Friday, March 25, 2016

Unapologetic Escapism

My yard has been showing signs of spring for weeks now, with early blossoms already littering the ground and the tree at the bottom of our stairs in full pink glory above the daffodils. Finally, the weather forecast for next week has decided to follow suit. Three days of blatant sunshine, temperatures reaching 70 degrees. Bliss!

My first winter in the Northwest has been lovely, all things considered. I have managed to run trails all winter long, often in my shirtsleeves, while snow shovels and bulky winter gear stayed tucked away in storage bins. At the same time, I regularly send grateful thoughts in the direction of my friend who suggested last fall that I purchase a shoe dryer, as that simple contraption has blessed my life immeasurably these past rainy months.

And yet, despite the temperate climate and the occasional sunny days, despite good friends and regular outdoor exercise, I have struggled with my usual winter blues. I find myself irritable and controlling (only partially a personality problem), wrestling a persistent feeling of uselessness and fretting about a host of potential ills that do not actually require my concern.

In my universe, blues necessitate an escape of some sort. Consequently, I return to my tried and true favorite escape and pick up book after book. Since the start of the new year, I have gobbled a host of literary offerings, from Pulitzer Prize winners to philosophy, Young Adult fantasy, biography and even formulaic mystery novels. My literary travels have taken me to Amsterdam, the Caribbean, India, Vermont, Seattle, the Deep South, the fantasy realms of the Six Duchies and the dusty corners of time twisted and turned upon itself. I alternate between feeling renewed by the varied mental landscape and feeling guilty at the idle hours spent.

I do have some favorites among the books that have crossed my path in recent weeks, along with other books that I would fail to recall if I had not dutifully recorded the reading of them in my Goodreads account. Robin Hobbs' Farseer Trilogy and a couple of Archer Mayor books proved great audiobook adventures, with Mayor offering a nostalgic reminder of my years living in Vermont and Hobbs' assassin jogging along beside me on my solitary runs through town.

Harry Belafonte's memoir, My Song, gave me a fascinating glimpse into the American Civil Rights movement and into the life of an entertainer/activist I have admired since childhood. In a similar vein of social consciousness, Jamie Ford's Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet illuminated World War II from the perspective of Asian Americans caught in the fear that gripped the country in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Woven through both books were the strains of music that floated out of clubs and across color barriers and carried the angst and dreams of a generation.

Two of my favorite reads of the year so far have been Audrey Niffeneggar's The Time Traveler's Wife and Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch. I hesitate to recommend them without knowing my audience, as they do offer at least their share of adult language and themes. However, the novels made me think about time and relationships, about fate and the power of art in our lives. I find that depth of thought energizing and a necessary component of my mental diet.

The sun will shine through the clouds soon, and perhaps my need for words from far away places and characters will abate somewhat. But once again, those words and the world they create have carried me through the shadow and lethargy of winter.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

This I Believe

(I wrote this several years ago in an exercise responding to the call from the This I Believe project, but it still sounds true to me. I post it here mainly so that I won't lose it. )

I should state up front that I believe in God. Moreover, I’m a Christian. And I try to be a pretty obedient Christian. With a lot of commandments available for keeping or breaking, sometimes a person can get a little overwhelmed. When I need a dose of simplicity, I look to the first commandments from God and the ones He said He thought were the most important. I think of God telling Adam and Eve in the garden to raise children and take good care of the earth. It probably sounded easy then, with flowers all around and no crying children or rebellious teenagers. Later on, in the confusion of opinions in Jerusalem, the commandments to love God and love other people may have given folks a little more pause to reflect. I think those few guiding principles can lead to good life, and I try to follow them with more or less success from day to day. Do things that would please God. Love other people, without regard for their color or nationality, their economic status or philosophical preference, the style of their clothes or their ability to conform to social norms. Treat the environment with respect, and raise my children to seek beyond themselves and make the world a better place.

