Consider: In the midst of winter

Dear Friends,

It is winter, the bleak midwinter, the interminable haul between the end of Christmas and the first crocus.  I’ve been remembering a grey, ugly January afternoon many years ago when we still lived in Pennsylvania, when the snow had turned black with car exhaust.  In those days, the kids were young and still needed me every moment; silence was rare, a solitary walk still rarer.  But that frozen day, I needed to be by myself.  I left the girls with Martin and tromped up a neighborhood hill to my dear friend, Nancy’s house.  I lingered on the curb and surveyed her garden.

It was rather a mess: the chard and lettuces had shot to seed long ago; a tangled vine curved around the front door.  I remembered that the summer before, robins had made a nest in the house eaves.  Nancy had instructed the entire family to stop using the front door in order not to disturb the fledglings.  A few short weeks later, she left the garden and the robins and lay down in a hospice bed; shortly afterwards, she died.  She had battled cancer for three years.  I watched as her three young children followed her casket up to the front of the church.

On that January afternoon, the robin’s nest was empty.  Nancy was a zealot for sustainability and permaculture, and her yard showed it: an almond tree’s bare branches rose above a tangle of spent basil.  Around the side of the house, there were still blackened stalks of tomatoes and limp pea vines.  There was the patch where she’d plucked the delicata squash last fall and handed it to me with great awe, as if it were a sacred thing–and it was, pin-striped yellow and green.

Nancy and I were much like sisters in those years; we swapped kids, spent long afternoons peeling apples for sauce.  She taught my daughter to read and I taught hers to sing.  In the sick, miserable months when I was pregnant with my youngest, she sat me on the stool in her kitchen and fed me soup out of her favorite pottery bowl.  We dreamed gardens together.  Late in her illness, I made her soup, I went with her to the clinic, and in the silence as she breathed in oxygen, I recited “The Owl and the Pussycat” to pass the time.

Now, in her winter garden, there was silence again.  I went to work, yanking up dead snarls of herbs, cutting back perennials, scooping up armfuls of leaves.  The dry, brittle plants I pulled and piled up for compost were the same she had tenderly put in the ground months before.  As I cleared the soil back to a dark, black richness, I felt the weight of this sacred duty, and the greatness of my love for her.  I felt, too, the surprising, miraculous presence of life.  Unbidden, even offensive to me who worked in sorrow, I smelled the coming spring.  I snapped back a dead perennial stalk and there was a flash of green.  The dried basil was redolent of summer; the earthworms, I knew, were curled tightly just below my fingers, sleeping until the earth would warm again.

A while after I tidied her garden, I accompanied Nancy’s family to visit her grave, still a unhealed gash in the pale grass.  Around us, farmland rolled away in a sea of undulating hills. Nancy’s children stood beside me, young and vulnerable, desperately missing their mother.  Nancy’s husband raised his eyes and searched the horizon.   “We look for the eternal spring,” he said.

IMG_0804I wondered at the time if those words came straight from the liturgy of the Greek Orthodox Church, to which the family belonged; for each word seemed to me to bear mysterious promise–like the perennials in Nancy’s garden.  We look for the eternal spring.  Those are the two things I remember from that season following her death: the silence of working in her garden, and the simple goodness of her husband’s graveside words.  Not gaudy or extraneous or saccharine, those words bound up pain and longing and faith at once, and I have carried them with me ever since.

In this new year, may we be present with each other, holding one another in silence, with love, with the goodness of sacred words.  May we find solace in the seasons of this beautiful world, and in the wonder that bids us look beyond the brittle stalks of winter.

Peace,

Kim

Consider: This Good Work of Ours

Dear Friends,

Recent events have wound me tightly.  I’ve been worrying over my middle school daughter’s ineptitude with homework, fretting over a new lump in my breast, mourning the passing of our neighbor’s dog, and opening my newsfeed with a pit in my stomach.  On Monday morning, standing in front of the bathroom mirror, reflecting on nuclear war, undone English assignments and mammograms, my heart began to pound.

“I am battling the approach of a panic attack,” I realized.  I’m not alone.  In her article, We Can’t Survive in a State of Constant Agitation, Sharon Salzburg tells the story of Jeanine, who wakes in dread to the news on her phone. Fearful that she will miss anything, she lives her day agitatedly glued to a screen:

“She would not respect herself if she turned a blind eye to the painful truths of the world, but the world breaks her heart.  This habit does not do anything to help her change the things she is so concerned about.  In many ways, it substitutes for action.”

I found Salzburg’s article right after reading about the devastation in California.  Okay, I thought, time to shut my computer.  Time to act.  But how?

My vocation lends itself to contemplation more than action, which is often a source of much consternation for me.  Growing up in a family of do-gooders (in the best sense), I struggled with my identity.  I felt as though I was put on earth to find beauty, to listen to it, to write it.  Such work is so often unquantifiable (hundreds of pages scrapped, hours of quiet seeing and being that seem to help exactly no one).  And though my work takes me right into the middle of suffering, my actual output can feel ineffectual and insignificant.

