjarks was his mother’s maiden name, Hindriks was his father’s first name.  Tjarks was born and baptized in the midst of the French period in the small village of Zandeweer, 1808. He was one of nine recorded children, all of whom (brothers and sisters) carried their father’s name as their middle name, a Dutch tradition which also indicated legitimacy.  In fact, some of his sisters even had similar first names: Lisobeth, Lizabeth, and Elisabeth.  Were they close friends?

Surnames of the peasant class were recorded with more regularity in the region due to the French influence.  The old traditions and ties of the past were crumbling and hastily rebuilt during the French Revolution, spilling over into the Netherlands at the turn of the new century.  Church and state were beginning to untangle, which had both positive and negative effects on individual and family life.  After the late Middle Ages churches were no longer the sole recorders of family line and history, but civil records were required under the new government, making birth, marriage, resident, and death records more widely available.  While the French period was one of decline from the previous Dutch glory, there were benefits.  Civil records were one of them.

Tjark married Jantje Kornelis van der Til; she was born in 1813 in the Groningen province village of Rottum.  Their parents were of the older, pre-Revolution generation of Dutch farmhands and live-in servants. Both Tjark and Jantje, just five years apart, had relocated to Uithuizermeeden with their families for work and met there.  As unskilled workers they scoured for employment on a day by day basis: tilling the ground, pulling weeds, and bailing hay.  In love at 19 and 24 years of age, they married on November 9, 1832.  The modern mind often assumes teenage marriages were common in all cultures of previous ages, however, the Dutch are known for being a practical and frugal people and the 19th century was no exception but rather facilitated this trait.  It was actually becoming more and more common for individuals to put off marriage until financial stability of some kind materialized.  And yet, Tjarks married his bride when they were incredibly young, even for the era.

Live-in servants in the villages were contracted on a yearly basis, from May to May.  Oftentimes, peasant marriages occurred in May or June, directly after contracts were completed.  However, the fact that Tjarks and Jantje married in November may tell us that Jantje did not have a contracted position for the year, which is consistent with the life of day laborers.  Day laborers were different than farmhands; farmhands were contracted for lengths of time, creating more stability.  As their title indicates, day laborers were lower than farmhands and only given work on a daily basis–work could dry up spontaneously and they could find work only seasonally at best.  It may have been that Tjarks and Jantje had more regular work in their earlier years, but it is doubtful, and after their marriage evidence does not seem to support this.

Another bit of data also signals the reason why Tjark and Jantje married in November versus waiting until spring: Jantje gave birth to their first child, a son, on April 7, 1833 after being married five months.  Dutch marriage records of the time show statistically that it was quite common for couples to rush to marry after finding themselves with child.  If a female day laborer or servant was found pregnant they often lost their employment or were not considered hireable, which likely happened in Jantje’s case either before or shortly after she and TJark were married, tightening their purse strings even further.

Upon little Hindriks birth they quickly added several more children in the 1830s and 40s: Kornelis, Martje, Aafke, and Tamme.  As the industrial period continued to shift the Dutch economy, the Kremers were living and working with a family of five young children–and then the fierce agricultural crisis hit the Groningen province villages, known as the “hungry 40s”.  Crop failure due to crop disease caused widespread hunger, extreme poverty, and sickness.  Day laborers before the crop failure were suffering from poverty-stricken circumstances as it was, because food prices were soaring while their wages remained sluggish and static.  There was a growing demand for agricultural produce across the globe, and the Dutch farm owners subsequently became very wealthy.  In addition, industrial goods were cheap, so the products and tools that farmers procured were inexpensive while their profits rose.  Increasingly, the farm community began to fracture as the farmers rose in status and ceased to work with and among their servants and laborers.  Borgs were once built on a close-knit community structure; in house servants would live among, take their meals with, and learn from the farmer family almost like an adopted member.  Tjarks and Jante’s own parents would have understood this structure first hand. But by the mid 1800’s, the barrier between the classes grew and this was no longer the case.  Live-in servants became less and less popular with farmers as they distanced their families from the low-class employees under their care.  Understandably, this had sacramental repercussions as individuals and families of differing stations were isolated from one another’s lives and ceased to understand each other.

Day laborers were spending approximately 80% of their earnings on food alone.  Many could only afford to rent cramped, sparse homes rather than own them.  They had small plot gardens in which they grew their own basic staples: peas, potatoes, and other root vegetables, along with the possibility of raising a couple of sheep or a cow for added resource.  These were destitute people who relied heavily on potatoes as the bulk of their diet until the famine struck, which drew them into dire straits.  They wore the same clothes day to day, including klompen, the traditional, rough hewn wooden clogs of the period and region, which withstood the mud and muck of farm work and harsh winters. Without support or shock absorption klompen were punishing to the feet, but the Dutch stuffed them with straw for added warmth and barrier.