One hundred years ago, Raymond Macdonald Alden (most famously known for his story “Why the Chimes Rang”) wrote a story about a marvelous palace built by the combined music of an accidental orchestra of musicians. I believe in music and its power to create palaces in our souls and bridge the gaps that separate us from others. That music can take many forms and still reach the soul in vital ways—from professional chamber music, to the aching notes of soul or country, to an amateur musician with just the right inspiration or just the right occasion. The magic comes not only in listening to music but also in the performing of it, even by someone with little to no musical talent. I love the story of the palace built by music, and I love that the musicians had to combine their notes together for the creation to commence. It feels so true and so possible.

I believe that we cannot live life fully as hermits, that human relationships are an integral part of our development and the richness of our lives. I believe that serving others leads us to the discovery of ourselves and is essential if we want to explore the boundaries of our potential as individuals and as a society.

I believe that each of us is, at the core, essentially spiritual, and that our spiritual core at some point begins to yearn for its source of light. If we ignore that need, we risk destabilizing ourselves. The quest for the source of light and for an understanding of our relationship to that light can define our life in wonderful ways, even though at times the journey can prove unsettling. As a parent, I believe I have the responsibility to give my children the tools they need for their own spiritual quest: an understanding of the language of the spirit, a desire to seek, and a solid base from which to start. We need to believe. It gives us root.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Home for Christmas

I tend to wax a little nostalgic at Christmas. Music, more than anything, softens my heart and sends me into reverie. Tchaikovsky takes me to Nutcracker performances of my childhood. Simple carols on the recorder remind me of my mother's recorder quartet and a Renaissance Christmas long ago in South Dakota. This year, "I'll Be Home for Christmas" stops me in my tracks every single time I hear it.

We are down to just four of us in the house these days, with Devin
and Mattea living in Utah and Alec serving a mission in France. But for a few magical days over the holidays, all seven of us will be home. In Alec's case, it will be "home for New Year's Eve," as he arrives home from Europe just after Christmas, but I am happy to extend Noel a bit to accommodate.

Life has carried us quite a distance this year. In July, Brad started a new job as Director of IT at the local hospital in our little corner of Washington. We bid farewell to the cornfields and a host of dear friends and set off for a new adventure in the Pacific Northwest. Trails and lakes beckoned, and we happily complied. We have hiked mountains and rain forests, kayaked lakes and rivers, played in the ocean and marveled at the beauty around us (yes, even in the pouring rain).

Jared and Kristina have settled into Montesano life nicely. Both continue to keep busy with music and sports, carving out just enough time for schoolwork and enjoying the chance to build new friendships. Brad took up fishing, which he thoroughly enjoys, and someday soon he will catch his first fish. Juliana has discovered the joys of trail running and a wonderful community of runners in the area. We love our church congregation and small town life.

Just a month ago, we purchased a home here in Monte. A friend told me yesterday that the house seems made just for me, and I have to agree. I love the windows and the angles, the seven stockings over the fireplace and the magnolia trees lining the driveway. After a rather nomadic life, I feel like I have finally arrived "home." I am blessed beyond measure and happy to simply breathe in the moment, with its background of evergreens and carols and rain pattering on the window.

May your Christmas find you at home in your own lives, surrounded by love and light and peace.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

In the Hand of the Lord

Alec (middle) near Liege, Belgium
About three thousand years ago, a woman named Hannah prayed for a son. In due time, she celebrated the birth of her baby boy, Samuel. And when Samuel was still a young boy, Hannah turned him over to the care of the high priest in the tabernacle. "For this child I prayed," she said, "and the Lord hath given me my petition which I asked of him. Therefore also I have lent him to the Lord."

I have thought often of how difficult it must have been for Hannah to walk away from the tabernacle that day, knowing that she would only see her boy once a year when she came to the tabernacle to offer her yearly sacrifice. According to the record, she made him a little coat every year, and I can envision the love she put into each stitch on that coat and the warmth in her arms as she embraced her son, breathing in his scent and marveling at his growth. The Lord blessed Hannah greatly for her sacrifice, and she rejoiced.

A couple of years ago, I, too, loaned a son to the Lord, sending him off on an airplane early one January morning to serve a two-year mission in France. To be sure, the sacrifice was more Alec's than mine. It was his decision, his preparation. And after all, as a young adult, he hardly needed me to make a little coat each year for him. But still, like Hannah, I rejoice that I have a son to loan. And like Hannah and her husband, we have felt an outpouring of blessings in our family, just as we did when Alec's older brother served.

