That Good Night: a Review

I’ve blogged about the day I went book shopping with friends and found a favorite book. This is the story of another book that day.

I usually shop with a strict budget I’ve set for myself, not so much set in dollar amount but whether I’ll use the item or not, or whether it was something I was looking for. But I went into that day knowing that somewhere, I’d allow myself a treat. I didn’t know what it would be, and I was on the prowl for several titles, but I would know the surprise treat when I saw it.

I was looking for a copy of Les Miserables that’s easy to hold in my hand, not chunky, and has space for notes in the margins and isn’t super expensive. At the idyllic Loganberry Books, I found one that could have worked but was still too pricey, so I put it back on the rack. I’m still looking for a winner for that wish list.

On my way past the counter, ready to leave without buying anything, I brushed past a table full of newly-published books, and That Good Night caught my eye. I flipped open the dust jacket flaps and skimmed them. The author was an American-born daughter of immigrants from India. She was about my age. She was a palliative care doctor and this was her story. It checked all my boxes, and I knew this was my treat for the day.

I’ve rarely been so thrilled with an impulse purchase. I’ve read the book twice in less than two years because I love it so much.

In her last months of medical school, Sunita did an elective in palliative care and suddenly started grappling with questions about what did it mean to live well, and how was dying different from death, and how to treat the person instead of the disease? She writes with mastery and gentleness about her experience of starting to unlearn the things she’d learned in medical school.

Her elective experience moved her so profoundly that she chose to make palliative care her career. What kept my attention even more than the medical accounts was the way Sunita talked about how she needed to learn a different way of listening and speaking. She says the biggest shift in her new responsibilities was her new relationship with language. She still used and prescribed drugs and treatments, but she used words as her primary way to probe, diagnose, and find a good way forward–even if that way meant patients dying and not getting healthy again.

Maybe I found the story so riveting because I don’t ad lib well, and when I’m put on the spot, I often regret what I said. Here, Sunita recounts hyper-fraught meetings with super-stressed patients and their family members. Every conversation was a mine field, but she had good mentors, and she practiced words and phrases in front of a mirror and learned how to find her way through unpredictable, volatile conversations. It makes me think that maybe, maybe I could learn to listen better and use words better too, even on the fly when I don’t have the luxury of time to craft them.

I’ve loaned the book out several times to friends, and they say they enjoy my notes in the margins, but none of them gushes about the book, or were as taken in as I was. Fair enough. But I loved being immersed in those emotionally-charged conversations where, by listening well and using non-inflammatory language, she found a logical, level-headed solution that let everyone feel heard and helped. I love the idea that using words well is a way toward healing and peace that replaces chaos and fear.

Sunita writes from a Buddhist perspective, which adds a fascinating layer to her story. It’s not healthy to agree everything you read, and I loved the exercise of sifting through what I admired and what I didn’t agree with. The glimpses of Indian culture and worldview makes it a rich read.

Please let me know when you read the book, because I’d love to hear how you experienced it!

Songs Stay On

It was a year, as everyone has already noted.

I don’t have words yet to talk well about it, and there are still clouds and questions with no answers. I am hopeful but not glib about 2021. Not chirpy, as my personality tends to be.

This not the place to list last year’s losses. That would take too long and be too depressing. But one immense loss has been choir, choir concerts, and formal and informal singing groups. I feel incredulous that last January, just before the year started unravelling, I went with friends to a packed auditorium in Cleveland to hear the St. Olaf Choir conducted by Dr. Anton Armstrong. I still listen to some of the songs I heard that night. I’m not a gifted singer, but listening to songs and singing with people feeds me like nothing else does and I miss it terribly.

In the darkest, hardest parts of the year, when I couldn’t sing, I listened to others sing. Often it was “Jesus Strong and Kind.” Or “Sure on This Shining Night.”