When crop failure hit, those who were the poorest were struck with starvation, disease, and in some instances, suicide. Tjark Hindriks Kremer was just 37 years old when he passed away in 1846, during the height of the potato famine of  1845-1847.  How and why did this occur?  He died in June, proving  he did not die from lack of fuel and heat in the winter, but may have been suffering from starvation or illness such as tuberculosis or malaria, which were common during this time.  Perhaps there was an accident; possibly he was in despair. In any case, Jantje was a single mother at the age of 32 and her children ranged from 13 to 2 years old during the most vulnerable period of the region and country’s recorded history.  Previously, farmers and even the poorest donated regularly to local welfare relief with the understanding that as they helped their neighbors around them, they would also benefit from such charity if they themselves were ever in need.  Yet, as the effects of the shortage spread, families were reduced to beggarly conditions and there was simply not enough relief to go around.  Ninety-one percent of the province are recorded as Calvinist, and Reformation churches attempted to relieve the destitute, though members were helped first and then aid often ran out.  To cope, it is certain that Jantje had to send Hindrik and his brother Kornelis, ages 13 and 11, to work on farms to keep the family alive.

Their daughter, Aafke, had been born in Usquert, another small village.  This continues to indicate that the Kremers split up or traveled several miles by cart or foot, spreading to adjoining farms just to make ends meet.  After her father’s tragic death, it is likely young Aafke worked as a live in servant cleaning and mending, a job that would have given a small but steady income as well as food and shelter that her mother could not easily provide.  However, if she was a day laborer only she would have weeded farm fields in the spring and found steady harvest work during the later months.  Aafke’s mother remarried after her father’s early death, so she may have been expected to forge her own way, especially because she remained single throughout her twenties.  However, Jantje passed away in 1870 at the age of 57, a normal life expectancy of the Dutch during the nineteenth century, leaving Aafke and her siblings without parents.

Nearby, Thomas Pieters Dam was born in Farmsum in 1815, and Jantje Sebes Neijenhuis was born in Bierum in 1819, contemporaries of the Kremers.  They married in Jante’s home village of Bierum in January of 1839, but many of their children were born in Uithuizermeeden.  The farming villiage of Uithuizermeeden was known during the difficult crop failure to be one of the only villages of security where the farmers hired day laborers most of the year, ensuring that workers would stay in the area when they needed them through the planting, maintenance, and harvesting seasons.  This could be why Thomas and Jantje moved to Uithuizermeeden: to find stability in a volatile economy of shrinking resource.

Then, in 1871, Aafke Kremer found herself pregnant.  She was unmarried, and the knowledge of who fathered her child has been buried as a secret with her.  Was he a soldier who came to the area and left?  Was he in love with Aafke but his family disapproved of her low status?  Was her child the product of a rape?  Was Aafke fooled into thinking that she would be married soon, and her lover left her or denied being the father?  County records never give up these hidden mysteries, though questions linger 150 years later.

Without her mother or a family unit to take her in, Aafke relied on neighbors and friends, and the birth certificate of her son gives clues.  Jantje Sebes Neijenjhuis Dam presided as Aafke’s midwife.  Aafke subsequently named her newborn infant Thomas.  Usually, first names were passed forward from the biological father or grandfather, but the baby’s naming appears to be indication of thanks or intent of recognizing Thomas Pieters Dam, her midwife’s husband.  Less than a year after Thomas Kremer’s birth, Thomas and Jantje’s son Nanning married Aafke and adopted the young Thomas as his own.  Questions rise up like a tide.  Did Aafke know that she would soon marry Nanning, therefore naming her son after her future father in law?  Was it a marriage of love or utility only?  Aafke was 31 years old at the time of her marriage to Nanning, who was just 23.  As previously stated, it was often a bare necessity that individuals wait for marriage until a proper income was established to raise a family, which could indicate why Aafke had waited.  Was Nanning confident of his ability to provide at this time?  Did he see a woman and child in need and fill it?  We may assume that Nanning was secretly the father, but Dutch customs do not support this.  Thomas is listed without a middle name on his birth certificate, a custom for illegitimate children in the Netherlands.  If he had been Nanning’s biological son they would have quickly married as Tjarks and Jante had, and Thomas would have been given Nanning’s name.  Additionally, Thomas’ physical birth certificate  on file in Uithuizermeeden had haunting documentation that  was hand-written in Dutch in the margin from 1874, pulling the observer back to that fateful moment: Nanning was taking Thomas on as his son and adopting him and giving him his last name, though he was not the biological father.  Nanning took Aafke as his wife that year of the noted change on the certificate, when Thomas was not quite two years old.  A year after their marriage they welcomed a daughter together that they appropriately named Jantje, recognizing both of their mothers.

