Friday, March 30, 2012

Living in the Dash: Make The Minute Count

How are you spending your dash? You know, that simple punctuation that spans a life, a line flanked by end caps reflecting the day you were born and the day you die? Your dash.

Just last week, I visited Arlington Cemetery where my brother serves as a Navy Chaplain. Freezing snow or blazing heat, he conducts memorial services, funerals for servicemen young and old who have added that final bookend to a life.

While many times, the families will tell him information about the deceased, he doesn't always know much about their dash.

Their tombstones don't reflect much of that life either. Most reflect the two dates, military rank, perhaps the war they fought in, and sometimes a spouse's name. At the top might be a cross, a Jewish star, or other symbol to indicate their claim of a particular belief system.

As I looked around at the thousands of near-identical tombstones in lines endless to the vanishing point, I couldn't help but wonder about the legacy each man and woman left behind, what stories their lives could tell beyond the simple black and white.

Did they pass the hours seeking to make as much of a difference as they possibly could? Or did they live with a Scarlett O'Hara syndrome, always putting off till tomorrow?


On this day, the children and I stood respectfully at a distance (literally behind a tree) with Aunt Liza while Johnathan conducted the grave-side portion of a service.

We watched the horse-drawn wagon with flag-draped casket creep solemnly down the hill to the gaping hole of exposed earth. The twins covered their ears for the twenty-one gun salute. And I felt my chest tighten, as always, when I listened to the soulful trumpeting of Taps, the full band playing our nation's anthem.Afterwards in his thirty minute break before preparing for the next service, my brother showed us a map of the entire cemetery, pointed to which sections were already full, discussed tentative expansions.

There is never any shortage of deaths and burials. But I fear that with so much opportunity to waste our time in meaningless pursuits, there are a shortage of lives that truly make a difference.

It's so easy to let the small things eat away at each day like a parasitic leach. Even in my own life, I find myself daily fighting to make the minutes count.

Each choice I make is to fill my dash with something worthwhile or something worthless.

There is really no grey area in between. Worthwhile or worthless.

That line on my tombstone may not reflect a life well-lived for Christ, but I can be sure it is a well-lived one nonetheless, one that truly made a difference in the life of others and in the kingdom.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Choosing to Hand Write in a Techno World

Most of us can remember the routine of writing spelling words ten, twenty times each week during elementary school. Although this exercise was monotonous and worthy of many a sigh, I understood the reason behind it, that the physical act of writing each letter on blue lines would write it upon my memory as well.

Since becoming a teacher, I've encouraged my own students to use the physical act of writing to draw out those elusive thoughts whenever they're stuck on an assignment, to just spill out whatever comes to mind in formless free writing. Doing such gives form to thought by slowing down the mind to the pace of graphite scratching across pressed wood pulp.

Until the past few months, though, I had never used writing as a tool to understand Scripture or hide it away in my heart. I have read in a dozen versions, cross-referenced Strong's, Vines, and whatever commentaries I could online. But I had never just sat down and hand wrote God's Word, verse by verse, chapter by chapter.

In my most recent study of the book of James, one of Beth Moore's recommendations was to write out the entire book. Knowing how much extra time I don't have, I had almost decided to ignore those blank pages at the back of my student workbook. Then one night when I wasn't quite sleepy enough to turn out the light, I decided I would just write out the first chapter at one sitting. Just one.

As I wrote, I tried to understand what it must have been like to be a scribe, knowing that every word I wrote had to be perfectly copied from the original or else I would have had to scratch or cut out the word or start over and burn the scroll.

Hunched over my writing in serious exercise for only fifteen minutes, I could feel the muscles slightly burn at the back of my neck. No, this wasn't a life of privilege or pleasure. It was rigorous monotony, day after day of just writing.

I wrote the first chapter, then the second and third until all five lay before me. On the last chapter, I made my first mistake, simply scratched it out with a grimace and the realization of just how miraculous it is that the errors in the thousands of Scripture's manuscripts aren't significant or terribly plentiful.