When everything inside me feels scrambled, I listen to chorale music. When I want to rest my soul, I turn on my favorites, this curated list of chorale gems. The voices, harmonies, and chord progressions soothe something deep in me. I start breathing deeper and my focus shifts from troubles around me to the shimmering melodies or words. This list has multiple arrangements and languages of the Lord’s prayer and Psalm 23. Wonder how that happened.

This list are all my favorites depending on the moment, but indulge me while I share my exceptional choices:

  • Pieces from Stellenbosch Choir. From South Africa, they have a rare, winning blend of Dutch harmonies and African rhythms. I dream of hearing this group in person some day.
  • The first time I heard the stunning soprano lines in Arvo Part’s “And I Heard a Voice,” it took my breath away. Then I read the backstory to the song, and how he composed it in his native Estonian, and now I like it even more.
  • Sometimes I wake up with lines from Forrest’s “Come to Me” or Mealor’s “The Beautitudes” in my head, and it makes the whole day better.
  • Whenever I hear “Indodana,” I see the silhouettes of the women at Jesus’ cross, weeping with no words. I can’t listen to the song without some emotional fortitude because it’s so sad. But it gives voice to what was the most wrecked night of their lives.

I often think CCM has more honest lament than classical and sacred music does, so I find some CCM lyrics cathartic and healing, but I don’t find most CCM beautiful aesthetically. And beauty is what I need when I’m fragile or sad. Beauty (very loud or very soft) or silence.

Toward the end of last year, I got to sit in on the dress rehearsal for this recorded Christmas concert. The only thing that’s better than singing in choir is listening to your friends sing. While they practiced, I sat on the floor in the back of the gym in the dark and cried because it was so beautiful. Earlier in the year, some of them were also in on this virtual choir and I’m so proud of them.

Clearly, this is the era of virtual choirs. Even though it goes against most of what is true and enjoyable about choir, virtual choirs offer something better than silence and isolation. Last summer, I heard about Eric Whitaker’s “Sing Gently” virtual choir about two days before the tracks were due in. I downloaded the sheet music and the practice tracks, but didn’t have time to finish. That close, I would’ve joined over 17,000 singers to debut that sweet song, and it would’ve been a nice way to remember the year. Maybe another song, another time.

Hope wears thin these days, but in brighter moments, I believe that some day we’ll pack into auditoriums and sing again. I dream of attending a concert like this of Brahm’s “Requiem.” The European elegance, red and black formal wear, the singers surrounding the audience–I would be be in raptures.

Singing aligns all the parts of a person with beauty and goodness, which is one reason it’s so healing for me. In this fragmented, splintered, fraught era, we need more singing. We need songs everywhere. We need truth and beauty and goodness flung around in music and voices and community. We could never have too much.

Snow Globe

This morning marks seven years that I woke up in the hospital after the worst day of my life. This morning, I saw the same light, the same cold, but everything is different. My brokenness then was physical and emotional and He is still healing me and I can never say how grateful I am. Today’s shaken globe reveals other kinds of brokenness in all of us. Different ways, different places, different aches. But I believe with all my heart that He walks with us, weeps with us, and leads us to wholeness and this keeps me from despair when the world shakes and breaks.

This is the light

And this is the ice

And this is the years

He heals me.

*

That morning,

She came in from the ice

And held me soft and

Snow glittered on her black wool.

*

Inside, looking out,

The snow globe, steady,

Turned and turned,

These seven seasoned years.

*

This morning,

I see light and ice,

Feel cheeks wet with stupendous

Overwhelm.

The gentle healer shakes the snow globe

Again

But never drops it.

*

This is the light and

This is the life

His wondrous hands

Poured into mine.

Stir: A Book Review

I was thrilled last year when a friend organized a day over Easter break to prowl around bookstores in Cleveland. Three of us met at Loganberry Books, a sprawling old bookstore that wound round and round and in and out of rooms and even had a resident cat. I found a treasure there that I’ll review here soon.

It was a delicious day all told, in books and food, because my friends introduced me to Choolah for lunch, an Indian barbeque place that I fell in love with–the hospitality, the decor, the light-hearted quips on the wall about elephants and waiting lines.

