A little birdwatching

We stood at the top of the hill, at the particular bend in the road where we always turned around, pivoted in the mud, and stood rooted in it, our boots sinking in with stubbornness: here is where we will stay. The sun was setting in a rush; already the shadows rose up from the cliff bottoms to the east, and the tops, still sunbathing, faded fast. Only the really big mountain to the south was still clearly hanging on to daylight. It was time to go.

If peace were a place, this would be it. Peace, where aspen grow to unbelievable size. Peace, where red-winged blackbirds, misreading the calendar, sing spring through the snow. imagePeace, in a snug cabin stocked with board games and popcorn, stuck in another century.

In Peace, you have time to pause at the window and notice things. You see a bird, a pretty one, maybe a bluebird, and you think, now what is the point of that bird? It doesn’t contribute anything practical to the world; it just sings a bit, and really, what good is such a small song? And you stand there, idle, with the dishcloth just dangling, and listen, and it is so quiet that that bird is all that you hear, that flash of sapphire against the snow is all that you see, and you wonder what kind of logic rules a world where singing sapphires flit through the trees going their happy-go-lucky way for no practical purpose. And then you are thinking about who would dream up such a world, full of flashes of beauty and grace, but where, time to time, one of those same bright birds crashes into a window and dies, and who would notice? And you are thinking deep theological thoughts, all because it was quiet and still, and you were paying just a tiny bit of attention.

imageI like Peace. I was not in favor of leaving. And so I stood in the twilight, begging the day to rewind, willing time to stretch out long and lazy like a cat. And it began to dawn on me that if Peace is a place, I would be leaving the next day, heading back down the mountain to the rushing world below. Nothing would be any different there — sirens and miscreants, hurry and worry, jangle and rattle and hum. But if I were different somehow, still, listening — if I could manage to pay a tiny bit of attention, maybe I would spot the city bluebirds. Maybe, if Peace is a person, Peace could come home with me.

We are back in civilization, en route to another cottage on the other end of the world, where my husband will study for a short season. We drove through a minor blizzard on a long and tipsy highway, clutching the wheel and breathing deep. We added two hours to our trip via a not-optional detour — the pass was closed — arriving tired and frazzled. Back in the world of tv and internet, we learned immediately of the Boston marathon debacle. We are going to Boston. I wanted to turn around, back through the blizzard, back to my happy place. But Peace was with me, and (no doubt with a longsuffering sigh) patted my hand in an easy there way.

Find quiet. Be still. Pay attention. Slow down. Choose light. Peace.

Zeke

Zeke ate a mouse the other day. Bit the head right off. Zeke is the name of our neighbor’s 7-year-old son, but fortunately, he does not come into this story. Zeke also happens to be the name of a very fluffy black cat that has adopted us.

I am not a cat person. I hear the old joke about the difference between cats and dogs* and think, why would anyone want to own a cat? But Zeke is a very dog-like cat in many respects, and he has charmed our family. Every morning, he waits on the windowsill to greet us. When we open the door, he flops on his back to have his tummy scratched. He follows us when we go for walks. He watches us eat dinner. It’s not that he’s hungry or neglected, quite the opposite, he just likes us.

The kids have gone bananas for this green-eyed cat. Having never been around felines much, they are amazed and delighted at everything he does. Patrick, almost 8, has been the most enamored. Until the mouse.

We had heard that Zeke likes to entertain guests up here with his feats of strength, catching small rodents and tossing them into the air, leaping up and snatching them with his paws. He’s auditioning for America’s Got Talent, I think. But the actual stalking and maiming of the little mouse was too much for our little guy, who was completely horrified. “Nature, red in tooth and claw.”

It reminds me of Annie Dillard’s cat story in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Her cat, free to come and go from the window, I guess, would wake her every morning, returning from nighttime adventures and pouncing onto her bed. One day, pawed and pounced on by the cat, Dillard looked in the mirror and saw bloody pawprints all over her shirt. (Please forgive if I’ve mixed up the details; I don’t have my copy of the book up here at the cabin to consult.)