I also realized that just like with my students, this exercise slowed down my mind to where I was forced to dwell on the same phrase repeatedly until I had written the entire sentence. The repetition opened my mind to greater understanding at times, made me feel the author's emotion more than my ordinary study revealed.

In our type and click culture, hand writing is no longer revered for its value in making our brains process information differently, more analytically. It's nothing magical, though. It simply comes down to the numbers, to how much information we're asking our brains to process at once.

According to Wikipedia, most typists average between 50 and 80 words per minute (wpm), while some average 120. Because my job requires much typing, when copying text, I type 105.4 wpm.

Compare this to hand writing. The average person copies text at 22 words per minute.

Twenty-two words for my brain to dwell on each minute versus 105.

It makes me wonder how much of God's voice I don't hear because my brain is exceeding the speed limit, not because I'm trying to rush but rather because it's just more convenient (and faster) to type up my thoughts.

I think I'm going to try and find more of those 25 mile per hour zones and see what I've been missing, maybe even choose another book of the Bible to hand write next.

Joining in community with a few fellow bloggers this week.

Welcoming Spirit Blog Hop

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Never Too Old to Blossom

The closer I creep to forty, the more I see time's etchings on my physical body. Just last week, I looked down at my hands to discover the rivers of raised blue veins and caterpillar-wrinkled knuckles more pronounced than I remembered. As my daughter touched a scar, I thought, "These are my mother's hands."

Then, those few icy strands that started when I put husband through law school, those two above my right brow--they began multiplying like rabbits. I'd pull a few out each night before bed only to return the next evening and find more had taken their place. The glimmer of translucent strands is glaringly obvious in my near-ebony curls. Finally, I had to tell husband, "I'm going gray. And I don't know what to do about it."

How can you feel old at thirty-five? This is the prime of life. I may have only recently passed the first third of life. Yet, the signs have weighed on me over the past few months and not because of my hands or hair.

Mostly, it's been the pain, three months of this can-do-anything woman spending hours each week in physical therapy working through bursitis and a pinched nerve. Each week, I've lifted weights and pulled elastic bands alongside fellow sufferers, all but two of whom have been over sixty. As husband has lovingly rubbed my shoulder down most nights with medicine that made me smell like his Maw Maw, the thought that I could feel this way till I die has been terrifying.


Fast forward to today, which marked the start of the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington D.C. One hundred years ago in 1912, Japan gifted America with 3,000 cherry blossom trees.

Last fall, my mother decided with my brother living in D.C., this was the year for her to finally see the trees in bloom. Yesterday and today were considered "peak" days, meaning that at least 70% of the blossoms were open. And oh were they ever.The trees were glorious, a solid ring of pink and white surrounding the lake in front of the Jefferson Memorial. Some branches were covered so densely in blossoms, it was impossible to see the woody branch beneath the fluffy petals; one simply had to trust by faith that the underlying structure was there.Each time a bird lit on a branch, the petals would shake down like pale snow, reminding me that such beauty is fleeting. Yet, whether trampled beneath my feet on the dirt path, floating atop the lake, or still attached to the tree, the flowers were beautiful, ethereal. And then I came to some of the oldest trees, their trunks gnarled and pitted in obvious testament to their age.

What amazed me was that the new growth wasn't the only part of the tree graced with blossoms. Even on those ugly trunks, blossoms still formed and bloomed.

I sure hope God isn't calling me an old, gnarled trunk. But I get His point, even if I had to drive seventeen hours to hear it.

Until I am cut down, I am still part of the vine. I can still bud, bloom, and bear fruit. Such is where my true beauty lies...if I can only stop plucking the gray hairs long enough to see it.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Stitch in Time

This is how I picture her most, head bent slightly, eyes focused on the thin metal hook that tucks in and out of spider’s silk, nothing like the nubby caterpillars I’m known to wrap round my fingers and transform into practical afghans, amigurumi toys, and prayer shawls.

