The Weight of Waiting: A Giveaway

Last week we finally had our first frost and I was forced to abandon waiting on those last green tomatoes to turn. I picked the vines clean, tomato and pepper, marveling all the while at such a bounty in the second week of November.

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November. How can it be November, I mused? I sat at the kitchen table with a filled-to-the-brim colander in front of me and watched the leaves drop off the walnut trees. They fell from the branches in huge clumps, looking like birds dropping down to the earth.

I’d hoped to can this final crop but I knew the busy would catch up to me first. So I bagged up a poke of chilis and sent them off to a friend—another lover of growing things. It felt good to give away something long-awaited.

I’m attempting to lean into waiting seasons,” says my friend Kris Camealy, in her Advent devotional Come Lord Jesus, “to let God grow in me, a holy promise for the things promised but not yet revealed.”

Advent begins November 27th, and I can hardly catch my breath thinking it. Tomorrow we will pick up our boy from college—the nest will be full again for a short time. My hungry heart beats joy at the thought of kith and kin gathered around the hearth again. Thanksgiving ushers in that season of waiting in the sweetest of ways, stoking our hearts with wonder for the most common moments.

Advent always stirs that deep longing, fills with expectation. I strain my neck to see the manger, but also look inward to find Christ in me. I look ahead to the day when all will be made new in this tired world. Sometimes, it’s hard to let that work begin with me, let my fingers slip from the tight grip with which I hold it all. Waiting is hard.

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John Calvin said that the world is a theater of God’s glory, that he is “inclined to allure us to himself by gentle and loving means.” In his book Ravished by Beauty, theologian Belden C. Lane says, “[P]raise is a matter of studying in minute detail the footprints of God in the world.” He is referring to nature, but I have followed God’s footprints through the ways he is working in the lives of those I love of late. Some things are worth waiting for: watching my boys become amazing young men, feeling the bloom of marriage open into full blossom, friendships that weather the long storms …

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The past two weekends our church hosted a War Chest Boutique party for WAR International. If you’re not familiar with that ministry and its good work, by all means, read about it here. They are fighting human trafficking, among other things, and helping victims of this atrocity rebuild their lives by training them to in the craft of jewelry-making and the like. We sold over $1800 of merchandise. I find it a fitting thing to give away some of that beauty as we prepare to usher in Advent. Purple is the color of Advent, so we have a purple theme going on. If you’d like a chance to win a signed copy of Kris Camealy’s Advent devotional Come Lord Jesus: The Weight of Waiting, a beautiful purple clutch purse, an Amethyst chip ring, and a lovely  handcrafted Christmas ornament, just leave a comment on this post. I’ll announce the winner next Friday, November 25th.

This year I will step into Advent with thanksgiving and wonder and awe. This is how I feel God grow in me, this is the gift of waiting: the giving back of what has been sown and waited for, the giving away of that which has been tended with love.

In Praise of Fiction

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While skirting the headlines of the local paper last week, I was delighted at a little gem tucked away at the bottom the front page. The article chronicled a London theater group’s attempts to determine if being exposed to Shakespeare would increase milk production in a herd of dairy cows. The Changeling Theatre Company performed scenes from The Merry Wives of Windsor for Friesian cows at a Kent dairy farm.

“We selected scenes from the play we felt to be lyrical and relaxing,” said Rob Forknall, artistic director for the group.

Milk production was found to increase by four percent. It is believed that exposure to the Bard’s work relaxed the cows, therefore boosting milk production. I’ve never read Shakespeare to bovines, but I can vouch for the relaxation effect of a good piece of literature. Stories soothe the wild beast. And, um, the more placid, cud-chewing, lactating one (apparently).

When I was a girl, there were no books in my home. When money is tight and the library too far away, Dr. Seuss takes a backseat. There was no toddler lap time with eyes focused on colorful pages. No picture books with single words to jump start my reading skills. No sing-songy poems to capture my attention. No books. But there were plenty of stories.

