A Modest Holiday Request

Dear Reader,

Hello! Happy December 1st. No matter where you are, this is likely the merriest month of the year. It is the time when we put up ridiculously lavish displays of lights and greenery. We bring a bush into our homes and string it with garlands and memories. We make the same recipes, the same sweets. We bestow on one another gifts and love.

Over the next few weeks, you may be invited to a gathering or two. If you are in someone’s home for a party in the next month, may I make I request of you?

Take a picture of the hostess.

I say “hostess,” because in my home I am the one heading up these efforts. But in all circumstances, there is someone heading up the food and the atmosphere at your party. He or she is the one who spent hours ahead of time, determining what you might eat when you arrive, making sure there’s room in the coat closet in the front hall, and wiping the bathroom sink one more time. He’s the one shuttling the empty trays back to the kitchen to refill. She’s the one taking the trash out — quietly, so nobody’s conversations get interrupted.

But I bet that host isn’t in many pictures. He might have taken a picture of you with your spouse; or a picture of everyone at the table together; and then he put the phone down to refill somebody’s coffee.

The hostess is present in the pictures, of course: in the flowers on the table, or the spread on the buffet, or the carefully chosen blankets on the back of the couch, so you could lay down for a nap if you wanted to. But where is her face?

Thanksgiving 2015

This feels like a self-indulgent request, and I won’t deny that it’s personal. Recently I was looking back at photos from our past Thanksgivings, and I found one of me, sitting in my usual spot at the foot of the table, smiling at a guest who had insisted upon taking my photo. I was struck by how rare a photo it was. I think I was about ready to leap up to get something I’d forgotten for the table, but my friend made me freeze for a moment so she could document that I was there, too.

As my children get older, I am beginning to realize how few pictures I am in. Dad, if Mom is the self-appointed documentarian of the family, make her get in a few photos. Don’t let her fuss at you about how she isn’t camera-ready. Tell her she is beautiful and click away.

It is a little thing, of course — and in an eternal sense, a photo doesn’t lend any significance to the service done. But in these days of ever-present cameras, let’s make an effort to temporally celebrate the one who is running behind the scenes. Give her a second to dry her hands off and take off the smudged apron, and then make sure she is remembered.

Happy Holidays!

Yours,

Kelly

Furrowed

Oh God, I am furrowed like the field

Torn open like the dirt

And I know that to be healed,

I must be broken first

Andrew Peterson, “The Sower’s Song”

My face is furrowed. It isn’t furrowed in the regular sense of the word — like my eyebrows are knit together. This year, my face became furrowed by a new scar.

A few months ago, I learned that I had a minor form of skin cancer just under my right eye. I had battled a small blemish for over a year, trying to get it to heal. It never did. After a biopsy, the spot was confirmed to be basal cell carcinoma. And so the date was set. After we returned from our whirlwind vacation overseas, on Easter Monday early in the morning, I would be numbed up and have a piece of my cheek carved away.

The procedure I underwent is called Mohs’ surgery, named for the doctor who created the process. I suggest doing an internet search on the term if you’d like to see some truly horrific pictures. The doctor takes away the cancerous cells to the best of his ability. He also takes what he considers to be sufficient “margin” — enough healthy cells to create a border between the location of the cancer and the healthy, unaffected skin nearest the site.

This process is mind-bending. While you lay on a reclining chair in one room, lab technicians down the hall look at a piece of your face to make sure they “got it all.” When the doctor is satisfied that you’re done, he uses a tiny torch to cauterize the site and help it heal. The smell of my own burning flesh is not one I will soon forget.

The first couple of weeks of healing were uneventful. The most traumatic part was the first glance at the stitches — seven of them, marching uniformly in vivid purple across my upper cheek. But once the stitches came out, I was optimistic about the healing of what would amount to an extra-deep laugh line underneath my right eye.

Then, two weeks later, some purple sprung up under the skin. Swelling began. Was it an infection? No. My body was in rebellion. A hematoma had arisen. It had to be lanced. More bandages. And now, some work.

