My Friend Ella

Our friendship began with my grudging, dutiful invitation to breakfast. It was in 2009. I’d heard that four German girls were touring Ireland and visiting our church Sunday morning, and I knew the right thing would be to ask them to my house for breakfast on Monday. I felt I was too busy, and I didn’t feel like hosting strangers, but it felt like the right thing to do.

God and Ella gave me far more than I deserved at that simple, pretty, dutiful breakfast. I don’t remember remember what food I made that morning—I’m sure it involved folded napkins and coffee—but I remember it only took a few minutes to discover the four ladies were delightful, fun, and gracious. Especially Ella, who was four years younger than me. She and I recognized each other as kindred spirits, and when it was time for them to leave, I didn’t want them to go. Esther was one of the four friends, and now she lives in Canada and I help edit her children’s books, but it was Ella who picked up the friendship right away.

Ella had bought my book, found my email address in it, and started emailing me in the next year. She was an English teacher in a Christian school in Germany, loved young people, loved life and travelling, and loved Jesus. She prayed about everything, and she pursued me and my interests more than I pursued her. I often felt like I was riding on the wave of her exuberance and love and enthusiasm, and it was delightful because usually in a friendship I feel I’m the one with the most words and energy.

I moved to Poland in 2015, and now we were closer neighbors. We brainstormed of ways and places we could spend time together. We emailed epistles to each other, moaning and dramatizing and dreaming and sharing delight about life, our English students, and our different worlds. She sent me Lindt chocolate frogs in hopes that one would turn into a Prince Charming.

We exchanged countless emails and gmail chats, howling around, laughing or groaning or complaining. During one chat in a dark, depressed November week, she suggested I join her in Ukraine for a youth mission conference the next week. “I’ll translate for you! You can meet nice people and see a different part of the world!” I bought tickets the next day, she arranged a ride for me from the Kiev airport, and we were set!

At the missionary conference, Ella forgot to translate most of the time, but we met lovely people and I had a great time in a camp where youth were lectured for hours on the importance of being missionaries. I still have the lesson plan that an English teacher gave me there. Ella explained Ukrainian/Russian Baptist culture, how I can’t pay for hospitality but can give gifts, how the women work so hard and age early, what’s appropriate between single men and women, and what’s expected of an American. Late at night, Ella and I laughed until we cried over my faux pas.

November 2012

Ella always talked about how much work she had as a teacher to grade papers, prepare lessons, and plan trips for her students whom she loved fiercely. She was equally loyal to her friends for whom she was always planning or hosting bridal showers or special birthday parties, and she would be out of breath about everything she needed to do, plus see after sick family members. She lived at an insane pace, but she was happy that way.

We wanted to go to Russia together. (She’d been born in Kazakstan.) She had family in Moscow whom she frequently visited, and we could take the train. She said it was too dangerous for just us two to go alone, and she had a guy cousin who could accompany us. I checked into tickets but I couldn’t afford the visa. I’m sad I never got to go with her. I was fascinated with her Russian Baptist take on the world, especially her deep distrust of Russian government. She talked about when they visited Kazakstan: “And we all got sick because, you know, the government poisoned the water.”

Ella travelled more than anyone I know. Every year, she led student groups to Pensacola, FL and New York City, plus multiple European cities. When I moved to PA in 2015, we discovered I lived two hours from Ella’s sister Liza and her family in Pittsburgh. Several summers, Ella visited and we’d spend a day together, talking as fast as we could about the art teacher she was in love with at her school, and our broken and stubborn hopes and dreams for romance and what were we going to do with our lives. We always laughed a lot because she was so dramatic and enthusiastic about everything. She gushed and gushed about her English classes and how fun it was to teach The Great Gatsby and she persuaded me try to reading it again. In a magical day with her and her nieces and nephews, I felt like I’d been in Europe again and it was so refreshing.

Summer of 2018

Ella had no space in her hectic life for social media because she prioritized her people in real time and presence. I don’t know how our long-distance friendship survived so well. When we got smart phones, we graduated to voice messages and stopped emailing. We loved the immediacy of voice and video. Again, she was always the one who pursued me, asked how I’m doing, sent me meaningful music videos, and always said she was praying for me. 

Then finally, finally, in 2020, after a long on-again, off-again relationship that stretched over the last years, she and the art teacher, Niels, got engaged! She asked me to be her bridesmaid. But of course with the year it was, I couldn’t consider going. During our stay-at-home season, she video called me out of the blue. “I’m trying on my wedding dress in the dress shop, and the sign says to turn off your phone, but I just HAD to call you so you could see this!” 