Even now when her children are grown, married, and her house overflows with grandchildren, my mother’s hands are still a blur of motion. She pauses to move her fingers down the chain, lips moving as she counts silently, knotting the gossamer just so to create is from isn’t.

This is how it always has been. The year she wanted to buy a Serger, she crocheted stacks of intricate collars for dainty little girl heirloom dresses. Most of the snowflake-like creations were white, but my favorite, the ones that were sometimes left over because they didn’t sell as well, were the ones in rainbow of variegated pastel thread.

Even now, she’s constantly crocheting, tatting, or knitting something—another afghan, a baby’s blanket, a prayer shawl, a doily, a sweater. This time, it’s cross bookmarks, an Easter gift for the children in whose hearts she sows the Word each Sunday morning.

As a child, I never understood this need to keep her hands busy. Spare time was for playing outdoors, watching television, curling up with a good book. Creating was only for when I needed something like a cross-stitched piece for my bedroom wall or wool needlepoint pillows for the sofa.

Perhaps it’s a characteristic that only those pressing up the mountain to middle age can start to feel, understand. Perhaps one simply has to live long enough to see the value in creating beauty just for the sake of doing so. I’m not sure. But the more the hairs curl gray, the more I feel the urge to create, to mimic the beauty around me spun into existence by my Creator.

And so today as we ride north to see my brother and his wife, mother and daughter pull out their silver blades together and knot in time, each bringing creative dimension to nothingness.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Girl of A Thousand Faces

This is definitely not the face that launched a thousand ships.

This is the face that found her two brothers running for the door lest they get caught up in what seemed to be sure tornadic activity. By the time I marched Miss Oscar out to join them, they were both buckled in their car seats--two perfect angels with freshly polished halos.

All I did was ask my flower child to stand by the wall for one quick before-church photo of her all beautiful in an outfit that reflects her name, Rose. What I got instead was a bunch of stink weeds and a lesson in how to turn the corners of your mouth down so low that the photo looks doctored.

I can't look at the photo without sighing--Gideon Bible in hand, yet its message so far from that young heart.

I guess it's just a phase, evidence of Amelia spreading her wings and seeing how far I've let out the tether. Husband even mentioned it yesterday after baths, how trying parenting is at these times.

From morning cheerios to last book before prayers, it's a battle of disobedience.

But when we go out among the waves of purple, she's my little girl again, wandering aimlessly across the field, oblivious to anything but the knee-high wildflowers that open and close behind her like a curtain, enveloping her in simple beauty.
Here, bad attitudes melt, defiance flees. No more bossing around or yelling at her brothers. No more eyes flashing to challenge a simple request. She simply stands, sits on damp earth and picks a handful--all for me.

Not decked in fancy rose-printed clothes but here amongst the wild blossoms where she simply lets go--this just might be where she is most lovely.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

What If There Were No More Bookstores?

My oldest son has told stories almost since he could talk. He is the child who loves most to live in the realm of the imaginary where anything is possible. And honestly? I prefer that realm to the one I spend my days in, where I am not challenged to document everything for the inevitable challenge, to defend my statements with incontrovertible evidence.

In Wyatt's world, it's nothing for a zebra to carry on a conversation with an armless, legless cucumber, all while racing Noah's ark down the hall. It is perfectly logical to step outside and expect a monster trap to have caught a real, live monster while we slept.

The dead crawfish, the caterpillar on its last leg, the June beetle tickling his hand out of season, the bucket of Little People animals--all is worthy of his time to explore, dissect, include in his elaborate spinning.

Where I see yes and no, black and white, right and wrong, he sees a myriad of possibilities lodged in the phrase "but what if..." Most of the time, I play along and learn to live in the thin places with him, where the veil separating the real from the imaginary is torn to reveal a coexistence of the seen and unseen.

