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12/06/2014

days like these


My husband and mother-in-law left early this morning to help green our church for Advent and Christmas. I'm getting over a stubborn head cold, so I slept in until I could will myself out of a NyQuil stupor.

I enjoyed the peaceful quiet, momentarily interspersed with the exuberant voices of boys playing football in our neighbors' yard across the street. (Later the game moved out into the street. One shorter kid repeatedly protested, "Really?? I'm wide open here!")

I filled the French Press with decaf Sumatra, peeled and savored clementines, and mulled over the parallel glory of Revelation 7 and Ezekiel 9. I made scrambled eggs in coconut oil, and gluten-free toast smothered in local, raw honey.

After breakfast, I carried the French Press up to my office — I was not about to waste any of that precious dark roast coffee. I need to finish reading Lila by Marilynne Robinson by tomorrow for a writing assignment due next week, so I reveled in the luxury of reading page after page after page, and taking several pages of notes. 

Some time later my husband texted, "Are you hungry? We're going to Torchy's Tacos." Um, yes. Please. He brought home 2 Mr. Oranges — salmon and other goodness wrapped in corn tortillas.

I made a cup of tea, read some more, and listened to a Spotify playlist created by a friend called "Jenni."

Then I stumbled upon a poem by Marilyn McEntyre via Ruminate Magazine's Instagram feed. Writers do indeed rely on the following things, and also days like these.


What Writers Rely On

Coffee
Gossip
An ear for local speech.
Their third grade English teachers.
Overheard conversation.
Accurate facts.
Awe.
Irreverence.
Childhood wounds.
Ruthless editors.
Dreams
Tolerant families.
Very sharp pencils.
Strong verbs.
Fat dictionaries.
Shakespeare.
Ambiguity.
A cat in the window.
Or a dog on the beach.
Clean windows and wide views.
Etymology.
The refrigerator hum.
Iambic pentameter.
Eccentric relatives.
Bus rides.
Passion.
Detachment.
Good visual memories.
User-friendly software.
Money.
Air conditioning.
Or heat.
Long walks.
Readers.

1/07/2014

window light


I'm not the world's best sleeper, so I often pray for the Lord to give me, His beloved, sleep (Psalm 127), and for help to lie down in peace and sleep, for the Lord alone makes me dwell in safety (Psalm 4). Lately, I've been sleeping better than I have in a long time and I'm grateful. I realize we can function on less sleep than we desire, but I am truly a different, better person when I sleep well. My behavior is also more tolerable when there is sunshine — my psyche can only take gray for so long.

I should also confess that most mornings I'm grumpy, hoping that no conversation will be necessary. I may have peace in my soul and a faithful expectation for the day, but pre-coffee I can't quite verbalize such optimism. It's like the virtues don't have a clear path through all the neurons to reach my lips. Today was different. I had a good night's sleep. I didn't even stir when my husband left for his early morning drum gig. I woke up at 8:00 am, not 9:30 or 10:00 as my tired body wants to do lately — I'm doing a cleanse to rid myself of fungal toxins and man, cleansing is tiresome, bodily work. This morning I actually opened my eyes and smiled for God's sake. I spied blue sky through a window and smiled again. Thanksgiving came out of my mouth. I mean, this was a miraculous, holy moment.

I fed the cats then settled into the armchair with a gloriously large mug of chicory coffee and Psalm 23. I remembered some beautiful words that my friend Marc Omar shared on Facebook:

Old folks are aware and emotionally connected to the reality that Goodness and Mercy shall follow them all the days of our lives if we are in Christ. Psalm 23 resonates deeply with me — The Good Shepherd loves me and He has assigned Goodness and Mercy to follow me. I tried to ditch them and wallow in self-pity or fear but they are obstinate. Goodness and Mercy are glued to me like chewing gum on hair.

I read through Psalm 23 again, slowly. I love verse 5: You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows. I often think of that cup brimming over when I see the Big Dipper in the night sky. 

* * *

Sunlight flooded through our windows. I smelled traces of myrrh that my husband and I burned last night to celebrate the season of Epiphany. I picked up a favorite book of mine, A Diary of Private Prayer by John Baillie, and turned to "Seventh Day — Morning." My heart skipped a beat with joy as I prayed:

O LORD and Maker of all things, from whose creative power the first light came forth, who didst look upon the world's first morning and see that it was good, I praise Thee for this light that now streams through my windows to rouse me to the life of another day.