After their wedding, she’d update me on their house renovation, and how long and hard the process was. Then she got a tumor behind her ear, and was in a wreck and needed weeks of therapy. Her life was unravelling, and she’d message to ask for prayer and ask how she could pray for me. She got very sick with covid and suffered from long covid. It was a dark, hard season for her and I felt helpless to help her.

In April 2022, after a long time of covid keeping me from travelling to Europe, I started planning a June trip that would include Ella and Cologne, Germany—her home and her husband whom I’d not met. I also wanted to go to Poland, but I didn’t know if the war in Ukraine would make it unsafe to go. “Oh yes, Poland is so dangerous,” she laughed. “You need to plan to stay in Germany with us the whole time, and not go further east! My brain is exploding with so many ideas for what we could do!”

“We’ll go up to the North Sea where Neils’ family and their church is having a conference, and my in-laws want you to stay with them.” They’re from a closed Brethren group that doesn’t celebrate holidays, but they had a conference over Ascension day, and I was so excited to get in on it. They carefully planned our lodging: Ella and I would share the guest room and Niels insisted he was happy to sleep on the couch. From the North Sea, Niels would go home but Ella and I would train to Berlin for a weekend, where she’d show me her favorite places. She booked a hotel and made our schedule work with her school schedule.

Then: “Would you like to go to Mallorca when you’re here? I have Christian friends there and it’s so beautiful!” That’s why I loved Ella. With her, everything was possible and beautiful and wonderful. She’s one of the few friends who has more superlatives and adjectives than I do. But we couldn’t fit Mallorca into our week’s plan.

On May 20, she voice messaged: “Have you bought your ticket to Warsaw from Berlin? I just got out of the clinic. I have cancer, but we don’t know what kind. It has metastasized. You’re still welcome to come but I don’t know if we can go to Berlin.” She cancelled our Berlin booking, and we decided we’d roll with whatever happens when I got there.

She met with her oncologist June 2, the day I arrived in Cologne. Ella had arranged for a niece to meet me at the train and take me to her family until Ella could come. I loved being immersed in Russian German culture again. They are very special people, so comfortable and hospitable. One niece told me how much Ella raves about The Great Gatsby to her too. I determined again to try to read it. Ella’s diagnosis was grim: she has weeks or months left, and no recommended treatment. We had bread and cheese and tea around the table and talked about heaven and the uncertain summer ahead. 

Ella felt fine and wanted to show me her beloved Cologne that evening. She was an enthusiastic tour guide with back stories and experiences at every street corner. She didn’t feel like eating anything but we walked around the old streets at sunset and it was wonderful and we were happy. For just a bit, everything was right with the world and nothing was falling apart.

  

We stayed with her parents for the night, just outside the city. Ella’s their youngest daughter. She was gracious and happy, but distracted, and we prayed she could sleep well. Her parents had no English, but her dad would greet me with a hearty, sober “Boker tov!” that delighted me. I could understand most of their German: “The table is set for you. We welcome you because you’re God’s child.” Her mom cried to me, saying parents shouldn’t have to bury their children. When I stood in their kitchen and listened in on their Russian conversation, I felt like I’d stepped into a painting. 

We weren’t sure how to reconfigure my trip plans since she needed to be with her family now, not sightseeing with me for the next week. Ella matter-of-factly said she’ll buy me a ticket for Ireland. Of course I refused her generous offer, but I was able to get a ticket to fly home to my family in Ireland the next day, which seemed so novel.

For two nights and a full day, Ella and I talked fast, laughed, walked, prayed, sang. She drove us via the scenic route to her house in Gummersbach 40 minutes away. Old German towns are like walking in another world, and she loved sharing the wonder with me. She gave me a tour of their house, and I finally met Niels! We were very in the moment all day, but with some valid distractions. We decided that one of two wonderful things will happen: 

  1. She’ll get better and I’ll come back to Germany and we’ll visit the North Sea and Berlin another time.
  2. We’ll find each other in heaven and go exploring there.

Niels served us wonderful donor kebabs, Coke, tea, and baklava for our last meal in the sun in their back garden. We laughed a lot. There was so much goodness and sweetness and humor around us and we were here for all of it. I felt that Niels was suffering the most because he was going to lose the most. Ella knew that she had nothing to lose in death, but he knew he was going to be a widower, but wasn’t yet, and it was a terrible place to be. We were in a very thin space, where earth and heaven mingled in startling, sacred ways.