Beneath the line that rests on the skin, there is an angrier area. My skin wants to harden up. Scar tissue is setting in, making my upper cheek a lumpy mess. It is in need of some work. “Your best friends,” the doctor said at my third post-op visit, “will be time and massage.”

Now, and for the foreseeable future, an alarm on my phone sounds every hour. Ten times a day, for one minute each time, I must massage the scar. But to say “massage” is too kind — I must push down hard, exerting pressure and breaking up the hardened tissue underneath the skin. I must keep at it. I must exert little bits of hard effort, a small amount at a time. I hope to win out over the hard scar tissue through time and consistency. However, I should not expect overnight results, and I should not expect to rest from the effort anytime soon.

The experience has served to remind me that little things we do every day often matter more than big things we do every once in a while. Consistent effort, little bits at a time, bear regular, bountiful fruit more than big, occasional efforts. Our flesh desires the big, showy payoff performances. But long-lasting fruit comes with little bits of faithful investment.

So please keep going to the gym a few times a week. Keep reminding your kids to put their dishes in the dishwasher. Keep texting that friend even though you haven’t seen her in awhile. Keep opening that Bible every morning. Keep showing up at church early to serve. To paraphrase Annie Dillard, how you spend your days is how you spend your life.

Also — how quickly can scar tissue set into our souls? We all know areas that the Holy Spirit wants us to press on. It causes us pain. It requires effort. Quite frankly, we don’t want to enter into it. The first cut hurts. Our natures make us want to become atrophied and give up for lack of observable results. After the initial sting, we may think the work is done. But the process of repentance is borne out over days, months, and years of dying little deaths and pressing forward into little resurrections.

It is meant for our good by a good and kind Father, and it will bear the peaceful fruit of righteousness in the end. (Hebrews 12:11)

Greatest Hits of 2017

If you’re not sick of reading year-end lists yet, here are some things I appreciated in 2017. In no particular order:

  1. Pen snob: 2017 was the year I indulged all my pen snobbery. I now have three faithful go-to pens for different purposes. A micron .03 for bullet journaling, a pilot disposable fountain pen for writing notes and checks (yes, I still do that occasionally), and in a pinch, this pen is a worthy replacement for either. Jen Wilkin made me aware that a disposable fountain pen was a thing in her first  interview on Only the Good Stuff. Fountain pens have long been favorites of mine, but the cost always made me shy away — I was afraid to lose one. Now I don’t have to worry about that. Also, if you have a kid with dysgraphia, or one who struggles with handwriting in general, give them a fountain pen. It really helps!
  2. Analog life: 2017 saw our family trying hard to become a bit more analog and a bit less digital. Try as they might, tech developers can never replace the mental exercise of writing something longhand; the weight, texture, and feel of an old book (or a new one, for that matter); or the joy of a note sent or received through the jolly old US Postal Service. David has once again returned to his longhand prayer journal, I began a bullet journal (more on that in a moment), and I read three times as many “real” books this year as I did last year — mostly because I was more disciplined about putting my phone down. I did this with the help of a paid app called Offtime. Apple users should look into one called Freedom.
  3. The Great British Baking Show: in our continuing unapologetically Anglophiliac british-bakingexistence, our family went whole hog into TGBBS this year. If you happened to be in our home while it was on TV, you might have thought we were watching a sporting event. Screams! Thrills! Tears! And the most delightful unexpected heroes. Please give this a try if you haven’t already. It streams on Netflix.
  4. Bullet Journaling: I received a lovely blank book for my birthday in June, and by the end of July — once I overcame my fears and stopped obsessing about making it perfect — I had it set up as a bullet journal. I have three sections: one principally for spiritual stuff (prayer, sermon notes, quotes, and the like); one for life-in-general stuff; and one for homeschool stuff. I also have a killer to-do page that uses post-it notes so I can clean it off and add to it as needed. I love having everything together in one place, and it’s lasted me a good six months. I might be beginning a new one in the next month or so. If you are at all interested in bullet journaling, please be careful out there on the world wide interwebs. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and want everything to look perfect. Don’t do it! Ask yourself what you need that little book to do, and then use it for that. The end. No one is going to grade you on your bullet journal.
  5. Men. Ha, that’s a funny one. 2017, particularly the end of it, was a hard year on men. While the #metoo movement brought about some conversations that absolutely need to be had, I was shocked at the number of women — married women, even — who were saying casually what amounted to “men suck.” No, they don’t. I would hope you wouldn’t say that about your husband, married person. And you didn’t marry the only good one. My life is full of good men. I was raised by one, I am married to one, and I am trying to raise four of them. Helping me in the endeavor of raising those four young men are countless other good men, involved in their lives at school, at church, and in our neighborhood. The boys are thankful for them. Me too.
  6. 40. I can’t sign off on this year without acknowledging one more time that this was my year of turning 40! I ran a half marathon — a lifelong goal, and I ran it a full minute faster than I thought I could because of the help/friendly harassment of my husband. I went to NYC with sweet friends: we walked the Brooklyn Bridge, did drinks at the Four Seasons, and watched the sun go down from the deck of the Empire State Building! (did that really happen?!)

