A Tree Speaks

I left the house in a huff of anger and frustration, pulling away from the curb without a plan.  I wanted quiet and space and a place to use my computer and phone, but beyond all of that I needed to be near water. 

I needed to sit and watch it moving, to allow its gentle current to move me back into the larger stream of life, a place more hopeful and healing than the dark corner I’d backed myself into.  So I headed to a park a few miles out of town, a small strip of land bordering a creek that boasts a walking trail with heavy, old picnic tables dotting the water’s edge.

It took me awhile to settle in, I paced talking and texting on my phone, moving from table to table to avoid the noise and dust of an industrial sized mower that seemed intent on following me.  I fidgeted and fussed, like a bird looking for the perfect place to land. 

Settling at last at a picnic table in the shade near the water’s edge, I watched the water and the insect world at my feet; the ants that ran in a fury and a caterpillar making its deliberate way across the ground.  As I watched, I felt myself being slowed to the pace of the world’s breathing.     

I suppose the tree was watching the entire time.  Observing the texting, the talking, the hopping from table to table and then finally, the slowing, sinking into time and space.  She watched waiting, reading me and holding her silence, like the wisest among us often do, until the moment was right. 

She spoke while I was praying, in a voice that sounded, at first, like a cry. 

I turned at the sound and there she stood, just a few feet behind me, a statuesque sycamore.  Her trunk was bent, jutting out like a woman’s hip does when carrying a young child.  Her arms and shoulders lifted at an angle as though she had thrown her hands up in the air at some point long ago.  She wore the beauty of her leaves like a giant head-dress that fell around her neck in a waterfall of shaking, shimmering green light. 

I wondered how long she’d stood there watching the slow movement of the murky water, the endless turning of the world and how much she knew of the fallen branches and logs, the trees now dead on the opposite bank, bleached white like bones in the sun. 

Despite her cry, she looked happy to me, standing with her splotchy bark peeled white in some places, her branches humming with the singing vibration of cicadas.  

I noticed she was smiling and as I sat, listening, she spoke again as if answering my unspoken question.    
“I have deep roots,” she said.  “Besides, who do you think gave me this voice?  And who gave you yours?” 

Her face softened then with compassion, “Don’t be afraid to use it, to lift your voice and your arms and cry out like so many before you, ‘Lord, don’t you care?!’” 

She paused, as if to let this sink in.   

Then she said, “Watch the water and grow deep roots.  The deeper your roots, the louder your cry and the further your arms will reach until they’re knocking on the very doors of heaven.  Then you’ll know that this is what you were made for; to stand here, with your gnarled roots pressing down into the cool darkness, your weathered arms raised and shaking in the wind, crying out, until you are reached and known by the One who gave you this voice.” 

I wrote quickly, listening to the voice that came from without and within, all around, until she grew silent again and still.

Looking back I can see how that tree, so at home in her body and being, rooted deep by the water’s edge, was calling me home.  Speaking to my heart, she bypassed my fear and anxiety, my questions and calculations, reiterating the truth that this, indeed, is what I was made for.    

This post is linked with Imperfect Prose (click on the button to the right to read more links).

Like the Sun on a Cloudy Day

"Where there's surrender, synchoronicity tends to follow . . ." Cynthia Bourgeault

After binge-cleaning and crashing with an episode of Glee late the night before, we woke to the sound of the twins hooting and hollering in their cribs and the anxious chatter of the to-do lists in our heads.  Isaiah woke up grumpy and soggy, like a little polar bear fresh out of hibernation and the twins, my husband and I all stumbled down stairs, a whole parade of sleepy-headed grizzlies. 

It was Sophia's birthday and we were scheduled to get pictures taken of our house for posting it for sale online and Solomon also needed a chaperon for his end-of-the-year field day.  In other words, it was "go time" and my husband was taking the morning off from work so we could have all hands on deck.

Solomon wandered out, obviously dragging and stated that he might not go to school after all.  But then the birthday girl came out and the sun shone in the windows, bright and the kids settled into reading with Daddy on the couch and it started to feel like our cobbled together plan for the day might just work.

