each turn of the kaleidoscope

When you’re knee-deep in children, time is a shapeshifting enemy: it stretches to absurd lengths during times of trial, obscuring the future with its enfolding weight, then leaps forward just when you want it to linger. And that pace accelerates exponentially with each child, each child a new facet in the kaleidoscopic turns of life. As you hear them play with words too big for their gap-toothed mouths, as you flip back wonderingly through newborn photos and store away outgrown shoes, you know deep and sudden– and if you don’t, every grandma at the grocery store will remind you– that their seasons are rushing by. Their schedules, interests, fears and abilities metamorphose without warning. Before you catch a grip on the current phase you’re full steam ahead in the next.

(Did we do that right? Did I miss something? Well, no way to return or reshape it now. Onward and upward!)

I think it’s wise to intend structure for each season with my children. I don’t want to simply throw up my hands, hoping it will all shake out. Yet those structures need constant upkeep, revision, pruning. If not, they become burdensome rather than life-giving; like a hermit crab’s too-small shell, they no longer support the family but begin to squeeze it to death.

This holds true for yourself just as much as your small people. Because you, too, are growing and finding your way. What you did so regularly for five years is suddenly out of joint with today; the rhythm of your life shifts, slow but sure as the tide. And it’s okay. To latch on to one turn of the kaleidoscope and shout, here I pin my identity! Here my friends, here my home, here my self forever! seems like a sure recipe for disappointment. Few things, you know, are worthy of a stake in the ground.

It’s hard, because wouldn’t it be nice to pick the framework of your life for the next fifty years? You’d know exactly in whom to invest. What to plan for. You could have a sort of relational insurance. And yet this is not the way God leads us. That’s it, there’s the glory and the challenge: he leads us. Instead of giving us a precisely drawn map, he gives us himself. So much better, so much sweeter, but yes, so much more demanding of our faith.

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glaciers and kettles

Nordic has been hot for a while: the Scandinavian design splashed all over Pinterest, the surge of interest in Finnish academics and Swedish parenting, the sunbleached minimalism we’re all gaga over, the whole hygge thing. Admittedly I enjoy trend-skewering as much as the next snob with a keyboard, especially the sort of trend that weirdly waters a culture down into a sparse set of symbols and catchphrases . . . but (sshhh) I like this one. Though it has more of a modern flavor than I prefer, both aesthetically and in its cultural touchstones, yet it speaks to something that’s been deep in my heart since grade school. When as a sophomore I read Surprised by Joy and found C.S. Lewis’ description of his love for “northernness,” my jaw dropped in recognition. “A vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity . . .” Something about that place had caught at me always, in history and art, certainly in literature (Kristin Lavransdatter, Rolf and the Viking Bow, even The Lord of the Rings thanks to Tolkien’s immersion in northern European myth and language).

I couldn’t have expressed the key attraction at the time, but now I think it was the twisting together of wilderness and domesticity. Glaciers next to kettles. I felt that tension in myself. I still do. Wild leaps of fancy, deep flights of wonder, yet cherishing the old timeworn places– and returning always to a familiar hearth.

Besides, I have substantial Danish heritage and these days, it’s oddly comforting to me to pull that into my home. (Perhaps I’ve been so influenced by my generation’s quest for Authenticity™ that tapping into a background that’s literally part of me feels grounding in a way that another set of cultural treasures– however wonderful– would not be.) I don’t actually want to move to Scandinavia. I like America, thanks, and anyway I’m aware that life over yonder isn’t all snowflakes and roses. But still I love that this wedge of the world is “in.” Especially the hygge bit, most especially now in the doornail-dead of winter, when even my cranky heart surrenders to the spell of glowing white candles.

I have realized that the appeal of hygge, to me, isn’t just in its physical pleasure: you know, all the reveling in buttered scones and shearling slippers, and fat novels to lose yourself in while the wind whistles outside. More seriously, I think this ideal contains some pretty profound truth, in that it doesn’t seek merely to mitigate an unpleasant season, but embraces its unique positive goods. I love this. Every time life turns into a new channel, I want to actively search out its joys, the treasures not found anywhere else.