I am so thankful for the lessons and gifts of 2017. On to the next. Here’s to growing deeper in God’s grace, having patience with ourselves and others, and gratefully enjoying all His good gifts. Happy New Year, friends!

The Candles at Turl Street Kitchen

Evening comes on quickly in Oxford in November. The dark creeps in around 4 in the afternoon.

When David and I closed out our afternoons there, we sought out a little respite in a place pointed out to us by our friend Sarah: Turl Street Kitchen. Turl Street is one of the cross streets that runs between Broad Street and the High Street. It is rather narrow and always full of bicycle riders.

The restaurant was tucked in on the right side of the road as we left Broad Street and Blackwells’ bookstore. It was the kind of place you’d imagine in Oxford: small-paned windows, rough wooden pub tables, and a staircase that marched up the middle of the building. In the back was the coffee bar: a lighter space with a few high-top tables scattered about.

As dusk came on, we sought out those most modern of necessities: electrical outlets and free wi-fi. My eagerness to guide us around the town with an online walking tour, along with my incessant picture-taking, had mercilessly killed my phone. While “going dark” in Oxford was a tempting proposition, responsibilities back home (by the names of our five children) demanded that we keep the communication lines open. So we ordered two lattes and a slice of cake, and slumped down with our bags at a corner table by an outlet.

We took out a map, as tourists are inclined to do, and discussed our next day’s plans. As we chatted, a server walked about with a lighter and lit the white thick pillar candles on each table. There were no candle holders; not even a plate underneath them. The candles sat down unapologetically on each wooden table, where the burn marks remembered them. There was no fuss about anything.

Despite the small effort, the room took an enchanted glow because of those candles. The little bit of effort taken turned the space into a cozy residence, perfect for thinking noble thoughts and having profound conversation.

When I returned home from the UK, one of the first errands I took included a stop for white pillar candles. I wanted to recapture that moment and make it exist in my own home. Forget the fact that I didn’t have ancient walls, magical libraries, boys’ choirs, or Evensong…I could have the white candles from Turl Street Kitchen.

What is it about us that thinks we can recapture an atmosphere? What makes an atmosphere “just so” in a fashion that can, realistically, never be recaptured? The air and the mood, in that place have taken up residence in my heart.

What is a place that you have ingrained in your heart? What made it that way?

I want my home to be a place that is ingrained in my children’s hearts. Realistically, this is unavoidable. It will be part of them. I pray that those positive pieces — the tray with our initial, the smell of bread, and yes, the white pillar candles on the Oxford tea towel on the table — will stick with them more than the weak, broken pieces.

 

And Yet He (She) is Such a Man (Woman)

Well, who can believe Election 2016?! Really?!

