Grief Is. . .

grave“Grief is just love with no place to go.”

This definition by Jamie Anderson feels true but not entirely true, because grief is often mingled with other things.

Though it has no expiration date, we all know someone whose grief has ripened to self-pity. Grief laced with regret or despair can ruin a life and spoil good memories. Grief infected with bitterness festers like a canker.

But I’ve never known grief as pure as that for my niece Paislee who was born last February at 24 weeks and passed away four days later. There’s no bitterness, no pity, no regret, no despair tainting the grief—just the cavernous loss of all we had hoped for.

Grief is most often the loss of what you had, but sometimes it’s the loss of what you weren’t able to have.

Grief is the price we pay for love. (1)

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C.S. Lewis, a man who knew something about grief and even wrote a book about it, said, “Grief is not a state but a process like a walk in a winding valley with a new prospect at every bend.”

Last summer, on an evening walk, Laura and I found a baby bat sprawled out dead on the blacktop, his pink skin still hairless. Bat pups hold on while their mothers fly. Best as I can figure, he fell off her back sometime the night before.

It doesn’t go away; it just visits every once in a while.

After Paislee died, my parents went in to hold her for the first time free of the tubes and wires. In the pictures, her little mouth gaped open, stiff from the intubation tube.

The bat pup’s mouth gaped open too, in such a strange way reminding me of Paislee, reminding me that grief is just around the corner. It doesn’t go away; it just visits every once in a while to remind us of life and death and love.

Grief is a bruise, soothing to press and to feel the throb of love that responds, to sense Paislee’s absence, perhaps even more deeply than we sensed her presence.

Grief is, as Lewis said, a journey, a winding path with reminders in the strangest places.

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Grief is blunt and cold like the February wind chilling the graveside service at a hillside cemetery, but it’s also the embrace of friends who gathered on a workday bearing borrowed sorrow for a child they hadn’t known.

Grief is a knitted cream cap, not large enough to stretch over my fist, and a father carrying an unfathomably small casket to its resting place. Grief is a potted pink tulip on my desk from a coworker whose name I didn’t yet know. In memory of your niece.

Grief is my mother’s quivering voice on the phone saying, “She’s gone,” and the old gospel song “He Giveth More Grace” that played on Pandora only minutes after. His love has no limits/His grace has no measure;/His power no boundary known unto men./For out of his infinite riches in Jesus/He giveth and giveth and giveth again.

Grief is the taste of salt and tears, and grief is the taste of peanut butter cake.

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Grief is food and the hands that prepared it.

When someone dies in the South, people start baking. The answer to death is a hot oven or a quick run to the grocery store; the solution to grief is potato salad and brownies.

Grief is the taste of peanut butter cake.

As if knowing that our heart will stop, other people step in to keep our stomach going. Maybe it’s their distraction from the grief. Maybe they just don’t know what else to do.

The day after Paislee passed away, I drove down to South Carolina to be with my family. When I arrived at my brother and sister-in-law’s house, the table and counters and fridge bore the signs of Southern grief management, of breads, casseroles, cookies, fruit, meats, candies, sweet tea, and a peanut butter sheet cake, the likes of which I’d never eaten.

It’s that cake I remember most about those days of receiving guests and comfort. The moistness gave us something to talk about, to gather around and share. Its sweetness cut the bitter, like grace on a plate.

Grief is sorrow, but not without comfort, not without hope.

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balloonsGrief is to reappraise our hope for eternity, to reaffirm our faith in Christ.

At Paislee’s graveside service, we released pink balloons, watched them climb to the atmosphere and float over the mountains like pink prayers. Who knows where they landed.

Grief is to know heaven more deeply, but to know we aren’t there yet.

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For now, grief is—

But some day no more.

 

 

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Author’s Note: Scripture references that I allude to are I Thessalonians 4:13 and Revelations 21:4.

(1) Attributed to Queen Elizabeth II, though, as quotes go, it’s hard to say where the quote actually originated.

 

The Inconvenience of Kindness

I try to be nice to people—but I don’t always enjoy it.
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     You’ve probably heard that no good deed goes unpunished! Well, depending on your definition of punishment, that principle seems to almost always prove itself true in my experience with doing good deeds. Almost always, in­ some small or big way, I am inconvenienced, taken for granted, abused, or even rejected when I try to do something nice—or at least I am afraid of being inconvenienced, abused, taken for granted or rejected. Maybe my fear just makes it worse. (I also have a propensity for messing up even the smallest favor. As my dad would say, I could mess up a one-car funeral.)

