Local Stories

I love the companionship that is born when reading a book set in a familiar place. I’m currently reading Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. It’s a novel that takes place not only in a familiar geographic region but also a nostalgic era of my life, with characters the same age as myself during that season.

There is pleasure in shared spaces and shared history, even if this author’s story is fiction, there’s something that delights us to hold a place in common with others. It’s the same feeling I have when someone says, “Oh, we vacation at that beach too!” or names a far-off city I visited once, or “no kidding, you’re from _________?! Us too! Small world!”

The same sensation overwhelmed me standing outside of Westminster Abbey, walking the halls of the Tower of London, all the strings of history that have been woven to arrive at this present day.

There’s so much more entangled in physical space. Memory presents its prickly burr and sticks, accumulating until a place is heavy with it. With Ng’s characters in Shaker I remember trips to Beachwood Place with friends and the collision of my very white upbringing with other ethnicities, I remember all the complications of being female and mother and teen girl. I was there. With Scott Russell Sanders I explore the wilderness of Northeastern Ohio. I was there too.

And on and on it goes, the local and personal turned into a sharp spark of connection that says we are not so alone in our experience here in this world. We are bound together in this humanity. These narratives draw meaning from the otherwise random chaos of experience. Me too. I was there too.

Morning Tea

Most mornings, our alarms go off simultaneously. Sometimes I hit snooze. Sometimes he rolls over for another ten minutes. One of us gets up and fills the kettle.

We have two pink chairs in the office that face the Southeastern side of our yard. These days the sun rises between two giant Norway spruce and casts long streaks of light on our freshly sown lawn of Kentucky bluegrass and some other mix of seed we thought was the same as the other bag.

Summer mornings are quietest during this stage of our lives. The children sleep. When the water kettle pops its distinctive click (it’s an electric kettle – no whistle), Brandon is usually the one to pour the water over waiting tea bags. We choose each other’s mugs carefully – these mugs mean something. When they’re ready, it’s a quick drip of honey in each cup and stir.

There was a time a decade or so ago when love was rougher, one or the other of us wouldn’t pour the other a cup. Aren’t you going to make me some tea? I think it was him who said it, maybe me – it doesn’t matter because we’ve both felt it – that sharp whip of need and neglect. When one of us is filled with hornets in the morning, we tease, aren’t you going to make me some tea?!

We meet in the office. I sit cross-legged on one pink chair. He sits in the other. The dog hears us settle in and her nails click on the hardwood floor to greet us. This is her favorite part of the day as well, when she gets to wake up for a minute and then fall back asleep in the cradle of my crossed legs.

This morning against the backdrop of our giant pin oak a hummingbird hovered and danced. Sometimes there are deer that wander through after bedding down in the woods behind our house. Other times a hawk, a whole chorus of birds, a scurry of squirrels.

These pink chairs were Brandon’s grandma’s chairs. They are particularly suitable for watching birds. We often catch cardinals in our framed view of the yard and say hello to Garnet, visiting us here so often. We sip our tea and watch the sun creep higher.

This is the perfect cup, my love.

Flocks Fly Together

Today on the way back from a work meeting in Northwest Ohio, we drove through farmland patterned with rows of corn and fallow fields. As we drove, I watched along the road a flock of common birds lift up and land and lift again in a wave, moving together as if performing some long choreographed dance.

I love to watch the way birds move, such harmony, such unity. I’ve become a watcher of birds, a bird spotter. Their music in the morning or afternoon or evening gives me pause as I listen for their returned call. But this dance is a different kind of language, the language of hundreds of bodies responding to each other’s every move, ever aware of the other, ever adjusting to make room and lift and land.

According to my colleague, only about 40% of the usual corn crop and 60% of the soybeans made it in the ground in Ohio this year. It’s one of the worst, and yet the farmers are still at it, dependent on the weather and the soil and the sun, the machinery, the seeds, the turn of the earth.

I listen from time to time to the morning Ohio AgNet Report and think about the ancestry record of farmers in my family tree—generations of men who made their way, for richer or poorer, off the land. This year, there’s far less corn than normal on the family farm but it’s still there, it’s still growing in the ground that has caught the sweat of my family for well over a century, at least five generations worth working the soil. Even in the midst of dearth, there’s hope for the next crop. It’s what they do, aunts and uncles, cousins and sisters and brothers, in a long-practiced and choreographed dance. It must be written into our DNA, the same way flocks fly together.