Even so, there are times when my arms ache to hug my boy, or I long to hear his voice more than twice a year. There are also times, like this week, when I remind myself that I have handed my son to God's care, and that God truly does hold him in the palm of His hand. For the past few months, Alec has served not far from Brussels, leading a zone that includes all of the French-speaking LDS missionaries in Belgium. Just days ago, the Belgian government placed Brussels on the highest terror alert, effectively locking down the city, and the United States issued a global travel alert. Alec assured us in his weekly email that the missionaries are safe and taking all necessary precautions. I believe him, and I know without a doubt that these missionaries enjoy the protection of God now more than at any other point in their lives.

And yet...Alec is due to return to the States in just over a month. I can almost hear the music he will play on the piano, and already I can imagine the laughter spreading across his face as he regales us with stories from his mission. For the first time in two years, my arms and my heart will be full to bursting with all of my children together. I remind myself to focus on the joy and not let my head muddle about in worries about delayed travel and terrorist fear tactics.

A week or two ago, I sat through a nail-biter of a football playoff game, cheering myself hoarse when our team won with a Hail Mary pass in the final two seconds. After so many football games and moments in my life when the Hail Mary passes failed to connect, I marveled a bit at the outcome of this particular game. It served as a wonderful reminder to me that, for all of the trials and learning experiences that the Lord grants us, He also sometimes allows those passes to connect, sometimes opens those windows of heaven and overwhelms us with joy and bounty. 

I have felt, these past few months, that this is one of those times in my life. I truly do feel overwhelmed with blessings and with the responsibility to use those blessings to serve and benefit others. Occasionally, I find myself tempted to listen to that whisper that warns, "It's only temporary. You don't deserve this. It won't last." It is then that I ponder the faith of Hannah, not only in loaning her son to the Lord but also in rejoicing. Over and over in my head runs the question, "Do I have faith enough to be joyful?" Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said once, "Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God." I believe I open the door to God when I allow myself to rejoice, that living joyfully--not just enduring--must become an evidence of my faith.

As a consequence, I will cheer for Hail Mary passes, for missionary sons, for days both rainy and sunny. I will open my eyes to miracles and my heart to love. I will close the door to worry, and I will rejoice.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Point of Solitude

Today was a beach day at Damon Point State Park and Protection Island. My day hike guidebook promised a trail, which I somehow never found. That phantom trail could possibly be related to the paved road that abruptly drops off into the bay. Instead, I wandered along the beach to the end of the spit, drawn from one driftwood sculpture to the next and occasionally wondering if high tide would erase my path back to the car.

I ran into a grey-haired couple or two along the way (because I apparently inhabit the realm of the retired now), but mostly I enjoyed a solitary beach. From time to time I pulled out my phone to snap a photo, partly because an angle of wood or an unexpected ocean castoff intrigued me and partly because when an active woman inhabits the realms of the retired and navigates her rambles alone, she needs to document her existence. I do ponder sometimes whether, were it not for the evidence of a photograph or a blog post to verify my wanderings, I would simply cease to exist in those hours between my appearances in society. (If I have nothing to show for my day, did I, in fact, actually live the day at all?)

A flag fluttering above the beach grass beckoned me to the end of the spit, where I found the consummate beach house. More elaborate than most man-made beach sculptures, this haven offered four walls and a roof, with a wide doorway open to the bay and room for a crowd. "Love your mother," proclaimed the welcome sign inside (Mother Earth, I suppose). In the fire pit, a teepee of tinder waited for a match. I resisted the temptation to pull a chair to the door and read the afternoon away, opting instead to leave the beach behind and explore a bit of the grassland.

It has been some time since I simply ambled aimlessly about, with no clear path and only a vague notion that by a certain time I should find my way back to my car to shake the sand off my feet and re-emerge into the world. With the Pacific on one hand and Grays Harbor on the other, I set off across what looked like a meadow. Ah, but beach grass can be deceiving, hiding hills and valleys of sand, a multitude of logs and odd bits of leftovers washed up past the beach from boat wrecks half a world away.