I praise Thee for the life that stirs within me:
I praise Thee for the bright and beautiful world into which I go:
I praise Thee for the earth and sea and sky, for scudding cloud and singing bird:
I praise Thee for the work Thou has given me to fill my leisure hours:
I praise Thee for my friends:
I praise Thee for music and books and good company and all pure pleasures.

O Thou who Thyself art everlasting Mercy, give me a tender heart today towards all those to whom the morning light brings less joy than it brings me:

Those in whom the pulse of life grows weak:
Those in who must lie abed through all the sunny hours:
The blind, who are shut off from the light of day:
The overworked, who have no joy of labour:
The bereaved, whose hearts and homes are desolate:
And grant Thy mercy on them all.

O Light that never fades, as the light of day now streams through these windows and floods this room, so let me open to Thee the windows of my heart, that all my life may be filled by the radiance of Thy presence. Let no corner of my being be unillumined by the light of Thy countenance. Let there be nothing within me to darken the brightness of the day. Let the Spirit of Him whose life was the light of men rule within my heart till eventide. Amen.

I'm telling you, all of Baillie's prayers are golden. Y'all, enjoy this week — every day, everywhere you go, goodness and mercy will chase you. He will catch you and never let you go.

1/05/2014

on reading in 2013 and 2014


Yesterday I cleared away our breakfast dishes, tossed clean laundry in the dryer, Swiffered the bathroom floor, then plopped down in the armchair to peruse Facebook for a few minutes. Perhaps I should have done my editorial work first, but my Facebook meanderings led to feasts of knowledge about good books. My friend Anna Tesch mentioned Eugene Peterson's newest collection of poetry, Holy Luck. I quickly added it to my to-read list on Goodreads. Laura Ortberg Turner mentioned a few books about anxiety on her blog. Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry by Amy Simpson caught my eye, but it doesn't release until October — I made a mental note to read it later in the year. I read several of Alissa Wilkinson's blog posts, including "A Year in Reading" and "Reading List for 2014." Alissa is one of the top 10 people who inspire me to read well. And so I also added This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett and Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power by Andy Crouch.

While adding to my ever-growing to-read list, I noticed an alert from Goodreads — Share the books you read in 2013. I hesitated because I recalled reading very little, but for the sake of honesty I clicked the link to find out just how meagerly I read last year. Nine books. Ouch. It was worse than I thought. But given the chaos of 2013 I wasn't that surprised. Before I touch on that lack of serenity, allow me to share a few highlights of the books that I did complete:

CMYK: The Process of Life Together by Justin McRoberts is an inspiring collection of letters, essays, song lyrics, and interviews with visual artists. I also had the immense pleasure of editing this book. All bias aside, I highly recommend it along with the accompanying EPs and full-length album. I interviewed Justin about his entire CMYK project for the Art House America Blog — all of these things are worth your time set aside for reading and listening.

The Exact Place by Margie L. Haack is hands-down one of the best memoirs I have ever read. It is exquisitely written, hilarious, and deeply moving. As the General Editor of Kalos Press I might seem biased once again, but truly, you must read this book.

Johnny took me on a date to an Imprint Khaled Hosseini reading downtown in September, which made me love And the Mountains Echoed (and Hosseini's other books) all the more. I could sit and listen to good authors talk about writing for hours and hours.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell — I really don't have the accurate words to describe this stunning novel. I read it upon the recommendation of a friend I met at Glen East 2012 (thank you, Emily). You can take Glen folks at their word when it comes to books, music, and visual art. My husband read this book several years ago and he, too, gave it high praise. It is sci-fi yet beautifully literary. It is the book I've pondered most in 2013 — the characters, the grand scope of the story, and the tragic ending have stayed with me closely ever since. Oh, Emilio Sandoz — I have not loved or ached more for a fictional character since I met Reuben Land in the pages of Peace Like a River by Leif Enger.