It came to me last night that the feeling I’ve been having about this year’s Presidential campaigns is akin to a moment in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. As the conventions draw to a close, there is a kind of resignation that has settled over the nation. Here they are, our two major party candidates. And yet…

Mr. Wickham. He is the scoundrel in Pride and Prejudice (200-year-old spoiler, sorry). He’s handsome and charming. Yet his true character is revealed when he takes off in the middle of the night with the Bennet’s youngest daughter, Lydia, who has been convinced that she is in love with him.

Elizabeth and the family finally receive word that Lydia is fine, and that Wickham has agreed to financial terms to marry her. Naturally the family has to agree to pay him a hefty sum, but they are willing to do so to attempt to salvage their reputation. If they did not, the chances of the other girls being able to marry at all disappear.

There’s a moment in this scene where you see Elizabeth come to terms with the situation. She speaks to her father:

“And may I ask — ?” said Elizabeth, “but the terms, I suppose, must be complied with.”

“Complied with! I am only ashamed of his asking so little.”

“And they must marry! Yet he is such a man!”

“Yes, yes, they must marry. There is nothing else to be done….”

Of course, we learn later (another spoiler, sorry) that this is actually Mr. Darcy’s great moment of self-sacrifice for Elizabeth — and all comes out well in the end. All well, except for the Bennet sisters who now have a miscreant for a brother-in-law.

Look, I get that last night was a big deal historically speaking. I do. A woman was nominated by a major party. First time. High five, sisters. I want to be happy. I am happy, as far as that goes. America has finally caught up with Europe in this respect, for starters.

But we must elect someone this year.47_mrs_bennet_Pride_and_Prejudice

And yet she is such a woman.

And across the aisle….such a man.

*sigh*

Where are my smelling salts?

 

Things I Tell Myself: Be a Plodder

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The other day I was listening to a podcast about home education, a decision in life which requires more than a little long-term perspective. The guest, who had herself raised and educated six children at home, attributed much of her success to being a “plodder.” She said one of her friends called her a plodder after observing how she faithfully, day-in-and-day-out, made her plans and executed them. Her efforts were nothing flashy, but her consistency over the long haul meant that she reaped great fruit after a time.

I suppose this is nothing more than a retelling of the Tortoise and the Hare, but of course it’s true that “slow and steady wins the race.” All our extravagance and attempts at quick success cannot substitute for consistent effort over the long haul. We cannot make huge strides each day, but we can take one more step, try one more time, get up one more morning and do it again. All of these little efforts add up to more than we could ever achieve in one day of monumental success.

Plodders are everywhere, but you often don’t see them. They are quietly making progress behind the scenes while the whole world clamors for more attention. They get up early and unlock the church. They put the last few dishes in the dishwasher before bed. They show up on time. They take their vitamins and walk the dog. They make the hard phone call. They practice their instruments every day. They budget. They listen longer and think for a minute, then they get back to work.

At the top of my plans for school this year I have written in capital letters, “BE A PLODDER.” This sentiment is not to inspire mediocrity in myself or my children, but rather to inspire consistency, or, as the Bible observes it, faithfulness.

How is God a plodder? Where is He quietly faithful? His excellency is seen in the sun rising each day, the rain falling on the just and the unjust, the turn of seasons and steadiness of the tides. This is the quiet, common grace extended to all as a manifestation of His undiminished, extravagant glory.

But usually we are all too busy to notice.

Galileo and the Reckoning

Musically speaking, I grew up in the 1990’s. Natalie Merchant, the Indigo Girls, the Cranberries…these were all my favorites. There was no better anthem for high school and college life than the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine”:

I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind

Got my paper and I was free

Or who didn’t love Natalie Merchant’s “Jealousy” in the wake of a bad breakup?

Does she talk

The way I do

Is her voice reminding you

Of the promises

The little white lies too

The music was bitter and cynical, and I relished it being that way. It was the tone of that whole generation.