They say housecats are the most — what? efficient? vicious? — predators in North America, expertly, ruthlessly stalking and killing anything small and available. They haven’t lost their hunting instincts. They are carnivores. (Patrick, after the mouse incident, insisted that he would no longer be a carnivore, and pulled the turkey out of his sandwich at lunch.) Though the kids know this academically, the reality of messy death, victim and victor, was a jolt. Living in the city, we are out of touch with the wildness of nature and the heartlessness of the food chain. We are not farmers, have never slaughtered a chicken, don’t see where our food comes from, other than the Krispy Kreme conveyor belt of sticky goodness. Life is sanitized, safe.

I have been reading a biography of C.S. Lewis by Alister McGrath, and came across his famous description of Aslan this week: “The most characteristic feature of Lewis’s Aslan is that he evokes awe and wonder. Lewis develops this theme with relation to Aslan by emphasising the fact that he is wild — an awe-inspiring, magnificent creature, which has not been tamed through domestication or had his claws pulled out to ensure he is powerless. As the Beaver whispers to the children,’He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.'”

There is something about this wild place of woods and mountains, who-knows-what creatures (another kind of lion, perhaps) living in the vast expanse of untamed wilderness, that evokes to me a sense of God’s own wildness. The Bible stories that we so often declaw for children hint at a God beyond our Sunday school pictures, a God who invented carnivores.

The world is wilder than we remember, fiercer, untamed. On one hand, we participate in dark things without even pausing to consider, and on the other, we forfeit the experience of the wonder and awe all around. What if God is bigger and more unpredictable than we allow? What if there is mystery outside your window?

What if the Easter story unfolding again this week, was unfamiliar, new, permitted to shock and astound and dismay and poke us in some tender place? The White Witch has got hold of Aslan and howls in her triumph; we are Lucy and Susan crouching in terror at a distance to watch the Deep Magic work. Are we moved? Are we undone?

Who knew? Life lessons from Zeke, the terrifying cat. I miss my goofy dog.

Zeke the Cat
Zeke the Cat

*There once was a man named Bob, the proud owner of a cat and a dog. Every day, Bob took care of Rover. He fed him, scratched his tummy, brushed him, tossed a ball for him, and picked up his poop. Rover thought, “Bob is my master and I love him. He must be God.” Every day, Bob took care of Tom. He fed him, scratched his ears, groomed him, tossed his yarn ball, and picked up his poop. Tom thought, “Guess I’m God!”

Late late late

late late late
late late late

It started on Sunday. There we were, eating cinnamon buns, when a neighbor knocked on the door. “It occurred to me you probably don’t realize today is the time change,” she said. Daylight Savings? Uh-oh. We are a little unplugged up here on the mountain — no internet that doesn’t require a hike, no phones, no tv — and so, no, we didn’t realize. And now we were late. There was instant scurry, things flung every which way, a mad scramble for the bathroom, a dash out to the car, skidding laughing down the mountain on an icy road. I am not a fan of Daylight Savings Time. And now that we have sprung forward, I have a persistent feeling that I am lagging behind, missing something important. Even up here, cut off from civilization, the clock doesn’t agree with my internal time table. Is it seven or eight? I feel like Alice’s rabbit, late late late for a very important date. All around us, life is springing forward in disconcerting ways. There is a sledding hill across the street from our cabin, a long and twisting driveway. The hike up it is asthma-inducing; to stand at the top and look back you feel it’s quite impossible you made it up at all. Then there is the moment you sit on the devil-may-care device and feel the world beneath you begin to slip — and you’re off. Once you’re going, there’s no stopping (short of a crash); none of your shrieking makes a difference. Our kids are like that — teetering on the edge of a thrills-and-spills ride from innocent childhood into their own great adventures. I see the world beneath them start to slide, the sled is moving, none of my shrieking can stop it. They say busyness is the great enemy of marriages: hurry, worry, distraction from what really matters. The simple things, intentionality and care, are too hard to cultivate when you’re running 100 miles an hour. It’s not just marriage, it’s anything slow and painstaking — the spiritual life, the writing life, your very heart. Feed it rush and scramble, watch it wither. We are under the illusion that we control our calendar and own our possessions. Ha! We’re like Voldemort, divvying up our soul into precious pieces and thinking, spread out, there is more of me to go around. Be careful where you stash your life. But the clock cannot tell me how to live my minutes. I choose. And today I choose to savor, even as the world is whipping by. I won’t be rushed, won’t give in to worry, hurry-scurry. Today is a gift, and though tomorrow everything may change, today I have children I don’t have to nag, battles I can pick, a husband I can lavish with love, a view I can stop to see. All of my fears won’t add a minute to my life, so I show them the door. You go ahead and spring forward. I think today I’ll fall back.