At night when my mother tucked us in, she would always give us a bedtime story. Mostly, she offered well-known fairy tales—Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs—but sometimes she would spin her own. These were always the favorites. She was an animated storyteller—changing her voice with each character, giving sound effects where indicated. My brothers and sister and I would cocoon together in the dark, eyes wide with the wonder of pages of pictures turning in our heads.

That is where my love for story began. I learned to read with Dick and Jane in the first grade. But the decaying school I attended those first years of grammar school had no library. Still no books. Then, the summer before my third grade year, that old school building was condemned and the kids from our hollow were transferred. The first time I entered the library at Adamston Elementary, I was astounded. The walls were made of books and books and books and I had never seen anything like it. That library is where I found Nancy Drew, traveled to Narnia and The Island of the Blue Dolphins. It’s where I first experienced A Wrinkle in Time and spied my first Little.

That library was a place for a shy girl from an impoverished family to find new friends. Reading opened up the world for me. I learned about other cultures and other ways of life while nestled in  a small country lane in West Virginia. It connected me to the world in ways that simply were not available to me at the time. Reading showed me possibility.

I have carried my love of a good story with me through the years. There are few things I enjoy more than spending a free afternoon  with a well-written novel. But a good story is more than a warm fuzzy feeling. It is widely regarded that reading fiction helps develop imagination in young children (and probably adults … know anyone who can use some improving in this area?). Some maintain that reading novels is a more engaging way to improve vocabulary and thus improve scores on standardized tests. There is much documentation of the benefits of reading fiction for stress relief and improved mental health. Research by psychologist Raymond Mar found that fiction readers have better social skills and more empathy than those who purport to only read nonfiction. One study even suggests that reading fiction can change our personalities.

A well-crafted story reminds us that we are part of something larger than ourselves. It’s the reason humans have been telling stories since the beginning of time. Stories help us make sense of the world and understand who we are. As researcher Keith Oatley says, … fiction is about possible selves in possible worlds. Anyone who has ever been swept into an imaginary world and emerged to find himself changed in some way understands this very well.

Reading fiction enriches the way we experience life. We are, after all, each writing our own story in the way we live our lives. As for me, I plan on bringing some Shakespeare along the next time my phobic son has an orthodontist appointment. I just won’t make it MacBeth.

This article first appeared in variation at The High Calling.

Summer is for Reading

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Summer is for reading. For as long as I can remember, this has been true. Falling into a good story makes deliciousness out of the longest of days, especially when it’s too hot to do much of anything else.

A couple weeks ago I asked my husband, “Why doesn’t it feel like summer?” He shrugged and I pondered. After much thought, I realized I hadn’t been reading much fiction. I resolved to change that, because, after all—for a grown-up—summer is a state of mind.

There are sooo many good books waiting for my hungry eyes to devour, but not just any book would do. To step fully into summer, one needs the kind of book that will feed the heart, sing into the spirit, and whisk you away to a different world. I asked my friend Kelli what she would recommend—because Kelli is one of those people who is always growing, always learning, and being with her makes me feel young and happy. She always knows the kind of things that will sing into my spirit. Do you have a friend like that?

Well, Kelli recommended not one, but four books! A four-book series called The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson. “Are they good?” I asked. “They are so good,” she said, “that I can’t think about them without crying a little.”

Sold.

I was already familiar with Andrew Peterson’s music (thanks to Kelli and the Rabbit Room) and I knew I was in for a treat. Have you ever listened to Andrew Peterson’s music? It’s so lyrically rich and real. When we were going through the darkest parts of Jeff’s depression, this album in particular sustained me. And this song wrote deep things in my heart. If you aren’t familiar with his work, I can’t recommend it enough. Since I love his lyrics so much, I knew I would go gaga for his prose.

I wasn’t disappointed.