Not the same flock as today, of course, but wow, how ’bout them birds?

When Your Day Isn’t Interrupted by a Mass Shooting

This morning, you went to a church and sang about a Good, Good Father. The pastor preached about the in-between, this space we inhabit, so ordinary, working and walking, singing and sighing, navigating our way around the grieving, who have just been struck by the reality of what we keep at arm’s length or farther. They are the length of a WalMart away, the distance from you and the person sitting at the other end of the pew. No one walked in and shattered stained glass windows. No one took shelter under a pew. No one screamed.

When you need some black beans for a potluck later, you send your husband to the convenience store. His only questions before leaving are about the number and size of cans, salted or unsalted. He doesn’t even say “I love you” because he’ll be home so soon, so soon it’s silly to say such things in this quick passing. The convenience store is brightly lit. It sells toothpaste and deodorant. Someone walks into the store to buy pantyhose before a wedding. Someone walks into the store to buy a birthday card. Someone walks into the store to buy a pack of Band-Aids. No one walks in carrying a weapon.

Maybe later you’ll go downtown to the local favorite spot, have some drinks, listen to some music and laugh with friends who have no intention of dying tonight. You’ll discuss the annoying and beautiful things your kids do because they are still alive, having missed out on becoming someone’s favorite gun-related statistic.

No one (we know of) has bought into the propaganda, no one (we know of) is following extremist bloggers on social media, no one (we know of) is hoarding weapons and prepping. There are a few people you remember who said and thought and shared crazy things once, but they support causes you don’t, and you don’t follow them anymore. They are out of sight and out of mind and almost out of your life. It’s almost like those threats just don’t exist, just couldn’t explode the ordinary life you live.

It’s just another ordinary day, and if we’re among the lucky, it stays that way, the TV spinning silently through another round of news, thoughts and prayers on automatic, just pull the trigger and they’re there. It’s some other town, another city.

And then distant friends mark themselves safe on Facebook, and for a second, maybe it’s just a little closer, now. Just a little closer. A little close. A little too close. So close. Too close. WalMart and schools and bars and churches in every town. Thoughts and prayers a pile of spent shells, the pew not quite so long.

Michael Murphy, Gun Country, (2014).

Birthday Cards

Brandon took the boys to buy birthday cards for me yesterday. Lydia made me a card with a picture and quote of Dwight Schrute on it. Elvis’ card made me laugh, and Henry’s card was all warm and fuzzy about how special moms are (Henry said “I picked it because it has so many nice words in it”). They picked them out by themselves.

I often struggle to find cards that say exactly what I mean to say, and I should probably just take Lydia’s lead and make them myself. But this receiving of cards from each of my kids so perfectly captured their personalities and our relationship that I’ll gladly take Hallmark any birthday.

As much as I struggle to find the best card, I still love the habit of card-giving and receiving when it’s done with intention. So much of what we do and say and write, even, is virtual. But to pick out or make a tangible love note for a loved one, write in it, and mail or hand that note to someone has an added weight to it that leaves an impression above and beyond the everyday exchanges.

I wish I could have been another set of eyes in the room when the kids gave me their cards. In my peripheral vision there was hope and anticipation, waiting to see my reaction, a silent plea for Mom to “get it,” receive that unique gift of love they each had to offer, and return it with the same cup overflowing.

In the Spirit of What Are the Chances

Sometimes you sit down in a hospital or restaurant or airport, and when you take a moment to look around, you find yourself in the presence of someone who looks a little familiar. Okay, really familiar. Is that so-and-so’s doppelgänger, or is that actually them? What are they doing here? You tilt your head a little and feel kind of embarrassed for staring so long and as intently, until they catch you.

What happens next is a glorious coincidence of time and space pulling two life trajectories together. It’s just this instant, all this ricocheting energy and shifting plans and tragic randomness, when Love seems to bring about a collision.

Eyes light up.

How wonderful to see you here! Where are you headed? I’m sorry we have to meet under these circumstances. This is your first time in town in five years, and here I am, with my family, out to dinner because we just didn’t feel like cooking? It’s so good to see you.

What are the chances? We ask, shaking our heads and grinning.

We are delighted – de-lighted – when our “eyes light up.” It must be the presence of the Holy Spirit transferring much-needed joy, much-needed hope, much-needed faith, this de-light. This coincidence. This holy happenstance.

Because, really, what are the chances?