Then we drove to Chagrin Falls, just outside Cleveland, and when I passed the popcorn shop and crossed the bridge and came into the town square with a gazebo in it, I thought I’d landed in Ireland. Fireside Books is on the square, and the kind of shop that goes deeper in and higher up than you expect at the front door. I picked up several books and put them back down, and at the last minute, grabbed one that was a little overpriced for being a used book. Its subtitle convinced me that it would go home with me despite the price: My broken brain and the meals that brought me home.

I care a lot about what it means to walk from brokenness to wholeness and I knew this would expand my understanding. It did.

Jessica was 28, a super-focused, energetic Harvard graduate preparing for her doctorate exams in Jewish literature in Cambridge, Massachusetts. During a routine morning jog, she suffered a brain aneurism that sent her to an emergency room and emergency surgery. That would have been traumatic enough, but the staggering complications coming from that incident spread out over the next two years and shattered Jessica’s life, her frenetic routine, and her sense of safety and self.

Who was she if she couldn’t study and teach and produce papers? Who was she if she couldn’t cook and host and buzz effortlessly around the kitchen to serve her husband and friends every weekend and every holiday? How could she know this meteor in her brain wouldn’t hit her again?

The book recounts Jessica’s quest for normality and joy during a season when nothing was right and her body didn’t obey her. Stir is a beautiful read, sparkly, and wholesome. I love how Jessica lets us in on some of the Jewish holidays and customs that create the fabric of her life. I love how fond she is of her husband Eli. I love her easy use of colorful words like “glop” and “lacy scatter of sesame seeds.” She is reflective, self-aware, and philosophical by turns. She writes about her medical issues without making that the whole story, and the stories always involve food and friends and family.

The recipes at the end of most chapters are straight-forward and thorough. Some are super simple and make me want to make it right now. Others are fun to read, but I know I’ll never follow four pages of instructions for a strawberry custard cake.

One of my friends read the book and started making the chocolate chip cookies with their magical simple ingredient that wows us every time. Another friend brought me a slice of the butter almond cake that she made after she borrowed the book. Clearly, this is the best book to loan out because I get food in return. Anyone else wanting to borrow it soon? Just say when!

I tried her challah recipe during the stay at home order this spring. The beauty of working at home was that I could see after its five fold-and-turn instructions, and I can’t do that when I’m at the office. I tweaked the challah with a bit of whole wheat flour and oatmeal, as if I knew what I was doing, and it was a smashing success. I want to make the sesame noodles soon, and I wonder if I could make cherry clafoutis with another fruit, say, raspberries or blueberries?

Part of Jessica’s recovery included starting a food blog, which she named Sweet Amandine, but which now seems defunct. Apparently Jessica has returned to living a less public life with her family, because I’ve not been able to find more information about her except to find her on Instagram. There are some interviews on YouTube soon after the book came out (2015). It always feels like a bonus to hear an author’s voice after I’ve read their words. I liked hearing how she pronounces her husband’s name: both vowels are short, not long, as I would have expected. I like hearing that she strings words together as easily and beautifully when she speaks as when she writes.

If you need a treat of a read, I recommend Stir! I love this story of resilience and healing coming from a place of comfort and creativity in her kitchen and dining room.

Use Your Words

I’ve loved words for as long as I can remember. Our family parsed words to death, arguing whether a word meant one thing or another. When I taught ESL in Poland, I made the bag pictured above with words from a favorite hymn because I thought an English teacher should have a bag with words. And Wordles were so much fun! They’ve kinda gone out of style by now, but I loved their eloquence and simplicity.

Sometimes I buy a thing just because of its fun name. Like a car air freshener called “High Maintenance” or a mini orchid because it’s named “Espresso Orchid.” It was white, not espresso colored, but it fit in an espresso-sized cup, and I found it irresistible, and am thrilled that it’s finally shooting out a bud stalk.

