Wednesday, November 30, 2005


It's Saturday, in the cold, first light of morning. I pull on a heavy sweater and jeans and move silently over the bedroom floor. I am obligated to the dawning day, not to speak. There will be time for that, later. There are errands to run, housework and meals and child-noises: piano practice, homework questions, tussles over chores and toys.

Three hours from now I'll say something before I think, for no real reason, and my words will slip unnoticed into everybody else's noise. Here, in the grey light and silence, a thoughtless word seems crass; irreverent. There is room enough for right words, but few find them, I think.

In the beginning was the Word… I imagine the first morning, when God looked into dark empty space, silent for ages, and filled it up with His words. Let there be light!

I am glad to hold my tongue.

The morning evolves from silence to hushed whispers to conversation, from the holy atmosphere of a prayer chapel to the friendly one of a church foyer. Everyone is talking and lively, but not raucous or silly just yet. Holiness lingers.

The whole family heads out early for a school fund-raiser, "Run for Funds". My three oldest boys recruited sponsors- grandparents, aunts and uncles- and are off this morning to run as many quarter-mile laps in the space of an hour, as their child-legs allow. It is near freezing weather, but sunny, crisp and cold like a Michigan apple.

Scott and I hit the track with Eliot and Ethan and I remind the older boys to pace themselves. An hour is a long time to run.

"I know," they both say.


It’s all I can do to keep up with two-year-old Ethan, who’s decided he’d rather run the track than ride it in a stroller.

I remember exuberance. It was mine once.

I follow the white lines with my eyes all the way around the elliptical track to where I began. Fire infiltrates my calves, my thighs and creeps into my brain. When did I become this?

A movie starts running in my head: there’s a camera close-up of my face- flushed, sweaty, distorted- smashed against the ground at the finish line. The camera pans up slowly to show Ethan, standing with one foot on my head and his arms in the air, his face smugly victorious…

"I running!" Ethan shouts.

"Yes, you are running, sweetie! You're doing a good job!" I say encouragingly, as I close the gap between us from behind.

Ethan looks delighted, smiles and does a little dance. "Mommy, you catch up with me!"


The fall morning is newborn-fresh: violent, dewy, tender and promising. Orange, fire-engine-red, purple and yellow lie cradled in arms of unbelievable blue. Everything exposed to earth and sky today is dipped into a giant vat of golden honey and brought forth dripping, sweet and glowing like the bursting, sun-lit trees.

I am no exception. Suddenly, I know that I am beautiful. I smile up into the painted hemisphere and it smiles warmly in return. I begin running, again.


After a lap or two I cease thinking about time. Time is irrelevant. My task is set: I keep moving in the same direction, keep my feet on the baby-blue track. I walk, I run when I can, but always circling, circling, like the seasons. You can argue that there is no point to it, no grand, over-arching purpose, not even a clear destination. We’re just orbiting a green-grass center as if it is our sun.

But moving my body is good, and beauties abound today.

A boy and girl in front of me are laughing together and trying to run. They hip-shove each other and tell jokes and I think how much this looks like flirting, but I know it’s not. Chris and Erin are in the fourth grade, and are good pals and they, with my son, Micah, are almost inseparable. I’m surprised he is not with them, now.

In the first week of third grade, Chris’s mom, Suzie, told me how much her son enjoyed mine. He said, “Mom, I think I like Micah as much a Joe.” Joe is a long-time best friend.

Also during the first week of third grade, Micah sat down to dinner full of grunts and facial contortions over a girl named Erin. He told us gravely, “she’s my arch-enemy”. A week later he admitted he thought she was smarter than he was. I told his teacher about their little competition and she laughed, “Yeah, well, I think Micah can keep up with her, too.” By Christmas they were best friends.

“Hi Erin, Hi Chris,” I call out. “Where’s Micah?”

“He’s up there, somewhere,” Erin says, flipping her hand out in front of her and her long hair over her shoulder.

When Micah laps me a short while later, his brown eyes are determined and joyful.

“I’m ahead of everyone in my class,” he tells me, and tries to hide the radiance oozing from his pores.

Of my four children, Micah is the one most like me. We fight. Sometimes I’m afraid my love will crush him and other times I’m afraid I’ll lose him, that he’ll just drift away.

I read his school journal the other day. In it, he says that he likes rain, and that his favorite way to spend a stormy day is lying on the couch watching, through the window. When I asked him why he wrote less, as the school weeks passed, he shrugged. “Mrs. Meadows always reads our journals.” He paused. “I don’t like telling people what I feel.”

When I was nine I wanted to be my own mother, because I knew what I needed and my mother rarely did. Now that my son is nine, I have no idea what to do. I know what he’s feeling and I know why he acts as he does, with hostility or flight, when he just can’t shake his need for compassion or to be understood. But I can’t get to him. Antagonism can not be comforted. I know that now and I blame my mom a little less. I search for a gesture or a magic word with which to penetrate his arguments, his pessimism; but the same tool doesn’t work twice.

Micah and I understand each other best when we are sharing something: walking, cooking, talking about a book we’ve both read. When he’s sad and doesn’t know why, he sits in my lap and twists my hair into knots, the way he did when I breastfed him, years ago.

I lost my temper the other day and said awful things, and Micah forgave me as soon as I asked.

“I’m sorry,” I said, again.

“It’s okay”.

“No, it’s not.” I said.

“It’s okay, because I forgive you,” he said. “That makes it okay and you don’t have to say you’re sorry, anymore.”

Micah's anger is intense; but his love is fiercer, by far.

Somewhere near the second-mile marker Eliot tells me his shoes are too small and have been for a long time. I buy new things for my oldest son and pull out stored-away boxes for my weed of a toddler. It turns out those kids in the middle grow, too.

Eliot is oblivious to things like too tight shoes. He wears short-sleeves and bare feet on winter mornings, when the house is chilled and the floor tile feels ice-cold. When he is sick, I know it before he does. He plays until he drops and I find him curled in a corner, sucking his thumb and shivering, with fiery skin.

I help Eliot take off his shoes. I carry the shoes in one hand and hold his cold hand in my other. We walk together, his stocking-feet padding the rubber track and his mouth chattering, as it always is.

I love that boy.

I’ve not seen Scott for a while, now. First he ran ahead with Eliot, while I lagged behind at Ethan’s pace. Somewhere along the way we switched out kids, but he is still ahead of me.

Scott is always several steps ahead of whomever he is walking with. This summer we met friends in Chicago and we all noticed it. He attributed this to our collective indecision. I attribute it to his eagerness to be, to move, to meet whatever is ahead.

When we walk together, he tells me I slow down when he does, keeping the distance between us. Maybe he’s right. When you’re eighteen and engaged to your first solid boyfriend, then married with a baby before you’re 20, keeping distance stops you from fading out. Still, there is more to it than that. Some Siren in his soul bids him on.

If I want him to keep my pace, I have to hold his hand.

“Ten more minutes!” I hear the lap-counters shouting to the runners.

I am crossing the finish line for the eighth time, hand in hand with Eliot, who’s in socks and making a game out of side-stepping goose droppings.

Marshall, who is eleven and still calls me “Mommy”, runs up alongside us. His face is blotchy; cold white skin accented with hot spots of puffy pink.

“Hi mommy,” he says quietly, and slackens his pace. He’s been running for most of the hour.

Marshall talks easily with anyone he knows well, and is remarkably blessed with an immunity to peer pressure. He shakes his head and laughs kindly at trends, the way an old married couple smiles at young love. He builds amazing structures with LEGO’s and designs medieval torture devices which, despite being frightening, are surprisingly well-designed.

I asked him once what he wants to do when he grows up and he said,

“I have this theory that dinosaurs still exist, and I want to prove it.” He thought for another minute, shuffled around a bit, smirked, and said sheepishly, “I don’t know if you can actually do that. You know, for a career.”

Marshall was born a little bit lop-sided. Whether it’s his spine or just his posture, we don’t know; we’ve never looked into it and it’s never been a problem. Scott and I joked about it when he was a baby. When he started running, he ran crooked, too, his left side dragging just a hair behind his right.

Because of this or because of his long, lanky build, or maybe because he’s had a quick mind from the start, our friends and relatives pegged him down right away as smart but un-athletic. When his brother, Micah, arrived two years later with a perfectly proportioned, compact self, he got labeled “athlete”. The truth is that both are misnomers. Micah is sharp as a tack and Marshall holds his own in most sports. As their mother, I know this.

Still, I am surprised. Marshall is running as fast now as he was when we started and I gave him that unneeded advice about pacing. We chat for a bit and then he pulls ahead. He says he needs a drink and then he’s going to finish strong.