Speaking of Peace Like a River, I decided to reread it in December 2013. It would have made my Goodreads book list for the year, but I've been reading it slowly, savoring every word. Anyone who knows me understands my passion for this book, but as rereading your favorites will do, I've swooned more dramatically during the second reading. I've laughed out loud (in bed while my husband was sleeping), squinted through tears in my eyes, and caught many insightful details I missed the first time around. In fact, I've enjoyed the art of rereading so much that after I read the sequel to The Sparrow — Children of God — I'm going to reread Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen since a recent online quiz revealed that in the world of fiction, I am Elizabeth Bennet. That's quite a compliment. I might even write about the art of rereading. We shall see.

Now, back to why I didn't read much during 2013. Basically, it was a year in which I wrestled with anxiety like never before. I've always been a worrisome creature, but this past year my fears almost consumed me. I was also dealing with some health issues, and my internal stress made these discomforts worse. I didn't truly live my life — it felt like I was watching it. And I was completely distracted from what is good, true, and beautiful — including books, which I've devoured ever since I read Heidi by Johanna Spyri at age 3. Books have been a consistent pleasure and blessing to me, and one of my best therapies.

Here at the start of 2014 I haven't made a list of resolutions. Rather, I have some pretty basic goals which could be written on a perpetual calendar:

* Trust God — set my eyes to Him like a flint, especially when I'm afraid.

* Be joyful and laugh. Be peaceful. Be thankful.

* Love my husband well.

* Love my family and friends well.

* Write regularly.

* Do good work, both editorially and in our home.

* Continue to learn the art of waiting.

* Take to learning and making with my hands — guitar, cooking, knitting, and so on.

* Read the Bible starting with Genesis. I'd say I've read 95% of the Bible, but I've never read it in the order it was published, cover to cover. I'm following my husband's lead here. He's full of great ideas.

* Read more good books — fiction, memoir, and poetry in particular. Theology, too.

I'm not about to say how many books I plan to read in 2014 — that's not what is important to me. I'm a slow reader anyway. But I can honestly say that 9 books is not my best effort. It's time to input more than I output. I spent so much of last year voicing my fears and complaining. This year I want to replace that kind of vapid speech with the Truth and good writing. And pick up a book any time I'm tempted to sit and worry, and, well, spend too much time on the social medias. Nothing against the latter — I just want the balance to tip more toward the tangible.

As for January 2014, I'm working on these 6 books, reading Genesis aloud, and looking forward to the aforementioned Children of God. Oh, also — an old, lovely book I pulled off our bookshelves last night which I gleaned from working at Half Price Books: Writers at Work (The Paris Review Interviews, 4th Series).

Tolle lege, my friends.


10/17/2013

pause


I've been going to the gym lately, but today is just too pretty to be cooped up inside. Autumn has finally arrived in Houston on the heels of much-needed rain. The light slants differently on our backyard fence, casting shadows of our red maple swaying in the cool breeze. We haven't touched the A/C today. We opened a window for our cat, Harley, who revels in this weather through the screen.

Though a little sickness has settled into my ears and sinuses — a bittersweet companion to my favorite seasonal change — I slipped on my brown TOMS and set out to snap a few Instagrams of the sky and trees and other inspirations of nature. I walked across the street to the track around the retention pond. I thanked the Lord for the extravagance of beauty and some quality introvert time. Not halfway through my walk I saw my neighbor, Bob, sitting on a bench with his white Chihuahua, Baby. We chatted for a moment, which turned into a long conversation full of laughter and Bob's wisdom. Then we walked to see if his friend was home, whose backyard faced the track down by the street. When we didn't find his neighbor, Bob and I walked the rest of the circular path together all the way to his house, then I walked to mine. "It was good to walk with you," he said, smiling.

As my sun-flooded eyes adjusted to the indoor light, I fixed a bowl of split pea soup sprinkled with pink Himalayan sea salt and black pepper. I munched on some black olives. For dessert, I had a banana with almond butter. Then I set the kettle to boil for nettle leaf & peppermint tea. The tea tag said, "Pause," as if to assure me that stopping to talk with my neighbor was a good decision (seeing as I have lots of writing to do). I didn't know that I needed our leisurely walk together, but I did. Bob needed a listening ear and companionship. To share thanks for the relaxing schedule his retirement provides. To express astonishment over the differences in our culture these days: "Why aren't the local parks filled with kids at play? They're all inside playing video games, that's why. When I was little, I played outside 'til it turned dark," Bob said. "Autumn, winter, spring, summer — rain or shine. I got muddy, sweaty, cold, and broke my arm playing football." He watches very little TV — we share a disdain of loud, repetitive, mind-sucking commercials. Bob walks Baby at least twice a day, and watches football with neighborhood friends on their backyard patios and decks. Baby knows their dogs as well as Bob knows his neighbors.