But here comes another thought, annexed to all this talk of everyday bliss. One cynical take on “the hygge conspiracy” observes that that hygge hinges on mental as well as physical comfort. And so a woman wedded to this ideal (me, all too easily) may suppress conflict in favor of surface-level peace. Don’t rock the boat. She may also hesitate to welcome the newcomer. Do we really have to talk to him? It’s so much cozier to stick with our old friends.

So I’ve been thinking. Reserving our home only for “us”– for the people I like the most, who are easiest to be around– would be cheap. The love and contentment we nurture in ourselves should spill over. I want our door to be a portal to peace, and have our home wrap itself around anyone who come in. I don’t want to drag my feet for fear that a difficult personality, an unfamiliar culture, an inconvenient need will somehow spoil the nest. (What strength is there, really, in a home that can only welcome easy people?)

There are, in every earthly season, wanderers among the chasms of the world. Wild winds buffeting from outside, glaciers or desert thirst creeping into the heart. They need someone to put the kettle on for them. We all do.

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to love and speak life

So what are we DOING today, mama?
-my daughters, every blessed morning

Yes, I need to have a plan for our days– I can’t spend all my time merely responding– someone needs to be the adult around here or entropy will reign supreme. And I do relish the chance to “exercise dominion over the earth,” in ways both large and small. Teaching my daughter to write, crafting a room into a peaceful haven, pouring truth into the hungry hearts that gather around my table. I am glad for the gift of vision. I work to make sure good things happen for our family.

At the same time, it’s easy to become attached to an ill-conceived vision, that leaves no room for grace and prioritizes accomplishments over hearts. That kind of vision fails. It disappoints. Just as one example, I see it sneak in when my baby wakes up hours too early, screaming over new molars, and my first thought is to lament my lost morning. It’s like I can see the “correct” version of the day drifting away across the ocean, leaving me with something sub-par. Woe is me.

Truthfully, though, this is the day I’m supposed to have. Like it or not, this is the correct version. What priorities will be supreme for me: the things I want to do, or the people I love? Am I willing to adjust my compass as providence adjusts my boundaries, or will I stomp and cling to what should have happened?

Over the past five-ish years I’ve sought a vision that will shore up my heart, rather than tyrannize my days, and I have come to believe that God’s calling on my life is pretty simple: to love & to speak life. That’s all. During times when I have felt like I was drowning under babies, or lost in a black-edged mist, or flailing against the smallness of my horizons and smothered by guilt over all I could not do, I have remembered this calling. It has steadied me. It has given me wings. Simple, yes, but– love and life! There is a potential powerhouse of glory.

And the Spirit shows me, even as I go, how best to flesh out this purpose in each season. It’s not a checklist. Really, it’s just a reminder of who I am in Christ.

But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.
-Psalm 73

I guess God crystallizes his call to each of us in different ways. Perhaps mine will shift and gain nuance with time, but for now I am thankful that he has enabled me to put it into a few brief words. I need them.

May we all, here on the cusp of a new year, understand the simultaneous simplicity and depth of our call, & take hold of the hope and dignity due our reborn selves.

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the sole barricade against despair

Tragedy gored into our family’s life this month. Friends lost their two-year-old without warning, and we are all still numb from the sudden goodbye.

Death severs assumptions. There is fear and searching. Clinging ever more tightly to Christ’s empty grave, the sole barricade against despair– if in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied! But hard reflection happens only in the corners of thought I can spare (empty stomachs and skinned knees wait for no man) or that I even want to spare. How deeply can I lower myself into grief when I have my own three children to shepherd through the day?

Then there is a surprising sense of guilt, for as I shepherd those precious three, I find myself fretting over the same things as before. Maybe I assumed that loss would be immediately transformative. After you witness death you don’t grumble anymore, because at least your kids are alive, right? You just savor every moment with them because it’s all a treasure, no matter how crazy it feels? And how could you ever wish things were different, easier, when your friend had to bury her own daughter just last week? Yet motherhood will drain anyone at any time. You can choose whole-heartedly to do it, be so thankful to do it, and still wrestle deeply with its difficulty. You can know what a privilege it is to have healthy children, but at the end of the day wilt under the burden of their incessant needs.