When Friends Stop By

My son’s buddy rings the doorbell. My daughter’s friend rides up on her bike. Friends pull in the driveway and come in through the garage.

We always wanted to be a home that others felt comfortable entering, the kind of place other people’s children trust.

When we lived in Copley, this open door policy extended to several families in our neighborhood, but none more than our backyard friends whose sons became so close-knit we merged their names: “Benry.” Our son, Henry, went to visit Benny this last Sunday night, overnight. Ever since, he’s been mourning again the loss of that best friend tucked in his back pocket, the way they used to stand up from the sandbox and tell each other, “See you tomorrow!”

“I had way more friends in Copley than in Ashland,” he lamented last night. Fresh on the heels of his visit, it might feel that way. There isn’t a little boy we’ve found right around the corner just yet, and the season in Copley for Henry was an unusual gift of the kind of friendship that probably won’t ever fade away.

Brandon has friends like that, friends he was literally born across the street from. I have a friend or two like that, women I can call today who knew me as a gangly tomboy not much older than Henry is now. Near or far, we’re able to be ourselves again together, pick up very nearly where we left off.

There’s something powerful, something precious about history built and weathered with a friend. These are the friendships my kids are building now. “Just stop by” friends. “Just thinking of you” friends. “How are you really doing” friends.

Come on in, dear ones.

The Gift of Writer’s Residencies

Tonight, I attended the opening reading for the Ashland University MFA program where I used to work. After knowing every student, faculty member, and visiting writer for the first seven years of the program, it is still surreal to walk into that space and not recognize most of the faces.

But what was especially lovely and what hasn’t changed: the pre-reading warmth and laughter. The variety of faces and ages, the clusters of like-minded writers together, gathered to hear one distinct and celebrated voice read from their work.

Justin Phillip Reed and his poems and his shadow and the light

It reminded me what a gift spaces like writer’s conferences and residencies can be. There aren’t many other spaces where you are given long stretches of time to join in the intimate wrestling through of other humans’ truth telling. Monasteries maybe?

Yes, there are craft seminars and workshops in which we critique the syntax and character development, the line break and form. But each writer brings some ball of twine they are working to unwind, drags behind them a field of mown or trampled straw they are trying to gather into perfectly contained bales. We get to bear witness to this truth telling, this truth making, collectively as a community. We get to celebrate when the bales have been hefted by sweaty hands and backs and stacked on the wagon, caught by some capable editor of bale-balancing.

Somewhere, a writer in workshop mode is thinking, She’s really letting this metaphor get the better of her. I know, I know, just let me have this moment in the field, with the straw and the twine.

I drove by one such field this afternoon, with its circular bales tossed in perfect random patterns, and now it’s here, too, dragged along with all my other straw to be woven into this little truth, my little truth about ordinary life for this particular ordinary day.

Ordinary Time

Photo by Buenosia Carol on Pexels.com

I know I’ve already said it here, the thing about this season of unproductivity and feeling at a loss for words for most things, and it’s true—in the last year since The Family Bible Devotional came out, any time I’ve sat down to type a thing, anything not tied to some dollar-generating deadline, my fingers have hovered anxiously over the keyboard. What do you really have to say, Sarah?

But sometime in the last month, I remembered poetry and playfulness. I remembered how fun it is to make a thing sound beautiful, to let language dosey doe some, to spin a little ditty, to tell a simple story just because this small moment is a moment of human experience, and isn’t it just beautiful?

Also sometime in the last couple of months, I began another devotional compiled by Sarah Arthur—At the Still Point: A Literary Guide to Prayer in Ordinary Time, and the concept of “ordinary time” caught my curiosity. Again, being a member of a church that doesn’t follow a traditional liturgical calendar, I had never heard of ordinary time, the long season in the church calendar between Eastertide and Advent, during which the followers of Christ just go on living.

It occurred to me early on in this devotional that this is the exact season of my life. I am in ordinary time. There is no advent preparation for and celebration of new life; all my babies are born and school-aged. There is no Lent, no deep season of sacrifice and lament leaning heavy toward the grief of Good Friday and the resurrection of Eastertide. Our immediate family unit is in the long season of in-between: No one is being born. No one is starting school for the first time. No one is graduating. No one is getting married.

Ordinary time could be filled with the tediousness of survival. We eat, we drink, we sleep, we work, we play, we find ways to keep our children occupied. Ordinary time sometimes feels this way. In the gaping yawn of ordinary time, it’s easy to become anxious for the disruption. What if’s creep in. I find myself worrying over when the next Lenten season will be upon us, who will suffer, which loved one might we lose, and how bad will I sink in that grief?