We prayed at the top of the steps and they took me to the train. The ticket machine refused our money, so Ella cajoled the conductor to let me pay on the train. “She’s from America and doesn’t have a ticket. You’ll help her, won’t you?” We hugged quickly and said “See you in a better place!” and the train took me away. Later, the conductor refused to let me pay for the ticket he printed for me. 

They waved me off.

At the airport the next morning, the check-in agent informed me that my flight to Dublin was cancelled. I messaged my family to pray for an alternative itinerary then burst into tears. I hadn’t cried while I was with Ella but the whirlwind of change and joy and sorrow made me fragile. When an unhelpful agent finally got a delayed alternative for me, I tried to drown my sorrows with a wonderful coffee and croissant and cried some more. 

I had hours to wait for my flight, so I breezed through a duty free shop and this perfume caught my eye. There was just one box left, and it wasn’t expensive, and I liked the fresh but musky scent. Best of all, the name was “Celebrate NOW” and I knew I needed this and would wear it in honor of Ella. I love wearing it! 

Over the summer, Ella kept telling me that they’re seeing miracles every day, and the doctors can’t believe she’s not in bed. She sent me a picture of all the hair that fell out one day onto the shower mat, and I cried but she was brave. They got a friend to take their pictures before she lost all her hair. I was in awe again of how Ella’s face exuded joy and vivacity. She glowed at normal times, but in these pictures, she was incandescent.

In the last month, she couldn’t message anymore. Up until then, she’d ask briefly for prayer, and ask how I was. Esther, our mutual friend, put me on the German chat group for updates. I understood very little of the voice messages but I’d swipe the texts, copy it into Google Translate, and follow what was happening. Ella’s friends cared for her, sang, bundled her up and opened the windows when she couldn’t breathe, prayed, laughed, cried. Esther shipped her big harp from Canada, flew to Germany with her baby, and played for Ella for hours. One day this week someone organized a 24-hour prayer chain sign-up sheet and in less than two hours, over 100 people had signed up. 

Ella had loved prodigiously, fiercely, shiningly all her 44 years, and everyone wanted to give something back to her. This week her pain was off the charts, her face was gray, and they couldn’t warm her feet. We prayed for her and Niels’ faith to stay strong, and that she could go quickly. This morning she got to go home to Jesus and we are so sad and so glad.

Writing Poetry

A charming shop front in St. Malo, France when I visited in 2009.

For a long time, I admired poets and felt they breathed rare air. I had the words and the emotions they had, but felt that if I’d write poetry, I’d shatter. 

Then in the summer of 2020, my friend in England killed herself. During the next ten days, there was another suicide, a teenage cancer diagnosis, a mom with brain cancer, an adoption process stopped, all connected to people very close to me. The sad bad tragic news felt relentless, and I spiraled down into a blackness that lasted for about a year and a half.

That initial spate of summer tragedies fell right during the time that I was taking a five-week Creating Writing course. Every day, we were assigned to produce two writing projects, and the next day we’d share one of those projects to the class for their critique. That class was the most wonderful narcotic in my devastated, awful season. Every day I’d walk into the classroom and for ninety minutes I was in a parallel universe that felt light and airy and delightful. We played with words, read beautiful lines, gave suggestions to improve words. We laughed and cried and sometimes we still talk about Jonny’s “polysyllabic flamingo” because his flamboyant phrase, created in that class, will never die.

I started writing poetry because it was an assignment. I thought the textbook looked boring. I might be justified for feeling this way:

But the book was fascinating, accessible, and gave me endless ideas. Then I surprised myself and enjoyed the challenge of writing poetry and liked some of my lines. I was told I need to keep writing poetry. And instead of shattering me as I’d feared, writing poems started healing me, started bringing back pinpricks of light.

I’ll never be a great poet because I’m too impatient to work long and hard at it. But what’s greatness? The point of poetry is to communicate in a specific, concise form, and while most of my pieces are pathetic and will never be public, I feel more whole and at rest when I let a poem dribble itself onto the page—especially when I’m troubled, sad, or mad. I’m not proud of this, but I can be very articulate when I’m angry.

Early one morning last month I scratched down sad, angry lines and felt better all day for it. Maybe it was a seed of hope planted. Maybe it was part of self-regulating. Maybe it was only inked long-hand scrawled on every other line that will never see daylight.