One study showed that people given a problem to solve were more apt to find a creative resolution if they were presented to a set of objects with the words "This could be a straw" versus "This is a straw." I've taken that lesson to heart as I weave right alongside him, ever careful to encourage this imagination even as I stand firm on what is true and what is a lie.

We've told stories together so much that he now expects them. Through five years of sitting together in doctors' offices, I have entertained him not with my cell phone or any other handheld game. Instead, we have either colored on the thin exam table paper, read books, sang, or simply told stories.

His favorites have always been those tales about him as a baby, what we call the "Once upon a time, Wyatt...." stories. With three children now requesting these type tales, there is nary a silent moment.

Now, though, Wyatt has taken to writing down his stories.They aren't anything brilliant, nothing like the lengthy yarns that roll effortlessly through the air. Instead, these require mommy to slowly sound out words with him so he can phonetically spell them. And sometimes, they use a picture when he thinks the word will take too long to spell (like "lizard").


I look around town, and all but one of the major bookstores are gone. And it makes me wonder about the future of the imagination in our uber-electronic, high-stakes-testing / numbers-crunching-driven culture.

Today's article about Barnes and Noble's potential demise says, "bookstores are critical to modern bookselling. Marketing studies consistently show that readers are far more adventurous in their choice of books when in a bookstore than when shopping online. In bookstores, readers are open to trying new genres and new authors: it’s by far the best way for new works to be discovered" (Nazaryan).

It's this lack of potential for discovery that bothers me most, brings to my mind images of a future with no regard for imagination and art. And what then? When we leave those thin places and become mired solely in the real, the understood, the logical? What do we lose?


Just last week, husband took three children to family night at Chick-Fil-A while this mommy taught the English language to young and older sponges.

As always, there was a life-sized cow romping around the restaurant, waving, bobbing, shaking hands, and interacting with children as well as a mute person can inside a bulky cow suit.

"Y'know, daddy," he said in a covert whisper, "That's a person in a cow costume." He paused, then continued, "...or it may just be a cow."

When anything is possible, anything just might be possible.

Images: Wyatt's first two stories, one about his best friend daddy and another about going up and selling a lizard for 59 dollars (big bucks).

Thursday, March 8, 2012

What if They Don't Smell Like Teen Spirit?

Last week, the children drew graphite mountains, tall EKG machine spikes spanning the page. Below the peaks were large bodies of water with large fish. The youngest girl fumbled for words as she pointed. "Burma."

I shook my head and smiled. It was rather obvious. Here in Louisiana, there are no hills, let alone mountains.

Near the water's edge she drew houses, small huts. We spoke two word sentences of fishing, of eating fish. Although our words were simple, halting, at least we could share more than we did four weeks ago when she started coming to ESL class with her grandmother.

Then, she didn't speak. Now, she asked the English name for each picture she drew; I spelled slowly so she could write down the letters, tapped my finger on the page when she mixed up "u" and "n."

House. Sun. Mountain. Fish.

Mom. Grandma. Sister. Uncle. Niece. Me.

Then, she drew a box with a person inside and pointed to heaven. Brother. Buried back in Burma, he still was remembered.

Aunt. Cancer. "The doctor took her to hospital," she explained, grimacing and holding her stomach in memory of her aunt's pain.

The world is small. Half a globe away and yet her family is marked just like mine by that word.

At the class' end, this little girl with the rounded cheeks drew a cross atop one hut and met my eyes. "Christian." She pointed to the cross and herself before repeating the word again, making sure I understood.

I sat amazed. This child who didn't know the word "crayons" knew "Christian" and "cancer."

I leaned around the table, tucking in close to her, and whispered a promise of crayons next week.


Last night, the three girls covered their notebook pages in flowers, not tulips and loopy petaled daisies like typical American children would draw but flowers that kept expanding outward from the center in symmetrical vector-like circles--Mendhi designs seen in the popular henna tattoos. They were beautiful.

And unlike the previous week of grey and white, this time, each girl took her new box of crayons to the drawing. There was no dumping of all twenty-four across the table. Each crayon was gingerly slipped out, then returned to its place before another was selected.


