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.

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.

The Most Important Thing

Photo by T. Kaiser on Unsplash

Back in December, I spent two weeks volunteering with ARC in Wisconsin. I went with a teen girl from church, but didn’t know any of the 20+ other volunteers when we got there.

At the end of the first week, we were in the food line at Sunday dinner and apparently some of them had been talking about me because one of the girls said, “Anita, I’ve been with you this whole week and I didn’t know you wrote a book!”

Her surprise amused me, and I shrugged. “Well, it’s not the most important thing about me.”

She didn’t miss a beat. “So what IS the most important thing about you?”

I was spooning gravy onto meat as she posed this question of shattering, earth-shaking import. We don’t plan these things. We can’t anticipate all the wonderful, unpredictable questions and conversations that pop out of nowhere and lead us to new discoveries.

“Hmmmm. The most important thing about me,” I slowly restated her question, “Is that Jesus loves me.”

It was a Sunday school answer, but I knew in the deepest part of me that this was the highest, widest, most wonderful reality about me.

Saying that wonder out loud—being asked to say it out loud—was an enormous gift my new friend gave me.

We women are too good at comparing ourselves with others. Depending on the day or the mood or the neighbor at hand, we give in to believing lies about our incompetency and superiority.

And it makes us shriveled and wrinkled and ugly. (Some wrinkles come with years, but that’s another subject.)

Inferiority and pride make us touchy and snippy and territorial and does nothing for us.

Have you noticed how a bride glows? She may or may not have the prettiest face, but her eyes and her smile tell us she knows she’s chosen and loved, and she isn’t crippled with needing anyone’s approval except her groom. 

Brides glow because they know they’re loved. Have you seen how love is a wonderful beautifier?

I wish we wouldn’t think “Jesus Loves Me” is a children’s song. I wonder what would happen if we would sing it every Sunday, all together, loud, as if we mean it and are over the moon excited about it. 

The most important thing about us has never been how much work we get done, or how little money we have. Or the way we do or don’t stay up to date with clothes and décor and hobbies and child training and world news.

When comparison stops, the game is over. The important thing stays the most important thing and nothing else matters.

The most important thing about me is not which of my spiritual gifts people see, or how much I’ve been hurt. The most important thing about me is that I get to be one of billions of people that Jesus loves wide and deep and long. If I could see Him, I would see the glint in His eye and I would see that He likes me—and not just me, but all of us—regardless of how cool or uncool anyone is, and that is the best, most important, glorious thing in the world.

People of the Dash

I came home last night after two weeks of volunteering with Anabaptist Refugee Committee at an army base in Wisconsin. The base housed 13,000 Afghan refugees in August. Many have resettled, and approximately 6,000 are left and hoping to be resettled in their new homes by the end of February.

It was a wonderful two-week stint, spending time with these beautiful, brave people who have lived through more devastation than anyone should have to, and who are attempting to start a new life in a new country. I lost my heart to the children and teens, so lively, so bright, eager to learn, respectful. I wonder what schools they’ll land in, how much support they’ll get, and if they’ll come to love this new world.

If you or someone you know can spare two weeks between now and the end of February, and can comply with the newly-mandated vaccination needed to work with refugees, consider applying now with ARC!

I wrote this poem months ago when I first heard the term “people of the dash” but I feel it more deeply now. This post has no pictures because it’s illegal to share them publicly. But I saw people who looked like relatives of the sad, beautiful Afghani girl in famous National Geographic cover photo. Their effortless beauty and liveliness took my breath away.

People of the Dash

Iraqi-Yezidi.

Ukranian-Polish.

Afghani-American.

People-of-Care from Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar.

People of the dash

Live between worlds,

A hyphen of time without home.

 

Stories of full lives behind

And hope for life ahead

Are the only sure things they own.

They exist on the cramped short line

Between empires with tapestries of legends and lore and

Today’s mercy (or none)

Of authorities who speak a new language:

Food line. Documents. Tent. Blanket. Permission. Quiet. Stop.

Their sleep cracks with violence and staggering loss.

 

O Jesus, Man between worlds

Who also had no pillow,

How long until the crescent wave of your justice

Washes this groaning globe

And ushers your beautiful, broken people of the dash

To their long home, carrying their spangled splendor?

 

How long, dear Jesus,

Once homeless God-Man,

How long can you wait?

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.

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?

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.