What I Like About Guys Mills

When I told my wordsy and brainy friend Shari that I felt stuck and unable to blog, she gave me a list of things I could write about. That list will likely be the spring board for future posts like this one.

When I first started thinking about what I like about Guys Mills, the tiny crossroads where I’ve been living the last 3 years, I wanted to be snarky. I wanted to say that the good thing about Guys Mills is that there are roads leading out of it.

But when I started looking for the genuinely nice things about this swampy outback, I found several endearing qualities.

My very favorite thing about this place is that when I’m outside at noon and 6:00 PM, the church bells play a hymn and chime the hour. It heartens me to know that someone is beautifying the world that way.

The bells are in the cupolo on on the far horizon in this picture that I took this evening on my walk home.

Another thing I love about Guys Mills is that the post mistress is the happiest, smiliest lady I’ve ever met in a post office. The place is dingy and very ordinary a far as post offices go, but she is beaming and positive and beyond helpful. “I LOVE my job!”she told me. “On Saturdays I do some things around the place then go across the road and drink coffee with my friend on the front porch of the store while I watch for customers.”

Except she’s not on the front porch during this polar vortex, but she’s still happy in her job and serving us superbly.

If I’d have a new drone to try out around here, there are locals who would shoot it down first and ask questions later. When I walk around the block, I’ve seen enough shady characters that make me always stay vigilant. But at the most decrepit house, the owner always waves politely at me and shushes his barking dogs so they won’t bother me. And the snaggletooth mechanic has given me excellent service for which I’ve been deeply grateful. And another mechanic up the road treats my car as if I’m his daughter.

I’m seeing a pattern here.

The people who program and maintain and care about the church bells.

The delightful post mistress.

The respectful, rough-looking man.

The careful mechanics who make sure my car is safe.

The things I love about this sleepy little place aren’t things but people.

I kinda like that. Because maybe it means that even if it’s winter for 6 months and the deer are constant threats to road/car safety and the sky isn’t big where I live, there are people around, and where there are people, there’s a significant level of dignity and beauty which is really what my soul is hungry for.

Melancholy and Dazzling Light

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Closing down one year and turning the page to another always makes me a simmering mess of melancholy and excited, reliving sweet memories, shuddering at hard memories, anticipating and apprehensive and curious about what’s next.

Writing things out helps unscramble the mass of the months and moments, sifts the favorites from the non-favorites, and reminds me of what is true.

Here is a sanitized, public-reader-appropriate list of 2018’s high points. Those closest to me know the crazy and the agony parts, the hysterical and impossible and guffawing and sparkling moments that we shared this year. But that stays with us. This list is neither chronological nor ordered in priority, but savored, round and round, like pearls on a string.

2018

  • Introducing 40 women to doodling at a women’s retreat. Helping them find their inner artist.
  • Traveling to KS with friends and singing in a concert for Nelson & Hannah’s wedding.
  • Tea with mentor friends, late, after an age-long day. Tears. Decision. Unutterable peace.
  • Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Butterworth
  • 2 visits to NYC.
  • A Makers Weekend where a pile of friends made stuff and talked and ate food and talked and talked.
  • A late-night invitation to neighbors on my birthday. Fire and jackets and stories. Laughter and star light.
  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  • A week auditing a Christian anthropology class in a seminary.
  • A week in Greece. Sunshine. Sunshine. Sunshine. Sunshine. Swimming. Family. Unbelievable food. Sunshine.
  • This concert of peace. In the heat of summer. In the front row. Healing tears dripping off my chin.
  • Thanksgiving Sunday. Carnegie Hall. Messiah. 500 voices.
  • Connections in my new church, surprising and sweet.
  • An Ola Gjeilo concert where the composer was the accompanist and we heard him improv “Ubi Cartitas” with music heard only that one time.
  • Rings of friends, arriving alone or in dozens, in our living room. Rollicking laughter. Stories. Art parties. Tea.
  • Educated by Tara Westover
  • Friends who took me in as one of their family. Different states. Different occasions. So much love.

2018 brought me choking anxiety and peace, sobs and shrieking laughter, a staggering, preposterous torrent of blessings, joy, and love so deep and so tall, there is no way to measure or describe it.
This reality tells me to walk into 2019, hands opened wide for more.