In just four weeks' time, I have fallen wildly in love with this group of people I am helping learn to speak English each Thursday evening.

Some in the group are from Yemen, some Burma, a few from Rwanda, two from Ethiopia.

They don't look like me. They don't smell freshly bathed like me. They haven't had the privilege of a good education like I have. Their smiles indicate they've likely never seen a dentist.

So what.

I often wonder what stories they could tell if we understood each other better. I know their lives have been more difficult than I can even conceive. I would expect that some could have deadly diseases lurking beneath their dark skin. Some could even die from those diseases.

But when I put a hand on their shoulders in friendship, when I stoop by them so close that we share the same oxygen, I offer not only my love but God's love. It's supernatural how fond I have grown of their faces, their shy smiles, their laughter.

Their eyes still flicker each time I mis-pronounce their names, but after four weeks, they've stopped correcting me. I guess they've determined I'm a lost cause, incapable of producing that guttural trill that I'm not sure I can even hear some of the time.

I try and they try. I learn and they learn. I laugh and they laugh. And through it all, God's love lights up the room, bringing two sides of the globe together.

Neither of us will ever be the same.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Serious Play: Finding God in Laughter

This is a house of laughter. There is music in each note of mirth, each high-pitched shriek over tickled bellies or private giggles shared among siblings. Even on days like today, joy erupts between fever spikes, bubbles over in smiles that reach the eyes and touch the heart.

In the back yard, the joy repeats in chorus of birds swooping from treetop to treetop, their incessant chatter more beautiful to me than any symphony. Back lit by the setting sun, they appear as dead leaves still hanging to naked branches that have yet to be clothed by Spring's advent.

These leaves, though, repeatedly release their hold and take flight, a single one startling the flock who join together in impromptu swarm, a lopsided dance that circles round and ends with them reattaching to the same tree where it all began.

As children play, I click the frames, thinking they are red-breasted robins. Only later in exposure do I see who they really are, cedar waxwings--dozens of them with their pinched head, black mask, and muted seal-point Siamese brown.

I laugh aloud at their treetop antics, tiny birds running in fear of my terrorizing brood twenty feet below. My grin is broad even now as I think that if I were them, I'd run, too.

Over the past month, I've been reading about joy and laughter in Terry Lindvall's Surprised By Laughter: The Comic World of C.S. Lewis, which attempts to show C.S. Lewis in a different light, as one whose life was not merely that of a serious scholar or a high-brow writer of Christian theology. In the midst of the seriousness, his life was also marked by great joy and laughter.

As the author says, "It is not the purpose of this book to argue that C.S. Lewis was a comedian...On the other hand, this jovial man possessed an angelic mirth" (p. 5). It is this joy that is at the very heart of Christianity, and as such, Lewis' heart was filled with gladness, wit, and good humor that the author's analysis of Lewis' life and writings demonstrates.

Lindvall begins with several chapters outlining the legacy of joy and laughter that Lewis would have been immersed in. He then divides the remaining chapters into "four causes of laughter": joy, fun, the joke proper, and flippancy, all of which "can be planned and produced by any person" save "joy [which]can be received only from the One whose presence is absolute joy" (53).

The author recognizes that not all laughter is positive, concluding that "Each time I laugh, I am either sharing my laughter with God or with the devil" (435).

The author concludes, "Laughter alone, therefore, is not enough for life...On the other hand, if our laughter is submitted to something greater, to a higher end, then it will never be able to lead us astray" (437).

What I took away from the book (besides dozens of great quotations) is that when used for a higher purpose, laughter can be something holy, a manifestation of being tapped into the joy that radiates from the Eternal Father. Laughter and the seriousness of holiness are not incongruent.

The downside to this book is that it is a "recast" edition of an academic piece. The publisher added a catchy new title, cool front cover, and interesting-sounding index, but none of these changes can mask the fact that this is a high scholarly work not written for the average reader.