I believe him. He has shed his asymmetry, like a too heavy coat.

Eliot runs his entire last lap in socks. We make our way to Scott and Ethan, who have finished ahead of us. Marshall and Micah stand a little way off, panting and gulping from bottles of water.

I ask Marshall for his final tally.

“Twenty-one,” he tells me.

“Wow,” I say, in all sincerity.

“Guess what?” Micah walks toward me with a grin. “I got 21 laps!”

The lap-counters confirm him. Marshall and Micah are officially tied as the top lap-runners of the k-6 school.

Micah is jealous and aggressive by nature and his chief competitor is his older brother. Marshall is self-contained and passive, and Micah is his only competitor. The tie seems to satisfy them both.

“Your boys did really well.” I look up to see Miss Albers, the first grade teacher and also the secondary school’s cross-country coach.

“Yeah, I think they had a lot of fun,” I tell her.

“Well, I hope Marshall comes out for Cross-Country next year.”

I’m trying to grasp that my boys just ran five and a quarter miles a piece, in one hour. They are eleven and nine and I am feeling much older than I am.

Scott wants to go to IHOP for brunch and we don’t really have money for that kind of thing. But the boys are hungry and they’ve just run their hearts out. We tell them they can have whatever they want to eat and we decide to order hot-chocolates, topped with whipped cream.

When we walk into the restaurant my children’s faces are flushed and rosy-cheeked. I ease myself onto a padded bench and wait for a table.

A man and woman are leaving. I’m not a good judge of age, but they are silver-haired and walking slowly. The man holds the heavy glass door and the lady ducks under his upheld arm. Her eyes take in my clan of disheveled boys and before leaving she turns, smiles toward me, knowingly.

Ethan’s legs are wrapped around my waist and his arms cling to my neck. He’s tired and his head droops, until some small pleasure lights his eyes, through the window, behind me. He clutches my hands with expert fingers and balances, stepping on my thighs. He jumps up and down on my lap, singing loudly.

I am weary from a night of little sleep and a morning full of feeling, but I do not ask him to stop. Instead, I fold my face into his hot cheek and draw in my breath. His smell is deep and sweet, the irrepressible scent of life.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Men That Don't Fit In

There's a race of men that don't fit in,
A race that can't stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain's crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don't know how to rest.

If they just went straight they might go far;
They are strong and brave and true;
But they're always tired of the things that are,
And they want the strange and new.
They say: "Could I find my proper groove,
What a deep mark I would make!"
So they chop and change, and each fresh move
Is only a fresh mistake.

And each forgets, as he strips and runs
With a brilliant, fitful pace,
It's the steady, quiet, plodding ones
Who win in the lifelong race.
And each forgets that his youth has fled,
Forgets that his prime is past,
Till he stands one day, with a hope that's dead,
In the glare of the truth at last.

He has failed, he has failed; he has missed his chance;
He has just done things by half.
Life's been a jolly good joke on him,
And now is the time to laugh.
Ha, ha! He is one of the Legion Lost;
He was never meant to win;
He's a rolling stone, and it's bred in the bone;
He's a man who won't fit in.

-Robert Service

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


In the past few weeks I've heard from three (very) different sources that "People don't really change all that much" over the course of a lifetime.

I'm trying to think this through. This seems right as personality is concerned. But how far does it go? And what role do habits play? And are we prey to certain habits because of our personalities? If habit forms character and habit is acquired through natural proclivities, then isn't our character and very moral fabric determined before we are even born?

Of course, I know this is the old Nature vs. Nurture debate. And I know our families and societies play a big role in habit formation as well. But could I, for example, being a generally standoffish, keep-to-myself person, recreate myself through habit, into a welcoming, engaging, warm, social-butterfly kind of person? Interestingly, in high school I was this for one year. One year in all my thirty-one. What caused my behaviour that one year? Could that change have been sustained had I not suffered personal tragedy and recoiled?

I'm trying to feel out how far habit and will can really take us.

Each time I heard this week the idea of our basic unchanging nature, I became very uncomfortable. It isn't only because I'm scared to death that I'll have to be this for the rest of my life (which I am, by the way) but also because I've found hope and a reason to live and work hard in the idea that change is possible. And because I don't know how to believe in predestination, whether social or theological. ( I am not going to argue the finer points of reformed theology here.) To me, the possibility of change is what redeems the endless cycle of monotony and meaninglessness that Ecclesiastes talks about and which I have lamented over before in this blog.

Anyway, I have to run. I'm late (something which proves change is impossible) for a thanksgiving Feast at my children's school. No time to flesh this out. But I wanted to write something down, so I can think about it more clearly and get anyone else's thoughts on the matter.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Harry Potter and Micah King

I took a painting break this afternoon and escorted Micah and his two best friends to the fourth Harry Potter film. I haven't come to any conclusions on the movie, yet. I sat right next to a 9 year old boy who couldn't stop talking, loudly, and replete with spoilers. Of course, I've read the book, so that was okay. Still,I had a hard time following the storyline and I don't know if that was due to the three excited chatterers in my company or simply because the movie failed to produce a solid one. I wondered several times if I'd be able to make any sense of it if I hadn't read it first. But then, the problem may have been my emotional involvement with a much more intricate story than two hours of film can portray.

Micah set up the whole outing. He called Erin and Chris and worked out the time and meeting place. I couldn't help chuckling to myself, watching Harry, Ron and Hermione with Micah, Chris and Erin. Micah and Chris will have to fight a wand-war to determine which of the two gets to be Harry and which gets to be Ron. But Chris has strawberry-blond hair and Micah's got a scar on his forehead, just barely hidden by his disheveled hair.

I wonder sometimes how my sons relate to girls, since there are four of them and they have no sister. Erin has been Micah's friend for about a year and they get along seamlessly.

When Scott went to buy tickets for the 12:50 showing, he found a 1:40 showing in "the big theatre". He phoned Micah to ask if he'd like to change times. Micah said, "Daddy, that's almost a whole hour later, and Erin wants to see it as soon as possible".

We went to the earlier show. He has no idea how cute he is.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Melancholy, in Brown and Grey


To those of you who want me to write more than once a month, I have to tell you that I want to, also. Right now I am behind on several email and letter-writing tasks, which really must come first. Also, we're tearing out carpet in our dining/living room, flooring the former with something more proper to a dining area where four children eat meals, and painting all the walls before the carpet installers come.


Fall has ended abruptly with six inches of snow. It is wonderful and I love snow. But I wasn't ready for it this year. The week or two after all the loud and glorious colored leaves have fallen and muted is, for me, a cherished time of rest. The breath-stopping world of many colors becomes reduced to a few quiet shades. Trees stand naked and grey and the ground along the sides of the road and on the forest floor is deep brown. The few leaves remaining on the trees and the ones which blow across my yard are chestnut- not orange, but hinting at what orange must be.

When I look out the picture window in my dining room, past my red barn and the woodshed and the sagging chicken coop, I see far into the wood, where there was only leafy closeness before. The hardwood trees are tall, twisted or leaning from years of untiring pursuit after a fleeing sun. These grey phantoms hover over the brown earth, playing endlessly with light and shadow. There's a finality, and a melancholy. But it suits me.

My world is so much bigger for this week or two- until the first snow, and then things close in again. But it is a cheery closeness; clean and bright and undeniably beautiful.

Friday, November 04, 2005

A Perfect Day

"Today is just about perfect!" I told Ethan.

He was lying flat on his back on the living room floor. He wriggled and kicked, fought me as I wrapped him in a clean diaper.

"The sky is blue, the grass is green, the leaves are brown and yellow and orange and falling from the trees." I said, to distract him.

He relaxed, shifted his gaze to the large picture windows covering one half of a living room wall. The blue front door hung partially open, forgotten by a careless child. The wind ushered in a warm, autumn scent.


Fall smells quiet and faintly sweet, like a peaceful death at a good old age, with family standing near. Fall is a slow awakening of the collective human mind as it sobers and turns inward, hushed by the ancient earth as she puts on her extravagant show, and gently covers those who have fallen with her hand-made quilt of fallen leaves.


I pointed past Ethan, toward the open door, and we both strained our necks to see a slice of day beyond it.

"The wind is blowing, and the leaves are rustling, and the birds are swooping and chirping," I said.

Ethan giggled and simple delight sparkled in his eyes.

"Chirping!" He mimicked, and laughed again. Ethan is two and likes the sound of words. He considers the sound of a word, as much as its context, when he assigns meaning to it.

"Somebody is burning leaves in a backyard or having a fire in a fireplace." I continued.