Words. Names. We fling them around. Label things. Describe ourselves, describe feelings, describe situations. And what a humdinger of a situation this year has been. What a stupendous opportunity to use words well, to let them sparkle, fly, heal.

I’ve seen healing words, heard them, received them. They infuse me with new energy and light. Words carry light, you know. Or darkness. Which is sobering. In mysterious, staggering power, words create our reality. We can name a thing wonderful or terrible, and it becomes that. Is this power part of carrying God’s image–the part of Him that named creation into existence? Is it akin to how Adam named the animals?

I’ve heard wise moms calm their distraught, screaming children by saying, “Use your words.” Then the child says, “I’m cold.” Or “He hit me.” Or “I want to go hoooooome.” Then the mom knows what’s happening, and the screaming stops. She worked ahead of time by teaching her child words to use.

I think we could teach each other words that are useful and clarifying. I think this weird year gives us a fantastic chance to try to name what’s happening.We’ve heard lots of yelling, words flung around like daggers, weighted with hate and anger. We’ve complained, and tried to be strong, and given up lots of dreams, and readjusted our plans a hundred times, and cried buckets of tears of deep loss and sorrow. We’ve worn out tired words like

unprecedented

anti-maskers

fraudsters

systemic

mitigation.

Anger and grief are real and valid and we should name them. Name them, own the tsunami emotions, and care deeply for those in hardship. Death, a serious health diagnosis, loss of home or loved ones, mental illness, front-line medical work, violence, and abuse deserve words like

suffering

devastated

crushed

agony.

God’s people should be leading the way in holding the broken hearted, comforting, helping, and offering quiet presence. If they speak, they should give gentle, luminous words, not judging or giving quick fixes.

In contrast, when a storm comes through and takes away electricity for more than 30 hours, or a vacation got cancelled, or masks are mandated for specific situations, we can use words like

uncomfortable

disruptive

disappointing

inconvenient

sad.

When I hear anger about masking or changes in holiday plans, I want to say, “Use your words!” And choose them appropriately. We can be sad and disappointed about many things, but if we’re not in a flapping tent in a refugee camp, and we have contact with our loved ones, and we didn’t bury a family member, are we suffering? I suggest not. We should use our words instead of screaming.

The stark pictures of boots and crocs upside down outside a UNHCR tent in Greece (upside down so the rain doesn’t get in them, and outside so they don’t dirty the living quarters in the tent) calls me to be utterly careful how and where I use the “suffering” word. When I hear people yelling about masks, and being worried about the effect of COVID on our nation, I think they don’t get out much. Am I being judgy? There are much worse, much harder situations across the globe that deserve our anger and our prayer. We can be honest about how we feel because anger or sadness doesn’t disappear by ignoring it, but we also need perspective and higher goals than keeping ourselves comfortable.

What if we’d use our words to name our situation with truth and grace like Jesus did? What if we channel our deep emotion toward gentleness, compassion, and caring for what is truly devastating? Could we create a new reality by naming things accurately?

I wonder.

Patina

rain chains

Rain chains on amazon.com

Reflections on re-entry to my birth country, five years after.

They swooshed camp chairs
Out of carry bags
And lifted Pinterest-perfect snacks
From Thirty-One bags
And glided on soft-soled shoes
To friends with nodding faces.

I watched
Them and
Ordered
My lungs to breathe and
My knees to not crumple

Until I found a quiet place
To sob and sit and list
All the things I missed
And what was new. I’d never
Needed a camp chair.
(Stumps and grass
Had always worked fine.)
And what was Thirty-One?

Words dribbled over lines,
Lines puddled into memories.

Lewis said far, far better things lie ahead
Than any we leave behind
So I lettered his lines for my wall

But a life won’t be stuffed into words
And memories ooze
For years. The tears
Don’t stop but drip down
Down to the mother bowl
Of copper dark
To rest and glisten and breathe
And sometimes see
Chimney swifts circle and drop
Circle and chirp and drop to 
Home.

Days drop into weeks
And years into a rain chain where
Loss empties gain, fills loss, drips gain and
Splashes into weathered green
Mystery rimmed
Shimmering.