You will find rest.

sabbatical
1645, “of or suitable for the Sabbath,” from L. sabbaticus, from Gk. sabbatikos “of the Sabbath” (see Sabbath). Meaning “a year’s absence granted to researchers” (originally one year in seven, to university professors) first recorded 1886 (the thing itself is attested from1880, at Harvard), related to sabbatical year (1599) in Mosaic law, the seventh year, in which land was to remain untilled and debtors and slaves released.  (dictionary.com)

I thought this year would be a year of jubilee, thought last June that God whispered the word to me. This year, after seven long years, would be the year of rejoicing, the year of harvest, celebration. I took a deep breath, expectant, and then came July. From the madman who mowed down a movie theater just down the road from our neighborhood, to the sting of hurts and the relentless ache of sorrows laid on our doorstep, the summer turned dark and broody.

Instead of celebration it has been a year of weariness to the bone. Have you been there? So depleted, so worn… So we planned for rest — sabbatical — we leave in 2 weeks. We will take some time, a few months, to recuperate, meditate, reconnect with God. We will study. We will pray. We will, as the Roman soldiers did, soak our shields, that the barrage of fiery arrows will fizzle out.

And I’m grateful, really I am, but I wonder. What happened to my year of Jubilee? What gives? I look up sabbatical in the dictionary and this is what I see: the year, according to Mosaic law, the seventh year, in which the land was to remain untilled and debtors and slaves released. The last sabbatical after 7 cycles of sabbaticals is also known as Jubilee.

So maybe we’re not there yet.

We’ve walked the fields, marked the boundaries, cleared away the rubble, stone by stone. We’ve hitched the plow, dragged the rows, churned the hard soil. We’ve knelt in the muck and dug deep, planted the seeds, patted them down. We’ve lugged the water, yanked up the weeds, tended the fragile sprouts. There have been mild days and warm rains, seasons of drought and vicious storms. And so, we wait. Like every farmer since the dawn of time, we’ve come up achy and exhausted, dependent on the whims of weather beyond our control. And now we’ve come to a sabbath season, time to soak the tired muscles, let the soil rest.

Plowed fields
Plowed fields (Photo credit: Peter Nijenhuis)

Come to me, you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. You will find rest for your souls. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Rest. Like a weaned child rests against its mother, I have calmed and quieted my soul. Hope in the Lord. Be still.

Ah, Lord, we need rest like we need water. You are the wellspring of life.

You go hard, you work long, you put the shoulder to the plow and you don’t look back until you just can’t go any more. What’s the alternative? Live easy, don’t risk? Maybe rest is the best reward. Orchards don’t spring up overnight. So we rest, we wait. I am hanging on for my bushel of peaches. Someday.

Isn’t it ironic?

It’s really not hard to conjure up an entire place and time with just a few choice words.

English: Logo of the Groovy project

Who says “bully-o!” anymore?  or “grody”?  (Well, I might, once in a while, but then I also persist in eating creamed chip beef, so apparently I am not really all that rooted in the times.)  Certain foods, once all the rage, have been banned from decent tables; clothing styles not only come and go, but make us scratch our heads and question the sanity of the wearers; grammar is nothing but a fad; and music that made audiences swoon makes us cover our ears and run for the exits (Ethel Merman, anyone?)

