For 18 Years Now (a poem for Jeffrey’s birthday)

In the young light
this morning, when
I stepped out on the porch
with Bon, a perfect half-
moon shimmered its
luster over the edge
of day

And I thought of
how we’ve had your
luminous heart for
eighteen years
now

how you
shine light into the
moments; how you shimmer—
give to us a piece of
the sky, burning our
half-moon days into
full, silvery bloom

West Virginia Morning: Advent Devotion

This morning there is no sun. The white sky fills with young light but there is no warmth. The thermometer tells me it’s seventeen degrees. I go out to fill my bird feeders dressed for a blizzard. When I come back in, I light all the candles and kindle the Christmas lights. Then I sit, beside the tree, with Bonnie wedged in the chair beside me. She is a good companion for the listening, and this is what we do—close our eyes and strain hearts to hear something, anything—that still, small voice.

Then I try to do some reading. Have I mentioned I’m having trouble reading lately? My hands ache to be busy and my body begins to feel squirmy and soon my mind wanders and the words float before me like alphabet soup. I keep trying, though, and this morning I gathered some of my Advent devotionals and read a little from Scott Cairns, who is one of my favorite poets. Then I read some Wendell Berry poems out loud to Bonnie, who was rapt and appreciative. But this Advent, this season of Light, I mostly have been practicing listening.

Early on in the Advent season I told a dear friend about my struggles with reading and she made some wise suggestions. “I think you need to not read any books at all,” she said. “I think maybe you need to listen.” She went on to suggest music, or poetry, or the Psalms. And then later, she gave me a tremendous gift. Every day she reads to me a chapter from one of her favorite Advent devotionals on Voxer. I listen to her readings each morning as I drive to work. The book is quickly becoming one of my favorites too. My friend told me she is reading for herself as well as for me, but as I listen to her rich voice give me words and stories, I feel treasured. I feel loved.

I spent so many years reading aloud to my sons. It was an act of love, a sacrifice. The gift of time is enough, but the gift of story? Nothing feeds my soul more. How good it is to be cared for this way.

After my Advent listening, I wash my son’s bedclothes and put clean sheets on his bed. Tomorrow I will drive all day to bring him home for winter break. There is rain in the forecast, possible icy conditions, but the thought of his company on the way back home warms me from the inside out.

These are small things but Christmas first came to us in the small, did it not? That swaddling babe wrapped in rags, sleeping in the manger. I am finding hope in the small moments this year, cherishing my small life. And I am learning that this is no small thing.

Black Friday: Bittersweet

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This morning as the bacon sizzled in the pan, I looked out the bay window to see a large black crow flying over the meadow behind our house. Something about the slow way he pushed down on the air with his massive wings put a song in my heart. He was unhurried, dipping low into the frost-tipped grasses, lifting feathered body high against a gray day dawning.

These past few days have felt like an extended Sabbath and as Sabbath-keeping always does, a quiet celebration has been kindled in my heart.

Yesterday we feasted with our loved ones and took our traditional after-dinner walk. My mother-in-law showed us the wild vines of Bittersweet growing tangled all along her property. She decorated the dining table with it this year and it seemed the perfect thing. After our walk, we lingered long in each other’s presence, keenly aware someone was missing, feeling the joyful ache of love and longing all wrapped up in each other. This will be the year of firsts without him, and we cling tightly to what is left behind, finding comfort in being together.

Tomorrow, we make that long drive to drop our boy back at his dorm and already I feel lonely for him. These are the ways God is preparing my heart for Advent—this crazy mix of joy and grief. It’s a strange feeling, this hollowing out of all the stuff of the world I carry in me to make room for the divine.

Philippians 2:5-11 says that Jesus made himself nothing. Being in very nature God … he made himself nothing. (NIV). The NRSV says he emptied himself. It’s the Greek verb form kenóō“to empty”.

In Christian theology, we call it kénōsis—the voluntary emptying of my own will and allowing myself to surrender to the will of God.

He cannot fill me unless I am empty.

The world empties me when I am too weak to do it myself. Circumstances steal joy, hope is squelched and love runs out the door. And I am empty … empty.

The morning winks at me and the sky is heavy with unshed rain and I open my heart to this season. That empty inside is a tender ache—softer than before … sweet somehow. I let this mystery of my own becoming comfort and awaken the wonder. The wonder of waiting for a Lord who never leaves me.

The winner of my Advent giveaway is … Kelli! Congratulations, friend! I’ll be in touch soon.

Rooted

 

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My mother’s father was a coal miner—a hard-drinking man with rough hands who laughed easily and loved children. Mining was hard work, and sometimes dangerous, but it paid a fair wage. That was something a man with little education and a growing family in rural West Virginia could appreciate. His daddy farmed to feed his family; now that same land would give provision in a different way.

For my grandfather, this land where I now live was about more than making a living. It was a way of life. A way of life that has been slowly seeping away.