No good deed goes unpunished!

      Part of our plan for more purposeful living involves doing something with or for others at least once or twice a month. As we were thinking through a list of “nice things to do for others,” a small part of me groaned, even as I looked forward to doing the items on the list. And, of course, I immediately recognized this as an area in which I need to grow.
     This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about the inconvenience of kindness, and I think there’s a good reason for it.
     Love, hospitality, righteousness, even just being nice—these are all only as valuable as the sacrifice or inconvenience involved in practicing them. As a selfish human, this isn’t something I like to hear. Though I derive great pleasure from being nice simply for the sake of being nice, the risk of negative repercussions has often kept me from doing something good for someone.
     This is probably why Christ warned against doing good deeds to get a human response. (“That your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly” [Matthew 6:4 NKJV].) He knew that being reward for doing good deeds might give us a big head and rob us of a heavenly reward, and He knew that being repaid with unkindness or no repayment at all would discourage us from doing good things. God wants us to have a higher motivation for doing good—for the least of these, for Him

I’ve been thinking a lot about the inconvenience of kindness.

     On Tuesday morning—Valentine’s Day—we were walking Dudley around our apartments before work. As we rounded the last corner, a big muddy Husky came walking up to us dragging a tattered rope. Clearly, he had broken free from his tether.
     Though I love animals and felt sorry for him, I probably would have hurried by because I was afraid he might bite me, afraid he might make me late to work, afraid he might drag me across the parking lot. In other words, I was afraid he might inconvenience my otherwise well-laid-out Tuesday. Laura was the one who picked up the rope and dutifully led him like a small horse back to our apartment.
     And sure enough, he did inconvenience us. He muddied Laura’s white coat and my red sweater. And by the time we called animal control and got him tied up and got Dudley calmed down, I was going to be late for work. So I emailed my manager and switched my work-from-home day from Thursday to Tuesday. And, well, you know how a routine is when a Tuesday turns into a Thursday—the rest of the week is thrown off.
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     But if I had walked by him, gone into work on Tuesday, and worked from home today, I wouldn’t have gotten this 17-dollar Under Armour water bottle that the assembly speaker gave away this morning.
     Sometimes good things come to us when we choose to do good things—not in a karma, formulaic sort of way, but by doing the right thing at the right time.
     If we’re honest, contrary to the old saying, we aren’t always punished for our good deeds, and we certainly aren’t always rewarded for them. But doing a good thing is always good enough. And we can let God take care of the rest.
     Oh, and the owners, who had been driving around looking for the dog, eventually saw him lying on our front patio. They were happily reunited. The dog’s name was Neeko.
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Unintentionally Living Intentionally

Live intentionally.

I’ve been hearing that phrase a lot lately. I even jotted it in my journal sometime last year because it sounded like a good thing to try—sounded like a good New Year slogan.

But I forgot about it because, turns out, January wasn’t the best month. A heavy year like 2016 doesn’t just slough off at midnight on December 31. If you’re not careful, you drag it into the next year like a dead body shackled to your soul.

The Northern Kentucky weather didn’t help things. In this month, we’ve seen only a handful of sunny days. The days that aren’t raining and snowing are heavy and overcast. The ground is the consistency of a Wendy’s Frosty, and my boots make sucking noises in the mud when I walk Dudley outside. Laura and I have been sick on and off with colds.

I haven’t been able to shake the deep-down sadness

Overall, I wasn’t able to shake the deep-down sadness, for one reason or another. I could hardly get through a week without crying.

Earlier this week, I broke down once again to Laura, replaying my gloom and insecurity and fears—all I’m not, all I want to be, all I’m afraid I never will be. She answered by jotting something on a piece of paper.

“Here, fill this out.” At the top, she had written, “My goals” and at the bottom, “Steps for achievement.”

This was easy. I’d already made the list—in fact, I’d made more than one in my journal. Lose weight. Write more. Get better at hand lettering. Spend more time outside. Make more friends. Volunteer somewhere to give back. But I was overwhelmed by the expectations for myself. When I finished scribbling my list (overflowing onto the back page), Laura put another piece of paper in front of me—a hand-made spreadsheet breaking down the hours in each day of the week.

I’m unintentionally living intentionally.

We dumped our pile of goals, desires, and hours onto the table like puzzle pieces and sorted them onto the spread sheet: work, exercise, church, writing, reading, lettering, adventures, service. We fitted them together to form a life that will mean more than one of these days living, than I want to living, than if only living. A life with more purpose, more structure, more productivity, more focus—hey, maybe more intention.
I didn’t mean to do it—but I guess you could say I’m unintentionally living intentionally.

