Little Joys—The Woods

Until we lived on a property with pine trees, I never appreciated the seasonality of evergreens. Our pines, rhododendrons, arborvitae, and spruce have growing seasons and seasons of dormancy, times when they are more aromatic and times when they drop their needles. We planted some trees in the last few years, and when I see their new height and bright, fresh growth, I feel proud, as if I had anything to do with it.

There was a moment in 2020 when our spruce trees started dropping their lower branches, so much so that it was alarming. Google said that trees will do that sometimes; if they have reason to believe it’s going to be a hard winter, they’ll reduce the things they carry to ensure their own survival. It was like the spruce trees were reading the universe for signs of global pandemic. I noticed it right around the time I was deciding to resign from my job to make space for recovery. Maybe we were sharing the same air, saying the same prayers. Maybe they had their own form of long-Covid.

Around the same time, our pine trees produced an exorbitant number of pine cones. I mentioned this to our arborist (the lady we bought our new trees from), and she said she’d noticed the same thing, and it usually meant we should expect a lot of snow. The pine trees know their lives are short, even though most live between 100 and 200 years. They know they are mortal. They will ensure the legacy of their species, even if it’s the last thing they do.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve taken every opportunity to take my work outdoors, onto our deck, where I can sit among the trees’ canopies. I watch the squirrels, because my dogs tell me to, and listen to songbirds, hawks, and crows call to one another from the trees. All around me, there are stalwart trees, holding the soil on the hill, casting down their leaves, interrupting the wind. I take great comfort in their constancy. The squirrels hustle from tree to tree, the birds flit between branches, there one day, gone the next, the deer haunt the underbrush so quietly you’re more likely to miss them than spy them. 

But everyday, the trees are there. It is a comfort to be surrounded by things that have existed before me, that are taller than me, stronger than me, and will last longer than me. The woods are models of perseverance and suffering. They drop what they can no longer carry. They are rooted in the earth and reaching towards the sky. They grow. They make room for others in their shade and shadows. Even in their dying, they accommodate the living, becoming a sanctuary for insects and fungi, squirrels, foxes, deer, coyotes, and mice.

In the morning when I rise, I look out our bedroom window to see if all these witnesses still keep watch, to see how we will together greet the day.

Little Joys—Mugs

If you are like the vast majority of Americans, at some point during the day, you consume a hot beverage… why not drink it out of a meaningful mug?

We have a mug problem in our house. We have not one, not two, but three locations in our kitchen where you can find mugs. Brandon and I use the Fiestaware (standby for a whole other entry on plates!) mugs for our morning cups of coffee. After the kids leave, I switch to tea—usually Twinings, but right now I have a container of The Republic of Tea’s Comfort and Joy Limited Edition blend (so fancy!)—and use one of dozens of mugs that each have their person tied to them. Gifts from friends or family, mugs commemorating past Christmases, mugs with children’s artwork printed on them, mugs from our favorite coffee shops, mugs from vacations we went on together, all the mugs, and each one filled with comfort and joy, whether branded so or not.

Little Joys—Music

I challenge you to find anything as magical as making music. You can gather a hundred high school musicians on a stage and, even though they resist cooperation in every other setting by their very nature of being teenagers, they will let down their need for individuality in order to lend their voice or instrument to a song. Politics, religion, ethnicity, gender, and physical appearance don’t matter when you’re cradling a french horn, embracing a clarinet, or sliding a bow across a violin’s neck. What matters in that moment is listening to each other. Paying attention. And adding what you can to the song.

Somehow, these bundles of muscles, neurons, and lungs are able to process scales and notes, to memorize patterns, to coordinate their fingers and lips and breath to produce not just sound, but pleasant sounds, harmonious sounds, sounds from over 1,500 different devices we’ve invented to create different tones and pitches at different volumes on different continents. And then, songwriters and composers had the brilliance to hold all of those different instruments and sounds in their head, hear how they might play off of one another or with one another, and write notes so other people around the world could make their vision manifest into music, music others can perform, music others can sing.

What a joyful communion!

And this isn’t just a one time occurrence! We don’t just have one song, like a third of songbirds, or even just five songs, like 20% of all bird species, or even 2,000 songs, like the brown thrasher, all of which we listen to and admire for their effortlessness and beauty. 

Humans have hundreds of millions of songs. Even when we can’t seem to remember where we placed our keys, we can store the melodies and lyrics of thousands of albums in our brains. We can mimic the crooners, sing along with the hit artists, make up our own melodies, and even use our voices as instruments in a capella choirs and beatboxing. Song wriggles its way into our brains in the form of earworms. Song sidles down our arms and legs and makes our feet tap, our hands clap, the goosebumps rise on our skin. Song cracks open hardened hearts so we can feel again. Even the deaf feel music, play music, dance to music, and are moved by music.