"Burning yellow leaves!" he said.

"The day is absolutely perfect." I told him again. "It's gorgeous."

I wrestled him into small denim jeans, a quilted, plaid flannel shirt and sneakers, which his three older brothers wore before him, but which he calls "new", because I pulled them out of storage just a week ago. We walked together to the door and pushed it wide open.

We stood side by side in the threshold in an overabundance of beauty and turned our faces toward the sun, the wind, the rustling and chirping, and the open, fragrant air.

Ethan leaned into it with arms raised above his head and yelled loud, his voice a power of it's own, clear and strong and full of unambivalent joy.

"It's Gorgeous!" He bellowed.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Another Word from Barry Lopez case that first one didn't get your soul churning:

(At the end of his journey)

"I looked out over the Bering Sea and brought my hands folded to the breast of my parka and bowed from the waist deeply toward the north, that great straight filled with life, the ice and water. I held the bow to the pale sulphur sky at the northern rim of the earth. I held the bow until my back ached, and my mind was emptied of its categories and designs, its plans and speculations. I bowed before the simple evidence of the moment in my life in a tangible place on the earth that was beautiful"

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Leaning Into The Light

I returned the voluminous Arctic Dreams to the library yesterday. But not before committing to computer memory the author's reflections following a walrus hunt:

“No culture has yet solved the dilemma each has faced with the growth of a conscious mind: how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s own culture but within oneself . If there is a stage at which an individual becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.”

-Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Oh No, She's Right.

In reading Heather Lende's book, If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name, I came across something Annie Dillard said in her book, The Writing Life :

"How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing."

This is striking to me; the simple, straight-forward, clean logic of it. Why is an apparently self-evident truth so difficult to grasp? How can I repeatedly convince myself that the whole of my life will be greater than the sum of its parts?

I keep doing the same things and expecting different results. I choose the same sops and diversions every day, and every evening I swear I'll make tomorrow different.

I've lived long enough to know that change doesn't often descend like a blinding light on the road to Damascus. Most of us have to get there by the sweat of our brows.

I'm restless lately, scared. All the plans I had at ten or twelve or sixteen, lay fallen by the wayside, left to wither in the hot sun or snatched up in the beaks of parabolic birds.

I don't know when I became so weak.

I found a box of letters in the garage yesterday; all the letters I wrote my husband before we were married and were living several hundred miles and two states apart. I wouldn't know that girl if I met her and I'm sure I wouldn't like her. I browsed through the letters, read a few, reluctantly. The only more embarrasing experience I can remember is watching my wedding video.

I was barely nineteen when we married and between the ages of sixteen and eighteen when I wrote those letters, so I should be fair and give youthful naivete its due allowance.

The thing that wont leave me alone though, like a rug I can't shake out, is how happy she was, how self-possessed, how sure. And kind. Granted, she hadn't seen the world yet and knew as much about that life as a baby in utero knows about life outside the womb. But I give her a full ten points for sincerity.

I can't imagine anything less like me, now.

About eight years ago two things happened pretty much simultaneously. I stopped trusting God and I found out abruptly that I couldn't trust myself. That's when everything started to slip. It was the first time I ever yelled at a child. And he was mine.

It's hard to appreciate how far little steps can take us off the path. But I have to believe little steps can bring me back, too.

I'm going to pull out my compass now and head back. I don't know where I came from, so I can't retrace my steps. But when I am very still, I think I can feel my heart leaning True North.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Child Psychology

Marshall (11), and Micah (9) were chatting it up in the back seat on our way home from school Tuesday.

Marshall: Hey Micah, you know how people who are really good with kids always try to get you to repeat something louder... like, "I can't heeeaaarr you!"

Micah: Yeah.

Marshall: I hate that.

Micah: Me too.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Non-Connatural Habit

Several of you have inquired, at stops along the way of my blogging journey, into the nature of my relationship with writing. "I thought you weren't going to blog anymore?", “Why do you write?” and "Do you even like to write?"

I admit this is all very confusing, even to me. My comments about writing and the sum of this blog in general, are oxymoronic.

So let me try to explain one more time.

I'll start with a part of Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain, which I am still reading:

He's talking about a kind of knowledge the Thomists called "connatural", which is:

"... a knowledge which comes about as it were by the identification of natures: in the way that a chaste man understands the nature of chastity because of the very fact that his soul is full of it- it is part of his own nature, since habit is second nature."

And the practice of chastity is a habit. Right. Good.

But Merton goes on to talk about an opposite kind of knowledge:

"Non-connatural knowledge of chastity would be that of a philosopher who...would be able to define it, but would not possess it."

The problem for me comes in that I'm scared to death that my life contains only this second kind of knowledge- which may enable me to write a few things now and then but is useless to save my soul. I'm also afraid that writing will only perpetuate this situation because it is inactive. Sometimes I think I shouldn't write at all but should devote my time and energy exclusively to training myself in good habit.

The other problem I have with blogging (but not, specifically, with writing) is that I am a moody and impetuous woman. Some days (the ones where I feel like a relatively normal person) I enjoy putting down my thoughts and imagining that somebody likes reading them. Other days (the psycho ones) I know that I am not anything resembling normal and that nobody loves me and I am all alone in a hostile or, at best, indifferent world. It is on these days that I want to delete my entire blog and all my email correspondence from the past ten years, burn all my letters from anyone-all the way back to high-school, lock my doors, pull my shades, and stay in bed for the rest of my life.

Thankfully, I don't (always) do this. Today, for example, is one of the bad days. Still, I took my boys to school, read books to Ethan, and let a neighbor lady in the door against my will. And I'm blogging.

So maybe this explains, in part, the schizophrenia of my blog. (And gives pause to anyone wondering at my choice of the word schizophrenia.)

Friday, September 23, 2005


I've sometimes felt comfort in the thought that I can leave behind a written record of myself for my children, grandchildren, etc. all the way down through centuries. But even written words are temporary and elusive.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Siren Song

It was still dark this morning as I drove the kids to school. Three months from now the sun will make a habit of sleeping in but today a stormy sky obscured its light.

I often wake to a lightening world. Light precedes the sun's rising, the way an introductory speaker precedes the keynote: it paints a general, if obscure picture of what's to come. Bulky shapes emerge where there was nothing before and begin to round out, to acquire features. If you watch closely these shapes morph into familiar objects before your very eyes. That hunched-over, unnatural thing to your right becomes an ordinary boulder; those tall moaning phantoms, wavering in a low, sad song are old, white pines swaying in the breeze - morning's breath- pushed by the first grey light, over the curve of the earth.

Today the world stayed dark, time suspended, hushed, as if it and everything in it would go on sleeping forever. If that was the earth's intent, she nearly had us all convinced- heavy on mattresses, legs curled, our minds on a skiff somewhere in the middle of a great, green sea, sounding the uncharted waters of our dreams. It was a beautiful deception- and it might have worked- but children, who still prefer life to dreams, began to wake, one by one, and laid warm hands on adult arms and shoulders. I started awake, gasped as I broke the water's surface, took in the sharp cold and shook out my wet hair. Marshall stood over me, saying something about the dark. He took his hand from my shoulder and went to dress for school.

"Just in the nick of time", I whispered. Or none of us would have ever come back.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Nature and Children

In answer to a query regarding a previous post:

I've read the first two chapters of "Last Child in the Woods" but have put it down for a bit, since I own it (a birthday gift), and other books I'm reading have library deadlines.

However, FOUR of the books I'm reading are about Alaska (I don't know exactly why Alaska's become so important to me but the effect is a sort of baptism of mind and soul.) These readings also direct my thoughts toward nature and questions about my children's (and my own) interaction with it.

I could say so much about this, but I'm still forming my opinions on the matter and searching for truth. Should we move our family somewhere as dramatic as Alaska or Africa to get free from the groping hands of consumerism and pop culture? Is it enough to move to a midwestern rural area? How about living 10 miles from a city, 5 miles from a shopping mall, one mile from a giant movie theater with an Imax screen and a strip mall, on an acre and a half, backing up to County forest? (This is what we have now.) Is that enough? Or should we move to the city to foster community and social responsibility and take intentional excursions into nature? Is a city park enough?

I don't know. But here is what I think about when I try to determine what to do for my boys if I have to stay just where I am forever.

I told Scott yesterday that I think connecting our children to the natural world is like connecting them to the Christian faith. By this I mean that if we raise them with the right ideas about either one but we never help them "fall in love" with what's at the center, they will have no use for nature or for God.