The text is seriously dense. The only thing I can compare it to is trying to run in quicksand--just when you think you've moved your right toe an inch, you realize you've actually moved it backwards and might just have to flip back and read the whole chapter again because you've lost the writer's train of thought.

This book is not life changing by any stretch of the imagination, but it is quite interesting concerning the place laughter has in a Christian's life.

**I receive no compensation from Thomas Nelson for my review other than a complementary copy of the book.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Blessing Blindness: To Count the Thick & the Thin

I remember the first dot matrix printer that came to live at my childhood home. Twenty years ago, there was no way to sneak through a late-night print job without waking the whole house, its back and forth rhythmic screech inescapable as it ate reams of mile-long paper folded in the yellow square bucket it sat upon. Back then, each 8 1/2 x 11 sheet was connected to the next by a perforated line. Attached to the sides of this unending ribbon of paper were half inch strips marked by evenly spaced holes that helped the printer feed the paper through.

This kind of paper saved a lot of taping together of sheets, especially when I was called upon to make a time line for my high school biology class. Assigned by a coach who was great on the ball field but less than enthusiastic about the classroom, the final project had to be hand drawn, hand colored, and thirty feet in length, depicting life from Precambrian single cell organisms through present-day life on earth. Paleozoic. Mesozoic. Cenozoic. Not rocket science but time intensive, which was its true purpose.

But what if a timeline could be useful? A personal one. What would a time line of my life would look like if I spread it out like this on a strip of continuous paper that reached across my living room and down the hall. Thirty-five years instead of billions.

This post has been sitting in my drafts folder since last year because when I began making a mental list, I quickly realized my list was composed mostly of loss.

I have watched cancer ravage my beloved great-grandmother's body until it withered to eternity; crumbled over the loss of my husband's livelihood; and fallen on my face over the separation from two unseen babies. I have held on for years to the extreme emotional roller coaster of infertility treatments; learned what it feels like to be abandoned by literally all our friends; breathed in the poison wrought by one woman's life-altering lies; and lived through the physical destruction brought by Hurricane Katrina a decade ago.

These major events are how I mark time.

Much as a felled tree cannot hide its good years and bad, my rings would show the thin line of drought, of stress, of trauma. Those deep valleys that walled me in even after the passing of several seasons--they would stand out among the good years so that the blessings of the uneventful would be easily passed over.

A biologist friend of mine says the same is true in how we see nature, something she calls "plant blindness." Take a photo of an elk in the woods. Ask people what they see, and they'll say "an elk," all the while ignoring the grass, trees, rocks, clouds, and sky in the background.

Maybe I have blessing blindness.

The cure for that would seem to be a timeline where I do the opposite, where I count the thick rings of blessings. I think back again, this time marking time in joy--spending three long summer months with missionary family overseas, growing up in an undivided home, meeting and marrying my husband, spreading my wings in a college environment I loved, finding a home church, welcoming my children into the world.

The problem with this, though, is now I have two parallel time lines--one of loss and heartache, the other that I readily count as blessings.

And that's the problem.

Both are blessings.

Our society tends to encourage us to draw lines around ourselves, to separate family from work, to divide church and state, to work through the bad and cling to the good. With so many lines, our lives begin to look like a Venn diagram on steroids, making it hard to see the whole picture.

Granted, it's not healthy to dwell in the loss, the sadness, the betrayal. But parceling those parts of our lives off as non-blessings doesn't work either. Although it may take a lifetime, developing a true attitude of gratitude requires us to filter all through the lens of blessing.

Even in the loss was God carrying us through, even in the betrayal was a God who stuck closer than a brother.

Life is not a dichotomy of blessing and non-blessing. Instead, all is blessing. The thin rings are equal to the thick ones. It sometimes just takes time for us to see that for in every loss, there was also something gained on the other side of it.

Image: Peter von Stackelberg's timeline of social, technological, economic, and political trends from 1750 to 2100. Click through to view the larger size.