My Book Comes In Spanish

These days, I listen to endless conversations and questions and hand-wringing about technology and the changes in communication. It’s a live issue, and I care that we navigate this uncharted landscape with wisdom and prudence.

I understand the insidious pull toward more, more, more connection. I feel the dopamine rush of what shows up in my feed. When I feel alone, I know how easy it is to slip into a virtual world to feel surrounded with happy, caring people.

But I always feel like a dinosaur because I don’t see that this plethora of communication options is an enemy. Technology has given me wide, enriching friendships and opportunities that was never an option for my grandma. I’ve published a book without ever meeting the printer. I paid someone to transpose the book into an e-book, and never met her and never read the ebook, but now and then Amazon drops deposits into my bank account from people who’ve bought it. I regularly email and message friends that I never see in person. I LOVE Whatsapp to help connect with family and friends across the Atlantic and the local hills.

Technology is not my enemy. I say that with deep gratitude, not cockiness.

And just recently, my book got translated into Spanish and is now available as an ebook, and I never met the translator, facilitators, or publisher. It just happened with networking, courtesy of the world wide web. And a lot of trust and patience and vision.

In 2010, a friend (whom I’ve never met) emailed me about getting my book into Spanish.

I really really want to see this happen, for a couple reasons. The top two are that 1. A girl’s value in Central America is defined much more heavily by her getting married than here. They need to hear the truth in your book 2. Our girls do not have encouraging resources available like in English. They devour all they have, all we can lend to them, and ask for more. And they deserve more, I think.

Then someone else emailed to ask if they could translate the book into Spanish, and the technological ball slowly started rolling, and here we are.

I’m thrilled that Spanish-speaking women can have free access to material that can potentially encourage, give perspective, and cheer as they live their Plan B. I hope my book helps them to hear God’s heart for them, and that although marriage is their design and a beautiful gift, it is not life. Jesus is life, and He is utterly good, true, and beautiful.

Feel free to pass around this link to your Spanish-speaking lady friends. The Spanish ebook for Life is for Living is FREE and only a click away.

Three cheers for technology!

Stretched Out Spaces

It was not a good day. I’d woken up in a cloud of sorrow for myself and my loved ones. My heart stayed heavy from hard conversations and many things that should not happen.

Then I sent an embarrassing typo in a letter to 65 people and couldn’t just shake it off. I felt stupid and inept.

Then, mid afternoon, a dead battery at work kept me from doing my job. It was a special size–half the length of an AAA battery–and there were none on campus. I didn’t have time to run to town to get one, but I needed to take time.

On the way to town, I said no to ice cream and no to chocolate. I couldn’t afford a sugar rush when I was already so stressed. Instead, I turned on brass band music. Loud. I love trumpets because they’re so powerful and delicate at the same time. They can blast you away, then caress your soul in the next second. They can be playful and exuberant and serious in the same phrase. (Recommending: “Amazing Grace” and “Hallelujah Chorus” by Canadian Brass.)

On the drive to town, surrounded with trumpets and a soulful tuba, I looked for colorful leaves, sunshine, and perspective for my woes.

I thought of the gentle, buoyant man I met recently. He’s a retired nurse, a photographer, and jazz enthusiast. He told me he was on his way to pick up a new camera that day because his old one broke and his friends tell him he’s not dressed without his camera. What he didn’t tell me was that he was also going to see the doctor. At that visit, the doctor told him his stage 4 stomach cancer is in remission, but the man knows it could go into metastasizing rage anytime.

“You didn’t tell me you had stage 4 cancer when you introduced yourself to me,” I said later.

“I can’t let a disease define me,” he said.

I also remembered an interview I’d heard with a young woman whose dura mater is damaged from a lumbar puncture gone wrong. The connective tissue of the dura can take months and months to heal. When the hole recurs, her cerebral spinal fluid leaks from the hole, forcing her to complete bed rest. She has traveled the world and climbed mountains in the last year, and then bent over wrong, and busted the hole open again. She remembers the agony of being horizontal for seven months, and she fears that will happen again. She’s been flat for a week now, waiting to go to patch the hole, which is a dangerous, unpredictable ordeal in itself.