Marshall and Micah moan and groan about going outside and act in other suburb-sick ways that horrify me. We've kept them largely from computer games and almost entirely from television, but made the mistake of assuming they would latch on to the natural world in place of those things, as we did (I didn't even have a television during my childhood). Something is different in today's climate than it was 20 years ago. "Last Child in the Woods" I suspect is going to investigate that difference.

So we've got to introduce our kids to nature. Sometimes it works to just send them outside. But you'd be amazed how little my boys explore our 1.5 wooded acres. They stay on the concrete and play with legos.

Some helpful books:

"Sharing Nature With Children" by Joseph Cornell - This is full of ideas for outdoor activities in all seasons. One involves lying down on a pine forest floor and covering yourself with pine needles. I picked this up at a used bookstore and was delighted with it. Apparently there is a "SNWC II" but I haven't read it.

Charlotte Mason's Home education series talks about nature and children and introduces the idea of a "Nature Notebook" to encourage early observation and drawing (or painting) of outdoor life. Finding Charlotte Mason used to be difficult, but Susan Schaeffer Macaulay resurrected Mason's educational ideas in her book "For the Children's Sake".

"A Pocketful of Pinecones" by Karen Andreola - this is a whole book about Charlotte Mason's nature ideas. The writing is kind of cheesy, as it takes the form of a 1930's Mother's diary (I think it's hard to do fictional diaries well). But thankfully Andreola wasn't trying to write great literature, only to communicate some great ideas in a way accessible to most mothers, and she accomplishes this.

One of the most helpful things I've learned about nature walks is to walk in silence. It's counter-intuitive because we feel like we always need to give our kids "information" if we want them to appreciate something. But I've seen this many times with my boys- the more I talk the less they observe. And when I'm silent the wind and earth and trees seem to knead at their souls and make them pliable.

Children also need to learn to identify and understand what they see when they are out being quiet in nature. I've got a great "Handbook of Nature Study" by Anna Botsford Comstock. In the beginning chapter she discusses why and how to teach nature lessons to children and in fact, the book consists of 232 lessons.

Field guides are wonderful- one or another of my boys and I often look up a visitor to our front garden feeder in our "Birds of North America" guide. I also picked up an unusual book called "Hand Taming Wild Birds at the Feeder" which we have yet to delve into in spite of Eliot's eagerness to "have a bird land on my hand".

LOL. I have so many ideas. It's a shame my emotional constitution is so weak- I almost want to homeschool again until I remember how close to insanity I was.

Monday, September 12, 2005

"Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something." -The Princess Bride

Here's something I read today in Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton,

"The truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering the more you suffer because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most: and his suffering comes to him from things so little and so trivial that one can say that it is no longer objective at all. It is his own existence, his own being, that is at once the subject and the source of his pain, and his very existence and conciousness is his greatest torture. this is another of the great perversions by which the devil uses our philosophies to turn our whole nature inside out, and eviserate all our capacities for good, turning them against ourselves."

I wonder if this is one reason so many of us in privileged, affluent countries suffer from depression, in spite of lives of relative ease, which are often untouched by the kinds of suffering so common to man in previous ages and in other parts of our current world.

I have noticed this in myself before- for one reason or another I seem to think I have a right to a life which doesn't ruffle my feathers too terribly much. I'm soft on myself and indulge myself in little pleasures- the way one might spoil child. What I feel like doing, I do; if I smell suffering down a path I steer clear of it. In the end I don't even know how to answer life's little disturbances or minor annoyances gracefully, anymore. The littlest things irk me.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005


I'm painfully aware that I am very behind in my correspondence. I hope to get to most of your emails in the next day or two but I thought I'd give a short update here for now.

The boys are back at it and enjoying it. Marshall is in 6th grade this year and relishes his position as "Upperclassman" at his K-6 school. He told me he was really looking forward to getting to know the new Kindergarten class. "They're so cute," he said.

Micah is in fourth grade and enjoying his 7:3 boy to girl ratio (in a few more years those 7 boys will be wishing that ratio were inverted).

Eliot began Kindergarten this year. He's always been a little hesitant going into organized social situations. But on his first day, while we were getting Ethan and supplies out of the car, he ran off without us. I looked for him and heard, "Mommy! Mommy! Good bye!". He was already disappearing through the double doors of the school, waving cheerily. The other day at a gas station Scott told him he could buy mints with his own money and when I turned around he was up at the counter getting change from the attendant. I guess Eliot decided he's ready to grow up.

Current Reading:

The stars, The Snow and The Fire - an Alaska memoir by John Haines

Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv

For the Life of the World by Alexander Schmemann

Current Obsessions:

Alaska: All things related to this last, vast, harsh, wild and beautiful frontier.

Finding a way to be healthy
: 6 days smoke free (and alcohol free, since it's hard to have a drink without a cigarette), Cooking and eating healthful foods, looking for a sport to take up (a 34-year-old friend of mine is taking on her 6th Triathlon of the summer this Saturday).

Wednesday, August 24, 2005


We went to a little park today. It was green, shaded, clean, with playgrounds and picnic tables and a nice beach on Wabassis Lake. The day is sunny, blue and green in shocking hues.

We waded in the water, shallow for a long way from the shore, and gathered snail shells; hoped we'd catch a slimy inhabitant still home. Most of them had flown the coop. Or swam the shell. We paddled the blow-up boat between buoys, in and out of the swim area. A young girl stood a short way down the beach, knee deep in water with a fishing pole.

Later I stood outside a closed stall in the women's restroom, Eliot inside, chattering away: Was I sure it was okay for him to go in the girls' bathroom, since the door on the men's room stall wouldn't close? Was I sure that I was standing directly outside the door? Was I sure nobody would see him?

"It's okay for you to be here, Eliot," I said. "You're a little boy and I'm your mommy. You're with me, it's okay. And nobody is going to see you."

I heard the toilet flush in the large handicapped stall next to Eliot's, and a lot of shuffling around. The door opened and a woman emerged, fighting a wheelchair and an awkward door, in too close quarters. In the chair she carried her own son but he was not a little boy. I saw his eyes rolled back in their sockets, his mouth was crooked and drooling, and his head turned upward toward the sky, like he was waiting for heaven to come down.

I said excuse me and moved from the front of Eliot's stall. The woman tried to pass in too great a hurry and swiped a metal garbage can with the chair, sent it rattling across the tile floor and banging the concrete wall. She hastily retrieved the can and set it in a more sensible place, behind the door. Her hurry wasn't angry or unkind, just tired. There's a kind of tired that makes you hurry; you start out carefully washing each dish but an hour later when you reach the last one you merely grace it with a tired, half-soapy wipe.

I wondered how a thousand of these bathroom trips would wear me if I knew they wouldn't end or how many of my hairs would gray as the little body on the toilet seat grew into a man's and the man never showed up to claim it.

And then they were gone, the tired mother and her angel-kissed son.

"uh-oh Mommy. I'm going to have to unlock the door, do you know why? Because I can't reach the toilet paper and I need you to get it for me." I waited while Eliot rocked himself down from the toilet seat and fumbled with the lock.

I decided not to tell him that once he'd gotten down off the toilet he could have easier got the paper himself. He'll figure it out someday. For now I'll let him need me.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Mind the Gap

Last night we watched Mind the Gap, a beautiful, if slow-moving film that is the best one I've seen all year. Well, that and Around the Bend (which imdb review I couldn't disagree with more).
Yes, I'm sentimental. And I'm a sucker for hope and redemption.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


We had a nice couple of days with Laura and Liz. I'm still tired after a 12-hour-sleep last night. I stayed up chatting with Liz until four a.m. on Sunday night and repeated the insanity on Monday night with Laura.

It's good to have friends. Solid, comfortable friendships refuse to form now, as they did with the ease of youth.

Thanks to the two of them for enduring family life for a few days. And to Laura for choosing to spend her birthday with us. Happy August 8th, Laura.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Re: Your Comments

Thank you, all. It means a great deal to me that some of my ponderings (and perhaps more often, my struggles) were in some small way helpful - or at least comforting, in the way that it's comforting to rub sore gums, where the tooth is trying to break through: the pain is intensified at first, but afterward comes a wave of relief; and it's this painful rubbing which coaxes the teeth in.

I will write again; it's an innate desire in me - but I'm equally sure of this hiatus. It wasn’t something I pondered very long; I just decided all of a moment but I haven’t wavered, as in my usual decision-making fashion. I know the given reason “to find my soul” is nebulous but that is intentional as well. (No, I am not shooting for obscurity.) I leave my explanation vague because my habitual self-examination and delineation of thoughts and personal roadblocks (usually presenting with the words, “My problem is…”) has acted for me as a place-marker, but no more. I know what page I’m on; I know it well, because I flip through the book and find it again every day. But I read no further.