Safe

It’s been a year now.

My youngest sister Hannah was pregnant, and we were so excited! She and her husband Yann were on their way to Uganda with the goal of fostering and adopting children there, and then they sent us a scan of the tiny baby going with them, and it was so exciting.

When she was 21 weeks along, I was at work when Yann messaged the family: “We’re at the hospital. Please pray for the early labor to stop.” This was her fifth pregnancy and none of the other babies survived and this was the longest gestation of any, so we were hopeful.  I asked for a quick prayer meeting with two of the women in my office, and we cried and begged God to keep this baby safe and stop the contractions.

That was noon on Wednesday and I heard nothing for the rest of the day. Thursday morning, I lay still in bed a long time before I had the courage to pick up my phone to see what had happened during the night.

I found that after a long labor, (the drugs had slowed it to 24 hours but couldn’t make it stop) their baby boy had been born just 30 minutes before I woke up. He was alive, but they were planning a funeral service for him.

I cried, exchanged messages with my family, got pictures of Yann and Hannah holding the baby, loving on him, crying over him. They said he responded to their voices. I wiped my face, made coffee, stumbled to work, told my co-workers who had prayed with me, and tried to enter the duty of the day. I could stay focused, but sometimes tears leaked out.

They named him after my brother and Yann’s dad: Nathanael Pierre. He was perfect, but too little to live and after three hours, he faded away.

When she had time and space to talk, I called Hannah. We cried and I heard how God’s people banded together, looked after details, thought about things they couldn’t, asked good questions, gave comfort and food and blankets to wrap the little body.

My friends stood around me those days, gave gentle hugs and words, helped me feel not so alone. My pastor and his wife took me out for supper and helped me talk it out then relax with chit chat. The loss highlighted how scattered our family is. We were all stunned with grief, and scattered across five countries and seven time zones. We had to bumble our way through caring for each other across thousands of miles, and it was hard. There’s no script for this. How do you know how your sisters are when you can’t see them? How do you weep with your brother for his namesake when he lives seven time zones away?

The Ugandan church family organized the funeral and sent us a live-stream link. My family’s church in Ireland met an hour earlier than their normal meeting time on Sunday morning to join the church in Uganda and watch the funeral together. I saw a picture of the group in Ireland watching, joining the Ugandan service in real time, and it seemed like sweet solidarity and fellowship of suffering.

I didn’t watch it in real time (those pesky, miserable time zones) but later in the day, I asked two friends if they’d come to watch with me. They were gracious and generous with their time. We cried and watched the children and heard the songs. I wished Yann and Hannah had family with them—a parent or sibling to hold them, but no one could come so far so quickly. Their church family was everything they should have been, but they’d only had three months with them and didn’t know them like family does.

I gasped when the pallbearers accidentally tipped the casket on its side as they carried it to the grave, and my friend instinctively grabbed my hand because it shocked her too. (The men felt very badly about the mishap, but the ground was uneven and easy to stumble on.) Everyone helped fill the grave, then Yann got down on all fours and patted the earth down all over the little mound, as if putting his little boy to sleep. The red dirt reminded me of missionary stories where babies and children died and were left behind in foreign graves and now it wasn’t a story, but it was happening to my sister and it felt so wrong and unfair and mistaken.

A month or so later, we had a morning staff prayer circle at work and each had a chance to give short updates or prayer requests. I passed my turn, because I didn’t know what to say, but right afterwards I thought I could’ve mentioned our family’s grief. I could have. I should have. But I didn’t know how to talk about it so I didn’t.

I don’t know why God sat on His hands and did nothing to save their little baby. I don’t know how to reckon with the real-but-intangible loss of someone I never knew. It’s been a year now. The body knows how the air smelled and and the sun felt those days, and these days the grief comes washing over us again. We will always claim little Nathanael and miss him.