And I think I’m stressed and troubled?

On the drive from town, I kept looking at the sunshine (a rarity in these parts) and kept groping for perspective.  “I don’t have stage 4 stomach cancer. I don’t have a cerebral spinal fluid leak. Thank you Jesus. Thank you Jesus. Thank you Jesus.”

Those people’s positivity in the face of crushing pain and fear shames me for my complaining, and tells me to be quiet and observe.

Sorrow expands the soul. If I let it.

Joy does the same.

And beauty. That’s why I sometimes listen to trumpets. Loud.

To be unmoved by sorrow, joy, or beauty means our souls can’t become larger, fuller, more developed. Pain and sorrow don’t diminish a soul by default. It is selfishness and bitterness that make the soul wrinkly and withered, small and ugly.

Only the soul that knows the mighty grief
Can know the mighty rapture. Sorrows come
To stretch out spaces in the heart for joy.
– Edwin Markham

Kings Bring Their Glory

I was sitting in a crowd, cross-legged on the floor in a big room called The Oasis. The day before, I’d flown into and trundled around Athens before flying further to Lesvos. Sunday morning, I joined my sister and brother-in-law and the rest of the crowd on the floor for church. The message on faith was great, but I couldn’t stop watching the adorable coffee and cream colored children tumbling around me.

I loved the pockets of languages scattered around the room. Translation into French was happening in that corner. Farsi in the other. Arabic up front beside the preacher, translating for everyone.

As the service came to a close, we were told that our Congolese brothers would sing for us. A quartet of French-speaking African men walked forward and the one with the guitar put on his shiny gold rock star sunglasses. The other three stood by the mic and started singing.

I didn’t know what the words were (I was told later it was a psalm) but they sang with utter gentleness, adoration, and surety.  The harmonies were simple and beautiful, and their faces shone.

Scattered voices in the crowd joined at the refrain. In the men’s peaceful smiles and voices, it seemed I saw the teeniest piece of heaven, where the kings of the earth will bring their glory and worship the Lamb like these men and their audience were doing. It was glorious beyond words, and the way things should be. I was overwhelmed with the wonder and beauty and the tears kept dripping off my cheeks.

I feel most alive when I’m surrounded with colors and textures and cultures. I feel twitchy when everyone looks and talks the same. The variety of cultures and the singular focus of worship that morning in Greece is akin to what I expect to be part of in eternity, and I was enormously gifted with a sneak preview.

 

Amazed to Witness Such a Thing

I’d heard friends talk about Gilead for several years. I’d seen it was a best seller, and heard authors quote it. It must be good, so I picked it up. Read through the first page or two. Nothing happened. I put it down. A couple months later, picked it up again. Nothing happened again. Blah.

I resigned myself to missing out on what everyone else was enjoying in the book.

Then one recent Saturday morning, my brother-in-law mentioned it in a family email. He said Gilead resets a person like a good night of sleep, and he wanted to discuss it with someone. I decided valiantly to try the book again, trotted up to the library, brought it home, and was absolutely taken in, like a fuzzy blanket wraps you up and you can’t untangle yourself.

Maybe it was the air, the leisure I was feeling, or the invitation to discuss. Probably it was mostly that I was mellow enough to absorb the words that had no great action, no shimmering plot line to pull me forward. It was the slow, steady beat of an aged man’s heart dribbling out of his pen to write messages to his young son, and he wrote so beautifully and lovingly that I read half the book that first day.

A dying pastor is writing to his young son, not yet seven. Seeing life and people and love through those old, gentle, wizened lenses felt sacred and sweet,  like I couldn’t get enough sweetness. It’s sweet but not cloying. Insightful, but not ponderous or stuffy. Full of love and longing but not sentimental or fluffy.

There is a reality in blessing. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but acknowledges it, and there is power in that. (p. 23)

I’m glad it’s not just pastors who can bless when they pronounce the benediction. All of us can bless each other, and when we say simple words like “Bless you” (not for sneezes, but for big assignments and partings and dilemmas) we acknowledge and affirm the sacredness of that person and that moment, which is an enormous gesture to receive from anyone, a privilege to pronounce on someone, and something to practice generously. What if we sprinkled blessings around like confetti?