I’m fasting from writing, the way one fasts from meat and wine during Lent: the absence of the thing leaves a space to fill some other way, and it shoves your face right up against the glass for a good look – and you have to look, because you can’t fall back on your usual methods.

I'd love it if you all would email me. I'm not quitting relationships, just blogging. ;)

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Death to Words

I read somewhere that the average blogger lasts three months at his endeavor, unless his blog is discovered, regularly read, and commented on, generating a sort of community in the little corner he has created.

I've blogged for five months now and have had a few good discussions with my readers. The best thing about it, I think, has been the openness it forced me into. My moods cycle like the seasons (although there are more of them and they are less predictable). I've always, since I can remember, withheld myself from other people, which often leads to severe loneliness and personal myopia and the natural consequence of not seeing past one's own nose (even if it's a long one, like mine) - depression. On several occasions some of you have helped steer me away from that jagged shore on my tempest-tossed sea. Thank you.

My original purpose for this blog hasn't up and flown away, but the first stated purpose has changed some. I no longer want to keep a personal journal. It's hard to explain, really.

What it comes down to is that I am sick of myself. And I'm sad. And I'm afraid. I'm afraid that I'm going to live another 40 years and still be sitting in front of my computer bitching about the world and philosophizing about life and theologizing about God. But none of it matters. I don't live.

When I was 10 years old I decided I wanted to become a writer when I grew up. The funny thing is that I stopped writing when I actually became an adult. I spent many years reading, filling in my missing education, and many more years (with some overlap) fighting the paralysis of grief. These past few months have brought me joy, as I returned semi-regularly, to my first great passion. I love writing. Nothing else so faithfully delivers an adrenalin rush (except maybe having babies, which perhaps explains why I keep doing that).

The first time I stopped writing it was to read and learn. This time it's to find my soul. I know it's somewhere buried inside me - you'll even catch glimpses of it in my writing. But at the end of the day, my words are just another shovelful of dirt I throw on the grave.

I don't think I'll stop posting altogether, but I'll be using it more for the second stated purpose: to keep my friends abreast of life happenings, etc.

Well, I guess that's about it.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Birthday Reflections

Today my son, Marshall, turns 11 years old. It's got me turning reflective. When you first give birth to a child all you can think about is all the wonderful things you want to give him and that you will be a perfect parent (of course) and mold a perfect child.

Sitting here with eleven years gone and only seven to go (with this one, anyway)I'm feeling a bit battered, much less confident, and in many ways regretful.

Somehow in spite of me, Marshall is actually a wonderful eleven-year-old. He's kind, intelligent, creative, polite. Nothing shakes him. Sometimes I think he's altogether oblivious to darkness and pain. It's too much to hope they'll all be this way.

Loss of time is one of the saddest things I can think of. Life will never be again what it is right now. Time moves forward, limiting the future, even as the past is forged in stone. In the ten minutes I've been sitting at my computer I've just determined a little portion of my past and eliminated all other possible activities for these ten minutes. In doing so, I've also eliminated possibilities for the rest of my day. Which means that every day, month or year that passes, unnoticed, spent living in the same disinterested way, I'm designating a past to this one life I have to live and severely limiting what I can do in the future.

For example, I *could* (in theory anyway) be patient with my children from now on and never raise my voice or speak hastily or out of anger. But even if I managed to do that, I still don't have the possibility of never having done that. I've already determined, to a large degree, what kind of mother my children have and will have.

I'm sure this thought is supposed to motivate me to "make every moment count" but somehow it just depresses me.

Anyway, you're welcome for the cheery post. I've got to get over to my sister's house to cook Marshall's birthday dinner (Chicago style pizza) since my oven still doesn't work right.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite (and well-known) Robert Frost poems, which the current topic put me in mind of. I hear people snobbishly complain that rhyming poetry or poetry following form is outdated and trite. I disagree. I think poetry yields a certain unique beauty by confining itself to rules and regulations, yet still saying exactly what it wants to say. (Now I'll step down off my own high-horse.)

The Road Not Taken

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Done and Disgruntled

I finished Harry Potter on Friday morning and I've been stuck in "post-book-let-down" ever since. Can't pick up another book. I'll have to choose another novel and force myself to read until the story pulls me in. I couldn't read non-fiction now if I tried.

So my final opinion of the book is much better than my initial expectations. As always, J.K. Rowling packs a punch of a story. I even fell into a few minor personal epiphanies along the way.

I won't say much else, so as not to spoil it for everybody else. But it's good and I don't know if I can wait two more years to find out what happens next.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The Half-blood Prince

I've only got another 30 pages or so to go in How Should We Then Live? but I got way-layed by a sixteen year-old wizard.

My two eldest sons stood in line at Schulers Bookstore on Friday night from nine o'clock until twelve, at which time the sixth Harry Potter book went up for sale. They procured a copy of the book sometime after midnight on Saturday, and even though they spent the next two days camping with Grandma and Grandpa, Marshall finished the 652 page book on Monday morning. I think he reads faster than I do. If we both had the same amount of distraction-free time, it would be interesting to see who'd finish first. Well, anyway, I can still out arm-wrestle him.

I'm about half-way through the book and it's pretty good so far, in spite of the rather tedious explanatory digressions, placed to catch up a reader who may have missed the five previous books. I'm not sure it's as well-written as the others, but the plot is beginning to thicken (although, as I stated, I'm almost half-way through). I'll reserve my judgement until I finish.


Scott and I had a great weekend in Chicago with Stephanie and Alan. I'd post a few pics of the weekend but I, hideously, am in most of them.

We disputed the meaning of a sculpture in the plaza at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, and it's Stephanie who turned out to be right, with her optimistic perception that the car and trailer are emerging from the earth. The piece, called "short cut", is evocative of family vacations and wrong turns, and also is a statement about man's ability to traverse new frontiers, in this case, the center of the earth. I, of course (before reading the title placard) had a much darker interpretation. At fist glance I was sure the earth had opened it's mouth to suck the car and camper in (after all, how is a Fiat going to pull a trailer out of the earth at that angle?). I waxed eloquent about Mother Earth swallowing up Suburbia. Next we postulated the earth was reclaiming it's own (given that Man has taken the materials of the earth and produced cars and trailers). I think it was Alan who suggested, furthering this idea, that the earth sucked the traveling duo in and then spewed it out. I have to admit my surprise that a group of Artists thought more optimistically than I. Stephanie's interpretation bodes well for her, but what does mine say about me?

We found a great little cafe serving locally grown, organic produce. I relished a baby beet and greens salad, doused with a light vinegrette dressing, and sporting freshly shredded ginger and a slice of brie cheese on the side. MMM.... then for a main course I enjoyed a chickpea and sweet potato stew with freshly ground cinnamon on top - also excellent. Now to re-create these at home with my own locally grown, organic produce (I think I got some baby beets this week, too!).

All in all we spent way too much money and walked a marathon or two, saw some interesting things and enjoyed time spent with far-away friends.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Current Reading

Ten years ago (can it be that long?) we moved to St. Louis, MO for my husband's studies in theology at Covenant Seminary. Part of what drew us to that particular school was the existence there of the Francis Schaeffer Institute. We didn't know a lot about Schaeffer, but Scott had read a book of his in College and I think had a professor who spoke highly of Schaeffer's writings.

During our time in St. Louis, we were privileged to benefit from (and sometimes help with) the offerings of the Institute, including: lecture/discussion nights at the corner Borders bookstore, several lecture series held at Covenant and various local churches, art exhibits hosted at the Institute, and a Life and Writings of Francis Schaeffer class taught by Professor Jerram Barrs, who knew Francis and Edith Schaeffer and worked for many years in L'Abri, the unique Christian work the Schaeffers pioneered in Switzerland in 1955.

What perhaps influenced us most profoundly, though, was our brush with the L'Abri workers and former students who inhabited or passed through Saint Louis' Presbyterian community (the seminary and its supporting churches are members of the PCA denomination). In these people there was, among other things, a willingness to face non-Christian culture instead of running from or merely condemning it. This was something I thought should be true of Christians, but had never seen in the environment of my Christian upbringing.

Five years ago, at one of life's low points, our family experienced L'Abri for ourselves, when we traveled to England and stayed at the Manor, where some friends from St. Louis had moved to work.

I returned to L'Abri, alone, several months later to study and recover from a serious crisis of faith and life. While there I made friendships with lots of other "L'Abri People" and since then Scott and I have attended several L'Abri conferences and visited L'Abri friends.