Mechanization in the 1950s and 60s changed the face of coal mining all across Appalachia. Thousands of miners lost their jobs and left the region. As the economy and industry shifted, the population declined further in the 1980s. Once-thriving mining communities became ghost towns as young families left in search of livelihood.

Bodies broken from years of hard labor became dependent on prescriptions to get through the day. Others self-medicated to forget the pain of their bodies and the emptiness of unemployment.

Gradually, the way of life the land gave us began to fade from our memories. Hollows once blossoming with carefully-tended homes and gardens became darker places. Lonely places.

But still, there are those who chose to stay. They stayed because they are rooted deeply here. Rooted deeply in a land that has given back to its people in more ways than can be named. And they remember the old ways.

My grandfather stayed. He stayed and pieced together a living as best he could. Life was different, but he was home. This land had been faithful to his family for generations.

In April of 2013, Harlan County, Kentucky, hosted a conference for people concerned about the changing economy in Appalachia. Attendees of the three-day Appalachia’s Bright Future gathering heard stories of people from other regions that have gone through similar economic transitions. One such person was Brendan Smith, a former cod fisherman from Newfoundland.

“Economic transition is about much more than bringing in jobs,” Smith said. “ … When the cod grounds shut down, what they did was offer us money. They’d send us a check, we’d beach our boats … We took the money but what we did was lose our sense of purpose. What you find in Newfoundland now is, a fisherman gets a check, buys a brand new beautiful truck and gets up at five in the morning to drive down to the docks and drink himself to death while he wishes he was out fishing.

“Work has to be about so much more than making a paycheck,” Smith went on to say. “Fishermen, coal miners, iron workers … we’re just proud of building, powering, feeding this whole country. So, just transition plans not only have to help us feed our families but also feed our souls.”

I think of my grandfather as I walk beside the creek with my children. I don’t know what it was about this land that fed his soul. The curves of these hills move differently inside of me. As I watch my boys skip rocks from the bridge, I wonder if Grandpa’s loyalty was not so much to the work of the land as it was to the slow pace of life this land engenders. To family and the deep relationships that grow in these hills.

I gaze down at swift-moving water slipping over smooth stones and wonder if my grandfather knew that his choice to stay would bring me where I am today … walking beside my two boys in a neighborhood that stands on a former cow pasture.

Home.

In this New York Times video, residents of McDowell County, W. Va., share memories and hopes for their rural community—in jeopardy because of high unemployment and an exodus of young people. Mobile users can view the video by clicking here.

Don’t forget to leave a comment on this post for a chance to win some great books!

This article originally appeared at The High Calling.

Garden Notes: Pinto Beans

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This summer my garden has been a lonely little plot. Between neglect due to family concerns, critter issues, and a rainier-than-the-norm season, my sweet little plantlets haven’t had much room to thrive. This morning when I walked Bonnie around the house, the withered pods of pinto beans caught my eye. Pintos are best dried on the vine but one glimpse of those yellowed husks told me I’d waited too long for picking. I dodged another summer shower to harvest them in. Then I sat at the kitchen table hulling the mottled beans and watching through the bay window as rain gave the back yard a good scrubbing. The papery husks split easily between my fingers and I dumped their contents onto newsprint to dry. I’ve always found the steady practice of stringing beans relaxing and soon fell into a reverie from peeling the skin off the pintos to the rhythm of rain.

We haven’t had much time to rest since returning from our family holiday. We went straight from joy into grief and our spirits are so tired. Summer is taking her last gasps and we feel her passing with regret. So many things have been left undone because our presence was required elsewhere. We would not have it any other way, of course. The time spent grieving and loving together has deepened our understanding of life—our hearts have been stretched further than we could imagine. But all the while we reel with a loss of home. Our roots have been lifted out from under us. It feels scary, unbalanced, this knowledge that loss might come again unbidden. We long for the ordinary, for things to go back the way they were. We long for the safety of home, that comfort that comes from all that is familiar and good.

When my boys were little, in their preschool room was a large plastic bin filled with pinto beans. The children loved to dig their hands down into the beans, all the way up to their elbows. The beans were cool and smooth, too small to be a choking hazard, and easily cleaned up if spilled. The children delighted to scoop and pour, making the sound of rain as the beans tinkled into bowls or cups or the backs of toy dump trucks. I remember tiny fingers combing trails through beans as I peel away the dried skins of my pintos. I caress the smooth shell of each bean and drop it into the pile. I scoop the dried fruit up in my hands when I am done, rejoicing in the coolness of each tiny circlet.

Who would believe the life nestled inside such an unassuming little seed?

My troubled little garden is helping me find my way home again. Pinto beans and cornbread are a thing here in West Virginia. When I was a girl, how I would tire of this common meal. But somehow? I know these beans I have hulled today will taste better than any I’ve ever eaten.