I encourage you to do the same thing with me. Here are some good ways to get started:

1. Make a list of what you want to change or goals you want to reach.

2. Figure out a plan of how to achieve that change and those goals.

3. Schedule that plan into your life.

4. Make it happen.

5. Good grief, find a good friend like Laura who will take on the year with you.

Hey, I already went to bed later than scheduled. I skipped the first day of my workout. I ate more sugar yesterday than I should have. I didn’t write on Friday. Part of starting something new is realizing that you’re going to fail, that you’ll have to make adjustments for life.

You know, 2016 is so last year. But for all we’ll fail and all we’ll succeed, 2017 is a new start.

Let’s make it count.

I’d love to know what your goals are for 2017—or even just for tomorrow. Let me know in the comments.

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Her Light in Me

This Christmas, Laura always remembered to plug in the strand of colorful lights around our patio door before I got home from work. The gumdrop colors framing the glow of light from within our apartment gave me something to look forward to as the evenings darkened.

img_7245In fact, all of our decorations inside made me eager to be home from the cold and dark. The three-foot Christmas tree sitting on an end table, laden with ornaments we’ve collected through the years; the nativity scene on the bookshelf; two snowmen figurines and some festive Christmas balls on the mantel; a decorative towel on the stove. It’s not much—not compared to other more elaborate decorators.

When I think of elaborate decorations, I think of my mom. Decorating my apartment takes me thirty minutes; Mom takes a series of days or even weeks to scatter her house with garland, ornaments, bells, cardinals, holly branches, pine cones, cotton snow mounds, glitter, and the many musical Hallmark snowmen and Disney characters that my grandmother sends my younger sister every year for Christmas.

But whether extravagant or meager, why do Mom and I go through all the trouble? In fact, why does anyone decorate at all?

According to historians, ancient people thought the darkening winter days meant that the sun might go away forever. To entice the sun to shine again, they built enormous bonfires—the first Christmas lights.

Though we know better now, on winter days we still feel as if the sun may never shine again. Good tidings of comfort and joy are eclipsed by the early darkening evenings. Isn’t this why, rather than enticing the sun to shine again, we provoke our spirits to lift by wrapping just about anything in lights or tinsel or shiny ornaments? (Even Rudolph contributes with his nose so bright.)

When the world turns blue in the winter evening darkness, I can think of nothing more relaxing than to admire the tree twinkling in the corner of my living room. But I didn’t always feel the excitement of turning on the lights.

When I lived at home as a teenager, Mom was gone for whole days during December, Christmas shopping. The phone often rang close to dusk as Mom was running into the last few stores. “Can you start dinner?” she asked. “Just turn the oven to 350 and stick in the casserole.” I already knew her next request. “And can you turn on the lights?”

Some folks understand their responsibility to light an entire season.

It was a chore, back then, going from one end of the house to the other, reaching behind tables and beds to plug in the electric candles taped into each window sill; trudging out on the cold concrete porch to plug in the icicle lights; getting stabbed and poked as I reached around the Christmas tree to illuminate the strands of lights and the star for our neighbors to see.

If the house wasn’t lighted when Mom came home, she shuffled through the kitchen and dining room, each arm laden with shopping bags, and yelled, “Nobody look!” After she stashed the gifts in her bedroom, we’d find her half buried behind the tree, feeling among the branches for the green electrical plug and mumbling something about how she didn’t understand why someone couldn’t plug the lights in and was it really that hard?

I always felt guilty right then, feeling I was somehow failing to carry out or carry on a tradition that meant so much to her.

I’ve learned since then that decorating for Christmas is something you choose to do or not do—it isn’t mandatory. Just look at any neighborhood where some yards are lit up like a—well a Christmas tree while the neighbors house is Halloween dark. But it seems some folks understand their ability—even perhaps responsibility—to light an entire season with the glow of lights. It’s our defense against the darkness. I like to think that the urge in these people starts with the light in themselves—a selflessness that sends them climbing attic steps or descending basement stairs to retrieve boxes and bags, to wrap and hang and stand and string their decorations for others to see, to dispel the wintry gloom and darkness threatening to consume their patch of the world.img_7259

Last year, I visited my parents at Christmas. When she walked into the house after being away all day, Mom was smiling, pleased. “You can tell Sarah’s home—the lights are on in the windows.”