No. Tragedy shifts the lens, but will not remove your own trials. And maybe more to the point, it will not magically renew your anxious complaining heart. It’s a long walk toward holiness. I know God’s people can experience mountaintops of glory, or a drastic event may produce an equally drastic change, but plodding is the norm. Truth often needs time to germinate. Experience seems to build up layer by layer, until you turn a corner and realize that at some point, you walked into stronger faith, more genuine love, a deeper fellowship with Christ.

So that’s me, plodding. That’s us. But of course we know the one who walks beside us, the one who has never been afraid to accompany his people through the wilderness or on a path of mourning.

In the path of your judgments,
    O Lord, we wait for you;
your name and remembrance
    are the desire of our soul.
-Isaiah 26:7

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resting among the racuous

Last post here was hardly an original one. I wrote on how the internet atrophies the inner life, how it fractures our minds and roils our hearts. But listen, I’m not just hatin’ on the web. God’s people needed the exhortation to “be still” long before we got online.

10:00 AM on a Wednesday morning. My kindergartener, who has the lung capacity of an opera star, is composing a ballad about jellyfish while drumming an overturned pot. My three-year-old absentmindedly smears butter on the table. My baby has climbed onto the couch and is tossing library books to the floor; I trip over a heap of discarded shoes on my way to pull him down. The washing machine bangs from the basement, unbalanced by an overlarge load of muddy play clothes. A timer beeps– no, two timers– one for the green beans I was blanching, the other reminding me to give someone medicine. And this is just the external hubbub. In my mind: trying to determine how I should frame a difficult conversation, arrange the furniture in our basement, and explain right angles to that drum-happy kindergartener. Oh, I was supposed to call the dentist and reschedule a meeting and order a new vacuum cleaner. Will I have time to finish my reading for book club?

Note that the internet has nothing to do with this scene. The interruptions to peace come fast and furious, whether or not I have wifi. So I wonder. How can I be quiet before the Lord while everything around me hurtles toward chaos? Where does rest come into this?

It’s very slow in coming. No pills, bullets, or tricks to speed me along to maturity. Just the hard practice of learning to dwell in the Lord, my refuge in the midst of storms. The psalm says: be still, and know that I am God. I used to think that the stillness needed to come before the knowing. Achieve inner equilibrium– then you’ll be able to enjoy who he is. Now I think it goes the other way. You drive a mental stake in the ground and announce, He is God. Just a mustard seed of faith, but enough. And the stubborn rehearsal of his love makes for peace. As I drain the beans, fill the calendar, and rescue books from my velociraptor baby, I say to myself, Behold, here is my God, righteous and beautiful and mighty to save.

. . . for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
-Psalm 63

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space to know my own mind

One of social media’s marvels: how it lets me access the thoughts of otherwise unreachable humans.

Two of social media’s more pernicious aspects: the panicky hamster wheel of “keeping up” with those farflung humans– knowing perfectly well that they and their thoughts will never come to an end– and then, the beckoning chance to join them in the nonstop broadcast. Both are slow poison. You’ve got to keep reading or you might miss something important! So I stuff my mind with the clatter of three billion opinions.  If you have a thought, share it! So I live hyper-aware of how each moment may look on a screen. Either way, other people become the mediator between me and reality. I have no space to know my own mind, because . . . I have given myself none.

. . .

I have been considering the stewardship of the mind. Our precious gift of reason requires rest and slow unfolding. And I do think it is sufficient to arrive at a truth alone. To be pleased and thankful for growth or illumination, without immediately peeking around the corner. (Hey! What do you say? Will you legitimize my thoughts, please?)