Poetry is a viable outlet for lament, I’ve found. Lament is hope, and to lament in poetry on a page embodies, for me, my answer to the mysterious, alluring call of hope. 

Poetry also lends itself to exuberance. Think of Miriam, Hannah, Elizabeth, and the forms their joy took in dramatic declarations and vivid word pictures. 

My poetry hasn’t become exuberant yet. It tends toward lament, abstraction, or reflection, which is what this last blog post was. Incidentally, that poem was from an assignment in the class that introduced me to writing poetry, and the idea of an abstract poem came from that boring-looking book.

More lines may or may not appear here on the blog in the future. Don’t hold your breath, but don’t be surprised.

Abstract Painting

A craggy cove of Irish green and spray

Rome’s sun-washed marble plazas and diminutive espressos

But before that, shiny copper toes and nose of Bremen town musicians

Jerusalem’s crookedy paths, coaxing vendors, spice mounds

Piercing glacier breeze in Swiss Alps, milk chocolate bars on chewy bread

Acres of rainbow fields below sea level and pristine curtain-less Dutch windows

Mediterranean, Aegean, Irish, Baltic, Galilean, Dead Sea waters splashed throughout

Southern Cross, Iguazu Falls, mandioca, churrascaria

Syrupy, flaky baklava and two bald brother hills of Mars and the Parthenon

The fish wife in Waterford, children with shining eyes reaching for ice creams

My Polish mom who fussed me soup and heard my silent tears and kissed me quiet

Neighbors who regaled me with stories of feeding cats and shutting the courtyard gate.

Caption:

Place and people

Splashed color

Flung texture

And the ring of the globe

Circling its frame.

Travel Tears

     

Three years ago, I spent a week each in Ireland and Poland. Travelling went smoothly except my luggage came a day late in both places, and I had a complicated itinerary and by the end of the trip, I had let anxiety get the best of me. I couldn’t relax and enjoy the journey because I felt so alone and unable to cope with the uncertainties that come with travelling solo.

I came home and cried to my mentor that I’m so done with travelling alone. She heard my story and said, “I’m sorry. That’s hard. But you’ll travel again.” She said it gently and confidently, but I wasn’t sure I could believe her.

She was right, of course.

Last month, I travelled alone in Europe for three weeks. Alone, as in alone in the airports, trains, and bus, as I went from place to place to see friends and family. I got to see lots of favorite places and lots of favorite people. I wasn’t a tourist so much as I was connecting with people in their spaces and it was a rich, intense, beautiful vacation.

However, I cried a lot in airports—something I’ve never done in all my travels. I’d always internalized the stress of travelling, or gotten angry or anxious, but this time, the distress came dripping out in tears.

In Cologne I hugged my terminally ill friend goodbye and we said to each other, “I’ll see you in a better place!” but I didn’t cry then. The next morning at the check-in desk, the agent said the flight to Dublin is cancelled. I messaged my family to ask them to pray about it then burst into tears. Later, after an agent rerouted and rescheduled my itinerary and I found a lovely coffee and pastry to drown my sorrows, I still cried.

I cried into my coffee in Dublin airport, reading the Sermon on the Mount with big feelings. When I got to Copenhagen and ran a mile to my gate and found it closed, I cried.  When I got to Warsaw, my luggage didn’t come, but I didn’t cry then because I was glad to finally be there. I did ask myself why I go to the bother of travelling when it brings this much upheaval but when I saw my friend who’d come to meet me, I remembered why I travel. The luggage came 36 hours later.

On my last layover, headed back to the US, in London Heathrow, I made myself buy something sustaining to eat, and as I ate a falafel and hummus bowl, I got the message that my youngest sister had just lost her baby. I’d been with her two weeks before, and when I’d hugged her goodbye, I’d said, “I’ll hold your baby at Christmas!” The pregnancy was 15 weeks along, but the scan that day showed no heartbeat. So I cried in an airport again. Alone, far away from anyone I know, and so, so sad.

It’s a weird, alien feeling to be surrounded with hundreds of people and be crying alone.

However, on this trip, for whatever reason, I enjoyed and interacted with fellow travelers and crew like never before. I saw so much beautiful humanity in people, laughed, surmised, discussed which lines moved the fastest, watched their luggage. Laughing with strangers is magical!

But bigger than the tears and human connections, two concepts grounded me and kept me from the anxiety and anger I’d felt three years ago. These ideas colored my trip more than the tears and distress.