Hannah is pregnant again now, 30 weeks along, and doing as well as can be expected. We have a lot of hope for this baby to make it, but it’s not a naive hope. And we often think about little Nathanael, and how he’d probably be nearly walking by now. How will we know him in heaven? Will he be little, or matured to the fullness of his intended life?

We found out last month that the five-year-old girl Yann and Hannah have fostered for the last year has needed to move to a Ugandan home. The girl’s dad put a stop to their fostering, and the adoption system is broken beyond hope for them to adopt her. This has shattered us. Two children gone in a year. There are no good answers for our losses and questions.

I know that love is never wasted. I know that we and all the little children of the world are safe in Jesus’ care. This is all I know. Tonight, a year later, that’s enough to know.

Smiley Faces & Emojis

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Photo by Hansjörg Keller on Unsplash

When I want to send a text these days, I look at my most-used emojis and feel astounded at how they reflect the essence of much of my communication. It’s a long way from the hundreds of smiles I wrote by hand—like this, but vertical: =). Dashes for the eyes, not dots, are important to me. I don’t know why.

Twenty-five years ago when we moved to Ireland, someone chartered a bus for our friends and relatives to go with us to Dulles Airport, a three-hour trip. After a helpful agent checked in our mountain of luggage, all the dozens of friends and relations trooped through the airport, onto a shuttle, and waved us off at the door of the plane. That’s how long ago it was.

In the first years, we relied on letters and faxes to stay connected with people across the ocean, five time zones away. I spent a big chunk of my stipend on stamps and stationery. I remember the wonder of watching a fax come squeaking off the machine. Never mind that it was thermal paper and could easily fade. It meant someone was feeding the message at this exact moment, and it was magic to feel that connected in real time. I wrote dozens and dozens of letters, and Michelle and I wrote each other every week for the first two years. I often wish I could read them again. Or maybe not.

One friend saw how much Michelle missed me and gave her money to call me once. We arranged by letter what day and time we’d call, so we had to schedule it way ahead. The rate was something like $20 for an hour, and the call was such a treat!

Then a friend in PA told me that I could write her via her family’s email, and I said, “What’s email?” Eventually we got a modem for our family computer and every morning it would do its whirring, chirping, burbling noise to send and receive emails. That was when we got all the silly chain emails that said if you don’t forward this, your billy goat will do something bad. Our family shared one address, and our friends would write our names in the subject lines so it would go directly to our individual folders, but even so it wasn’t a super confidential system.

When I got my own gmail address, I loved the versatility of logging in at any computer in any state or country and connecting with my people. I spent hours and hours emailing friends who lived far away. My isolation and loneliness in Ireland and Poland pushed me to learn what it takes to sustain long-distance friendships. I was willing to put in that time and effort because it was a large part of how I was supported and connected with people with whom I shared history. I had dear friends and mentors who had a lot of patience with me and with email in those days, and I’m deeply grateful. It helped that I could express myself well with words, but communicating via email was a skill I prioritized. I didn’t buy as many stamps anymore, though they were still important. I started typing and printing my letters instead of writing them long-hand like I’d always done. Also, I laughed and laughed when I first learned about the chat option. You could message back and forth in real time! And send animated emojis! There was a new kind of culture in chats I had to learn. You didn’t have to do formal hellos and goodbyes. You could just show up, message something, and disappear as you wanted. Kinda novel. Kinda fun.

In 2004 a friend told me about Xanga. She said it was like online journaling and I thought that’s the oddest thing I’d ever heard, and I would never put my journal online. Then for some reason I got an account, and moved around in that world a little bit but it was always a little noisy and scary and overwhelming to me. I liked it and didn’t like it. I didn’t like the pressure of creating a persona for myself. But I made some good, life-giving connections that I still treasure.

Then came Skype, which avoided the cost of a phone bill, though I still had to pay something to call internationally from Poland. It was a good system in its time, and I feel a little melancholy about its iconic beep-beep-swoosh ring tone. When I had major surgery in Poland, it was worth a lot to use the Skype video option to call my mom the next day, show her my incision, and let her see my surroundings. The tables were turned several years later when she was on chemo and I was five time zones away. Then I used WhatsApp video, and it helped me feel not so far away to be able to see how she looked when she lost her hair, and how she closed her eyes when she was tired.