The next lines need no commentary, only long pauses to think about the lines for several days. If you read the book, let me know what you think!

Memory can make a thing seem to have been much more than it was. But I know she [the newborn] did look right into my eyes. That is something. And I’m glad I knew it at the time, because now, in my present situation, now that I am about to leave this world, I realize there is nothing more astonishing than a human face. (p. 76)

 

There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal. (p.238)

 

There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient. (p. 243)

 

Wherever you turn your eyes, the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a willingness to see. (p. 245)

Not long ago, I was driving in a dusk of golds and blues, and remembered these lines. I aspire to living in this wonder:

So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word “good” so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. (p. 246)

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The Wine of Paradox

July 1 marked three years since I left my Poland home. Anniversaries like this always give me a space to reflect, compare, and contrast. They help give a measure of perspective that I don’t have in the middle of the thing.

It’s a mercy that I didn’t know how hard re-entry and transition would be. It’s another mercy that it happened and I didn’t detour it.

Arched over the last three years is the word belong. I was comfortable in different places on the globe but when I came back to my birth country, I found I didn’t belong anywhere. I found this disorienting beyond words. The disorientation happened mostly subconsciously but it was the undercurrent in every new relationship and every new situation. I was a loose ion looking for an atom to fit into. I was the spiraling whirlpool of an identity that had evaporated. If I wasn’t the English teacher eating Polish bread and pickles and walking on Polish sidewalks anymore, who was I? I had no idea.

As if bread and pickles gives you an identity. But when your world tips you upside down and nothing is the same anymore, you get sentimental about bizarre things.

Home

When I first came to the US, I said I was homeless. I hated when anyone asked where I was from, because I didn’t know what to say. I’d get shaky and unreasonably worked up and exhausted from explaining my homelessness. Slowly, I’ve come to coin the word “home-full:” I belong in many places. Many people claim me, and I claim them. They press me to spend weekends and holidays with them, and I know they’re not just being polite, and when I’m with them, my soul is utterly at rest. In three years, I moved from a dorm room to a tiny apartment then across the road to a trailer. It’s like living in a tin box, but I live with a dear co-worker, and we have everything we need, and it’s home. For now. I don’t expect to be here long term because I don’t love marshes and mosquitoes and six months of winter. But for now, I love where I live, and I’m home-full.

Church

The church search has been hard, hard, hard. A husband and family would make this decision more complex, but this single woman has found it hard, uncomfortable, and bewildering to navigate all the questions, implications, and dynamics regarding a new church. I have good people walking with me and giving advice. But still. It’s no picnic.

I’m grateful to be attending a church that feels increasingly right and comfortable. When I’m not there, I miss it. When I’m there, I think, “Yes, I agree. I like how they said that. And I really like the singing.” It’s not home. It’s not my church. But they’re good to singles, and it feels like maybe someday I could belong.

Work

Last month, I was on a Greek island and went swimming in the Aegean Sea nearly every day. The water was unbelievably clear, and when my ears were right at the surface, it sang its tinkling, golden song, and I thought I was in heaven. Then came this fleeting shadow: “Next week this time, you’ll be in the office.” But the shadow lasted only for a second, and it didn’t fill me with sadness or dread because I looked forward to whatever I needed to do in the office. I wasn’t going to rush there because no sane person would leave Greece before necessary, but I have no words to say how grateful I am for a job that I really, really love. I walk up the hill to work every morning and I think, “I’m living in a dream. How did this happen? How did I get here?”

I don’t know.

I do know that I’ve lived in many dreams in other places. It’s the life I’ve been given combined with a million decisions to see goodness in the present moment.

I still miss Poland terribly. I miss teaching ESL. My friends and students there and my people in Ireland have no idea how often I think about them and ache to hear them talk and laugh. But I’m learning that embracing the details that comprise my present life no longer feels disloyal to my former life. Maybe these three years have expanded my heart to hold the paradox of both loving and grieving, both gaining and losing, both embracing and releasing.

Robert Capon said, “Man cuts the wine of paradox with the water of consistency.”

I choose not to dilute my life. Its wine is piercing and sweet.