The Lord watches over the alien. I’d found this verse in Psalm 146:9 and read it on behalf of all the refugees in the world. But I decided to claim it for myself on this trip. I wasn’t a refugee, but I was a lone stranger in foreign places and I needed to know God was watching out for me. And He did. In all the cancellations and delays and reroutes and tears, I knew His eye was on me and it was going to be ok. I felt a deep peace that went way beyond positive thinking.

I understood that I was experiencing privileged loneliness. Often in those three weeks, I heard myself say, “Oh this is so good again. I miss this so much.” It was wonderful to be in Europe and I reveled in it. I felt overwhelmed with the goodness surrounding me and felt small and undeserving of experiencing so much richness. All I could say was “Thank you thank you thank you, God.” So I was very lonely in spots, but it was a privileged loneliness, and a place to feel deep gratitude. The goodness around me was immense, outrageous privilege handed to me without even having asked for it.

Strange how that works. The deepest voids are the places where God’s goodness splashes all over.

Pair o’ Ducks

When I left Poland and came to Pennsylvania in 2015, I stopped taking pictures. I gave away my little digital camera because why would I need it anymore? Over a year later, I got my first smart phone, but even then I didn’t use the camera except when I went overseas.

My camera use and my minimal pictures indicate how I saw my States-side life. It wasn’t worth documenting or noticing–not compared to my colorful students and the old world charm of Europe. I have megabytes of photos from there, but not from here.

This summer will mark seven years since I left Poland and came to the US for one year, which stretched to now. I still scan the horizon and the road sides and trees and food for photogenic moments, and I rarely find something to document.

I can hear howls of protests from readers who love their home state, and I concede that my few pictures reveal more about my poor vision than about the world I live in now. The beauty of this blog is that no one pays to read it, and if my dismissal of the USA offends you, stop reading here.

Stephan Gingerich spoke at REACH about Third Culture Kids like me with excellent insight and advice. He said those of us who return to our passport country should be quiet for two years, and I’m sure he’s right. I bite my tongue every day to stay quiet about another life and another world that I know and love. But indulge me for a minute while I list things in America that make me cringe and want to be a million miles away.

  1. People put sugared, candied nuts on salads. This is a grave confusion of the proper place of sweets and savories. Salads are for any kind of crunch and textures and colors, but they are to be strictly savory, not sweet. Mixing candied, caramelly nuts is offensive to the character of the bright flavors of cheeses, garlic, and herbs. Along the same line, people bake ham and cheese sandwiches doused with a syrupy mixture with poppy seeds. The first time I had this, I honestly thought the cook was serving us a mistake. Now I know they have recipes for this, and I can’t imagine a poorer use of calories.
  2. I opened a fridge door recently (not mine) and saw not two or three, but FIVE different flavors of coffee creamers. This baffled me on several levels, not the least of which: how is dairy-free, artificially-flavored so wonderful? I wondered if five in a fridge indicates the next level of entitlement and it also reminded me of how incredulous I was when I first saw the rows and rows, shelves and shelves of creamers at Walmart.
  3. To kneel for prayer in traditional Mennonite churches, people whirl around, half standing, half crouching, and put their faces into the place they were just sitting. It’s awkward and illogical and embarrassing for anyone unfamiliar with this tradition. Why not gracefully kneel forward and lean your elbows on the seat back in front of you? I cringe for the visitors most of all.
  4. People talk SO LOUD on their phones and at restaurant tables.

Sometimes I catch a whiff of loveliness, a view that takes my breath away. It took me a long time to look past my bias against the US and recognize beauty here. People might not be as whimsical or colorful as my English students, but I meet gifted, passionate, fun people here. They tell me their big, beautiful, impossible dreams and stories of healing and generosity that remind me that Aslan is on the move here and life is wonderful and worth celebrating here.

Last summer I was gifted a missionary debrief retreat. Those sessions helped me start to acknowledge and name the vast chasm that spans the various worlds I’ve lived in. In many ways, I’m living my best life now, but I still cry from the losses of my former life.

The retreat leaders had a word for this: paradox. This word gave me permission to hold opposing realities simultaneously.

During the first evening of the retreat, each of us was given two rubber ducks and a Sharpie. We were told to mark up one duck. I eagerly and generously covered one duck with stitches and a black eye and broken heart and bruises. He’s the yuck duck and the other is the yay duck, and I hold them both in one hand. Both yuck and yay are true and real at the same time.