I stumbled about, listening to waves crash on the sand and relaxing into the solitude. For a rare hour, I managed to live in the present, no thoughts of anything outside the waves and the wind and the sand beneath my feet. Somehow, sea air accomplished what I often seek and almost never achieve with intentional meditation. I left the world behind, forgot about my "to do" list, my pocket of worries and all of those vitally important items that typically clutter my mind.

Eventually, I found myself back at the car, and the world slowly returned. It felt less important now, somehow, balanced against driftwood and broken shells and water that ebbs and flows and erases my footprints before sunset. Someday, I may return to the beach house and accept the silent invitation to stay awhile. Or perhaps another refuge will beckon me past the boundary of the everyday and into the holy place of solitude.

Friday, October 23, 2015

October Snapshot

October Sunset at Lake Sylvia
As every good writer should, I belong to a writing group. I also stumbled on a poetry writing class recently. This week, the assignments for the two groups complemented each other...which was handy, because I found myself intimidated by both tasks. The result is a still life painted in stanzas.

Autumn in the Oven

Light, mottled brown of whole wheat flour
Gives way to richer companions:
Reddish-brown cinnamon,
Nutmeg the color of wet sand,
Ground cloves that look like ant hills and hint of Christmas cider.

Lumps of pumpkin blend with sunny eggs, pale applesauce, sugar and golden oil.
Plops of orangey-brown batter
Bake into golden mounds,
Dotted with walnuts.

Spicy scents waft through a house spotted with sunlight.
The dog soaks up warmth on the deck just outside,
And flames dance in the fireplace
(Not quite necessary, but welcome),
Smoke rising lazily through the chimney
To meet bright autumn sunshine.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Rhythms of Change

We recently purchased kayaks. New to the sport, I am thus still in discovery mode. Among other things, I am learning about the rhythms of directional change. With some practice, I have begun to master the admittedly simple art of moving in a relatively straight line. Negotiating turns with precision is still a work in progress. As I turn counter to the forward motion of the boat, I find there is a delay as the boat and the current find each other again and as I re-establish the rhythm of paddling in a new direction. With practice, I imagine I will find some speed. At the moment, however, I have to remind myself about the delay and not overcompensate with my strokes, thus sending the boat sharply in the opposite direction from where I had intended to travel.

I give myself similar reminders about life these days. My life has turned a significant corner in the past few months, with a cross-country move shuffling us from the prairie to the Olympic Peninsula. I love Washington, with endless possibilities for hiking and kayaking, brilliant sunsets on the ocean, misty mornings (and afternoons and evenings), moss-covered forests and a town full of people who have welcomed us with open arms. I feel happy. At the same time, I have yet to find my rhythm. With the kids in school and no job to schedule my time, I decide each morning how to spend my day. Should I write? hike? explore? chip away at the "to do" list? The prospects offer a guilty sense of freedom and also leave me feeling a tad discombobulated.

Fortunately, I have a few cross-country moves under my belt, and I can hearken back to those experiences. Six years ago, for instance, we moved from New England to Illinois. I loved Vermont, but I am a nomad by nature, and 18 years in the same locale found me aching for change. The move proceeded smoothly. We loved our new home and the abundant sunshine. Even the cornfields across the street (and around the corner and over the way...) offered a certain amount of charm as they changed with the seasons, and it would be several years before I began to long for beauty again.

Despite the warm welcome and our happy circumstances, after just a few months, I found myself in the midst of a bit of a mid-life crisis. I wriggled uncomfortably in my skin, wallowed in a funk for the better part of a year, and searched diligently for depth and meaning in my life. I thought I had descended into a depression. Looking back from my current vantage point, I realize that I probably mis-read the effects of a disruption in my life rhythm. Instead of riding out the change in direction, I fought against it, sending my little boat this way and that as I flailed.

I suppose I could have saved myself a fair amount of angst back on the prairie by learning to flow with the current. As it was, I channeled my angst into writing, and the flailing eventually evened into a productive pattern. This time, I intend to keep paddling gently--listening for the rhythms of small-town life and Olympic forest breezes and allowing myself time to match my stroke to the cadence of life around me.