As I listened, I was thankful that I paused during my walk. Getting to know Bob better felt like a blessing, very similar to how my friends at the nursing home bless me, no matter if I go to serve them. Blessings are reciprocal. I ought to pause and talk with those in my path more often, and keep visiting my displaced friends. I said it over at The Curator and I'll say it again here: "The elderly in our midst are full of rich stories and wisdom that are all too often overlooked as unimportant and commonplace."

And for your reading pleasure, check out the new essays (and delicious recipes) on the Art House America Blog.

Blessings to you, readers.

9/23/2013

mindful


Yesterday was a glorious Sabbath — sunny-blue weather and the first glimpse of autumn in the breeze. I was thrilled to worship the Lord, especially since I had not felt well enough to attend church the past three weeks. Afterward, I laughed on the church patio with my husband and our friends. I enjoyed lunch and people-watching at Empire Cafe. And I stopped by Barnes & Noble to use up the remains of a gift card.

I was on a mission for the new issues of The Paris Review and DRUM! magazine, the latter for my husband. The new issues were not on the shelves, so I roamed slowly through the refuge of books. I stepped on to the escalator to check out the poetry section upstairs. I looked for Luci Shaw. Nothing. I spied Mary Oliver's Why I Wake Early. I picked up the slim book and flipped through the table of contents: "How Everything Adores Being Alive," "Clouds," "Look and See," "This Morning I Watched the Deer," "The Wren from Carolina" . . . Yes, this is the book. I tucked it under my arm, checked out, and drove home listening to Sandra McCracken's Desire Like Dynamite album. Oh, and I stopped by the grocery store and was delighted to see mini white pumpkins on display at the entrance. Placing a minimalist arrangement of the small gourds on our dining room table is an annual tradition of mine.

I wrote (or eked out two meager paragraphs) for an hour before watching the Emmys with my husband and mother-in-law. Truth be told, the main reason we watched that long production was to hopefully see Derek Hough win the Emmy for Outstanding Choreography. Say what you will about Dancing with the Stars, but he is an extremely gifted dancer, teacher, and choreographer, and he seems like a good guy. He won. We cheered.

I read And the Mountains Echoed until I fell asleep, and also to avert my mind from thinking about the next day. Like, How will I finish writing this article by Thursday? How can I better structure my time to be more productive as well as steer clear of stress? I won't divulge how far behind I am on this article, but let me just say it will take a bona fide miracle to finish it by Thursday night. If you pray for writers, please pray for me.

I slept fairly well, but not as well as I'd hoped. I woke up grumpy and tired with very low expectations of the day, even though I'm very much looking forward to Imprint's Khaled Hosseini reading tonight. I tried sleeping an extra hour, but those first negative thoughts ricocheted off of my hard head to my soul. So I made myself get up.

I quieted my mind and prayed to the Lord. I confessed ungratefulness, worry, sloth, and many other vices. I read Psalm 126 and smiled when I remembered a dream I had back in May — there were no visuals, only the sound of my joyful laughter. There are some fortunes of health that I'm currently waiting for the Lord to restore, and I believe He will — He has so often during this particular decade of my life. Even so, my prayers also included, O Lord, how long?

After fixing a mug of piƱon coffee laced with coconut cream, I settled back into the armchair and suddenly craved poetry. I picked up the Mary Oliver book I purchased yesterday, flipped through the smooth pages, and landed on "Mindful." Instantly, the cadence of words soothed me and changed my outlook. The poem is so good, in fact, that I want to share it with y'all:

Mindful
by Mary Oliver

Every day
   I see or hear
      something
         that more or less

kills me
   with delight,
      that leaves me
         like a needle

in the haystack
   of light.
      It was what I was born for—
         to look, to listen,

to lose myself
   inside this soft world—
      to instruct myself
         over and over

in joy,
   and acclamation.
      Nor am I talking
         about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
   the very extravagant—
      but of the ordinary,
         the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
   Oh, good scholar,
      I say to myself,
         how can you help

but grow wise
   with such teachings
      as these—
         the untrimmable light

of the world,
   the ocean’s shine,
      the prayers that are made
         out of grass?

