Maybe It’s the Hands

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Those of you who follow me on Instagram (or read last week’s blog post) know I went to Scotland last month. Those who know me well know that Scotland was mere subterfuge.

Not that I didn’t want to go there—Scotland, specifically the Isle of Skye, has hovered on my top five travel list for quite a while. The main reason for the trip at this particular time, however, lies about 500 miles southeast of the island.

Oxford

The holy Mecca of literary snobs, particularly Lewis/Tolkien fanatics, a title which I wear  without the tiniest shred of nerd shame. The Tolkien exhibit of manuscripts, paintings, and memorabilia was all this hobbit-loving heart hoped it would be.

This exhibit, as well as a morning visit to the British Library, made me ponder the future of writing. What, specifically, might generations to come of fanatics line up, or cross an ocean, to see?

Not what I saw.

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Handwritten

On this trip, I marveled at original drawings, schematics, and words from DaVinci’s sketch books. How have they survived so long? What fantastic theories flew through his mind as he penciled those sketches? What genius rabbit holes was he considering plumbing as he wrote?

I smiled at Jane Austen’s lovely, dense cursive on a page on her own writing desk. Thinking of her hand on the page conjuring those works brought her whole being alive, sitting there, smiling back at me, inviting investigation.

Actual tears came when I peered (I did have to peer, because the room was dark, and there were a zillion people) at Tolkien’s handwritten charge,

“Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden!
Fell deeds awake, fire and slaughter!
spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,
a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!”

I saw it. I heard it. I nearly went to battle myself.

This is the power of the written word. More specifically, it’s the power of the handwritten word. Others of you stand on chairs to see your team score a touchdown. Some, like my husband, go agape at the sight of ancient statues and clay pots. Paintings will transport certain people to realms of imagination and joy.

Handwritten words make me cry. Especially when they are words I know and love.

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What are we leaving?

I realized, while I inhaled those manuscripts like am addict getting a fix, that we are not leaving written words to other generations. Whoever the great authors of our age are, is anyone going to want to stare at their Messenger notes in a museum one day? Is the sight of their emailed manuscript going to make anyone’s heart beat faster? Will anyone ever stand and peer at their iPad, on which they typed the thrilling battle cry for that climactic scene, and sob with the pure joy of it?

Will anyone cross an ocean to see their laptop?

Nope.

On a more prosaic level, handwriting doesn’t have to be famous. My daughter recently found photos of my husband in his elementary school years. They have his mother’s writing on their backs, carefully penned notes about who, what, where, and when.

The archivist in my daughter winces at the ink on the backs of photos. The word lover in her carefully  places the written-upon photos on the copier, wanting to preserve that piece of her grandmother’s hands, fingers, thoughts.

It’s the reason I have a Pinterest board of recipes, but I also have a tin box, rusted and creaky, with yellow legal paper and lined index cards and my mother’s writing covering them. I will never make the recipes—I do not have my mother’s taste in food. I will also never throw away those small reminders of her hands, moving across a paper, writing down something she wanted to use to nourish her family.

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Maybe it’s the hands

We can’t separate handwriting from hands, and hands are so intimate, so identity-sealing. They are such symbols of personal presence.

Scripture shouts this message.

“Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” Isaiah 49.16

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me . . . and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” John 10.27

“I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41.10

“My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” Psalm 63.8

“But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” Isaiah 64.8

“Even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.” Psalm 139.10

“My times are in your hand.” Psalm 31.15

Hands. Handwriting. They are presence. I sobbed at Theoden’s heroic battle cry because I knew the story, and I could feel the presence of the storyteller through the ink on the page.

Sometimes I sob at the beauty of the scripture. It’s not handwritten. Maybe it should be. Maybe we should have someone go back to the days of the scribes who slowly and carefully wrote out the words of God, illuminating letters to shine light in darkness.

But I cry because I know the story, and the storyteller, and the hands that created it are holding me, present, always.

Time Enough and Goals

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I just celebrated my birthday, circling ever closer to that 60 mark. So I thought it might be a good time to revisit that 60 before 60 list. How’s that going? What’s gone down in the last year? What have I learned from it?

I’ve learned that I was wildly optimistic about how much I’d be able to travel. 🙂 Still, it’s good to have goals.