I just read a great defense of Les Mis from a NY Times editorial by Stanley Fish.  Great article, and roundly lambasted in the comments by more enlightened viewers, most of whom couldn’t resist being derisive and snarky.  Which is ironic, because the whole point of the article was that Les Mis is out of step with the times in its lack of snark.  It is not ironic enough for our postmodern critics.

But I think old Fish is on to something.  Irony in small doses has of course been around since people learned to crack a joke, but is so prevalent now that I think it is one of those generational tics that will make us instantly identifiable/laughable in years to come.  Pull a Generation X or Y quotation out of context in the year 2100 and ask a reader when it came from.  Irony will be the giveaway.

Here’s what Fish said:  “Irony is a stance of distance that pays a compliment to both its producer and consumer. The ironist knows what other, more naïve, observers do not: that surfaces are deceptive, that the real story is not what presents itself, that conventional pieties are sentimental fictions.

“The artist who deploys irony tests the sophistication of his audience and divides it into two parts, those in the know and those who live in a fool’s paradise. Irony creates a privileged vantage point from which you can frame and stand aloof from a world you are too savvy to take at face value. Irony is the essence of the critical attitude, of the observer’s cool gaze; every reviewer who is not just a bourgeois cheerleader (and no reviewer will admit to being that) is an ironist.”

Ironically, the ironist can’t stand back from his irony and see how commonplace and overdone his smugness really is.

We are trained to be critical, scornful, and haughty. We are too smart to have a simple emotion, too savvy to be taught, and always quite pleased to point out our superiority to the simple peasants who lack our sophistication. For all of our fair-minded, equality-driven lingo, we are a bunch of snobs.

This has to account in hefty degree for the decline of faith in our culture. With the eyebrow always cocked and the smirk never far off, how could we possibly embrace lofty ideals, simple black-and-white moralism, or acceptance of invisible realms and miraculous events? It’s just not possible. Who would willingly throw their lot in with the village idiot?

Matthew Perry Fan Art Wallpaper

Well, I would. But then, I’m also the girl who likes a little cheddary cream on my beefy toast. Clearly I have refined opinions.

How’s the climate in publishing? When was the last time you saw a mainstream book that dared to be simple and beautiful, no whine of sarcastic undertone? Oh, it will happen again, like hipster fashions that make the nerdy new. So subversive! And the Chandler Bings of the world will start to seem anachronistic and vain. At least, that’s what we simpletons are banking on. It’s tough to be so far ahead of the times.

Different

I was in third grade when I figured out I was… different. My beloved teacher, Mrs. Sands, made me stay in from recess to clean out my desk. She showed me the other desks, pencils neatly lying in the pencil tray, notebooks and a couple papers stacked inside. Then she showed me my own desk, crammed so full that things were falling out: permission slips unsigned, assignments completed and never turned in, worksheets undone and long forgotten, library books lost. None of the papers could really be called a rectangle any more, mashed and crumpled and folded things. In the very back, much to my surprise, we found an orange, covered in penicillin. After recess, I gave all of the other kids a lick — hey! Free vaccinations!

My friends in high school called me “Nuprin.” Do you remember those commercials? “Little. Yellow. Different.”image

I am still different. The mess that whirls around me never fails to take me by surprise. How did it get here? Where did it come from? I still lose library books. I still forget doctor’s appointments. My friends are baffled.

I write books, and one after another, no two fit in the same genre. I cannot choose a category. This blog — is it about writing? faith? family? I struggle with identity questions. I am not like my homeschooling mama friends, who bake bread, make curtains, keep orderly children. I am not like other writers, who send the kids off to school and settle down to work, meet deadlines, develop marketing strategies. I am maybe most like my Christian friends, slogging upwards and inwards, sitting down with coffee and Bible and bringing my mess to God for divine intervention.