. . . A load of laundry, yoga, and now I'm seated at my desk. Yes, I could have worked on the miraculous article instead of blogging, but I felt compelled to share that poem. Besides, this blog post feels like a writing exercise — a warm-up to loosen my creative muscles.

May we all be mindful of the ridiculous blessings God pours over our heads every day — even the tiresome, frustrating, and seemingly pointless days. This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it. We are fearfully and wonderfully made — and beautiful — exactly as we are. And my goodness, His glory emanates from every facet of creation, the work of our hands, our ceaseless prayers, our blind faith and hope, our laughter, our sorrow. In everything, He loves us with an everlasting love. 

8/17/2013

new work



Hey, y'all. Long time no blog.

So, I have some new work to share:

1. An interview with Justin McRoberts for the Art House America Blog.

2. An article about the liturgy of the sky for The Curator.

While you're over at The Curator, donate to their grow campaign! My writing was first published on The Curator, and they've been very good to me ever since. Aside from my writing, they are one of my favorite online publications. Help these good folks "announce signs of a 'world that ought to be' as found in our midst—to be a thoughtful, hopeful journal that would inspire its readers to explore culture that enriches life and broadens experience." 

I hope to start blogging again soon. Be well, friends.

5/13/2013

all nature sings


Confession: I opened my eyes this morning dreading the day ahead. Again. Even in my groggy, coffee-less thoughts, I knew this was neurotic. I closed my eyes and prayed: the Lord made this day and I should rejoice — not dread, but be glad. I opened my eyes and made a mental note to write in my gratitude journal: soft, peaceful light hovering over the stillness of our bedroom. I reached over to rest my hand on my husband's strong arm. I stroked our cat's blue gray fur. I stood up and opened the blinds to see gardenias resting on the outdoor red brick windowsill. Every year I look forward to snipping a few of those flowers to place in a blue pottery bowl in our living room. I learned this simple act of joy from my mom.

After coffee I still worried. I decided that one way to change my mental perspective would be to change my physical location. I didn't have to go far — I just took a few steps from the armchair to the breakfast nook table. I carried along the usual suspects: Bible, The Book of Common Prayer, journal, pen, and a card for a loved one. I didn't want to miss today's mail, so I picked up my pen first. The simple longhand movements across the paper caused me to breathe slower and deeper. I stopped thinking about my self, worries, and fears and veered my thoughts toward this person whom I love and admire. I also thought about how she would handle this day — with courage, peace, hard work, laughter, creativity, patience, and selflessness. O Lord, change me.

I looked out the window and our [Orthodox] Easter lilies took me by surprise. How could this be when I've seen them every day for a week now? Four are in full bloom, four will open by this evening, and several more will open this week. The previous owners of our house planted these white trumpets and they multiply every year. This never ceases to amaze me since Johnny and I do nothing to cultivate their beauty. It is all the work of the Lord who speaks these flowers to life.

Then I looked up to the wide blue sky, sunshine, and our neighbors' pear, elm, and pine trees. And all of the sudden I started singing an old, favorite hymn. I couldn't recall some of the words, so I Googled the title. I sang the entire hymn and smiled when I finished. It is the perfect declaration to sing again and again as I do dishes and laundry, take a walk outside, and shower — or any time today when dread might resurface its no-good, lying little head.

Last week I heard Psalms in the pine trees of the local park. Two days ago I spied a small congregation in our neighborhood's retention pond — a white egret, a blue heron, and wood ducks — sitting near pools of recent rainwater foraging God's provision for a feast. Likewise, I want to live in perpetual worship of my Creator. One way to do this is to sing.

This is My Father's World

This is my Father's world,
and to my listening ears
all nature sings, and round me rings
the music of the spheres.
This is my Father's world:
I rest me in the thought
of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
His hand the wonders wrought.

This is my Father's world,
the birds their carols raise,
the morning light, the lily white,
declare their Maker's praise.
This is my Father's world:
He shines in all that's fair;
in the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.

This is my Father's world.
O let me ne'er forget
that though the wrong seems oft so strong
God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father's world:
why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King; let the heavens ring!
God reigns; let the earth be glad!