The truth is, I couldn’t wait to plug in those candles and her tree and watch the darkness flee.

And last week, as I hesitantly stashed away my  decorations for another year, it occurred to me that maybe, even with my dinky tree and measly decor, I have a little bit of Mom’s light in me.

 

Hopes and Fears of 2017

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

nativityThis line from my favorite Christmas carol is speaking, of course, to the little town of Bethlehem that welcomed the Christ child to the world.

Tonight, as we sit on the edge of a new year, do you realize that within “all the years” is included 2017? I’ve seen people on Facebook beckoning the new year with open arms, eager to escape a fearful and turbulent 2016.

Well, 2017 might be better; it also might be worse. We have as much reason for expectation as we do for cautious trepidation. But in all times, the good and bad, our hopes and fears are met in the grace, goodness, and peace of a Savior who already knows what the year will hold.

Let’s cherish 2016 for what it taught us and take 2017 as it comes—one day  at a time.

 

Good Tidings of Eggnog and Joy

eggnogWhen I was young, Mom threaded popcorn, piece by piece, in strands to drape around the tree.* After Christmas, she wrapped it around a slab of cardboard and stored it in a tin where it kept for close to 20 years. But a few years ago, instead of the real popcorn, I went home to find strands of plastic popcorn draped around the tree.

Soon, even the tree itself was in jeopardy when Mom mentioned buying an artificial one rather than the fragrant pine my parents usually haul home from the Lowe’s parking lot.

A few years ago, another tradition bit the dust at my own suggestion.

Thanksgiving is the starter pistol that launches the Christmas season marathon. It also launches Mom’s festival of turbo baking. For most of the Christmas season, Mom stands in the kitchen, her oven glowing. We can expect ham and Swiss sandwiches with poppy seed spread on Hawaiian rolls; a cheese ball rolled in pecans; chocolate covered pretzels; peanut butter fudge; peppermint brownies; cappuccino punch; cracked corn casserole; fried bread; Rolo pretzel bites; and lemon cookies rolled in powdered sugar.

Jesus didn’t eat the cake, and neither did we.

During the week of Christmas, Mom always baked a star-shaped white cake, slathered it with her homemade yellow icing, and wrote in blue frosting letters, “Happy Birthday, Jesus.” We sang to Christ then blew out His candles. But inevitably the cake sat there for weeks, molding under the cake-taker cover. Jesus didn’t eat it, and neither did we. But who could blame us with all the other gratuitous goodies that Mom spread before us.

At some point it became awkward to gather and sing “Happy Birthday” to a conspicuously absent Jesus. Finally two years ago when I saw her reach for the cake mix box, I objected, “Mom, don’t make it. I mean, why don’t we just stick candles in one of the brownies or pieces of fudge?”

She looked hesitant, as if I may have been spouting heresy.

“I don’t think Jesus will mind,” I insisted. “Do you really think He’d want us wasting a whole cake? Besides, it isn’t even His real birthday. Some scholars say that he was probably born in the spring.”

Another skeptical moment, and then, “Well, all right.” She wedged the box back in the cupboard, and so ended that tradition.

It’s the smell of every Christmas season that I can recall.

One Christmas tradition, however, remains as constant as a carol. And unlike the neglected, moldy cake for poor Jesus, it hardly lasts a few days.

Thanksgiving is soon enough for my family to hope that Dad will pull out his deep silver pot and whip up a batch of eggnog.* We wait for the moment when he lugs a gallon of milk and carton of eggs from the refrigerator, grabs the blue sugar container with the melted edge, and pulls a little brown bottle of rum flavoring from the cupboard.

The milk “glub glubs” as he empties the gallon into the pot and turns on the burner. Egg whites, sugar, and vanilla thicken and mound like snowdrifts against the sides of the silver mixer as he beats them on the highest speed.

Next, he folds the egg white mixture into the heated milk and dusts it with nutmeg. He stirs and stirs and stirs, a mesmerizing rhythm of spoon tapping the sides of the pot. The simmering brew fills the house with the smell of rum and spices—the smell of every Christmas season that I can recall.

eggnogWhen the eggnog has cooled a bit, he calls someone to hold the strainer and funnel while he pours the concoction into a milk jug. Baked pieces of egg whites and clumps of nutmeg catch in the metal strainer as the warm mixture flows into the funnel. Finally Dad rinses off the sides of the jug and into the fridge it goes.

About eight ounces of eggnog that won’t fit in the jug gets poured into a cup. Most of that remainder never makes it to be chilled in the fridge, not after the cup is passed around to lips eager for the first sip of the season.