The Wingfeather Saga is technically a series for kids—young readers who devour chapter books (you know the ones). But in my experience, I’ve found these books to be the best for instilling wonder into the grown-up heart. This saga is the story of a family—the Igibys—who are caught up in an epic tale of dragons and dark creatures and good verses evil. The Igibys include three children: Janner, Tink, and Leeli, and their mother and grandfather. They live in a land ruled by evil but in their hearts is a memory of a time when goodness dominated the land. This is the story of their journey to restore that goodness and of all the things they learn about themselves and the world along the way. It’s pure beauty. I couldn’t put the books down, turning page after page until (in disappointment) I finally finished the last book. And then I had to wait a while before starting to read something else, because the characters were still so alive in my mind. The characters had become my friends along the way and I began to miss them even before I read the last word. Does that happen to you too? I felt sad that my boys are too old to read through these books with them. I wanted to resurrect read aloud at bedtime. But they wouldn’t go for that.

Another fiction book I’ve read recently and loved is The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. I’m embarrassed to say it’s the first of his works that I’ve read. Gaiman came to the West Virginia Book Festival back in the fall and I was amazed at the response to his presence among my peoples. Who is this guy? I asked my nineteen-year-old son. He’s a guy, he said. You’re probably too old to understand. So when some folks in my writer’s group were raving about his stuff I asked, “If you were going to read just one of his books, which one would you recommend?” The Ocean was it. It was another page-turner. Gaiman’s prose is beautiful and graceful and he weaves a world that instantly drew me in. If you love stories with elements of fantasy while still remaining rooted in this reality (maybe I should say, the fantasy is so well-done if feels like reality), you’ll enjoy this book tremendously.

Currently, I’m reading Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. I’m almost done with this book and the contrast between it and the above Gaiman selection has been an interesting thing to behold. Not many authors can effectively pull off long stretches of exposition and inner dialogue, but Berry is one. He paints a picture of small town America before, during, and immediately after the Great Depression that made me long for a simpler time. He manages to place ideas about farming and war and progress strategically into the characters’ stories in ways that made me think, and think hard. But also, his leisurely way of describing nature and human nature is a delight. A familiar to his lovely poetry (here’s my all-time favorite, and I share another favorite at the end of this post), I was expecting to fall in love with his prose. And I did. Wendell Berry’s writing is the full package.

Also on this stack you’ll see Gillian Marchenko’s Still Life: A Memoir of Living Fully with Depression. While this book is most definitely not fiction, I’ve been balancing out reading it in-between all the lovely stories described above. This is because it’s been a hard book for me to read. Marchenko describes living with Depression in such a real and heavy way that sometimes I find I’m holding my breath as I read. Our family is still recovering from the most recent episode of Depression and the pain of it remains close. If you’ve ever loved someone who has Depression, this book will help you understand what goes on in the mind and body of that person in new ways. This is a brave and much needed telling from the eyes of Depression.

I have another stack of other nonfiction books I’m reading this summer, but I’ll save that for another time. In the meantime, remember this: Summer is for reading. What’s on your summer reading list?

The Gathering Waters

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These past few days I cannot seem to shake this dis-ease—this disease of anxiety. It’s the feeling of the earth shifting under the feet; of doubt in all that I’ve known to be true. Our neighbors are hurting. We’ve given and donated and offered ourselves as available, but for those who’ve lost so much it can never be enough.

So I do what I always do when I feel helpless, I bury my nose in a book. A couple days ago I picked up Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, a novel I’ve always wanted to read but just never have until now. Summer is for reading, and what’s more, for reading fiction, in my book; so I finally took the plunge. I’ve savored every word of Berry’s economical writing, loving his storytelling voice, which—and this came as no surprise for one well-familiar with his poetry—is warm and rich and lovely.