Meanwhile, Willem Jans Allersma was also born in Uithuizermeeden, 1835.  Menna Smit was born in the same village two years later.  As children of the crop failure, their lives would have been one of poverty, difficulty, and hunger.  One of the reasons for this was the population boom that went along with the rise in food costs, disease, and lack of food.  Willem and Menna married in 1861, having a total of nine children over their marriage.  Two of their daughters died in infancy, which was quite common as a result of poverty and disease, but it was also due to the fact that working families did not always breastfeed their children.  Needing to care for multiple children and working jobs to gain a source of income, many women bottle fed their infants, leaving them with the infants’ young siblings for a time.  Oftentimes, the bottles were made with little more than water, and the water was often unsanitary.  Of course, sickness in a peasant family also meant that medical care was scarce.

Willem and Menna’s daughter Martje, nicknamed ‘Mattie’, was born in May of 1873, about a year after Thomas was born in the same village.  The village population was small, in the few hundreds, and it is certain that the Dams and the Allersmas knew each other as they worked and lived close to one another.  During Martje’s childhood her uncle made the trek to the United States to escape the eroding remnants of the old country, sending letters back to the family about the possibilities, opportunity, idealism, and American dream that awaited.  Understandably, many in the Netherlands were practical and skeptic.  To a people used to harsh conditions, work, and early death, it all sounded to good to be true.

Uithuizermeeden village witnessed a young marriage in May 1893, the usual month for marriages after the contract season of day laborers ended.  Thomas Dam, at the age of 21, married 19 year old Mattie.  He was trying to rise above his low station to better their young lives: he is registered as a shoemaker in the village, an artisan craftsman.  One can imagine the kind of shoes he constructed: wooden farm clogs and leather work boots.

After only a couple weeks into their young, spontaneous marriage Thomas and Martje left the only village they knew and traveled 170 miles by train to Rotterdam, Netherlands to board as steerage passengers on a steam ship for New York.  The rail station in Uithuizermeeden was being built at the time of their departure, so they would have taken a cart to the nearest station to journey to the dynamic and energetic city.  Rotterdam’s population was over 200,000 in comparison to Uitheizermeeden’s hundreds. It was a huge metropolis; there were horse car trams, a bustling railway, a fish market, waterworks, and an art gallery.  Thomas and Martje had probably heard about Rotterdam, but were still overwhelmed at the unimaginable commotion of the city. Everywhere they looked would have flashed signs of progress, industry, and innovation.  Dressed in simple cotton and wool farm clothes from a remote hamlet, they looked out of place, though determination to partake in the benefits of this new world pushed them forward.

Martje’s uncle had settled in the middle west of the United States, writing about fortune and the big break they were seeking, if they were willing to work hard.  Thomas, stifled and tired of stagnation in the small village of  his birth due to his status, lack of education, and wealth, he signed a work contract with Kalamazoo Paper Company, Michigan to pay passage for his and Martje’s sail to the United States in June, 1893.  It would be a momentous, life-altering journey of over four thousand miles including horse cart, railroad, and ship. They never saw their families again, each taking two meager bags for their excursion over the Atlantic in third class steerage, though they were optimistic for their future opportunity in a land that promised everything: steady work, food, housing, and a thick network of Dutch community in an up and coming American city.  Their immigration would change the trajectory of their future children in ways unimaginable.

Drukker, J.W. & Tassenaar, V. (1997). “Paradoxes of Modernization and Material Well-Being in the Netherlands during the Nineteenth Century”. Health and Welfare during Industrialization. Richard H. Steckel and Roderick Floud, Eds. University of Chicago Press, 1997. 331-378. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.602.5243&rep=rep1&type=pdf

Hoitink, Y. (2008, September 25). From Winterswijk to Wisconsin: Emigration from the Achterhoek to the United States in the nineteenth century.  Retrieved from https://www.dutchgenealogy.nl/wpcontent/uploads/2011/06/FromWinterswijkToWisconsin.pdf

Paping, RFJ. (2012, November 22-23). Occupations and economic labor activities of nineteenth century Dutch women: limits and possibilities.  Presented in Utrecht. Retrieved from https://www.rug.nl/staff/r.f.j.paping/utrechtnov2012paping.pdf

Paping, R.F.J. (2013, August). Rural poor relief in the coastal Netherlands: from a ‘collective insurance’ to a ‘supplement-system’ (Groningen 1770-1860).  Presented at Rural History Congress, Bern.   Retrieved from http://www.ruralhistory2013.org/papers/1.3.1._Paping.pdf

Paping R.F.J. (2015).  Dutch live-in farmhands and maids in the long 19th century: the decline and near disappearance of the lifecycle servant system for the rural lower class.  Paper presented at 3rd Rural History Conference, Girona, Spain.  Retrieved from https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/files/26660181/servantspaper.pdf

Swierenga, R.P. (1998, November 17). Place Mattered: The Social Geography of Dutch-American Immigration in the Nineteenth Century.  Lecture sponsored by Calvin College Geography Department.  Retrieved from http://www.swierenga.com/Calvin_lec.html

http://www.ancestry.com personal family tree