It’s a long process, so Dad only makes two or three batches a season. But those we ration,  in the back of the fridge, and peek in now and then to make sure no one has taken the last of it.

Those rich, thick sips remind me of the very essence of Christmas

Holiday guests ask for it, and more than once we’ve watched half a gallon at a time go to particularly close friends. As they carry off a brimming Rubbermaid pitcher, I’m initially hesitant to share. It’s not that I even like the stuff so well. (Truth be told, the eggy sweetness turns my stomach if I drink much more than a slosh.) It’s just my favorite Christmas tradition.

Each year those reliable rich sips, unchanged by the passing of time and variance of life, remind me of other enduring Christmas’ traditions—peace and goodwill, charity and love, tidings of comfort and joy.

I suppose those should be shared, a pitcherful at a time.

 

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*I won’t deny nibbling at it once or twice when I was very young. In fact we have pictures catching me in the act. My only regret is that it wasn’t cheddar flavored.

**Though we don’t know exactly where the word eggnog originated, some etymologists believe it comes from the term noggin, referring to a wooden mug that eggnog was often served in. Some etymologists believe that nog stems from the Norfolk word referencing strong ales. But perhaps it came from colonial times when Americans asked their bartenders for an egg-and-grog. Say it fast over decades and you’ve got eggnog. Man, language is weird and wonderful.

Stuffing and a Silent Moment for Thanksgiving

thankfulforFor the past several Novembers, I’ve watched eagerly as my Facebook news feed turned into a gratitude fest with my friends posting daily things that they were thankful for, leading up to the big day of thanks itself.

But this year, it seems that Trump and Hillary, emails and lewd tapes, Democrats and Republicans (and third partiers), shootings and riots, legals and illegals, Harambe and alligators, and every other piece of news festering in my feed has robbed us of the one thing we need to concentrate on the most: a quiet moment to be thankful.

It reminds me of my favorite part of Thanksgiving.

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Though I attended many praise services on Wednesday evenings in my childhood, I don’t remember a single one. No doubt, I sat through many readings of I Thessalonians’ invocation to “in everything give thanks.” I’m sure I droned out the dusty hymns that sat in the back of the hymnal: “Come Ye Thankful People Come” and “We Gather Together.” Albeit sincere, those services seemed terribly predictable and, quite frankly, just seemed like a desperate attempt to catch up on what we should have been doing every day all year.

In all those praise services, my attention span was shortened by eagerness for the pastor to say the final “Amen,” because Thanksgiving began for me as soon as the service was over.

Thanksgiving began for me as soon as the service was over.

When we got home after church, I slipped into a nightgown, then milled around the kitchen, waiting for Dad to change into his plaid pajamas and begin gathering the ingredients for Thanksgiving stuffing: two loaves of bread, a stalk of celery, an onion. He balanced three eggs gingerly on the counter. Then out came my mom’s biggest pot into which he plopped the butter. I stood on my tiptoes to watch the sticks grow shiny and soft, transforming into a puddle of gold.

Wiping his eyes on the sleeves of his T-shirt, Dad swept chopped onion pieces into the pot.

I rushed to hand him the next ingredient, my favorite, the celery. He chopped off the end and separated the stalks down to the center. “Can I have the heart?” I asked eagerly. Dad had taught me the term heart years earlier, one of the first years I was allowed to stay awake and watch the process, and I was proud to have remembered the term.

When he handed me the neon yellow center, I fingered it for a bit before nibbling the end. I hated—still hate—the taste of celery, but something about eating the heart felt exotic.

Scratch-clunk, Scratch-clunk, Scratch-clunk. The knife chopped through the fibers, and Dad added the green u-shaped chunks to simmer with the butter and onion.

Something about eating the heart felt exotic.

Finally the bread. His machete-like knife sliced through two loaves with Dad’s big hand holding the cubes in place. Crumbs sprinkled the counter as he dropped them to soak into the butter mixture.

Next the soggy cubes went into a big Tupperware bowl where he tossed them in beaten eggs.

To be honest, I’m not sure of the next steps because at this point, comforted by the kept tradition, I usually slipped off into my room and crawled into bed, the scent of onions and celery tucking me in. And in the stillness, with light seeping under the closed door and the sound of Dad’s pots and pans clinking in the kitchen, I counted all my blessings and fell asleep.