It may surprise most of you, then, that I have never actually read one of Francis Schaeffer's books. I've read several of Edith's and two of Susan's (the Schaeffer's daughter) and quite a few others by authors in the wider L'Abri community. But every time I have tried to read Schaeffer himself, I've been bogged down by his writing style. Even when I took the life and Writings class at Covenant, I only dabbled in the books instead of reading them through (I could do this because I was auditing the class).

The truth is I'm a C.S. Lewis kind of gal. I like everything about Lewis: his knowledge of literature, his love of mythology, his command of and playful fiddling with the English language, his clear-headed understanding (and exposition) of many great truths, and - perhaps most of all- his ability to create music with his words while employing metaphor as if he'd invented it.

Francis Schaeffer is a very different kind of writer. His choice of words is almost incidental; a lackluster vehicle for transporting his ideas. He doesn't draw word-pictures; he draws diagrams. He rarely illustrates his point with story; his works read like a history textbook or a philosophical treatise. And I suppose they should, since they are, in large part, histories and treatises.

Maybe my preference for Lewis is as simple as my preference for fiction or other creative literature, over academic works. But I don't think academic work is the only thing Schaeffer was shooting for, any more than I deem Lewis an irresponsible scholar. So I guess it just comes down to style. Someone who likes to get right to the meat will no doubt love Schaeffer's carnivorous style, whose language excuses its self politely while Content takes the stage, alone. Me, I like my meat with hearty potatoes, the poetry of wine and the verve of bright, tender greens.

However, being that I've heard so much talk over the years about Schaeffer's ideas- and especially his incisive look at contemporary culture- I started to feel a little bit guilty for throwing around his terms and analyses, without going to the source; water downstream from the fountainhead is always muddier. So about a week ago I pulled out an old copy of "How Should We Then Live" and began to read.

I'm about 4/5 of the way through it now. Yesterday afternoon as I read, I had that sneaking suspicion I always get, when I read something life-changing, that this book was going to be, well, life-changing. I picked it up again last night in bed, and read straight into the wee hours of the morning.

I've heard Francis Schaeffer criticized for his (mis) understanding of individual philosophers, but praised for his steady finger on the pulse of society, including his distillation of particular philosophies to their logical conclusions. I admit my relative ignorance of philosophy and philosopher, alike. But what I'm finding in this book is an uncluttered summary of the major movements of human thought (and its trickle down into art and popular culture), beginning with the Roman Empire right through to the 20th century.

This is proving unbelievably helpful for me, because I often have a vague sense of something looming beneath the surface of my discontents and disabilities, but I am never sure what it is. I point to personal habits or social tendencies or the changing nature of the world- but most of my accusations are hurled at a giant, shapeless monster, for which I have no name.

In reading How Should We then Live, I am finding, at every turn, another key to the room of myself. I laughed out loud yesterday, and said to my self, "the entire history of Western thought can be demonstrated on the microcosmic level of my own thought!" This, of course, isn't to say that I somehow intuited, by sheer genius, the thought processes of the most influential minds of the past 2,000 years. Rather, I inherited, by some strange anthropology, all the inconsistencies and dead-ends that their philosophies carried internally. (And, since I was born into a Christian sect that ruled with an iron hand and claimed absolute, divinely appointed authority, I started in a place not altogether dissimilar to Rome.)

So, my personal journey echoes the journey of the Western World, following the fall of Rome (and my personal Rome did fall in a devastating manner, like it's prototype). I'm not certain where I stand at present or how much weeding out of error I still need to do. A lot, for sure. None of us is born into a vacuum. We've got to look at our presuppositions up close and personal, to determine which are true and should be kept, and which should be thrown to the swine.

This process is harrowing, and an uncertain science. But I'm starting to see that, alongside the rope which ties together the history of human thought, is a smaller but much stronger thread of Christian truth, which stands out more clearly to me now, against the backdrop of human mistake.

Friday, July 08, 2005

More Thoughts on Meaning from My Tiring and Tangled Supply

My husband laughs (kindly) at me because there are two or three themes that run through my thinking at any given time and I have a knack for always bringing everything back to one of these things. Right now the two most prevalent of these are habit (proper forming of them and the way our lives run in them and how the mere practice of habit can turn, into reality, that which was only pretending before), and something I like to call the "sacramental nature of the physical world".

Anytime I hear the word "habit" a little buzzer goes off in my head. So I throw the word, encased in its context, up onto my mental turntable and sit back, examining it in 3-D, to see if I can match it to an existing nuance of the word, already in my brain. Then I tuck it away for later use. I am constantly collecting scrap fragments pertaining to these two ideas, and fitting them into proper files, as if I am writing a book on the subject. (And actually, the more I do this the more these two particular strands of thought seem to converge. So perhaps some day- a long, long time from now- I will dust off the files and drop them into a book.)

I devoted two of my previous posts to habit and talked about the origins of the idea in me, personally. I don’t honestly know when this second idea, “the sacramental nature of the physical world’ began evolving in my thought, but I know I only started using it as a phrase a few months ago.

I think it came to me in an epiphany moment, but one with a small group of precursors, unrelated to one another, which somehow coalesced.

The idea stems from my belief that God created human beings as both physical and spiritual entities and that one is not more, in quality or quantity, than the other. In fact, I think that one is incomplete without the other, which is why death is such a terrifying and unnatural thing: it disembodies the soul.

As my friend, Stephanie mentioned recently, on this blog, the way we care for or neglect our bodies has profound effects on our emotions and mental well-being. We have more proof for this now than we ever have, because of our ability to study the components and functions of body and mind and environment in detail and with great accuracy.

This is why it strikes me as odd that the world is changing into the largely intangible one created by internet technology. There is talk of the next great evolution of humankind into disembodied mind (which sounds to me like the same thing as death), and this is heralded as freedom from our current restrictions of time and space and mass. (Didn’t we already reject this idea when it presented in Gnosticism?)

Many “communities” aren’t localized, anymore. I (to my shame) have not said more than two words to my neighbor in two years, but I exchange ideas and struggles with my friend, Andrew, in England on an almost weekly basis. I regularly read the weblogs of friends from far away, and even a few people I’ve never met in person. This gives me a sense of “connectedness”, which isn’t altogether false - and which I could fairly easily content myself with - but which is, nonetheless, lacking something essential to human life.

A very large majority of us, in the United States and the rest of the developed world, live lives which are disconnected from, and seemingly independent of, the earth. I have never seen an animal slaughtered nor hunted and killed one, yet I have eaten thousands of tasty, meaty meals. That cornflake covered non-descript shape of something called “chicken” bares no resemblance to the animal by the same name. And since I can buy it in the store, de-boned and de-veined and pumped full of preservatives, I don’t ever have to think about the connection between the two. I don’t want to be an extremist or to say that I don’t myself enjoy the convenience of this, but I can’t help feeling that it creates a loss of respect for animal life and therefore a loss of meaning to the human lives which subsist on the animals.

I saw a movie once (can’t remember what it was) in which a Native American shot and killed a deer for food. He followed the blood-trail to where the animal, lean and beautiful, lay dying. He held its head in his hands; I imagined he could feel its warm breath, coming out in shallow snorts. As the doe’s bright, innocent eyes turned glassy and opaque, the man, still kneeling in the dirt beside it, said a ritualistic prayer for the animal’s soul, bidding it to go in peace. I was so struck by this portrayal, because I had never seen the killing of an animal presented beautifully and with respect for its life. The man needed food and the deer’s life had to be sacrificed; but blood was not shed lightly. The pangs of death were felt by hunter and hunted, alike.

Very few of us grow any of our own food and none of us is going to starve if the rain gods refuse to smile on us. We don’t know what kinds of wood or stone are best for particular forms of craftsmanship. I don’t spin thread from wool and knit a sweater to last my son for the winter; instead he has so many clothes of every sort that I have to navigate around giant, never receding mounds of clothing in my laundry room.

Again, I am not suggesting that life in some falsely conjured “good old days” was easy or even ideal. I am only pointing out that the further we remove ourselves from the things which sustain our lives, the further we remove ourselves from purpose. And this is because the earth was given to us to cultivate and care for, and to give us a glimpse of something beyond ourselves; something holy and beautiful and meaningful. The way that my work becomes an extension of myself and I become the work that I am doing – the way soil feels loose and rocky or the way it smells when I pull out weeds: mineral-y, ancient and fresh all at once; the pungent taste of wine; the melodious laughter of a friend; the alien and yet familiar look in an animal’s eye- the inexplicable way in which all of these things inform and shape and administer grace to our souls: This is the sacramental nature of the physical world.