Last night Jeff had a late meeting and Jeffrey had plans with friends, so after I fed the one remaining boy at home (grilled chicken and vegie kabobs, outside dining on the deck), it was with a thrill that I spread an old blanket out under the shade of the lilac bush. The ground is almost dry now from the heat of the summer sun, the sky dripped blue over me, and I could hear the grasses in the meadows shushing. I carried a stack of books with me like I was going on retreat and read with the songs of Robins as a backdrop.

Turned out I only needed the one book, Jayber Crow. I settled deeper and deeper into the story of orphan boy turned man and it was just the distraction I needed. Imagine my surprise, then, when I turned the page and came upon a chapter titled, “The Gathering Waters.”

In this chapter, Jayber is trying to get back home to Squire’s Landing, Kentucky after taking a roundabout way through Louisville. He is on foot and Berry soon has him walking through one of history’s greatest flood stories, The Great Flood of 1937. In Jayber’s story, he safely crosses a bridge in peril, only to find himself with nowhere to go. A policeman directs him to the capitol building, where he finds warmth, shelter, a hot meal, and a place to sleep for the night among other refugees.

I was thoroughly tired, and I didn’t exactly lie awake, but I didn’t exactly sleep either. As soon as I shut my eyes I could see the river again, only now I seemed to see it up and down its whole length. Where just a little while before people had been breathing and eating and going about their old, every day lives, now I could see the currents come riding in, at first picking up straws and dead leaves and little sticks, and then boards and pieces of firewood and whole logs, and then maybe the henhouse or the barn or the house itself. As if the mountains had melted and were flowing to the sea, the water rose and filled all the airy spaces of rooms and stalls and fields and woods, carrying away everything that would float, casting up the people and scattering them, scattering or drowning their animals and poultry flocks. The whole world, it seemed, was cast adrift, riding the currents, whirled about in eddies, the old life submerged and gone, the new not yet come.”

As I read Jayber’s story, I knew I was reading the story of so many West Virginians. My heart was in my throat as I poured over each line, each detailed description of Jayber’s encounters. The scenes were so real, so fresh to me, and images flashed through my mind of mud-filled school buildings, cars atop trees, houses spilled out into the streets. Everything I’ve seen and heard on the news these past few days came to the forefront of my mind and my heart was stilled. Berry places his hero in the Great Flood of 1937, a flood—Wikipedia tells me—that seeped from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois, left one million people homeless, took 385 lives, and caused millions (billions by today’s standards) in property damage. This, during the Great Depression when resources for aid were scarce.

It feels like our little state has dipped back in time. We keep shaking our heads and wondering how such devastation can occur during this day and age. But this is what comes of a living scratched out in the shadow of these ancient mountains, a living born in the rich soil of river valleys. It is, as Berry wrote, “… as if the mountains had melted and were flowing to the sea.”

Cleanup will take a long time here. It will cost much, in more than dollars.

If you want to see more of what is going on here, here’s a little taste from the Weather Channel.

If you’d like to help with the recovery, check out these organizations.

The Red Cross
The United Way of Central West Virginia
Volunteer West Virginia
The Salvation Army

And please keep praying for our neighbors.

The Earth Opened Up (a poem) and A Winner!

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Have you ever noticed how reading poetry inspires writing poetry? That’s what Megan Willome‘s book The Joy of Poetry is doing for me. Did I mention I’m giving away an autographed copy of Megan’s book? (Winner announced after the poem). Here are some lines that came to me while out running this past weekend.

The Earth Opened Up Before Me

the earth opened up before me,
and I ran as in a dream, legs
alive apart from body,
breath morphed into a living
creature, skin baptized by
dew; the light of morning a
scrim of stars; my
thoughts a world within
a world, making space
inside for watching
the birth of light, an
initiation into the day

I am the reason
for all of this:
sky purpling on the horizon,
the way a single rain
drop divots on the sleeping lake
to announce the coming storm,
grass winking and yellowing
in the morning sun.
I am the reason.
and if I am,
so are you.

The winner of the autographed copy of The Joy of Poetry is … Lynn Morrissey!