Attending a concert is to join together in a choir celebrating our humanity and the sparks of divinity within us, singing with the same breath in one voice.

We’re even able to record it and reproduce it, play it on repeat or shuffle, or go old school with a needle and turntable. We can find it wherever we go and carry it with us in our back pocket. We can listen alone or collectively, choose songs from a jukebox or be subject to the preferences of the restaurant owners. We can tune in to hundreds of different radio stations carrying song waves on radio waves via distant satellites capturing the narratives of DJs and guest hosts situated in basement studios around the globe, and we can change the channel if we want to hear a different voice, a different song, a different genre, from a different place in time and space.

I play music all day, listen to instrumentals while I write, sing along to artists while I cook, and carry it with me while I fold laundry. 

Music—like all art—is impractical. It doesn’t matter in a material way. It isn’t something you can hold, and even though we pay great amounts to access it, you really can’t own it. And yet, can you imagine a more miserable existence than one without music? No music to create suspense or joy in a movie’s soundtrack. No music to capture the particular spirit of a particular silent night during a particular holiday, which then becomes a universal expression of peace, of hope, of love. No music to soothe a crying infant. No music to celebrate a birthday. No music to carry the story of love lost, love sparked, friends gathered, long winters, cold drinks, or hot summers, songs to get lost in, songs we find ourselves in.

What would life be without this wild, intentional, drumbeat to heartbeat movement collecting in our outer ears to collide with our eardrums that vibrate the waves to tiny bones in the middle ear so we can hear music? 

How much richer and intimate life is with music, even this moment, washing dishes while my husband strums a guitar and writes lyrics in combinations that haven’t yet existed, watching and participating in the act of creation, witnessing something becoming out of nothing.

Photo by Elviss Railijs Bitāns

Little Joys—Walkability

When we bought our home, we didn’t consider what has become one of its many highlights: walkability. If you draw a circle with a 1-mile radius around our house, everything I need on a regular basis lands within that mile. Our kids’ schools. Two parks. The entire Ashland downtown. Three coffee shops. Our church. The university. A hospital. Our dentist and our orthodontist. If you edge the circle out just a teensy bit further, I could even walk to my doctor’s office if need be.

There are financial benefits to this proximity, but I’ve also discovered mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual benefits. These days, I share a car with my daughter, who drives far more than I need to, so if I have a coffee date, or if I have a meeting with someone, or if I want to go to yoga, or whatever, 90% of the time, I can walk where I need to go.

Walking changes the rate at which your brain processes things. When I walk, I notice the changing colors of the grass as the seasons turn over. I notice squirrels scurrying up trees. I notice flowers growing where flowers ought not to find space to grow. I notice the changing of trees, the steady progress of construction, the rate my heart is beating, the strain of the muscles I’ve neglected, the speed of the clouds, the earth’s gradual tilting away from the sun, the gradual tilting back toward the light and how that impacts the morning and afternoon sky, the places the sun appears, the way the rays break through.

I notice (and even acknowledge) other people. When you walk somewhere, there’s a chance you will run into someone else who’s walking, too, a run-in and catch-up conversation that would never have happened if you both were busy speeding to your destination.

I never have to find a place to park when I walk. I generate no exhaust when I walk. I don’t have to pay for gas when I walk.

I can walk with no destination in mind, or walk for the sheer joy of going somewhere. You can’t rush when you’re walking—if you do, you’ll show up wherever sweaty and hot and out of breath, and besides all of that, how much quicker can you get there, really, if you’re jogging compared to walking?

Walking gives me a different perspective on my neighborhood and my community, an intimacy I miss if I’m driving.

This casual, steady, meandering stroll from point A to B and back home again is just one of many secret treasures our community holds, a gift that can feel like a curse or a blessing, depending on the moment, depending on the hurry or fuss or season or patience or pace of life required.

But most days, these days, I love walking.

Little Joys—Synchronicity

You hear a sermon on Sunday morning. Unbeknownst to the pastor, you’ve been reading that exact same passage of Scripture; you even journaled about it earlier in the week. Then, a book you pick up that seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the sermon or the Scripture resonates, and your husband says, “I was just thinking about that,” and a friend posts some quote on the subject, and you read the daily email from Richard Rohr, and there it is again.

That isn’t just the algorithm mastering the universe. That is synchronicity.

This collision of parallel ideas, thoughts, prayers, conversations, readings, sermons, and passing comments could be a happy accident, a serendipitous moment in the grand chaos of chance happenings in the universe. Or there could be more going on here.