Ah yes, goals

Yesterday, my daughter went out the door to work, listening to me talk about book proposals and agents and all that jazz for the upcoming writers conference at which I’ll be teaching.  She sternly reminded me—“Mother, you’re working on your doctorate. And you have a job. Do not start any new projects. You will be insane.”

I agreed.

And then promptly wrote three book proposal one-sheets.

Time is Wibbly-wobbly

Because you see, new projects, book proposals and travel all work kind of the same way. I can say I don’t have the time for them. This could be certifiably true. Yet if they mean something to me, I will find a way to make them happen.

I realized as I sat there contemplating whether or not I should propose anything that the mere act of doing it makes me more likely to follow through. Not doing it means that, for one more year or more, my ideas will sit around collecting cat hair (that’s our form of dust around here) and come no closer to reality.

Will it be hard? Insanely so. Will I still have the same amount of time if I don’t try? Yep. Will I probably fill too much of it with meaningless time wasters if I don’t have a goal and a plan?

Definitely.

I want to complete that #6 on my list—publish three more books before I’m sixty. I can tell myself I don’t have time. Or I can choose to risk putting the idea out there and commit myself to finding the time.

Just like that travel list

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I can tell myself I don’t have time to see all the places I want to see. Or I can put them on a list and see my goal in front of me, waiting to be attempted.

So have I knocked some of those travel goals off the list? Yep. #29, a big one. Last month we went to Scotland, land of (at least some of) my ancestors. We spent five glorious days on the isle of Skye.

Is it in our blood?

I’ve learned in the past few years that my dad’s heritage is Scottish and that his name most likely belongs to the McDonald clan. What I find absolutely fascinating about this is that, upon arrival on Skye, I also learned that the McDonald clan were the lords of Skye, and their nickname was “Lord of the Isles.”

I love islands. I love islands with all my passionate little soul. Not just any islands. Rocky, wave crashing, cool wind islands. The kind you find in Scotland. Islands like Skye, which I’ve wanted to visit for as long as I can remember.

Do you think there is something in our blood that calls us to places our forebears began? I didn’t know any of this when I planned the trip. Yet it’s called to me for decades.

God made us so complex, and we haven’t explored the depths of what makes us who we are or what our minds and hearts are capable of. That the “land” calls so many in history might be more a part of us than we know. It’c certainly a big theme in Scripture. I don’t know. I just find it interesting that this girl who loves these places so deeply is descended from the Lords of the Isles. And didn’t even know it.

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Tally?

So in the past year, I’ve completed #s:

1. Go sailing. Done. In Santa Barbara while at school this summer. My instructor said that I seemed to use these class times as mini-vacations. I just looked at him like that option should be obvious to anyone. Because why not see what there is to see in a new place?

29. Go to Scotland. Joy.

39. Stand up paddleboard. In Michigan. On Lake Chalevoix. Did I fall in? Of course. But it was fun. I learned something from this, too. It’s OK to try something and decide you don’t love it. Like broccoli, at least you tried. It was fun, but I don’t think I have the stability to make it a thing.

54. See the Tolkien exhibit in Oxford. Original manuscripts. Watercolors of his artwork for the books. Artifacts he touched with his actual hands. Handwriting–that thing modern authors will never leave behind, and it’s sorrowful. My life is complete now. I can die happy.

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Also, I was sure punting was on that list. I find it is not. I think we’ll have to make a pinch-hit substitution somewhere. Because we did punt in Oxford, and this man was GOOD at it.

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That’s only ten so far. I have a long way to go. But it’s ten more than I might have done if I hadn’t made a list and a goal. Some of them will not come to pass in the next few years. Some of them never may. (Sadly, I found after I made this list that #47 is no longer possible. I’m despondent. Maybe they’ll make an exception if I show them my list.)

That’s OK if some never happen. They’re goals, not mandates. But goals keep us intentional, and that’s a good thing.

So now I think I should go read some classics. Or plan karaoke. Or. . . . #48. There will be no pictures of #48.

Slow Masterpieces

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When my husband and I were house hunting, we drove down a sleepy dead end street inn the town I had chosen out of the myriad of western Chicago suburbs. The town itself felt sleepy, a quiet spot where we could hear roosters and goats across the street yet still get to a Target in ten minutes flat. In other words, my kind of town.

