What They’re Asking

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Photo by Sven on Unsplash

This poem refers to Britt Marie Was Here, a novel by Fredrik Backman. I didn’t love the story, but Britt Marie’s empty, desperate life pierced me. I felt that her hunger was not as odd as it might seem, so I wrote this response.

Britt Marie displaced her husband’s shaver
So she could hear him say her name
To ask where it was.
He didn’t say it nicely
But it was her name and
When he said it
She knew who she was.

Backman’s novel is truer than fiction
And older than Enneagram numbers
Because women have always
Wondered and wandered
To voices that grunt, nod, or whisper
Answers to their questions that echo
Echo over oceans, porches, trails, cereal bowls—
Do you see me?
Am I beautiful?
With this mole and with this limp
And even when I can’t see you and
With that mistake—
Do I matter?
Can you read my voice?

I don’t know and I can’t hear and
What did you say?
If you said yesterday
That I’m the sun and moon to you
I wonder if today it’s true.
Do you see past my brain to my pulse,
And what do you see there?
Is it pretty? Do you like it?

She may not mouth the words or
Trust her lisp to ask
But she puzzles, dreams, doubts,
Whoever she is—
The lithe bride, the mall janitor,
And the receptionist’s hello—all ask,
Sotto voce, just like
The sparky barista, the wallflower,
And the social butterfly
Who visits all the sweet spots.

She never displaces a shaver
But she still listens
To be named,
Seen,
Belong.

But We Had Hoped

Maybe we’re sufficiently far enough out from Christmas that I can safely talk about the questions I have about it. Please don’t call me a Scrooge before you hear me out!

I love chocolate and chocolate-covered everything and candles and carols– all the music that Christmas evokes. But I’ve never seen how plates of cookies and candy link to Jesus’ birth.

Growing up, Christmas wasn’t a big deal in our family. We had a great Christmas dinner and friends or family to eat it with, and I value that simplicity. We never exchanged gifts, because our parents wanted us to think about how we could give to people who had less than we did. I’m grateful for this, even though every Christmas now I feel caught out and odd because I don’t have the gift-giving, card-giving rhythm everyone else does. Special gifts are lovely, and I love a party as much as any extrovert in a pandemic does, but I’ve never seen that we celebrate a friend’s birthday by giving everyone else presents.

Maybe it’s the rebel in me, but I look for ways to give unbirthday gifts outside of Christmas. I’m not highly organized at this, but sometimes I try. Last Thanksgiving break, I rounded up a dozen simple vases, (I was going to spray paint quart jars but you know how scarce they are this year. Dollar Tree to the rescue!) bought two rolls of ribbon, and went foraging for greens. I spent several hours arranging the greens at the kitchen table, then handed them out to friends over the next days. It was so much fun, so simple, and a way to give seasonal beauty that lasted at least a month.

Now I’m dreaming of making bunches of biscotti and passing them out in the next months. Wouldn’t homemade gifts be more special when they’re unexpected?

I like traditions and feasts and making candy together and reveling in gorgeous Christmas music, so I don’t plan on deleting Christmas from my life. But let’s not confuse happy, delicious traditions with a deeply significant event in history that’s so murky we know few details about how it was. Is there a way that we could keep the lines clearer between tradition and remembering the wonder of Incarnation?

We can call things tradition or fun but I don’t see how chocolates connect with the Incarnation. You can disagree, and that’s ok. Maybe I’ve not entered rightly or fully into celebrating spiritual realities.

To help start fresh traditions and clear connections to help us remember significant spiritual realities, I propose we start celebrating Easter as a bigger, brighter, richer event than we usually do. The worst possible thing happened on Good Friday, and then the most unimaginable, wonderful thing happened, and most of us say oh yeah, Easter’s coming soon–when is it, exactly–I don’t remember–shall we get some lilies for the table?

I dream of our whole calendar focused toward remembering this most unbelievable, shattering event. There’s much about that day in history and that context that we don’t know, but whenever I read the Emmaus story and the walkers tell Jesus “We had hoped he was to redeem Israel,” it breaks my heart every single time.

All of us know hope, broken hope, and the way a heart implodes. Easter is the only antidote in the world for that universal human experience, and it’s something to celebrate long and loud.

But how?