Because I tend to live in an all-or-nothing mode, and because I love tactile lessons and puns, the pair o’ ducks gave me an enormous step toward wholeness. Now I recognize paradox in many places. And instead of rushing to one of two opposing views and camping out at one place, I slow down and recognize that both the yuck and the yay are here, and neither of them ignores or denies the other.

I can’t tell you how freeing this concept is for me. I see paradox in people, how we’re all beautiful and broken. I see paradox in events or situations, and the blend of terrible and wonderful. As a TCK, paradox gives me permission to love the present while mourning the past.

The Apostle Paul lived with paradox too. In II Corinthians 4, it’s like he’s holding his own pair o’ ducks.

I may never completely settle in the US or come to peace with plastic creamers and startling traditions. But my ducks remind me that not everything in Europe was yay, and there is wonder and joy right here. The ducks are odd desk ornaments but I have a hunch they’ll sit here a long time.

Advent Jewels

This gentle turning of the season into gray and cold and sometimes snow has been lightened now with words and music and berry trees. I want to share the wealth, be the town crier, tell you about the gems that sparkle for me. If they don’t shine for you, it’s ok. Words, and songs, like books, are for seasons that are not always now.

Poetry
These mornings, I’m paging through Circle of Grace by Jan Richardson: a book of blessings for the seasons of Advent, Lent, and Epiphany. I find the verses thoughtful, infused with Jan’s experience of deep grief and hope.

I come back again and again to this favorite from Malcolm Guite: “O Emmanuel.” Guite plays with words and allusions with holy playfulness. The layered meanings of each word and line slows me down and fills me with awe at his skill. My favorite line is the second line: O long-sought With-ness for a world without. I love hearing artists talk about their work, and this podcast on Spotify has the author reading all seven of his Advent poems and some of the backstory of each. Go to 30:00 to hear him read this one:

O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.

Music
While I love all the carols of the season, (not the chintzy songs about chestnuts or holly!) Advent songs meet me right now like nothing else. I’d like to sing #121 in the Mennonite Hymnal every Sunday: “Comfort, Comfort Ye, My People.” For the glory of the Lord now on earth is shed abroad/And all flesh shall see the token that His word is never broken.

Two pieces on repeat these days:

  1. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” by Voces 8.
    LIsten to the long, plaintive first “O,” how the tenor voices shimmer throughout the song, and the strong, desperate quality of the voices calling.
  2. “O Radiant Dawn” by The Sixteen
    I heard this live twice last week, and each time, I couldn’t stop the tears. It’s raw, longs for light and justice, and calls COME because there’s nothing else to say.

Art
A friend gave me this card, a painting by Liz Hess, because she knew I’d like it. I keep it on my desk because so much love how the kings of the earth are bringing their glory to the lion and the lamb at the manger.

Last year pastor John showed me what he was making for his daughters and I was cheeky enough to say I’d love one too. Soon one morning, I found this on my desk and of course I cried. I love its simplicity and these days, Mary’s arms are empty.

Blog post
Every year about this time, I reread and share this blog post by Lanier Ivester. I found it years ago during an especially dark season, and it gave me hope and light and a giant shift in perspective.

The sorrow had just never been so tangible, so odiously unavoidable. And my thorn had such an ugly name: Barrenness. It takes a good, stout Old Testament word to express the arid disgrace of it: the Bible is painfully good at looking things in the eye and calling them what they are, and those first faithful ones certainly knew a desert when they saw one.

The blog post also introduced me to the beautiful words attributed to Fra Giovanni in 1513: There is glory and beauty in the darkness, could we but see! And to see, we have only to look.

Advent is a season of waiting, watching, preparing. We light pink and purple and white Advent candles every week, and we wait for many things but I often think we know nothing of waiting like the Jews did for their Messiah and deliverance, or like refugees wait for their papers. But we still wait. The whole earth waits, weeping for justice and goodness and beauty.

This year, more than I could last year, I can enter into the season of hope in waiting. I’m ready for light to seep up from the horizon, ready for smiles to grow strong and confident, ready for faith to become sight. Ready.

Feasting

Photo by Oksana Melnychuk on Unsplash

Linens, candles, clink of cutlery and pottery

Paint an impression of uncounted sweet,

Friendly, nostalgic feasts

Around tables.

 

Winks, questions, stories, guffaws, songs

Stay with me much longer

Than pasta, mousse, exquisite blends

Of textures and vibrant flavors.