I am mystified and humbled by synchronistic events. They make me feel invited into a larger, cosmic conversation the Holy Spirit is having between its various carriers, like I have a voice to contribute or at least an ear to lend to what the Spirit is doing. 

When I am at my best, at rest and at peace, open to the movements of love and hope, words and worlds arrive like love notes. There’s nothing like being let into a rich and vibrant conversation, and synchronicity is like that, an open window into the heart of God.

With so many people at this time of year centered on the spirit of generosity, love, gratitude, hope, and joy—truly the best fruits of humanity—it seems there is no end to the opportunities for synchronicity in our daily comings and goings, if we take time to be present, if we hold space for possibility, if we let ourselves see the many rings of concentric circles of conversation vibrating around one Center, the one Center of all things.

God is using the Universe to speak in echoes and whispers, in voice and wind, in millions of drops of rain, in manifestation and incarnation. Listen.

Photo by Anthony : )

Little Joys—Blankets

I begin my day on a recliner in our office with a blue throw blanket my daughter, Lydia, bought me. Its tassels are slowly being gnawed off by our puppy, Ruby, who also chewed up not one but two blue pens while lying on it, so now there are a few indigo splotches here and there, but none of this changes its softness.

Once everyone is out of the house and I’ve gotten myself ready for the day, I sit down at my desk and drape a different blanket across my lap. Sometimes it is a patchwork quilt assembled by my grandmother-in-law and her daughters, my mother-in-law and her sisters. We have at least three of these lap quilts. They’ve accompanied me outdoors with my kids when they were younger, for picnics and rare days we sat in the shade of a tree and did nothing except sit together, or times we went to baseball games to watch Brandon or one of the other children play, and a toddler grabbed at Cheerios and grass. They are durable blankets, sewn together to stand the test of grass stains and time.

Other times, there’s a crocheted blanket that used to rest on the back of my great grandmother’s sofa in her trailer where she let me spend the night, play checkers, and bake peanut butter cookies with her. She taught me how to cross-stitch, a craft I have continued on and off ever since. She had one hundred million house plants on the windowsill and grew as many varieties of flowers in her yard. Somehow, the gold and brown and orange yarn has held together.

In the evenings, after dinner is made and kids are tucked away in their rooms doing their own thing, Brandon and I take up our spots in the living room and there again are blankets, there again is comfort spun out, crocheted, quilted, sewn, and tied, the weight of women’s handiwork pressing in and wrapping us in their warmth, mothers, sisters, grandmothers, aunts, and daughters, cloaking us in their care.

Blankets are love in fabric form.

Little Joys—Waffle Cones

We went with friends to Carolina Beach for spring break this year, and one of the stops we made (twice? maybe three times?) was at a little ice cream shop called Boombalatti’s. Not only was the ice cream so good we went back twice or maybe three times, but they make waffle cones in-house.

You know the waffle cones are made in-house when that warm, sweet aroma wafts out the door and around the corner as you approach the ice cream stand. That aroma takes me to Carolina Beach and also St. Augustine, to that one ice cream shop in Old Town, to vacation destinations, to time with friends and family, to laughter and delicious, sticky indulgences. 

I decided, with my friend Becca, that any time a place makes their own waffle cones, one must order them. I’m 40 now; I have lived too long abstaining from this delight because I think it might save me a couple of calories. Why should we deny ourselves this great and rare pleasure? What is living if you do not order the house-made waffle cone?!

The years are too short to pass on waffle cones.

Photo by Maria Orlova

Little Joys—Izzy and Ruby

Izzy came to us the week we learned my mom’s cancer had come back as stage IV kidney cancer, and in the seven years since, she has been the default therapy dog in the house. Ruby joined the crew last Christmas, marking the beginning of the year that we learned Mom’s cancer is gone… NED when “NED” was Never Even a Dream.

These two are my near constant companions in the house all day, the weighted blanket of wet kisses and fluff whenever I recline. I don’t care if people think most of their anthropomorphic characteristics are just us projecting personalities onto them; pets are gifts, a delightful daily connection to the rest of creation. 

I love how they insist on being loved, how they don’t hold back from licking a hand or a face or nudging their heads under my palm to be pet and adored. I love how their entire worlds revolve around when the rest of the family comes home, how they wait at doors, how they can barely contain themselves at the mention of the words “walk” or “squirrel.”

But most of all, I love how present they are, how they seem to know when one of us is sick or sad, how they make it their jobs to comfort, to be near. They are incredibly talented at getting between me and whatever object or subject I think is more important than their time, kisses, and love. They are one of many ways God shows me what it looks like to unabashedly delight in others, to sit with people in their grief and in their joy, and to wait expectantly for whatever treasures might fall from up above (whether off the cutting board or off a TV tray or off the dining room table).