A For Sale sign hung in the yard of a 1940’s era tan house, all strange angles and wide 70’s siding. Masterpiece it was not. The detached garage looked tired. To a woman with her heart set on a yellow and blue Victorian, it was ugly with a capital U. Honestly, to anyone it was Ugly.

My husband, who had no particular dream houses dancing in his head, even pronounced it so.

But I decided to look beyond the house, literally. 

What does it take to find and create a slow masterpiece? Read the rest of this post today at The Glorious Table.

(PS–22 years later, we made it yellow and blue.)

Refuge

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Another post from the past. One of my garden-related favs.

My husband has long extolled the virtues of winter interest in the garden. I remained unconvinced for quite a while. After all, once the thermometer reaches a certain point, I consider the backyard hostile territory, inhabitable only by feeder-raiding squirrels and children who don’t know enough to be cold. Who needs anything to look at outside when I have seed catalogues and hot tea inside?

My husband, however, just took the wrong approach.

I’ve finally discovered a reason for winter interest gardening that appeals to me. Basic laziness. The winter garden, it seems, is supposed to remain untidy. Forget deadheading those coneflowers and rudbeckias. Never lop down those fading grasses until spring. The birds and bunnies will thank you profusely. When those perfectly manicured lawns and gardens die or are cut back to the ground by zealous horticultural perfectionists, winter animals must look much farther afield for the seeds, berries, and protective cover they still require. They need a place of refuge.

Refuge is real

Thus, the gardener who neglects her seedheads and procrastinates her trimming finds herself rewarded by a yard full of thankful cardinals and finches, flaunting their colors at nature’s buffet. What a lovely license—untidiness in my yard can actually make it more hospitable to others. My backyard brambles draw those who need shelter from coyotes and cold. I can provide a place a refuge for those for whom the winter winds are too harsh.

I’m finding that can also hold true in the rest of my life.

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When my children were small and my husband working 12-24 hours a day, I discovered an awful demon in my quiet, retiring heart—uncontrolled anger. My inability to handle conflict had been well-hidden for many years (even from myself). I had easy-going friends, and I had married a man who rarely did anything I could get angry about. (OK, we did have a few discussions about empty cereal boxes on the counter and improperly aligned toilet paper rolls, but they didn’t exactly rock our marriage.)

Then we had kids.

Children, by their nature and seemingly by their firm desire, cause conflict. I had few coping skills for that kind of loving struggle. The day I found myself red-faced, screaming at them, “Why can’t you learn some self-control!” I knew I had a problem.

As God healed and taught me, I discovered something else—an awful lot of women felt the same way. They hated themselves, doubted their ability as parents, longed for someone to understand how they could have so much love and so much anger all at once.

Yet an embarrassed silence reigned over them, because talking about fears and shortcomings opens one up to further misunderstanding and pain. Only one who understood could break the silence and minister to them. Only someone who had an “untidy” life herself could extend a hospitable ear to hearts that needed nourishment and shelter.

Choking on Perfection

In the western suburbs of Chicago where we live, perfection reigns. It also chokes. Perfect-looking people in perfect cars commute to perfect jobs, then come home to perfect children and perfect houses. Deviation from the script isn’t allowed.

Yet, at times, I recognize the desperation behind those masks. The heart that cries, “Just let me see that you’re not perfect—then I can stop trying to prove that I am.” These people search for hospitality for their souls, and they don’t find it in the manicured perfection of our self-protecting masks. They find it in our untidiness, our inability to make all our pieces fit, our willingness to admit our weakness.

That surface-manicured standard reflects not God’s perfection but my pride. “My (God’s) grace is sufficient for you. My power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). What an intriguing paradox of what I’m supposed to be. Transparent enough so that His grace shines through my cracks and blemishes. A pointer for hungry hearts to the only one who can make order of their chaotic lives. To do that, I must be willing to admit to my own chaos.

Vulnerability is the start of becoming a refuge.

Honesty and grace keep us that way. If we all truly believed that, “There but for the grace of god go I,” what kind of shelter could we offer to people for whom the winter winds of perfection and criticism are harsh and hurtful?

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I love the grass heads bowing under snow outside my sliding glass door. I appreciate the beauty of rudbeckia seedheads, lovely in their own right without the starry golden petals. I glory in the cardinals, goldfinches, and juncos that find my untidiness so inviting to those in need. When the lawn services come one last time to “clean up” my neighbors’ yards, I’m glad to remain a place of refuge.