When tragedy strikes others in ordinary time, it’s as if I’m watching an approaching thunderhead, flashing with heat. I find myself counting up the seconds between the light and the roar. Is it coming closer? Is it coming for me and my own?

The fear of the storm on the horizon knocks the wind out of whatever contentment and joy I might have otherwise had in this season of the ordinary, when my child begs for a bedtime snack, insists he kiss every section of my face before saying his final goodnight.

Ordinary time is the longest season in the liturgical calendar. It’s what makes up most of our days on this earth. There are only a handful of miraculous anniversaries each of us celebrates and remembers; in between are all of these minutes. I want to inhabit them more fully, abide with the holy ordinary.

That’s why I think I might try to write something daily, something unburdened with the weight of saying something, something solely for the sake of noticing. I’m weary of rebutting the world’s loud opinions. The burden of taking a stand on this issue or that does not feel mine to carry and yet I’ve felt some self-inflicted pressure to be loud, righteous, just, to join the noise.

Maybe that’s why writing has felt so stifled these last twelve (to eighteen) months. Maybe I’m asking too much of it. Do we really need yet another megaphone in a sea of megaphones? Maybe by seeking after the ordinary, I can find that still small voice I most long for when coming to this keyboard. Maybe I can be witness to the microscopic miraculous, and find solace in the monotonous.

There’s so much ordinary time ahead. I wonder what tomorrow will give.

Joy Comes in the Morning – The Power of Eastertide

Between Midnight and DawnFor Lent this year, I picked up a different kind of devotional compiled by a writing acquaintance of mine, Sarah Arthur. The book–Between Midnight and Dawn–provides a selection of Scripture passages (Psalm, Prophet, Epistle, Gospel) paired with poems and excerpts of fiction from both contemporary and canonized authors for each week of the Lenten season. When I first bought the book, I assumed that the devotional was just for the period of time leading up to Easter, so as I hit Holy Week and still had a good third of the book left to read, I wondered what more could be waiting for me after Easter Sunday.

The traditional season of Lent is supposed to be a period of time to give up chocolate and lose weight… I mean, to reflect upon the days of teaching and conflict that led to the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus. It is a sober period, and not just because we tried to abstain from alcohol this year (loosely… we’re a fallen people who live in freedom and may have had a couple of celebratory drinks with friends). Lent reminds us of our tendencies toward selfishness and our deep need for grace and illuminates again for us God’s incredible covenant commitment to love and accept us in spite of ourselves.

Our denomination (Brethren) is a “low church” tradition and doesn’t typically follow a liturgical calendar, and I didn’t grow up with any real sense of the seasonal rhythms of the church, but most people know about Lent and lots of people know about Easter. After 40 long and punishing days of remembering Jesus’s suffering, we spend one day celebrating his resurrection. He lives! He lives! Christ Jesus lives today! And then for most of us, we go back to normal, ordinary time.

But did you know there’s a whole other season in the church calendar after Easter called Eastertide?

I didn’t know that, and after spending the last 18 years in regular church attendance, I feel a little robbed. Eastertide is another 40 days or so blocked off to remember Christ’s resurrected ministry, the freedom and Word and light we are all welcomed into and supposed to live into daily. It’s a period of rejoicing, joining the earth in singing praise to the God of the Universe made man who conquered death and grants us life and life abundant. Sing praise! Sing praise!

Ironically, during the Lenten season I found it difficult to get low and reflect with any emotional reaction to the suffering of Jesus, but during most of the weeks of Eastertide, the opposite is true. I’ve just been melancholy – pockets of joy and delight and laughter, yes, but underneath there’s been anxiety, foreboding. The sour taste that sometimes accompanies those moments you feel surrendered to beauty. Bittersweetness whispers, “You are happy, now, but just wait. Just wait. This will be taken from you.”

So what do you do when you’re happy during Lent and sad during Eastertide? You keep bringing yourself to the table to listen and be reminded of the fullness of Christ’s love, the totality of Christ’s presence with us during both seasons of sorrow and seasons of joy and seasons of mysterious gloom.

Even when you aren’t feeling it–whatever “it” might be–He is there, the Comforter, showing his scars and preparing a dinner over a beach bonfire. And there: joy, separate from the emotional experience of happiness or sadness. Fullness. Gratitude. Love.