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: What We’ve Lost. . .or Not

Dear Friends,

In my twenties it was walruses.

“I’ll never become an expert on walruses.”  That was my wistful thought when I made the decision to move to Montana, fresh from college seminars on post structuralism, moral beauty, and environmental imagination. I had just spent six months in Tanzania, where I’d gained a passable ability to converse in Swahili, a taste for ugali, and a love for the bushbabies who clattered rocks off my metal roof each night. The world seemed excessively open and curious and I seemed full of agency.  I believed implicitly in the immortal words of Dr. Seuss: “You have brains in your head.  You have feet in your shoes.  You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”

I’d never cultivated particular interest in walruses, so giving them up as a possible life career caused me little more than the passing thought: here is a direction I won’t be going.

IMG_4680One door shut.

But all others seemed to gape open.

I’m nearly two decades beyond the time when I ruled out walruses once and for all.  And life looks incredibly different from forty as it did from twenty-two.  Less branching possibility, more prescribed probability.  Fewer trips to faraway continents, more trips to the grocery store.

Recently I read Amor Towles’ novel, Rules of Civility.  In the book’s final pages the narrator reviews her life.  As she thinks about her husband, her career and the life she built in New York, she reflects, “I have no doubt that they were the right choices for me.  And at the same time, I know that right choices are the means by which life crystallizes loss.”

I took a photo of that paragraph because I wanted to have it down just so.  Like Towles’ narrator, I love my life.  I feel the fit of each significant life choice and harbor no doubts about them.  I thrill when I walk out my door and think again for, perhaps, the thousandth time, “I can’t believe I get to live here.”  And, even so, I’m cognizant of the losses – all the walruses along the way – that indwell each gain.

I don’t mean this as lament; rather as stock-taking, as faithful render of life as I find it.  And there’s something compelling about all these losses.  They pile up not like so much inanimate dust, but like little flints that sometimes, when struck just right, still spark with latent energy.

As Towles’ narrator stands on the balcony thinking back on the right choices through which her right choices “crystallized loss,” she says, “I knew too well the nature of life’s distractions and enticements – how the piecemeal progress of our hopes and ambitions commands our undivided attention, reshaping the ethereal into the tangible, and commitments into compromises.”

The idea of piecemealing life has such an honest ring.  While I want my life to hum with the passion of worthy commitments, the groceries in the fridge persist in disappearing, my kids grow out of their soccer cleats, they clamor for homework help.  Bills arrive in the mailbox requiring payment. And that bathroom is not going to clean itself.  Life feels way too tangible and all too compromised.

But then, from somewhere deep inside something ineffable sparks and flares.  At times, these sparks seer and blister – things have gone by, doors are shut.  But sometimes these sparks seem to glimmer with a hint that all things treasured up in one’s heart are never gone, that all the branching profusion, though seemingly pruned years ago, is suddenly found miraculously intact.

in the snowIs it possible for both to be true?  Does the spirit obey its own physics – wherein things coming and going are all mixed up with one another, wherein losses are real and, at once, never truly lost?

Friend, whatever walruses you bear, bear them well and with love.  For we are all complex, expansive beings, and our hearts are immense and capable of holding much.

Peace,

Lindsay

P.S. As always, we love your comments and interaction.  Thank you!

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.