It’s been a whole year of Lent, not just forty days, and I have any amount of books and poetry and devotionals to help focus me in this Lenten season, and none of it is helping. I have no elastic in my soul to expand to Lenten Bible studies or reading eloquent poems. I’ve given up so much this year, I can’t think about deliberately cutting out another thing or adding something special while I wait for Easter.

So this is my dilemma. I want to celebrate Easter with beauty and joy and anticipation, and build traditions and remember how the worst possible thing became better than anyone’s dream. But this doesn’t seem to be the year to start. And I don’t know what to do about it.

I’m in the “but we had hoped” stage and most days I’m ok, but other days I’m edgy and whimpery and not a paragon of celebration and virtue. I’m like one of the two walking home to Emmaus, head down, disappointed, unable to make sense of what’s happening.

It’s dark but it’s a season and it won’t always be this way. Meanwhile, in the next post, I’ll list the tiny steps I’m taking toward light and beauty.

Toward Light

To follow up on from the last blog post: here are steps I’m taking toward light. They’re not connected to Lent or Resurrection like I idealize, but they help keep me from spiraling down and crumpling.

  • I’m writing a poem every week. It’s kinda fun and a little healing.
  • I made a royal pavlova to celebrate a friend’s birthday. And biscotti another weekend. Different kinds, all irresistible.
  • I use Sara Hagerty’s adoration list to focus and settle me every morning. She has a new list every month, and I love them so much for their simplicity and truth.
  • I take great joy in my miniature orchid that’s blooming its heart out (photo up top) and my other normal-size orchid that blooms stunning berry colors every year and is popping buds again. Both take minimal effort to nurture, and their colors give me so much. The mini orchid is called an “espresso orchid” and its cheery flowers are just slightly bigger than a quarter. Exquisite.
  • For whatever reason these days, I wake up 30-90 minutes before the alarm goes. Now I effortlessly have extra time in my day, so I wrap up in a blanket at my desk and study to teach Sunday school or do some other project and look out at the eastern waking sky and feel so, so peaceful. I always think of Emily Dickenson’s lines, I’ll tell you how the Sun rose – /A Ribbon at a time –
  • After lunch, I take a 10-20 minute walk outside so as to get all the sunshine at its optimal time. Sometimes I invite or compel a co-worker to come along. This noon walk decision is the absolutely best thing that I’ve done all winter.
  • I listen to choral music–my play list or a new find. Loud. As loud as is socially acceptable.
  • I do housework or drive or walk in silence, letting the sounds and ideas and sights of the moment wash over me without needing to solve or conclude.
  • I went with friends to a greenhouse and fell in love with these strings of dolphins. Who can be uncheered with a string of leaping dolphins? I’m not so great with succulents, but I hope I can keep them leaping.
  • I try hard to eat more protein and fewer carbs. It’s a constant fight.
  • I spend as little money as possible. But when I find books I know I’ll read, or make food for someone, or join friends at a restaurant, I spend with no guilt.
  • I visualize rolling my burdens onto Jesus’ shoulders. It’s something like the way I shrug off a heavy backpack onto the shoulder of a friend who offers to carry it for me. The exercise forces me to deliberately focus on Him instead of only at the injustice and hardship that takes me down.

The brighter evenings, the brave crocus blossoms, the chirpy Baltimore orioles tell me that “no winter is forever, and no spring skips its turn.”

Filters & Personas

Photo by Teigan Rodger on Unsplash

I wonder why

People cry for authenticity

Honesty, transparency

But use

A million filters

In their stories.

This glow,

That persona,

Woke lingo.

I reach for clarity

Tempered with grace,

Steel and velvet

In their place.

Glory and agony,

Diamonds and shards.

Real. Liminal. True.

The best

And highest moments

Never reach IG

Because they sparkle IRL,

Real-time, not reels where

The expanse of reality

Stays screen-flat,

A likeness, not life.

But dopamine hits

And the scrolling thumb

Is running from—

From stab and throb?

From pine and pungent mist and moon?

From laughter, questions gone soon?

Be still, the poet said.

Ask the pulse

Its hunger,

How the drug of choice

Lifts higher than this moment:

That leaf’s blaze,

This shimmering chord,

Those dimpled grins.

Be still.

Be here.

Silence seeps

Its sweet tang.

Pleiades stills

A raucous brain.

Flicker, flame,

Shine, tune

Sigh, pine.

Vast sky expands,

Woos, implants

A yen for more

And grants it.

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 choral 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.