It wasn't long, though, before we fell behind schedule because once you've started reading about the plagues in Egypt, you can't just stop in the middle and then the rushing began.  I thawed out pancakes for Sophia and used some painter's tape as a ribbon for her morning present and John headed out with all four kids and 24 sparkly butterfly cupcakes for the morning round of drop-offs and I set to work.

When John returned we both set into cleaning with a fury while the twins tore through the house like locusts, methodically undoing all the work I'd already accomplished.  Emptying the back pantry, they built pyramids out of bottles of juice, cans of coffee and diet coke.  They clanged and banged their way through the kitchen, dragging out pots and pans until Levi pinched his finger in a cupboard door and dissolved into a puddle of screaming and tears.

As the tension mounted and time slipped through our fingers like sand, the clouds rolled in, literally, and what had started as a sunny morning turned heavy, dark and gray.  We had delayed listing our home by several days because of the forecast, hoping for a sunny day to get the best pictures possible, and here we were, listing late on a cloudy day. 

Despair seeped in and I told my husband we should just give up and leave the house as it was, but we still didn't know whether we needed to be home to let the photographer in, so we slugged it out, tag-teaming the twins and chaos. 

There was just so much I couldn't control - the weather, the twins - so I started praying that the sun would come out, because I really wanted it to, but I also let go a little and the thought came to me, maybe there'll be a rainbow just as the photographer arrives.  This was enough to cause a little seed of hope to take root and my heart and hands opened a little further as I found compassion for my tired self and for those two little boys who were wondering where I'd hidden all of their toys.   

Then I started thinking, maybe the photographer will buy the house and we won't even have to go through showings, or maybe someone out there needs to see a house on a cloudy day with just a smattering of food on the kitchen counter, or a pink plastic calculator laying in the corner of an otherwise spotless living room.  Somehow my heart turned the corner to surrender as I realized again that what I do not know and cannot control is not always a bad thing; there's always so much more to life than the very small and finite piece of the puzzle that I can see and shape. 

By eleven, my husband left for work and I took the twins to pick up Solomon and they sky was still filled with smokey gray clouds, the worst we'd seen in weeks.  After pick-up I drove back home to let the photographer in and as we sat waiting in the van I said, "Let's pray that the sun comes out," and we did. 

Not five minutes later, just as the photographer pulled up, the sun came out and I shouted to Solomon, "Look," before leaping out of the van to unlock the front door.  I was so relieved, ecstatic, but I still couldn't keep from saying, "You'd better go ahead and get that outside picture while the sun's out."  The clouds were there still, rolling across the sky and I guess I still believed that such grace is fleeting, like the sun on a cloudy day. 

If I gain anything from this whole process of house selling and buying, I hope it's a deeper sense of this grace that permeates life, this sun that shines endlessly, faithfully, whether we have the eyes to see it or not.    

This post is linked with Hear it on Sunday, Use it on Monday and Playdates With God.

For Sale: Five Tips For Showing a House With Young Children

I heard a thump as the van rounded the corner and looked up to see Jack and Annie slide down the windshield landing tucked behind the wiper blades.  They were followed shortly by Ivy + Bean as I slammed on the brakes and leapt out of the driver’s seat.  The library books, eight in all, were strewn across the roof of the van, the street and the windshield.  I’d placed them on top of the van as I buckled the twins in preparation for the morning round of drop-offs. 

We’ve had twelve showings in one week and, clearly, it’s taking a toll on me.  My brain is on over-drive and as I focus on clean counters and toilet seats a number of other things are falling through the cracks.  Every showing requires detailed timing and a master plan and I envision myself being something like Ben Affleck’s character in Argo as I scheme up a way to get six people out without a trace. The whole house must be well-disguised, transformed from “launch-pad for a family of six” to “house beautiful” in a matter of hours. The beds are made, the floors are spotless and specially purchased throw-pillows lay at just the right angle on every seating space. 

Like every masquerade, though, it comes at a cost.  There are simply too many things for me to keep track of as I field phone calls and schedule showings with my calendar inconveniently tucked away along with all of our other personal items.  I’ve developed a habit of “stashing” things during the pre-showing frenzy, hiding my sandals in the laundry basket or my husband’s shoes in the attic with the rest of the folded, but not yet put away laundry. 