There are lots of voices out there that decry technology but I’m so grateful for the ways that it has helped me feel not so far away from so many people I love. I’m particularly fond of voice messages. I sent a voice message to RSVP to a bride, and she messaged back: “I’m so glad you sent me a voice message. I can hear your soul that way.” Or another friend who was recently in such a remote place in West Africa that she didn’t get messages for three weeks: “When I got your message, it made me feel so loved and a little weepy because I just want to have an evening together.”

These days, I get tired of staring at chins and necks in Zoom calls and “You’re muted.” BUT WE CAN SEE EACH OTHER AND HEAR EACH OTHER! (At least, we can when the weather is clear and my wifi works.) Bumpy, scratchy Zoom calls are still better than thermal fax paper. Most times, anyway.

I’m super choosy about the podcasts I listen to. I want substance, not chitchat, so I mostly listen to counselling episodes and journalists with the BBC. This week I listened to this one about naming unspoken griefs. They talked about ambiguous loss and how it shapes our relationships. One line hit me hard: “Sustaining long-term long-distance relationships requires you to live in ambiguous loss.” It’s true. I’ve learned ways that work well to communicate but my soul never gets used to the distance, never is reconciled to the dissonance of being psychologically present but physically distant from my people. It’s good to have a name for it now.

These days, my task bar shows two—sometimes three— messaging apps I use every day. Please please please don’t send me an invitation to another messaging platform. Can we please just use what we have, which already works great?

After all the words and voices and sound bites, sometimes there are no words. My most-used emojis tell the story of what I say when I don’t have words. They span the spectrum of my current experience: a (tan) thumbs-up, a face with floods of tears, a broken heart, a dancing lady in a red dress, a laughing scholar, puzzled, wrinkled eyes with a grimacing mouth, a grinning face with sunglasses, hearts floating all over a happy face, a wink, a wink and a kiss, a party hat face, a shocked face with wide open eyes and mouth, hands holding a blue face, cheering, waving hands.

The smiley face with the dashes for the eyes and the (tan) praying hands all do the same job. They give a way, a mechanism, a system for hearing and being heard which is mostly about loving, and I’m very grateful for all of it.

You Prepare a Table Before Me

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More than 15 years ago, in a dark season, I made myself start a Thanks Journal. At the end of every day, I’d list at least one thing that I was thankful for, or one way in which I’d felt God’s presence. Sometimes I’d have to sit for awhile before I could think of what to write, which of course says more about me than about God, but other days the list was long.

That daily discipline shaped me profoundly. It was a way to name the goodness that surrounded me. It was a way to fight darkness with light. It was a way to defy the voices that said everything’s wrong and bad and terrible and futile. Some seasons were darker than others, but I could always find goodness and joy and reminders of God’s presence when I looked for it.

Over a year ago, I stopped the nightly list making. I think I thought it’s kinda become second nature to me, and looking for the good is now the shape of my life, and I don’t have to write it down.

That might have been true, but then high summer came and in two nightmare weeks, a torrent of bad sad terrible heavy things hit—bam bam bam bam. Death and cancer and fostering/adoption gone awry and wicked men victimizing children and more cancer and more sudden death. One friend’s suicide was terrible but two suicides in two weeks made me start wondering if everyone is at risk, and are my people ok, and am I ok?

I cried and ranted and wrestled this summer more than I have for a long, long time. The heaviness sometimes kept me from eating or sleeping well. Sometimes I’d breathe deep and think, oh, that felt good—I’ve not breathed deep all day. I had good people to lean on, and lots of tissues, and I wrote awful poems of lament and listened to “Jesus Strong and Kind” on repeat because that was all the light I could hold: Jesus said. Jesus said. Jesus said.