Occasionally when I’m cleaning the house, in need of a shot of energy, I’ll turn on a Pandora channel with these artists on it. I find amusement in seeing if, while I’m scrubbing the bathroom sink, I can still sing Dolores O’Riordan’s entire descant at the end of “Dreams” without taking a single breath. I sound terrible, and the echo in the room only magnifies the horror, but I’m having fun and the bathroom is getting clean.

My children and husband quietly roll their eyes.

The other day The Indigo Girls’ song “Galileo” came on. If you’re not familiar with the song, it wrestles with the idea of reincarnation. The writer despairs that she will never “get it right,” and wonders if she’s doomed to repeat the same mistakes in lifetime after lifetime.

How long till my soul gets it right?

Can any human being ever reach that kind of light?

I call on the resting soul of Galileo

King of night vision, King of insight

In the writer’s mind, Galileo was the only person who ever got it right — he found the truth and was twice accused of heresy for it. He died under house arrest, and now his soul is at rest.

Until her friend brought up the idea of reincarnation, the writer thought her mistakes were only to blame on her childhood. But now, she says, she might need to look back further: “And now I’m serving time for mistakes/made by another in another lifetime.” Faced with this dark reality, the only hope is that, as a result of her failures, at least we’ll avoid a nuclear holocaust:

If we wait for the time till all souls get it right

Then at least, I know there’ll be no nuclear annihilation

In my lifetime

At the end of the song, the first line of the chorus repeats again and again: “how long? how long?”

As “Galileo” played in my house the other day, I heard my youngest son quietly filling in a background vocal at the end: “How long until the reckoning…”

He was repeating the closing strains of Andrew Peterson’s song “The Reckoning.” This song has become “mandatory thunderstorm listening” in our home, as Andrew witnesses a storm and calls to mind how the Lord promises to return and set all things right.

Immediately I was struck with the difference in worldview here.

How long until this curtain is lifted?

How long is this the song that we sing?

How long until the reckoning?

…I know you hear the cries of every soul tonight

You see the teardrops as they roll tonight

Down the faces of saints

Who grow weary and faint in your fields

And the wicked roam the cities and the streets tonight

But when the God of love and thunder speaks tonight

I believe You will come

Your justice be done, but how long?

hourglass-4-1312475-1599x2132Behold in stark relief the difference the Gospel makes: hope. Christians long for the end. We look forward to it, because we know the outcome doesn’t depend on us “getting it right.” Christ has gotten it right for us. Though the idea of a holy God returning to earth and exacting justice on evil might inspire fear, ultimately we are at peace because our lives are hidden in Christ.

Hope is at odds with cynicism. We cannot carry both at the same time — they repel one another. We must put one down. Lately I’m realizing how much I’ve been carrying cynicism around. It’s a security blanket for those of us who’ve been disappointed. If we don’t “get our hopes up,” we won’t be let down.

This ugly, dirty security blanket of cynicism prevents me from looking people in the eye. I am afraid of them. I am afraid of getting hurt again. Being lied and gossiped about again. Being misunderstood again. I am more like the cynical believer in reincarnation than I am the hopeful Christian.

Because I am fortunate in my friends, every once in awhile, a fellow Christian breathes new life into me with words of hope.

They then addressed themselves to the water; and entering, CHRISTIAN began to sink. And crying out to his good friend, HOPEFUL, he said, “I sink in deep waters, the billows go over my head; all his waves go over me.”

Then said the other, “Be of good cheer, my brother; I feel the bottom, and it is good.”

…Then I saw in my dream that CHRISTIAN was as in a muse awhile, to whom also HOPEFUL added this word, “Be of good cheer, Jesus Christ maketh thee whole “; and with that CHRISTIAN brake out with a loud voice, “Oh, I see him again! and he tells me, ‘When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee'”.

-from “The Last Difficulties,” The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan

Oh, how I want to be Hopeful — to sink into the bottom of difficulties and see the good approaching! To bear the burden and not faint; to release the cynicism and speak hope to a fellow Christian, as so many have for me; to remind them of the Reckoning, when all things will be made new.

Come Lord Jesus! How long, O Lord?