The other day I caught myself preparing to dump the cheese packet for mac and cheese directly into the boiling water.  On another afternoon I slammed the van into park before actually stopping in the school pick-up line.  This spring, instead of feeling guilty for missing snack bear and being lax in my sun-screen application, I’m feeling relieved that everyone’s still alive. 

To top it all off, I can’t really seem to find the mental time or space to write anything substantial.  However, in sync with traditional writers’ advice, I can "write what I know" so, without further ado, I present to you my:
 Top Five Tips for Showing a House With Young Children.

1. Your mission is to get everyone out of your house without leaving a trace and if you're really good at what you do, no one will ever guess that four messy, stinky little people have been holed up in here with you day in and day out. Your success will depend completely on three key elements: impeccable timing, absolute authority and the ability to bribe young children with a wide variety of food items and/or adventures.

2. Plan to live in your van for, well . . . a long time. Now that you’re a nomad with showings scheduled at 11 and 5 every day, your van is your new home, go ahead and buy a welcome mat for the driver's side door.  Stock it with every possible necessity and be ready to roll on a moment's notice. You will eat in the van, sleep in the van and dress your children in the van (sponge-baths in the van are acceptable and may be necessary, but are not recommended).

3. Plan to transfer the typical messiness of your house into said van for the entire period in which you are showing your house. This is a basic principal of home economics:

"Every spotless space maintained results in an equal and opposite messy space."

Given this basic principle, plan for all of the messiness removed from your house to reemerge in your vehicle.

4. Hide things. Since you can't really be expected to keep an immaculate home with young children underfoot and since not having enough closet and/or storage space is probably one of the reasons you're moving, you will inevitably end up hiding things in order to achieve that "House Beautiful" look. The first few times you hide your sandals or your husband’s clunky work shoes in the laundry basket or hall closet, you'll feel unbearably clever.  But, later, when you forget about the pineapple you stuffed under the kitchen sink and the potato's hiding in the basement, you'll likely make an even bigger mess of your home trying to find the source of the awful stink that’s suddenly emerged.   

5. Read story books about trolls who live in caves and dungeons to your children and encourage them to act them out - under their beds - then buy a cute bed skirt to hide the mess; in fact, you should probably only allow them to play under their beds from now until closing.  Or, tell your kids that the "bad guys" will get them if they make a mess. (You may want to set aside a cool fifty in a special savings account for future therapy for every time you use this technique but once you've picked up the Legos/board books/shell collection for the third time in one day, it may seem like a worthwhile investment.)

Bonus Tip:  You will be irrationally irritable, so plan to burn a few beach-scented candles to cover the scent of stress that sits like a heavy cloud over your immaculate home.

Phew . . . I'm thinking, as soon as we settle on an offer, I'm gonna have to let the kids run through the sprinkler in the back yard and then play in the sandbox until they're thoroughly breaded and send them inside to eat cherry popsicles and Cheetos while drinking grape juice, you know, just to get things back to normal as quickly as possible. . .


Deer Paths and the Distance Between Body and Soul

My participation in Oasis’ Journey into Silence began with two days and nights of prayer, silence and solitude spent journaling, wandering and re-collecting myself.  Then I returned home to the ocean of intensity, chaos and noise that typifies life with four young children. 

I jumped in at the deep end and came up paddling hard like an Olympic swimmer.  My husband I stayed afloat by working side by side or in shifts as the weeks and days rolled over us like crashing waves.  There were bouts of strep-throat for the older two, a sinus infection for another and, later a sinus infection for me.  Bone-rattling coughs shook the house and breathing treatments were doled out morning, noon and night.  There was a camping trip, preaching, writing and field trips and my husband finally had his wisdom teeth removed. 

My bags sat unpacked, my notebooks unopened and when the time came for the following months’ retreat I felt unprepared and guilty for having gotten so wrapped up in the demands of day-to-day life.  I’d read only a few chapters of the assigned book, my papers were out of order, scattered, and I’d missed one assigned reading altogether.