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I didn’t type all of my thankfulness into a Facebook status this year. But this evening, when I crawl into bed, I think I’ll pretend to be that little girl again, wrapped not in the aromas of onion and butter but in the silence of gratitude and contentment.

I wish the same for you.

“One Horrible Thing After Another”: A Celebration of Hagfish Day

It’s National Hagfish Day, a day to focus on the unattractive and downright disgusting or horrific creatures of nature.* Seemed like a good time to run this portion of my MFA third semester research project, “A Place in the Family.” This paper focused on learning from women nature writers how to reconnect with nature. It’s important, I think, to value all creatures and to figure out where they belong in our ecological family of creation.

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Nature and humans are connected by our creation. . . . With our anthropocentric tendencies, we forget that we have been created just as the frog and the lily pad, the bird and the tree. It’s easy to forget our connection to nature because we have severed ourselves from it.

Once, not so long ago, humans respected nature, relying on it for many of our needs; we were a community with interacting species. More than just physical necessities, nature provided us with identity and purpose. A man was nothing without land to till or livestock to tend. But with the Industrial Revolution and subsequent advancements, humans built more walls, poured more concrete, and founded larger towns rather than small sustainable communities. As our need for nature’s resources expanded, our regard and respect for nature itself grew smaller. Rather than partners, we turned ourselves into strangers.

Nature finds its place with us by simply being close by.

Nature, however, has not drawn back from remaining connected with us. The tree that forces its roots through the sidewalk, a sparrow that builds its nest in a stoplight, the ant that makes its way into the pantry, and the frog that makes its home in the siding–nature finds its place with us not in an intentional desire for closeness, but by simply being close by. Humans will never find a complete sense of place until we rediscover the community that is waiting in nature. To do this, however, we must repair our damaged and neglected ties to nature including our toxic thoughts about it. . . .

One toxic mindset that we must address is our repulsion of or prejudice against certain parts of nature. In our obsession with aesthetics, we easily disregard or avoid species that we find unappealing. The goblin shark with its horrific horn-like snout and snaggle-toothed mouth; hairless cats with smooth gray skin instead of fluffy fur; proboscis monkeys with their Jimmy Durante-esque nose; the giant water bug with its capacity to suck the life out of frogs and small snakes; the dolls eye plant with blossoms resembling eyeballs impaled on red stems; viruses with an appetite for flesh or brain; and, most notably, the recent winner of the world’s ugliest animal contest, the blobfish with its gelatinous body, drooping nose, and down-turned mouth.

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No doubt, along with its magnificently beautiful and awe-inspiring facets, nature presents no small array of poisonous, frightening, and downright horrifying species. One creature was appalling enough to shake Charles Darwin’s religious faith. He said, “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.”

Even much less gruesome species of insects . . . receive derogatory reviews. I walked out my front door a few weeks ago to find what looked like a yellow and black smiley face stuck in the middle of an ornate spider’s web strung across my porch. After some examination and a quick check on the Internet, I found the smiley face to be the spider itself–a star spider flaunting its striking yellow abdomen with black dots surrounding it. Later that day I posted a picture of the spider on Facebook, garnering various remarks. One friend commiserated with me about the inconvenience of the tenacious spiders that build webs across his walkway. Another aptly represented how many people feel about nature: “Oh, sick. Another reason I’m moving back north.”

Insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another.

Instinctively, we draw back in horror at creatures with more than two eyes and four legs, or an exoskeleton rather than fur. No doubt, horrific species exist with horrific habits. Even Annie Dillard, in her minute inspection and awe of nature, seems to shudder as she writes, “Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another. . . . I ask why of almost every insect I see. . . . But they make up the bulk of our comrades-at-life, so I look to them for a glimmer of companionship” (Pilgrim Tinker Creek,64–65).

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However, just as Dillard acknowledged, the unattractive and horrific still hold purpose and value, even if only because they are living creatures. Gretel Ehrlich concurs with the need to connect with the uncomely species. Though in Wyoming Ehrlich typically encountered cattle, horses, and prairie dogs, with the summer heat came a plethora of insects. Like Dillard, she marvels at the populace of the insect world. “It’s said that 80 percent of all animal species are insects. . . . It does no good to ask . . . why so many insects exist–so I content myself with the cold ingenuity of their lives,” and she describes how ants heat their underground chambers in the winter by sending up worker ants to act as solar collectors (Solace of Open Spaces, 69). Instead of disregarding the ants and other insects, she studies them to understand their patterns and habits.