But this work–writing and being–is what I have been given to do.  So this week, I took action.  I met with people and laughed, prayed, talked and listened.  I went for long walks in the woods.  I knelt down next to my dog to see the world from her eyes.  I stopped to wonder at the way the sun lit golden oak leaves.  I made an appointment for a mammogram.  I helped my daughter with her homework.  I said goodbye to my neighbor’s dog and then I picked a bouquet of flowers from my fading garden for their family.  I did laundry and made dinner and wrote.

And I tried to love it all, like so many people have before me.  I take strength in the odd, unquantifiably wonderful lives of people like Van Gogh.  He never knew that his work would amount to much but understood that living in this world is a complicated, messy thing that has less to do with productivity and more to do with the immeasurable.  “It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength,” he wrote to his brother Theo,  “And whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done.”

At the beginning, and middle, and end of all things, this is my sacramental work, and your work too.  So if the world ends in a blinding flash while I am sitting next to my daughter at the kitchen table; if I am standing in a glade of young alders with my dog; if I am here, at my window, writing; I want to be loving fiercely all the while.  For I have found that living well in the mundanity of the day-to-day requires great courage and audacious love.

So wherever you are this week, whatever you are doing, may you have the strength to turn from fear to love.  May you choose to hope.  May you seek wisdom to do your work well.  And may you find joy in this good, infused world.

Peace,

Kim

P.S.  What is the good work you have been given?  We would love to hear from you.  Please leave a comment on our blog, Facebook, or send us a note .  If you’re on Instagram, use hashtag #thisgoodwork.  You can find our daily Instagram posts, with quotes from inspiring people and photos of daily wonder, at each_holy_hour.

P.P.S.  For further reading to help you in your journey this week, I recommend these articles:
We Can’t Survive in a State of Constant Agitation by Sharon Salzberg;
Vincent Van Gogh on Art and the Power of Love. . . by Maria Popova;
The Hollowness of Autumn Leaves Space for Light, by one of my favorites, Parker Palmer.
Oh, yes, and this one:  You’ll Never Be Famous, and That’s Okay by Emily Esfahani Smith

Consider: Song in a Broken World

Dear Friends,

After a busy summer, Lindsay and I are settling back into school-year rhythms.  We’ve missed the practice of writing for Each Holy Hour and the camaraderie of exploring this good world with each of you.  We hope your fall routines are emerging with space for a cup of tea and a deep breath.  I wrote this reflection a few days ago, shortly after our summer ended in the sort of unexpected tragedy that marks all our lives.  Thank you for sharing this space with me.

It’s been a week since I watched my dog die, and today I am finding the business of living difficult. I am trying to summon my energy for tasks and goals. I am trying to make myself go for a walk, by myself.  Charley, our Jack Russell, was after all a dog, and I can live without a dog. But the truth is, I miss him terribly.

It doesn’t help that our sun glows red today from the fires devastating Washington and Oregon’s exquisite forests. Elsewhere, floods and hurricanes shatter livelihoods. As I watered my parched garden this morning, I pulsed with the ancient question: why do terrible things destroy good? Why does senseless violence pummel homes, devour lives, wreck hopes, and just last week, tear our beloved dog apart in front of my daughter Beatrix and my niece?

I haven’t been able to get the images out of my mind. As we walked home from soccer practice, a large, vicious dog appeared silently, took Charley in his jaws, and shook him until he died.  In the hours that followed, Beatrix kept sobbing, “Why did that have to happen?”

I don’t know, I don’t know, I’m sorry. It is the only refrain I can find in moments of tragedy.

What I see in this world is beautiful. What I see in this world is broken. What I know right now is sadness.

And yet. Last night, as Beatrix lingered over dinner, I suddenly thought of an old hymn we learned years ago at our Mennonite Church. Before I knew it, I was singing it out loud, locking eyes with my daughter.

My life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the sweet, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

Over the years, through bone-shattering tragedy that has destroyed people and places we loved with all our hearts, I have come back to that hymn. Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

Today, once again, I hold both the reality of not-knowing, of grief, alongside this song my soul sings. It is a song shot through by the same sure joy I saw in our dog as he sprinted after a squirrel or snuggled next to Beatrix at the end of the day. It is the song that stirred us as a policeman laid his own jacket over Charley’s broken body.  It is the song of my sister quietly returning to scrub away the signs of brutality from the pavement.  It is a song I chose to hear, of being alive in a place where–despite everything–Love is Lord of heaven and earth.

Lindsay sent me an excerpt from Le Petit Prince a few days ago.

“Goodbye,” said the fox. “Here is my secret. One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”

Thank you, friend of my heart, for those words. Today, though my heart aches, I choose to return again to what is essential:  great love, a world shot through by beauty and goodness. How then can I keep from singing?

Peace,

Kim

p.s. Join us on The Back Page for a discussion about summers, dogs, and new responsibilities.  We’d love to hear your summer memories and your autumnal hopes! (Spoiler Alert: Kim is getting to know a beautiful rescue dog and Lindsay is busy with students!)

p.p.s.  We’ve still got a stack of lovely “Each Holy Hour” cards.  Please let us know if you’d like to find one in your mailbox.  Just visit the “Contact Us” page at our website and send us your address.  There’s no obligation and your information is completely private–it’s truly a free little gift of wonder.