I ran through the house the morning of looking for books and scanning the few chapters I had read hoping to have something to add to the discussion.  I riffled through the jumble of clothes in my dresser looking for anything clean enough to wear that might also help me feel like I was anything more than the disheveled, exhausted mother I felt myself to be. 

*   *   *   *

As I settled into the stillness and quiet that morning, I wondered what on earth I was doing there, how I could seek and find silence in a life stage that seemed so far removed from the contemplative.  As I wondered the following true story was shared . . .

There once were two neighbors who owned two plots of land that converged in the woods that spread across their two properties without concern for boundary lines.  Both men loved their land, but they loved it in different ways. 

The one, I’ll call him the man who prayed, had a vision for his land to become a place for people to gather and be fed spiritually.  He built a small retreat center made of re-purposed lumber and found objects and he filled the woods around it with wandering trails for contemplation that led slowly, gradually down to the waters’ edge; the water that, like the woods, flowed past both properties, paying no heed to the surveyor’s red flags. 

The other man, I’ll call him the man who hunted, also loved his land, but had a different vision for it.  It would be a place for family to gather, children and grandchildren hunting, fishing, and playing together.  So he slowly and carefully built his way toward his vision too which also included paths that wound their way through the woods.

The man who prayed and the man who hunted had their differences.  Occasionally the man who hunted shot at a duck or some other animal which irked the man who prayed and on occasion visitors to the retreat center wandered, uninvited, onto the neighbors land which irked the man who hunted.  Mostly, though, they got along and their two separate visions flourished. 

Then one day the man who prayed had the idea that they might join together the trails that crisscrossed the two properties.  He approached the man who hunted and made his proposal and though the exchange was friendly, there was no reply and the issue lay unresolved for quite some time.  He assumed the answer was no and time flowed on like the water in the creek and the changing of seasons. 

Then, one day, the man who prayed was out in his yard, down by the water’s edge, when he heard his neighbor calling out to him through the woods.  “Yes?” he replied. 

“Well, our paths are joined,” the neighbor said.  Then, after a pause, he added, “The deer did it for us.” 

*   *   *   *

Later in the morning we were asked to share what we were leaving behind in order to attend the day’s retreat.  When my turn came I blurted, almost without thinking, “Incessant work.” Then the tears came and my voice choked as I added, “I’m so exhausted.”  It came out like a confession or, perhaps, a repentance and the silence of the room, the eyes that watched and witnessed, the ears that heard the break in my voice, all of these absorbed and stood with me silently in my relinquishment. 

Then came a time of prayer and as I sat with my eyes closed it came to me all at once, a memory from earlier in the week when I’d stood in our dinning room that glowed with the waning afternoon sun.  I froze in mid-motion, between cleaning and carrying and cutting bits of food for the twins, fetching drinks and silverware and refills for everyone.  Having reached my limit I stopped and turned toward my husband, my hands and my voice automatically raised for emphasis as I proclaimed, “Just once, I would like to have a meal where I’m not getting up and down ten times.  Do you know how long it’s been since I had that?!”   

I sat in the stillness of the retreat and tears began to run down my cheeks as I remembered that in just a few short, quiet hours I would be eating a meal that was prepared for us, for me, by the owner of the retreat center.  I would sit in silence looking out over the water, watching the falling leaves, tasting my food and rising only when I was ready.  I hadn’t known that my outburst in the kitchen was a prayer, but here it was, already, answered.

Oh my, did I relish that lunch (which I also wrote about HERE).  We ate in a lovely windowed porch area overlooking the sunlit stream, watching as leaves fell from the trees, then continued their journey on the surface of the water.  I savored it all - the salad coated in a creamy peanut butter dressing and topped with crunchy nuts, the perfectly creamy squash soup that warmed my bowl and hands and body inside and out, and the apple pear cobbler topped with a crunchy topping and whipped cream.  And when I saw the slices of bread already buttered, I wanted to cry, to get down on my knees and say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” 

*   *   *   *

What am I trying to say here?  I’m almost not sure myself, except that I’d slipped back into believing the old, old myth that life in the world has nothing to do with the life of the spirit.  It was as though I’d begun to believe that the body and spirit are two parcels of land that sit side-by-side, but whose paths never meet. 