My daughter sits by me, angry tears unwiped. She is again comparing herself to big brother, for whom it all seems so easy. He understands things right away, dashes off assignments. She does not see: he also loses the library books, forgets to dot the i’s and cross the t’s. He has to do things twice. He is not bothered by sloppy, incomplete, slap-dash. You both have your struggles, I tell her. It’s not about fair. We’re all different.

But I don’t hear the words I say, because after she mopes away, I sit on the couch and brood. Why can’t I be more like so-and-so? Why can’t I choose just one thing to be good at and do it really well? Why so scattered? I am mad, too, mad that I am doomed to fail. Why didn’t God make me better?

I flip open the Bible and am startled by what I read. “Oh, Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my every thought from far away… You know what I am going to say even before I say it… I could ask the darkness to hide me and the light around me to become night — but even in darkness I cannot hide from you… You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous — and how well I know it… You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.” (Ps. 139)

Could it be I am what I am on purpose? Can I, in my weakness, somehow be strong — in my failure, be open to grace?

You are different, too, I’d wager. Maybe you love math, and you realize that’s a little weird. Or you hate games. Maybe you are really private, and can always be trusted to keep a confidence. You’re fierce, you stand up for justice, but you have a hard time forgiving. Maybe you are empathetic, but also easily wounded. Or in your perfectionism, you do things well, but can’t do grace. Maybe your strength makes you weak. Maybe your weakness makes you strong. Maybe the weakness of the people who drive you crazy has a paired strength you haven’t noticed.

Maybe different isn’t so bad after all.

And for you writer types, maybe fitting in that genre mold, so important to the agents and publishers and powers that be — maybe that pressure is stifling. Maybe you’ll “be your best you” if you ignore them all and write what’s on your mind, different notwithstanding. Course, you might drive them crazy, you might never get published. But if you do, maybe it will really matter.

When did you figure out you were different?

I didn’t sign up for this.

When we started walking, the sun was out, the day was blue and gold and green, hopeful. By the time we started back, the sky was dark, heavy with rain, which fell at an astonishing rate — 2 billion drops per second square, or thereabouts — and soaked us through. That was not the plan!

Or the time I set out to go to the swimming pool. Suntan lotion? Check. Swimsuit? Check. Seatbelt, airbags, car insurance — hold up. Didn’t plan on totaling the car that afternoon.

It strikes me that life is a series of “I didn’t sign up for this” moments from the moment our little lungs come out hollering. Didn’t pick my parents, didn’t choose my socio-economic status, didn’t get to select my inclinations and abilities. Never got to sit down and decide whether I would enjoy mushrooms or avocados or meringue — nobody asked, and I didn’t have a say. And it just compounds, doesn’t it, in incredible ways, every moment, every choice, setting off an avalanche of consequences, utterly unpredictable. So you don’t like math, and you got a C in that stupid trig class in high school, which means you couldn’t get in to Duke so you went to Carolina… How does the poem go?

“For want of a nail the shoe was lost.image
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”

Little things — the flap of a moth’s wing — setting off tidal waves.

At the moment when you hang the head and sigh, saying “I didn’t sign up for this,” there is a choice: receive it as curse or receive it as gift. Sadly, there is no refund policy in place, or wouldn’t we all be lined up around the block? But how many of those moments we would gladly trade turn out in the end to be a blessing incognito?

Because the door to go to Detroit slammed shut, my husband came to Denver. Because he came to Denver instead of Detroit, we met. Because we met, a church exists now where there wasn’t one, and a few hundred people have been part of that — for an hour or a year — have met people they wouldn’t have met, given service they wouldn’t have given, encountered Christ in a sermon they’d never have heard. Because we met, three children exist who wouldn’t, and out there somewhere in the wide world are people who will fall in love with them, follow them to places unknown, set off new dominoes.

Because your alarm didn’t go off this morning, you were running late. Because you were late, you missed the pile-up on the interstate. Who knew?

John Lennon long ago sang, “Before you cross the street take my hand. Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Consider today that none of your plans matter much, but what you do with the moments you’re given will determine whether you live a life of joy or misery. Look for the gift — somewhere under the ugly wrapping paper, it’s hiding there.image

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