From black mold to flesh eating bacteria, from the sea louse to the oar fish, from the cockroach to the giant water bug, unappealing or dangerous species call for inspection, not repulsion. . . . [Why is it] not deemed unacceptable to grimace at an intricate species with a life and purpose its own as a part of creation that in the beginning God called good? It isn’t necessary to be best friends with everyone in a community, but we must respect them.

 

 

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For more reading on this topic, read about the Hagfish and check out this excellent article, “Caring About Creation for the Right Reasons.”

Thank You for Not Reading

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“Keep up the good work. No one reads this stuff anyway.”

In my first days as a content editor at my office, one of my coworkers gave me this snarky piece of motivation. I frequently glance at the phrase scrawled on a yellow Post-it at my desk—and grin.

Some days, it helps. When I’ve had to rush through articles, and I’m sure that I’ve missed a comma here or a hyphen there, I chuckle to myself: No one reads this stuff anyway.

And it helps here on Goose Hill, too. When I lament the few hits on my posts, and when I’m thankful for the eight people who care that I’m writing, but still wish for more to hear my thoughts—even then it strangely helps to think, “No one reads this stuff anyway.”

No one reads this stuff anyway.

I’m just practicing here—it’s not perfect, and fewer readers means fewer critics to catch my weaknesses. I’m no pro; I’m just writing for anyone who wants to read, including those who choose not to. Who knows how many readers are left to discover Goose Hill—what a nice surprise it will be when they find it.

So to everyone who has never visited my blog, I hope that some day you’ll read something you like here. But until then, thank you for not reading!

88 Keys and Constellations

We have pictures of my older sister, Heather, at eight years old, sitting at the piano, fingers curled tall on the piano keys, a big grin revealing her new teeth. It was a piano recital, and piano was Heather’s thing. In the afternoons, the house was often filled with her notes—the stops and stutters of fingers finding the way.

And then there was me. I had been writing since I was seven, filling Lisa Frank notebooks and stacks of lined paper with my burgeoning art. But when it came to the piano, 88 keys glared back at me—nothing but an ivory barrier between me and the stories I would have rather been writing. I hated to practice and rarely did. Piano to me was notes rather than music.

Of my various instructors through the years, Mrs. Kelly is one teacher I remember the most. When it came time for my lesson, I trudged up the hill to her house, books in hand. Heather had already been there for a while, cleaning the house to pay for her lessons. I didn’t care about who was paying for mine.

“Did you just roll your eyes at me?”

One day, after I mutilated my assigned song, Mrs. Kelly seemed determined to motivate my inner maestro. “You have to feel the rhythm! One and two and three and one and two and—here, see.” She stood from her seat beside the piano and began waltzing in the center of the room. I stared at the spectacle in typical preteen disgust. When at last she ended the embarrassing performance, we commenced the doomed lesson. Seeing my sloppy fingers smashed down against the keys, she attempted to remain upbeat: “Remember, octopus fingers, not jellyfish fingers—”

But my patience had found an end.

“Did you just roll your eyes at me?” Her patience, too, had found an end.

I had no defense, for I had indeed just rolled my eyes, knowing full better than to disrespect an adult in that way—even one as crazy as I thought Mrs. Kelly was.

Early in my teens, though I don’t remember the circumstances, we stopped taking piano lessons from Mrs. Kelly. Perhaps after the eye-rolling incident, Mrs. Kelly had a secret council with my parents, refusing to put up with my shenanigans any longer. Though they could have given up, left me to my failing ways, and saved their money for an entertainment center or a vacation, my parents found yet another piano teacher, my first male teacher, Nathan.

Nathan’s studio was set up in his parent’s basement—which sounds like the beginning of a horror story with a tragic ending. But the basement smelled of berry air freshener, lace curtains hung at the door, and Highlights magazines were stacked in the foyer. There I waited for the kid before me to finish his lesson as I clutched my books, hoping that somehow the notes would find themselves into my fingers by osmosis. Finally Nathan would open the door to usher out the student and call me in.

Nathan was a masters student, and although he seemed ancient to me then, he was probably younger than I am now. He wore glasses and sweaters and a smile that settled even the most hesitant of students.

For what seemed like the first 15 minutes of my 30-minute lesson, we talked about books, the news, and any other topic that struck our fancy. Sometimes he ran into the next room and return with a CD or book to show me. And we talked about my writing. It occurs to me now that perhaps he was just prolonging the inevitable of hearing me crash through my under-practiced songs like a  missionary thrashing through neck-high jungle brush with a machete, not quite sure where she was heading.