But the meal, the silence, and the beauty of the woods in the dying-off of fall reminded me that the life of the spirit IS the life of the body, the two are one and the same and for this we might all fall to our knees saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”  For we are bodily beings and we live in a world filled with physical demands on our time and space and energy and if we have no hope of finding God there, in the midst of our working, breathing, laying down to sleep lives, then we have so little hope. 

The life of the body and the life of the spirit may indeed be two plots of land that lay side-by-side and goodness knows they get out of balance from time to time, but the truth is they are connected.  The grace that surprised me so on that morning was the way that God wove the two together into one for me without my even knowing it, like the deer wove those two trails together, like the woods that grew unhindered between the two properties, like the creek that nourished the roots of both without distinction. 
If you liked this post, you may also like They Are Eating My Prayers.

In Silence, they Whisper

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.  After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.  I Kings 19:11-12

Gather any group
together in silence
and before you know it
bodies will start talking.

The strange, “gallump”
of a stomach, not hungry,
but vocal.
The clicking of an ankle
every time he takes a step.

Or share a meal ,
break bread,
in the absence of words
and notice how a swallow sounds
and the great,
grinding work of teeth.

In the volume of everyday
we hear nothing
above the roar
save the most incessant shouts
of “More!” and “Comfort, now!”

But, in the absence of noise,
our bodies whisper,
“Live! Breathe!”
and we are tuned to their
subtle motions.

Linking with dVerse Poets Pub and Love Dare.

Laughter and Tears (for Mother's Day)

“We’re thinking about having another baby,” I said, keeping my hands at two and four on the steering wheel and glancing over at my mother who sat holding her purse in the passenger seat. 

We were a little over a month into her diagnosis and several weeks into chemo.  Instead of our annual birthday visit filled with fourth of July parades and fireworks, we were driving North, into unknown territory, following vague directions to a wig shop we hoped would be open.   
I explained how we would like our kids to be close in age and so were thinking about a second pregnancy soon and my Mom offered her blessing, but looking back, that wasn’t what I was really looking for. 
“I’m afraid I’m going to be nine months pregnant and you’ll be in the hospital somewhere and I won’t be able to be with you,” I said, asking without asking what I really needed to know – did she think she was going to be ok?  Was it safe to go on living life? 
The wig shop was closed but we stopped anyway, leaning and peering in the windows like children outside a candy store.  Wigs hung on the far wall of the darkened room, including a huge head of wildly curly hair several feet long that we joked about as we drove to the second shop on our list, Elvira’s.
Elvira’s was clearly an African-American hair salon, but we went in undaunted and Elvira herself served up the compassion we needed, showing us several styles of wigs and color swatches.  It was funny, the thought of my mother wearing a wig prepared by a woman named Elvira of all things and we laughed as we drove home, joking, because it was the only way to avoid crying. 
She told me you never know what’s going to happen in life, she could walk out in front of a truck tomorrow and be killed, any of us could.  She hoped she would survive, hoped the cancer would be cured, but she didn’t know and couldn’t know for sure. 
It was a true answer, truer and braver than the one I’d wanted. 
*   *   *   *
“Is she going to make it?” she asked in a stage whisper after my Mom left the room to use the bathroom. 
That same weekend we drove an hour to a "Look Good, Feel Better" session suggested by the oncology center.  We sat alone in the wide, empty parking lot of a large gray school building waiting for someone, anyone to arrive.  Disappointingly, there would be no class of women gathering together, bonding to fight cancer with beauty and self-esteem, just my mother and I and a middle-aged woman who showed up late and apologetic and, later, her friend.
We sat in a cramped dressing room that reminded me of my days in theater and a woman in tight, revealing clothes gave my mother a makeover – my mother who grew up in the conservative south and bought her first tube of lipstick late in life.  We both sat submissive, desperate, as this young stranger kept up a steady stream of chatter, applying layers of makeup while explaining the effects of chemo on skin and lips and hair. 
We practiced tying scarves to cover the hair-loss that was imminent and my Mom tried on a wig or two.  The stranger gave her scarves and hats and a complimentary make-up bag.
Her question left me speechless and I stared at her blankly before mumbling a diagnosis. 