Becoming a Lifelong Learner

God tells us that when our hearts long to discover more, he offers it—open hands, crazy abundant, as far as we allow the current to take us.

Twenty years ago, I walked an indoor track with a woman from my church. Dotsey was an older, wiser soul with whom I had formed a friendship and from whom I had learned much. She told me, “I’m taking Chinese courses at the local community college. I love learning. God just keeps teaching me new things all the time!”

I thought (to myself, mind you), I hope by the time I get as old as you I’m done having to learn things!

Since then, I’ve revised both my desire to learn and my notion of what “old” means.

To finish reading this post and discover what God has to say about learning, click over to The Glorious Table!

Thanks for All the Fish

Since we’re running a few gardening-related posts (of course we are), I thought I’d bring back some of my favorites as well. Anytime I talk about an encounter with Jesus it’s a favorite, because that’s the best possible things to have happen. Even when, as this person finds out, it leaves you a little scared, and a lot wet.

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I am a gardener, but a haphazard one at best. I forget where I plant things and what I already bought. I dig up seeds my husband has planted that I didn’t know about. I plant and replant the same spots, with little patience to ensure success.

Last year, I threw some cutting flower seeds in a circular patch that had been a dumping ground for weeds, cardboard, and old stalks. I didn’t expect much. I hadn’t put much into it.

The ensuing display of orange zinnias, blue cornflowers, and yellow marigolds lit up the side yard for months. Their exorbitance only exacerbated my lack of effort.

I received a huge bonus for minimal exertion, and I felt the joy of it. So I get Peter a little bit in today’s encounter with Jesus.

When Jesus had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Now go out where it is deeper, and let down your nets to catch some fish.”

“Master,” Simon replied, “we worked hard all last night and didn’t catch a thing. But if you say so, I’ll let the nets down again.” And this time their nets were so full of fish they began to tear! A shout for help brought their partners in the other boat, and soon both boats were filled with fish and on the verge of sinking.

When Simon Peter realized what had happened, he fell to his knees before Jesus and said, “Oh, Lord, please leave me—I’m too much of a sinner to be around you.” For he was awestruck by the number of fish they had caught, as were the others with him.

Jesus replied to Simon, “Don’t be afraid! From now on you’ll be fishing for people!” And as soon as they landed, they left everything and followed Jesus. (Luke 5.4-11)

I know exactly how Peter felt. He had blown it. He knew he had. He knew his attitude hadn’t been grateful or trusting or anything approximating appropriate about the whole re-fishing gig. He knew Jesus blessed him anyway. And he fell on his face in a stunned mix of amazement and repentance.

This Jesus in this encounter takes our little obedience and lavishes boatloads (literally) of goodness on us.

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And just look at how he does it.

He does it despite the probability that it is not possible

There were no fish out there. The experts had certified it. Who would doubt the fishermen’s word that fish were not biting? I wouldn’t. The only fish I’ve ever caught in my life was a tiny sunfish at Girl Scout camp that I caught with an old hook and a bread dough ball. Both my father and my husband attest that fishing and my ability to sit in one spot doing nothing but staring at water do not comingle.

But Jesus blatantly ignores the experts and sends them out anyway. Go fish. Because I said so. Because I believe you can find fish if you follow my voice and do what I say. I believe that crazy thing you dream about can happen if you’re in the boat with me.

He does it despite the attitude of the givee

Jesus: Go out and put the nets down for fish again.

Peter: OK, Jesus, we already tried that, but WhatEVER, dude.

Because you know that was exactly the tone of his voice.

And how often has that been my tone when dealing with that hard thing Jesus tells me to do that I just Do. Not. Want. To. Do? OK God, whatever. I’ll do it. But I won’t be Cheery-Dearie while I do. And then . . . the boats are swamped with goodness anyway.

Because he is good.

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He does not, as many armchair theologians would imply, give to us after we have attained a certain grade for righteousness. He does not keep score of how often we have a bad attitude toward obedience. He surprises the churlish among us with kindness. It’s his kindness, after all, that leads to repentance (Romans 2.4). True here with Peter, no? So true.