 

Welcomes, farewells, celebrations

Circled around platters, friends, neighbors,  strangers,

Centered for one thin slice of time

Then scattered.

 

The guests and palates changed

At every year and table,

Warming, filling, nourishing me still

At tonight’s solitary soup.

A Dream of a Feast

Some years back, a friend took me to Gallery Row in Lancaster and I was delighted to find the galleries of Liz Hess and Freiman Stoltzfus next door to each other. Fun, fun!

Liz Hess is an artist who incorporates a red umbrella in many of her paintings. Her style is whimsical, fanciful, and worshipful and I like it a lot.

Frieman Stoltfus tends toward abstractions based on classical music, European architecture, Lancaster landscapes, and his Amish heritage. I love the emotions in his abstract paintings and the grounded, thoughtful, pointed ideas in his realistic work.

In that first visit, I saw a small print of his The Last Supper and I told myself that someday I want that in my house. I started following the gallery on Facebook, and loved all I saw, but never forgot The Last Supper. Several years later, it was August 2020 and somehow I knew that now is the time. I perused the website but couldn’t find the painting, so I contacted the gallery’s Facebook page to ask about it.

Bethanie, the gallery manager, answered quickly and said she can get it printed for me. Which size would I like? Plus, all the prints were 20% off that month!  It came soon in the mail, and I carried it around campus to show people what I was so happy about. I love it so much.

It would seem that its title is an allusion to Leonardo da Vinci’s i but I always want to call it the Wedding Feast or The Marriage Supper of the Lamb because that’s what it is to me.

It’s framed now, and in our kitchen. I love to have people look at it and I ask what they see. They always mention the diversity of skin colors, ages, and cultures. They see the cathedral effect in the background, the record player, and the abstract yellows. There’s both definition and mystery.

I love the Japanese lanterns in the trees, the way the people are leaning toward each other in open body language, the groom’s hands are inviting someone outside the picture, and the empty chairs say there’s room for more. And it’s a party! There’s music and cake, wine and candles, and the night is still young. The celebration is going to go on for a long time.

                   

It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes I get a little peek at this in real life, where there’s laughter, conversation, lights at dusk, diversity, music, and food. I have a palette of memories like this to treasure, a painting in my kitchen, and a great hope to live in.

White Space

In an intense season when I didn’t have the emotional elastic to flex or be gracious, my mentor told me to think about margins. “Think of the white space around a notebook page. Margin makes the writing legible, lets the eye rest instead of cramming the page full. How much white space is in your life right now?”

Oh. White space? The days were crazy full because I was learning the ropes at a new job, evenings and weekends were full of people around me, and what was margin?

Her words marked a pivot point for when I learned the value of claiming white space to live well.

Last month, July, marked a year that began a fast slide into a dark, oppressive tunnel for me. In the space of two weeks, I heard multiple pieces of devastating news that affected me and people close to me, and sadness closed in on me like heavy, noxious air that doesn’t lift. It smeared and blurred my days. I didn’t despair, but felt so, so sad. I heard about cancer, suicides, child prostitution, more cancer, refugees, and the dark didn’t go away.

It sounds melodramatic now to say it this way, but I felt blind to sunshine and deaf to laughter. I asked my journal When will the madness end, and how is it pity that stays His hand? Tears simmered just under the surface every day for months. I went through the motions of working, talking, living, but felt robotic and dutiful, operating out of scarcity, not abundance. 

Light broke through now and then, thin golden hair lines that kept me from despair and told me that darkness isn’t the only reality:

  • Writing poetry
  • A friend’s confidence that heartache matters to Jesus
  • Deep, restful sleep
  • Vitamin D and mid-day walks even in driving snow
  • Life-giving connections with people, unpredicted and surprising
  • Golden moons and pink sunrises that took my breath away

In that age-long year, with its time warps of non-routine and aching social distancing, I found a cushion of comfort in white spaces.

Last summer, some evenings the madness lifted when I sat in the hammock on the porch and read or listened to the night sounds and ate round salted tortilla chips from Aldi. It wasn’t a balanced diet, but I didn’t know what to cook, and now and then eating a bowl of tortilla chips gave me space to breathe.

In the fall, my housemate and I painted our shared living spaces, the kitchen and living room, a pearly light grey trimmed with white. Before we painted, most of the walls were covered with stuff–my stuff, let’s be honest. But now the biggest walls are empty and we love it. I always liked our space, and now I love it even more. It’s white-on-white space. Welcoming. Rest. Calm. 