Like most things I think about and form opinions about, I am sadly inconsistent in my application of these things to my life. And, in great part, that is why I live in a state which continually pushes me to the point of despair. To restate a comment from a reader: Life is full of meaning and I am not living in that meaning.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

An Age Apart

Oh dear. My last post and the comments it drew have prodded my mind in so many directions that I don’t know which to choose. So I’ll ramble my way about over the course of a few separate posts. I can't presume to speak with authority or from a very informed position. Take these as observations which may (or may not) have pertinence to the current discussion.

In modern (meaning contemporary), affluent (American?) culture, we seem to have cut ourselves off from the past. Science and technology give us false confidence, so we ignore the lessons of history and act rashly, like a teen-aged boy who thinks his parents know jack-shit and then wraps his car around a tree.

Since the very beginning of mankind, we have told stories. We told them to our children and to each other and to our children’s children. We told histories and mythologies and poems and songs- and these instructed the youth in virtue and comforted the aged with hope, while inspiring those in between to a life worthy of such a heritage.

The stories that we tell today are stories of the present moment. We tell our own stories (which often amount to "poor me, my life sucks" - yes, I am guilty) instead of those of our ancestors. We discard ethnic customs or practices because they are out-dated (which somehow makes them irrelevant). Mythology is “archaic” (and that somehow means, “useless”).

Our arrogance is so profound that we even assert the right to extrapolate moral values from our own narrow experience of the world. We don’t encourage our children to love justice, we teach them to love comfort. We tell them not to play-fight. We censor violence in legends and fairy tales, creating versions mysteriously lacking courage and valor, as well.

We fear death inordinately, perhaps because of our inability to see time as circular, like the seasons. Again from Ecclesiastes:

1 There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under heaven:

2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,

3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,

4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,

5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain,

6 a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,

7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,

8 a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

Also, we are afraid of getting old.

In the past, as a general rule, old men and women were honored and considered wise. Today, we glorify youth and beauty and productivity and most other fleeting things. Our aged population becomes an inconvenience, a problem to be dealt with and tucked away so we who have our youth can get on with "going somewhere", though none of us knows where exactly that is.

And as we, who were once young, begin to age, we panic. We are without wisdom to still our frenetic minds and have no stories to tell ourselves for comfort and inspiration, so we grasp in vain at our elusive youth. Nip and tuck, here; a little filler there; a bigger boat, house, car; a younger lover. Lie about your age; color your hair; go on a shopping spree: anything to stay young as long as you can- because when you get old, the world doesn't have room for you. And why should it? We spent our lives making ourselves into a sad and shallow mass of decaying flesh; irrelevant, taking up space, using up resources.

Maybe these things contribute to my sense of disconnectedness or lack of purpose. The values upheld and forced down our throats are so empty. There is nothing beneath them. We've severed the iceberg at water-level and we, who are only the tip of a monstrous glacial mass, are floating away in indifferent waters.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Everything You Never Wanted to Know

[Disclaimer: This post contains information which may be negative or de-moralizing in nature and may not be suitable for sensitive souls. The author cannot be held responsible for any resulting depression or despair.]

I haven’t posted recently. There are reasons – and I wish it was as simple as my kids being home for the summer.

Sometimes I have too many thoughts to get any of them down in any coherent form. Sometimes everything I'm thinking is bound and gagged in a tiny room of deep emotion and I'm not ready to let anybody in. Sometimes everything I think degenerates into pessimism and I don't want to spread the disease. Right now all of this is true.

Being very careful not to bitch and moan and to be as objective as possible, here's my problem:

Everyone who accomplishes anything, whether menial, daily tasks or great, world-changing things does so because of an inner motivation; a passion; an inspiration. I am categorically unable to produce such a thing.

My mother finds it in helping people; my friend finds it in his work; some women find it in mothering; couples can find it in romantic love; someone else will find it in friendship. Some of these things I have and others, I don't. But none of them seems to be enough. I wake up in the morning and ask myself, "why should I get up out of bed?" and I can't find a compelling answer.

I'm stuck in Ecclesiastes mode:

" What does man gain from all his labor
at which he toils under the sun?

Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.

The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.

The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.

All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.

All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun."

I'm forever trying to get at the thing behind everything we do: I get up in the morning so that I can fix and eat breakfast, so that I have enough energy to clean up after breakfast; and I wash up after breakfast so I have clean dishes for lunch, which I prepare and eat so that I have energy to clean up again. I launder my family's clothes so that we have clean ones to dirty again. I go to sleep so I can get up again.

"The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises"
I'm spending my life- all of it- raising my children, so that they can grow into adults who spend their lives raising their children, who in turn, will spend their lives raising children of their own.

This cycles back as far as time, at least as concerns my forbears, since they all have had children- which, down the line, led to me.

"Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever...
There is no remembrance of men of old,
and even those who are yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow"
I just can't seem to shake the feeling that we are all working to perpetuate life, but life itself consists of nothing but working to perpetuate life! When I think this way I start to get bitter, because life seems like a big, cosmic joke.

"What does the worker gain from his toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end."

God put eternity in our hearts, with no way to fathom it? In the face of meaninglessness, beauty and our sense of eternity become a burden too heavy to bear. It is too painful. It's mockery.

This underlying "inspiration" that I want - I've found various sops along the way, but they don't hold. I suppose I could say, with U2- "I still haven't found what I'm looking for".

Some people find it in a relationship with God. Augustine wrote: "Our hearts are restless 'til they find their rest in Thee." I think I have experienced this rest two or three times in my life. But I can't seem to stay there. Negativity sneaks up while I am sleeping and throws the blankets over my head; I can't see anything, I can't rest, I can't even breathe.

But I said I was going to try to be objective, didn't I? Okay, two thoughts:

First, there is a very good possibility that I need to be on anti-depressants. When I was taking Lexapro I did laundry just because it had to be done and didn't expect to find some grand meaning at the bottom of the pile. I saw my children as funny and delightful, instead of as part of a purposeless cycle of lives which are forgotten as soon as they end. And I altogether quit introducing myself (hand extended), "Hi, I'm Sisyphus".

(But if I need to chemically alter my brain in order to find purpose in anything, doesn't that just reek of denial? Kierkegaard, in A Sickness Unto Death, says the worst kind of despair is to not know that you are in despair. Do I want blissful ignorance?)

The second (and refreshingly opposite) thought I bring to bear on all of this is that, somewhere inside, I know this isn't the whole story. I know that there is beauty and meaning, because I have seen it before; and even if I can't now remember its shape, I can at least recall that I once saw it.

I’ve always believed the answer lies back with what Augustine said. But to rest in God, you have to know that He loves you. Sometimes I know that.

I mean, I can remember thinking, "I know God loves me", but I don't remember what it feels like. No, wait, that's not true. I remember-

It's tender and raw and humbling and satisfying; it feels like a slap in the face or unexpectedly stubbing your toe; it feels like repentance, it feels like beauty; like hushed words between lovers; like a newborn baby; it feels like all the reason I ever need for anything.

In that place, my little life is swallowed up in a sea of purpose ("What God has done from beginning to end") rather than one of meaninglessness. The nastiest human being becomes someone worth my sacrifice; the most thankless work can be done with joy; sunlight turns dappled and golden instead of scorching; raindrops roll heavily from the tips of leaves, infusing them- and the earth- with meaning.

But I can't hold this always before me in any significant way.

A chief fault of mine is that I don't allow people to love me. When I was about eleven, my best friend and I took a "how-well-do-you-know-your-best-friend" test in a teen magazine (because she was into those sorts of things). When the test revealed that I knew everything about her and she knew only the very superficial things about me, she was so mad at me she wouldn't speak to me for a week. And I guess it was my fault. I don't generally offer information that isn't asked for. I think most people do.

Blogging is strange for me because I am constantly offering unsolicited information about myself. I don't like it. But it's a casualty of writing that I'm willing to face, because I love writing. And I suppose it's somewhat safe, because all of you out there in the completely intangible cyber-space can read it if you want to-or not, if you don't- and if it gets too uncomfortable you can always read it and pretend you didn't.

All of this rambling is to a point: I don't know how to be loved. I've spent my life blaming it on my parents or on God or on other people (for not noticing) but what it all comes down to is that I have isolated myself. I hacked a lonely road out of the thicket and set out traveling alone. I don't know how to repair this and I'm not even going to attempt an answer right now.

Right now I’m going to pray for mercy. And the next time someone offers a hand, I’m going to grab it.

Monday, June 20, 2005

New Car

Well, I've done it. I've switched to a minivan.