He does it with an eye toward something more

Along with the fish he offers what is certainly more important and harder to offer unsparingly. He offers forgiveness, patience, and a new purpose.

He wants to call these fishermen, and us, toward something greater than fish. The lavish generosity is about His love and character, to be sure. He gives good gifts simply because He is good. Period.

But it is also about His kingdom and His plans for it. For us. He calls us to head out into the waters of his kingdom, fishing for people’s hearts. Fishing for justice. Fishing for forgiveness. Fishing for sacrifice and healing and love.

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He demonstrates in this one act of generosity that the returns will be mind-boggling.

What does this encounter mean for us?

  • Can’t we love a Jesus who gives because it’s in his nature to give, not because he’s keeping a chart of what we deserve?
  • Can’t we love a Jesus who believes in the seemingly impossible for us?
  • Can’t we love a Jesus who cares so much more about our real calling, what our hearts beat for and our souls ache for, than he does our nine-to-five job? Who gives us free rein to pursue that with all our hearts because that is what defines who we are, not our title or position? (Although yes, we still need a job, because food.)

I can.

Morning Glories Aren’t Glorious (Or: Hindsight Is Hard To Clean up After)

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I have not planted a morning glory seed in my garden for at least twelve years.

You would assume, by that statement, that there are no morning glories in our yard.

You would assume wrong.

They’re Here (said in best Frodo voice)

In fact, every year, morning glories pop up. In the front yard, in the back yard, in the side yard, in all the garden beds. The thing about morning glory vines is, they can be nonexistent one one day and three feet long the next. These things have the growing capacity of mold in an untreated hot tub.

Why? Because we were enticed by the heavenly blue blooms on the seed packets and the ubiquitous Pinterest photos of innocent, stunning morning glories climbing (slithering) up peoples’ mailboxes as if they had no evil intent whatsoever.

I know better now. 

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Enticements come in all kinds of packages. Stunning flowers. Easier money. Better reputation. Upgraded resume. Beautiful bodies.

Those things look so small (like a morning glory seed) in the beginning. They looks so beautiful, helpful, needed even to our unsuspecting (or, let’s be honest, intentionally blinded) hearts and minds. Then one gets it vines into our hearts and souls and minds, and it won’t let go of its grip.

  • Marriages dashed sideways by porn.
  • Careers wrecked by a little embellishment on the job history.
  • Kids in high anxiety because parents padded their abilities in an attempt to make them more competitive.
  • Women devastated because they pursued that relationship, ignoring the red flags, only to learn their intuition was right and they had traded their identity for attention.
  • The remembrance too late that someone did tell us so.
  • Christians offering up their souls for the sham promises of power and security.

Morning glories are everywhere, aren’t they?

I don’t have a deep, profound message today. “Nothing under the sun is truly new,”  right? (Ecclesiastes 1.9) Our task, as I read just last night, isn’t so much to create some brilliant, unique concept that amazes the world as it is to remind the world of what it already knows but has let the quicksand of the world bury for too long.

“A remembrancer is a servant who brings things from the storehouse, a farmer who helps the listener harvest memories previously planted. If you have been shamed into believing that every sermon has to include novel ideas—No. Telling the old, old story stands in the front rank of the preacher’s calling. It is the work of soul-watchers. Our people need reminders of the great truths of the faith. We are like the hobbits who ‘liked to have books filled with things that they already knew, set out fair and square with no contradictions.’” (Preaching as Reminding, Jeffrey Arthurs)

So with today’s reminder—

It’s easier to make the decision not to plant the seeds than it is to root out the weeds.

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Every year, I feel like I may be winning the war against the morning glory seeds, and every year, more come up. I’m sure that’s exactly how my dad felt after he took that first drink to cover his sadness when my mom passed. So many times he thought he had won over it, but it just emerged somewhere else, attacking from another front, and he lost himself again.

The good news is, we can win. With dedication, determination, and a lot of RoundUp, we will eventually eradicate the morning glories. There are fewer every summer. Don’t lose hope if the battle seems impossible. It absolutely IS NOT. We are children of a God who knows how to do resurrection.

Still, it would have been better for us not to have ever entertained the temptation. We could have used our energies in so many other places. We don’t know what could have been had we never succumbed to those tempting photos.

It’s easier never to have planted the seeds.