I drive mostly in silence. It gives me a chance to close the whirring, jangling open tabs in my brain one by one. When I need music to feed me, I click “shuffle play” for my choral gems playlist, and I don’t have words for how those voices and harmonies calm me. Recently a counselor friend told me that in the weeks after the horrific shooting at Nickel Mines, the Amish community would gather to sing and sing for hours. I haven’t suffered the trauma they did, but I can see how the mind-soul-body layers of a person are aligned when we sing or listen to singing. Singing soothes and calms and heals me and gives me a buffer from the madness.

This past May and June, the heavy, dark air in my soul slowly lifted. The sun came up earlier. I heard myself laughing and singing more. A trans-Atlantic margin of white space to see siblings gave me a break and a re-set on multiple levels. I rode a bus between major cities in Jordan and watched new landscape and architecture slide past the windows and I felt more alive than I’d been for a long, long time. The sun pressed hard on my face in Greece, telling my body firmly that this is summer, summer, summer, and winter is far away. White space. Rest. And did I mention sunshine?

Now I’ve discovered the lightness of social media fasting. For a week in June, I took Facebook and Instagram off my phone. I was tired of the mindless scrolling and the numbing dopamine and I wanted to read more books and sleep more. It was a very nice week. Then I went to a five-day retreat with no internet access. For the first 24 hours, I felt fidgety because what if I was missing out on something important? Then the fidgets went away and I almost got high on the freedom of being disconnected from the outside world. It was looooovely! Now I access Facebook during the day because it’s part of my job, but when I’m home, I don’t need it except for the rare times I post something. I found an app that limits my Instagram screen time to 15 minutes a day, and I love it. Sometimes on weekends, I extend the time limit, but I love the white space this app helps me reclaim from the day.

My days and pages are still crammed and scribbled full of more than I can do well, and I still tend toward panic and anxiety and feeling snappy. I don’t enjoy talking about this part of my life and I can do it here only because I’ve first talked these things over with strong, safe people I lean on. Dumping all of my (most presentable) guts out on the interwebs like this has limited value unless it can spark a resolution in all of us to work hard at reclaiming space to breathe, rest, give margin around the madness.

Join me?

 

What Gives You Joy?

Last week I was in front of a group of razor-sharp students in Ethics class. I had been asked to share stories from my life that shaped me, ordered my loves, showed me a direction to walk toward. Telling stories is fun and easy. In the Q&A afterward, though, I found it hard to think on my feet and respond well.

What gives you joy? I love this question, but I wasn’t ready for it, and stumbled around it in ways that make me wish for a replay. The question and my initial response still lingers in my head, so here’s how I wish I’d have answered.

People give me joy. They are unpredictable, colorful, zany. Interacting with people, talking, laughing, hearing their stories refreshes and relaxes me. Silence, closed faces, refusal to interact makes me angry–not a response I’m proud of. I want to live so that anyone feels safe and free to put anything on the table to talk about. I’m not great with conversation and conflict resolution and asking questions to understand but it’s my goal, the direction I want to walk toward.

Simplicity gives me joy. I don’t like details. I don’t like STUFF (pronounced in a repulsed tone of voice), as in things that collect dust or peel or get grubby. They weigh me down and clog my brain. I’m impractical that way, and I’m not proud of it either. I need to learn how to live well in the tension of living in the real world where we need to maintain houses and cars and food. If Jesus’ life showed us the definition of the good life, I see simplicity in His lifestyle. He didn’t even own a pillow. I see Him caring about people, prioritizing them over stuff. I love

  • salt and lemon on avocado
  • sunshine, sunshine, sunshine
  • toddler’s giggles
  • gradients of colors like brush strokes on a cherry or apple
  • the shape of eyes and sweep of cheekbones
  • raindrops on petals

Creating gives me joy. I care deeply that God’s people create more than they consume. I love the process of creating something that didn’t exist before:

  • A pot of soup.
  • A poem.
  • A conversation.
  • A doodle in the margin.
  • A change of attitude.

In creating, I feel more whole, less fragmented, because the process aligns all the parts of me, and lets me embrace, for a fleeting moment, something of what it means to carry God’s image as Creator. I wonder what kind of woodwork Jesus made, and how His fingers handled a piece of wood. I wonder how He engaged people in conversations.

There’s limited value in putting my joys and dislikes on the world wide web unless it nudges someone else to order their loves, define their joys, and weigh them against what Jesus loves.

What gives you joy?