My 1988 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale died on me last Wednesday (with five boys and myself inside, on a busy boulevard). We (all of us) made our way through streams of traffic to an IHOP across the street and made an S.O.S. phone call.

On Saturday, Scott and I drove away from the Toyota dealership with a 3 year lease on a 2005 Toyota Sienna.

I hate having a car payment. Actually, I've never had one. And actually, we can't afford one. Afford is a relative word. But getting this car is part of a shift in thinking I've been going through for a long time.

I used to think anyone driving a new car was irresponsible and greedy, not to mention wasteful, what with all those perfectly good used cars out there. I've never paid more for a car than my first one, which I bought in 1992 for around $1,800.

What I've realised is that I've had a rather upside-down (not to mention hypocritical) view of money-management. I forego all the big-ticket purchases and squander my money on cigarettes or late-fees or drinks and an evening on the town.

Last year when we decided to put our boys in a private school, we fretted over tuition expenses, knowing we didn't have any extra $ to squeeze out (nor any place to squeeze it out from). But we faithfully (if not punctually) wrote out our check to the school each month and, strangely, our standard of living never really changed.

That's when it hit me: We were typical, American consumers, spending everything we took in. Unlike typical American families, we don't have any of the toys or even the necesary ingredients in the "American Dream". No new car, big house, boat, fitness club membership, not even a home stereo system. But, since our seminary days, during which we really were poor (I got dairy and juice and peanut-butter vouchers through a government program, for Marshall, and for myself, because I was pregnant with Micah) I've never felt significantly less "strapped", financially. We just sort of increased our spending on pacifying ourselves, without increasing our living standard.

So here I am with a spanking new vehicle, fretting a bit about the payments. I've had a little bit of post-buyer's panic. But I'm not really questioning the rightness of the decision. This monthly payment affords me the ability to drive my kids and their friends places, help drive for school, and mostly, it affords us (Scott was very particular and insistent on this) the reassurance that, if we must expose our children to dangers of the road every day, we're at least protecting them as well as we can. (Ten years ago cars didn't even have air bags, and in the more recent past, minivans have been rather collapsible). To be honest, I couldn't care less what I drive or how old it is or what it looks like. Which is probably why I've driven a paint-peeling, rusting, crashed-up, falling apart 1988 Oldsmobile for so long. But it occured to me at some point along the way that, every day, I was putting my entire life (my kids) into an unreliable, unsafe box of metal and driving at inhuman speeds, alongside other speeding boxes of metal.

Now that I've got all the obligatory (for me) reflections out of the way, let me be happy about it... It sure is nice to drive! I've got all the comfort and convenience I could ever want (in a car or in life!), even without all the bells and whistles (we went low-end options/high- end safety). It's silver in color and looks less like a minivan than the typical one (sort of a station-wagon/van/SUV hybrid). I feel a little bit out-of-place, like Cinderella at the ball.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Relevance of Elephants: rambling thoughts on eternity and storytelling

The first job of the writer is to captivate the reader.

It helps to have something to say. It’s even better if you have something important or exciting or inherently fascinating to say. In this respect, some writers clearly have an advantage over others: no matter how exceptional your imagination or keen your insight, there is no getting around the fact that we write what we know. And some of us have more, well, interesting lives than others.

That said, even the most intriguing subject can be made irrelevant, like too many elephants. Similarly, there is always (and I mean always) an angle which, if the writer takes it up, will make the dullest slice of life, enchanting. A good writer can make pork and beans relevant.

I think this is why we need writers and storytellers. Like magic, they toss a handful of eternity into the temporal salad. And, as aggravating as it is, most of us sense that we are eternal souls in temporary encasements.

Our temporal self only half recognizes eternity when the two bump shoulders, because we are too busy being part of our own story. It’s hard, for example, to know when you are being heroic (and when you think you are, you probably aren’t). It’s difficult to grasp that loss can morph itself into redemption or that a “series of unfortunate events” is actually funny. But writers, and stories, give us truth and beauty in whole form and coax us to hunt for traces of it in the flesh. By this means, other people’s stories (actual or imagined) – many of which have long since seen the curtain call – serve us in the fashioning of our own story.

Several years ago I read Annie Dillard’s memoir, An American Childhood. One night I tossed the book into my leather satchel, along with a pen or two, several notebooks, and enough cigarettes to chain smoke (with coffee breaks) for 4 or 5 hours. I drove to Discussions, a downtown coffee-house, where you can sit for hours chain-smoking (with coffee breaks) and no one will look at you crossways.

My intent to spend the evening reading dwindled, as I read. Heaviness settled on me, like oil settling on coffee. It wasn’t a problem with the book; not exactly. My life was the problem, inasmuch as I compared it to Annie Dillard’s own, presented in the book.

“How,” I thought, “can I presume to be a writer, when I have nothing of interest to say?”

I shut the book dramatically, took a resentful last drag on my cigarette, rubbed it out and rummaged around in my bag for a pen and paper. And then I started writing.

It began as a diatribe of my less than glamorous, less than cultured, less than eventful life. But just at that point, something curious happened. In order to portray my lackluster childhood, I had to choose appropriate descriptors. I had to scan my memory for examples. I had to add some biting sarcasm and self-effacing humor. I imagined my pencil going up in flames (difficult, since it was a pen). I paused to read over my last paragraph, chuckled under my breath and lit up another cigarette.

By night’s end I had six or seven pages of something funny, poignant, descriptive, sad, reflective, and - very accurately - my life. What’s more it was interesting. I couldn’t wait to turn the page.

I’ve thought for a long time now that, as a writer, I can’t do fiction. By that I really mean that I can’t write stories. I can write essays or papers or letters or emails. But story requires something more- imagination and a deep well of experience from which to draw. As for that, I figure I’ve got pretty darn near the same amount of experience as your average thirty-year-old. I’m starting to think it just needs an angle. And an angle is something I might be able to find.

There’s a relatively new genre of writing called Creative Non-fiction. I’d like to have a go at it. If I can’t spin tales of Middle Earth, I can at least tell you what it’s like here in Middle America, in the middle of my head. And who knows but that my efforts to infuse my temporal existence with eternity will act as a weird, self-referential means of grace, helping me to fashion my story.

Monday, June 13, 2005

The Story of My Life

I've been reading a book of essays by C.S.Lewis and came on a remarkable bit of insight in one called, "On Stories". As with most remarkable bits of insight, once voiced, it seems ridiculously obvious. Probably my brain is a bit slower than most. I can almost feel the thick sludge ideas have to wade through, across synapses, to the relevant quadrant and particular neurons. What I take in usually makes it to the right place, it's just a long time in getting there.

In any case, what was a minor epiphany for me, or a key to unlocking a major, problematic theme in my life, was this: that life is linear and time-bound and we, therefore, can never experience the fullness of it in any one moment, but only isolated scenes within the larger plot of it.

This is important for me because, for as long as I can remember, I've had grand aspirations for my life, coinciding with relative dissatisfaction in my current position. I've imagined that if I could just learn to keep my house clean or be "Mother of the Year" or get an education or ascend to the level of spiritual guru, THEN I would be content, rich, full: like the ideal in my mind. But the problem with a dream of the future is that the picturing of it isn't the picturing of real life at all, but of a state of being. Here is how Lewis puts it:

In real life, as in a story, something must happen. That is just the trouble. We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied. The grand idea of finding Atlantis which stirs us in the first chapter of the adventure story is apt to be frittered away in mere excitement when the jouney has once begun. But so, in real life, the idea of adventure fades when the day-to-day details begin to happen. Nor is this merely because actual hardship and danger shoulder it aside. ...Suppose there is no disappointment; even so- well, you are here. But now, something must happen, and after that, something else. All that happens may be delightful: but can any such series quite embody the sheer state of being which was what we wanted? ...In real life and art both, as it seems to me, we are always trying to catch in our net of successive moments something that is not successive.

This isn't to say that I can't create a measurably better or worse life for myself by tangible acts. But note this: that even if I am someday living a very good life, by all standards, I can only experience it in little snippets, moment by moment. The sadness that I feel in reaction to loss will not be fundamentally different than it is when I feel it now. And conversely, my moments of great joy will be moments very like ones I experience now.

When I think of Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamozov, I think of the whole book, the themes and characters which, together, say something true and profound. No one character or one scene, though there are brilliant ones and ones which stand quite well on their own, embodies the novel as a whole. So with life, each scene develops key aspects of my character, the significance of which will only come to light when the plot is seen as a whole. So maybe now, thanks to Lewis, I will relax a bit, sit back and enjoy the read.