Perhaps he was prolonging the inevitable of hearing me crash through my under-practiced songs.

When we got around to opening the books for me to desecrate the art he had made his life’s work to teach, he pointed out the small improvements I had made and ways that I might further improve. Then he sent me on my way with encouragement and a piece of candy I hadn’t earned.

You should know that the issue wasn’t simply my disinclination to practice; I also knew that practicing ultimately led to performing, and performing in front of people made me sick. My nerves wrecked performances at piano guilds, festivals, competitions, and recitals. For offertory one Wednesday evening at church, I played the old hymn “Have Thine Own Way.” Ironically, my hands were having their own way, shaking so hard that I couldn’t keep them in place on the keyboard. I plunked my way through the song but somehow managed to finish a soulful final chord.

I remember slinking down to my pew, then out to the car after the service. Once at home Dad comforted me: “It’s not the way you start but the way you finish that counts.” Though the incident was a good life lesson, it wasn’t the perfect, final chord that rang in my ears but every wrong note I’d committed before it. Like a driver scared to get back behind the wheel after a wreck, I avoided the piano bench and those 88 menacing keys. All I really wanted to do was write in the solitude of my bedroom.

But something shifted during my years of lessons with Nathan. I continued to hate practicing, and still couldn’t command my nerves during performance, but with his laid-back approach to teaching, Nathan distracted me from the austerity of the keys. I grew comfortable enough to strike out on my own without sheet music and explore the keyboard with its combinations of notes and chords and rhythms. Instead of avoiding the piano, I was drawn to it for what I could discover—the music. Like a layer atop my writing, I’d found another way to express emotion and convey meaning.

It was redemption in my favorite key of B flat.

In my later teen years, Dad pastored a small church in South Carolina. Sometimes when we stayed late, after all the lights were turned off, I sat at the piano and picked out songs by ear, learning to roll chords to fill in between the beats. Soon I was composing my own simple hymn arrangements.
Something sacred went on in those evenings, something connected to that calamitous offertory and every other failed lesson and recital—redemption in my favorite key of B flat.
Even now, on Sunday mornings, I sit and look at the electric keyboard, my fingers curving in my lap, tapping out the notes along with our pianist, longing to find their place on the keys.
_________

Behind the door on Nathan’s studio wall was a framed picture of him as a child, sitting at a keyboard with a proud smile on his face. Seated demurely beside him was his teacher, a younger version of Mrs. Kelly—the same Mrs. Kelly who had willingly made herself a dancing fool before a cynical teenager, desperate to convey her passion for music. During each of my lessons with Nathan, she watched me over my shoulder, and I wondered if she had ever danced in one of Nathan’s lessons, years ago.

_________

A few weeks back, I was editing an article about bird speciation, written by an author in South Carolina where I’m from. When I emailed to ask what church the author went to, I recognized his response and asked if he knew Nathan, who attended the same church. His response didn’t surprise me: “He’s my children’s piano teacher.”

These experiences mark a pin-pricked map——my life in constellation.

We like to think of our life as a planet, a hunk of material in rotation around the cosmos, far too often at apogee from others. But life is really more like little points of light, stars joining to form the 88 constellations in the heavens, each experience or event connecting in some way to the next.*** sagittarius_28066977314

Mrs. Kelly taught Nathan to love the piano. Nathan taught me to appreciate music, and inadvertently, encouraged me in my writing. And here I sit, editing articles for an author whose children are learning piano from Nathan. Like a night sky stippled with galaxies, these and so many other experiences and events mark a pin-pricked map—my life in constellation.

I’m thankful for a passionate teacher who danced and for a teacher whose unconventional lessons still make me long for those 88 keys.

 

 

 ______________
Notes:
*There really are benefits to taking instrument lessons. Check out these articles: “Sorry, Kids, Piano Lessons Make You Smarter”  and “Science Just Discovered Something Amazing About What Childhood Piano Lessons Did to You.” However, in addition to piano lessons, I suggest that parents help children pursue their interests rather than forcing them to pursue an art or skill that they don’t enjoy or identify with.
**I think any teacher can understand Mrs. Kelly’s methods. There are no lengths to which a good teacher would not go to help a student learn and love learning. I get it now, Mrs. Kelly. And I’m sorry for rolling my eyes.
 ***Not once when I began writing about my piano trials did I expect to end up with a astronomy metaphor. Furthermore, I certainly never anticipated a corresponding detail so marvelous as 88 piano keys and 88 constellations. Nonfiction: I never saw it coming—and I sure couldn’t make it up.