Then I heard wizened teacher Jonas say that God’s favorite word is “Come.” And Jonas described Psalm 23, and how there are enemies all around, but God invites us to a table in the middle of those enemies where we can feast.

In my mind’s eye, I saw werewolves and swords and dark, snarling, evil forms circling a clearing in the forest, and in the middle of the clearing was a table heaped with goodness and a line of lit candles down its center. And me and my people were laughing and talking and singing and eating around it. And I knew that going back to my Thanks Journal habit was a way I could eat at that table.

Remember when Edmund was on the sledge with the White Witch and they came upon the Christmas party, and she saw the party as treason? She hated the feasting because it made a statement about who was really in charge, and that the thaw was coming, and it would soon be Christmas.

Intentional gratitude—feasting in the presence of enemies—never says there are no enemies, never avoids the awfulness that staggers me. It never denies the tears that simmer just under the surface, but it declares that light is stronger than darkness and Jesus says “Come.”

I don’t know how or why God sits on His big beautiful hands and lets people do atrocious, despicable things to children. I don’t understand the fragile hair’s breadth between health and illness and death. I know He weeps too, and our sorrow matters to Him.

I don’t know much more. I just know I need to sit quietly every night and list the good things heaped on the table.

Let’s Move the Conversation

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Photo by Natasha P. on Unsplash

When our family hosted guests for Sunday dinner, my favorite times happened when we stayed at the table for hours after we ate, and it wasn’t because of the food. If we moved from the table to sit in the living room or go outside on the grass, the conversation always took a hit. We could never pick up talking where we left off. Even if the chairs were harder and we had to sit straighter, I didn’t mind staying for hours to talk and laugh and sometimes sing.

I don’t know what the psychological term is for this phenomena of how the conversation changes when the location changes but it seems like a thing and it should have a name.

These days, I wish the conversations on-line would move to the dining room.

I keep a carefully curated social media feed because I don’t have time/energy/space for shouting matches. Even so, many voices have disappointed me, scared me, kept me from engaging because it seems everyone is winging caustic words, and if I say anything I’ll be shot down because it was somehow the wrong words or ignorant ideas and don’t I know better? At the very least, don’t I know that THIS ISSUE IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD?

I’m grateful for a few gentle, rational voices, but they are very, very few, and to all the others I just want to say “Can we move the conversation to the dining room?”

In the real world, neighbors talk to each other over porch railings, across the street, shout HEY to a pal. It’s ok to raise a voice there but real connection and change doesn’t happen on the street. When the conversation moves inside, however, it changes. Especially when there’s ice cream involved.

We speak differently depending what room we’re in. It’s about boundaries, respect, self-awareness, intimacy. Words, tone of voice, volume all change depending on whether we’re on the street, porch, dining room, living room, or bedroom.

The shrill comments and shouted judgement online have no nuance, no shared history, no awareness of the other. (I exaggerate here to make a point.) The shouting is happening on the streets of the cyber world but we should move the discussion to the kitchen table. What if no one shouted at each other? What if they sat down, talked quietly over Coke and chicken curry, and asked clarifying questions at a civil volume level?

I listened to a lunch conversation where men gave strong, insightful comments about racism and current buzzwords and their connotations. Had the men put their comments on Facebook, they would have been shot down and villainized in 30 seconds. But I trusted their character, I heard the inflection in their voices, I knew some of their back story, and I agreed with what they said.

Those men’s wise, solid voices don’t have a chance on the noisy street or the shouting match on the porch. They matter, and they make a difference, but they’re not noisy and the crowds don’t hear them.

Words spoken at the table are the words the world is starving for, but who facilitates those conversations? Kitchen table conversations are where real change takes place, not comments fired at each other on Facebook. Where are the voices who seek to understand and offer compassion instead of opinions? Where will the shaming stop? It might stop when we eat together.

They’ll know we’re Christians by our love, not by our allegiance to the right or left or our adamant statements.

Let’s move the discussion to the kitchen table. I make a good chicken curry. Come on over!