“A lot of them don’t, you know,” she added, as if by way of explanation and I quickly arranged myself in a hopeful posture, coloring the situation beautiful even if it wasn’t. 
*   *   *   *
I shaved my mother's head on her birthday, as best as I can remember, though it may have been a day or two before or after.  Her hair dresser had offered to, but I convinced her to let my husband buy a set of clippers from the pharmacy and we shaved it in her upstairs bathroom. 
She sat on the old computer chair under the bright light and whirring fan.  She hadn't wanted me to cut her hair and when I asked her why she said she was afraid it would be too upsetting for me. 
There's no sparing the upset, though, when cancer's involved and I said I knew it might be upsetting, but that it was better than thinking of her getting it cut without me in the back room of a beauty parlor.  
This is what love does, I guess.  It travels with, even through the vallies of darkness and death, using laughter and tears to crack open and water these most dry and desolate lands.
We joked and cried our way through cancer and I did get pregnant and bore that baby on the same day my mother received the stem cell transplant that saved her life in a hospital some five hundred miles away.  April 12, 2008 we each lay in hospital beds in separate states nursing new life that had already been nurtured through laughter and tears.   
I didn’t know then what I do know now, that laughter is the seed of hope and tears the rain that nourishes the fragile seed.  If we will but wait, hope grows into a tree that bears us in its leafy shade through every moment of joy and sorrow.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom, You're one of the strongest and bravest women I know!  I'm so glad you "made it!"
My Mom, my daughter and I two years post transplant.

Linking with Laura and Jennifer.

Abraham and Judas

Abraham and Judas
How often
have I exchanged
the promise
of a good and spacious land
for something narrower
or betrayed
the possibility of freedom
for the certainty
of thirty pieces of silver?
Photo rights: here.


Early in our marriage it became clear that too many one-on-one game nights would ruin us, since I'm terribly competitive and an incredibly poor sport.  Being poor newlyweds, we didn’t own a TV and couldn’t afford to go to the movies, so we decided to keep playing our games with one crucial change – we would play on a team together against any number of other friends who were also played by, well, us. 

Though we still skewed the score from time to time to make sure we came out winners, we enjoyed ourselves and my poor sportsmanship was kept under wraps until the fatal day that we stumbled across Risk: The Game of Global Domination. 
Risk is a game of dice, slim on strategy and high on chance. With every roll of the dice fortunes turn from certain triumph to definite defeat and few are the relationships that survive it.  During one particularly intense game I shoved the playing board hard enough to make it slide across the dining room table.  Strategically arranged soldiers, tanks and cavalry men scattered wildly over various continents and oceans.  I was losing badly and my husband was gloating and it was more than I could bear. 
After the “incident” we banned Risk from our household, selling it to an unsuspecting customer at a yard sale.  We stuck to Trivial Pursuit, preferring the absurdity of teaming up together against ourselves over potential relational disaster.

*   *   *   * 
Fast forward a good ten years and here we are in the midst of selling our house and the process feels surprisingly similar to the game of Risk - on any given day we vacillate between dreamy elation and devastated despair as we circle frenetically around to-do lists and strategies, Internet searches and realtor listings.

“This is crazy,” we say, looking past each other with wild, dilated eyes before turning back to scroll with obsession through the same listings we’ve seen for the past month or more. 
“Are we crazy?” we ask, standing cornered in the kitchen planning, weighing our next move, rolling imaginary dice as we add up the possible weeks it will take to list, sell and buy a new home. 

When it comes right down to it, there’s risk involved in selling one house to buy another and I, the poor competitive sport that I am, find myself torn between ratcheting up my efforts to control the uncontrollable (and making my family crazy in the process) or resigning to devastation (and making my family crazy in the process).  Too often, I find myself picking fights with my husband in subtle ways, as though our house is the playing board and my fingers run lightly along the edge, poised to shove it all into disarray if only to relieve the tension of enduring the unknown.
*   *   *   *
Occasionally, in a rare moment of grace, we see each other in the middle of it all and our arms open as if by instinct.  “We're crazy,” we say, leaning in and shifting our weight just the slightest but changing our posture radically, from against to together.   

If you like this post, you may also like We Have No Maps.