The Word, after all, speaks mysteries mediated solely by the Spirit of God within us. Divine truth may often be spotlit or clarified by another person, but at the most crucial level it comes when our souls meet the enlivening work of God. Though we stand among the other saints and so often lean on them for strength– he knows us and reveals his glory to us as individuals— just to draw us to himself, just so that we can look into his face.

Jesus, of all people, had reason to think that each word out of his mouth should be heard by others. You would almost have understood if his life was one long stream-of-consciousness narration. Gather round, everyone, it’s the son of God! We’ve got to hear what he has to say about this! Tell us, tell us! If you have a thought, share it. Yet you see Jesus withdrawing for solitary communion with the Father, to say and hear and know things that went totally unheard by the rest of humanity, let alone written down for all time. To have those hours lived in his own soul was enough.

. . .

Well. I have been coming to terms with how the land of the internet maps no space to withdraw for the night and pray. It contains no quiet rooms, no respite from the frantic firing, because the internet is always on, and if you are there, so are you: vacuuming up words and images, trying to fling a clever morsel back out. I suspect that many of us need to rediscover the discipline of having our own minds. We so easily outsource them to the endless buzz. Are we afraid to have a mind, or just forgotten what it’s like? To be truly alone with our soul and our God. To be gripped by unmediated beauty or pain. To be wrapped up in the slow roll of a book, or reach out for the inelegant, stuttering, vital words of the friend right across our table.

The virtual world is brilliant and invaluable and I thank God for its invention, but it’s no place for a person to dwell. I want to live firmly among the flesh-and-blood people God has given me. I want to care soberly for my mind instead of flinging it about like a fishing net, trying desperately to scoop up the latest tidbits. I often wonder how we can embrace our infinite new connections while still maintaining our own selves. (I know, I know, me and the thousands of other hand-wringers.)

It’s a daunting task. But God provides his enabling grace. Yes! Maybe that has been the difference, lately. I’ve gradually realized that this discipline is more than just a nice little habit. It affects my very soul. Deep things are at stake. Carrying this great need, I cry out to the source of life. And God himself plunges into the clatter, gently shapes my heart to love what’s best, to seek after stillness in the pressing wasteland.

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follow the thread together

After 17 years of formal education, during which people told me what to read for at least three-quarters of the year, it was refreshing (and a little bewildering) to graduate from college and realize that I could now choose my own books. For a while I kept on picking from the should-reads, trying to form a good balance of Correct and Recommended Reading Material– I know this is an important classic, somebody I respect told me about it, I feel guilty that I was an English literature major but never got around to this one*. But then I realized that if I wanted to alternate frothy romances with 1500-page historical sagas, then plow through the complete works of Willa Cather, then pick up a completely unrelated book about Haitian healthcare or astronaut science, and then read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin for the fifth time, nobody could stop me.

WOO HOO HOO it’s lucky I have a library card or there might soon be zero bucks left in our bank account.

Anyway, last summer I had a grumpy baby in the house and needed a truckload of levity to balance him out. So I checked out a string of comedienne memoirs. And this summer, as I watch my two oldest children figure out how to play well together, I’ve been remembering what Amy Poehler said about improv comedy: that onstage, you must always try to answer the other person with a Yes, and. Acknowledge what they said and then build on it. (“Look, a dragon!” “Yes! What’s it doing with that potato?”)

In the same vein, I am trying to encourage my girls to “play on the same side.” They need to receive the other person’s ideas as potential fuel for their own. Instead of each trying to seize sole control of the script, they need to follow the thread of the game together. They can’t be so tightly clamped to their original vision that unexpected suggestions threaten their mental stability. 😉 As they mature, they’re able to act more like an improv troupe–your success means my success–and less like two divas elbowing each other over the soprano role.

So then I start overhearing conversations like this:
“Let’s play Lick the Bug!”
“Ok. You be the fly and I’ll be the toad.”

Hmmmmm . . .

the two

*Lord of the Flies, The Color Purple, Brothers Karamazov, Madame Bovary, anything by William Faulkner or Sylvia Plath…still have not read. Don’t intend to. And I finally admitted that I simply don’t like Flannery O’Connor. No thunderbolt of judgement yet.

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