Little Joys—Neural Intimacy

“The answer is always yes.”

This is the latest rule of life in the Wells marriage. And yes, the first marriage thing you thought of is on the list, along with hot tea, nachos, and bourbon. There is no reason to ask whether the other of us wants tea, or nachos, or bourbon, or sex, the answer is always yes.

It’s said that when a couple has spent a long time together, they start to look and sound like each other. It’s actually true, because, science. But it’s also true that people begin to think like each other. In Joshua Wolf Shenk’s book, Powers of Two, he sees the connectivity between couples as a shared mind that allows them to be more creative together than they would be on their own.

Our being together and different ways of processing the world together rubs off on each other; it sharpens the dull edges of our perspectives until we are no longer quite like the person we first were when we met. We see things differently, collectively. 

We share a mind, not in a direct replica of the other person, but in neural intimacy, holding one person’s thoughts and emotions with the same love and concern, as closely as your own. There’s actually a psychological term “neuro-intimacy,” which is essentially what I’m talking about here: that deep connection you have with a person that allows you to let down your guard and be exactly who you are, share exactly what you think, because the degree of trust between you is so strong.

You know what the other person is going to say before they say it. You remember the same memory simultaneously. You say the same thing at the same time.

And I find it to be absolutely delightful.

“No man is an island entire of itself” wrote John Donne. We are interwoven, the ever-expanding patchwork quilt of our lives growing more complex and connected the longer we are together.

Brandon and I have known each other for 20 years and will celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary next September. When you’ve been in contact with someone daily for 7,300 days the way we have, you’ve had 7,300 opportunities to develop neural intimacy, the shared mind of couples.

I love this about relationships. It isn’t just true of romantic relationships or marriages, but of friendships, sibling bonds, the connection between a parent and her child. We develop our own private languages and our own inside jokes, and we say exactly what we mean to say from the vulnerable heart center of ourselves.

“Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up” the Teacher in Ecclesiastes said. We’ve experienced this push and pull in our lives, especially recently. When one of us is stressed and overwhelmed, anxious about the future, the other tends to be steady, calm, able to navigate the storm. There is great power to find shelter and stability in this neural intimacy.

I’d like to share more silly anecdotes that could provide insight into this small, daily joy of our lives together…

…but you probably wouldn’t get it. It’s an inside joke.

Little Joys—From Scratch

Sometime in the last decade, cooking became less of a chore and more of a pleasure. I have a poem, “A Liturgy for the Preparation of a Meal” by Douglas McKelvey framed on the wall in our kitchen. Its words are in my view while I chop vegetables, measure spices, and stir pots of soup. “Let us invest in this preparation a lovingkindness toward those who will partake,” writes McKelvey, “Meet us in the making of this meal, O Lord, and make of it something more than a mere nourishment for the body.”

It’s this spirit I try to possess as I prepare most meals in our kitchen, with hopes that my people, whoever it is I’m feeding, can taste the love. I’m especially drawn to cooking from new recipes, with fresh ingredients and lots of different herbs and spices. I like the challenge of it. David Giffels is the author of the essay collection, The Hard Way on Purpose. I think of this title every time I set out to make something from scratch.

Because I love words and their origins, I was curious where we get the phrase “from scratch.” It comes from the scratch drawn in the dirt as the starting line of a foot race. A runner who “starts from scratch” began at the beginning of the course, with no handicap. The Cambridge Dictionary says the phrase means, “from the beginning, without using anything that already exists.”

No one can truly make anything from scratch, except God, who spun the whole universe into existence billions of years ago, weaving all elements together in a grand, interconnected quilt spread out over millions of light years and galaxies and stars. Even if you don’t believe in a divine being who created all things, who are we kidding to think we can make anything from nothing?

But I do get to partake in small acts of from scratch-ness, mini-moments of creation that are part of the cycle of birth, death, and resurrection. Each meal I make “from the beginning” uses ingredients of things that were once living, the flesh and substance of which will be used to keep other bodies alive. Someday, these bodies will give themselves over to earth, which will give itself over to grass, which will give itself over to animals, which will give themselves over to someone else, a circuit of harmonious sacrifice. 

What has already gone before me to make this particular dish? Some farmer planted the seeds. Some butcher prepared the meat. Some honey bees pollinated the plant. Many things lifted their blossoms and followed the sun, waited for rain, and grew out of the minerals from which we all came. I get to partake in what has already been given up, “from the beginning.” Cooking “from scratch” is humbling.

P.S. Many of my life’s little joys involve food. This is how it is.

Photo by Engin Akyurt: