On school “Career Day,” she sat at the back of the third-grade classroom. Her bright face was framed by two glittery barrettes. “What’s the funniest things you’ve ever written?” she asked.
“The funniest?” I said. Quiet settled around us like a fog, filling up one second, then another.
“To be honest, I tend to write about sad things. Those are the things that snag in my heart and make me want to understand them. I guess I write about sad things because sad things happen to all of us.”
She sat up straight in her desk and almost shouted, “My cat died!” She looked toward a corner of the room and then back into my eyes. No longer shouting, she said, “My grandmother died, too.”
On Valentine’s Day, our youngest will give her preschool friends paper cards covered in glitter glue and sparkly stickers. Her bedroom floor has become a Milky Way of pink and purple dust.
Valentine’s Day is also Ash Wednesday. That afternoon, Jonathan and I will gather four children and drive to church. “Dust to dust” and a cross of ashes on all our foreheads. Pizza dinner with our church family. Heart candies in pastel shades pulled from linty pockets.
Last year, I was not prepared for the terrible sight of a black cross on my little girl’s tiny, white forehead.
No, your heart says.
Yes, your mind insists.
This year, I am prepared. I know I will want to wipe it off. I will want to say to her, I’m sorry. But I will not.
Five years ago, she was born into this breathing world, and it is too late for apologies.
You are dust, Elsa Spring.
And so am I.
Christmas at Maplehurst was the glitter of snowfall. Epiphany was the sparkle of ice on the dark water of the neighborhood retention ponds. With my sister and her children, we feasted. We skated. We laughed, and though we did not talk about it, I know we also remembered.
Only two years ago, my nieces and nephews celebrated Christmas with their Dad in the house with the mango tree. Only two years ago, I celebrated Christmas with my parents, their grandparents. “We’ll slow down,” they said. “Maybe we’ll travel!” they said. We didn’t know we were all walking nearer to the edge of a cliff.
Each Christmastime, I find myself bracing for bad news. “What’s coming?” my body asks. “Nothing,” my mind says. “You’re only remembering.”
“Sorrow is always coming,” my heart insists.
The sparkle of Epiphany has been washed away by rain. There is no snow at Maplehurst, and the ice over the dark water is thin and broken. Now there is only fog.
“This is bad,” Jonathan says, driving our car toward church on Sunday morning.
“Ice would be worse,” I say. I mean it to be comforting, but the words slip away, and we are both quiet peering ahead along a road we can no longer see.
I turn toward my sons seated at the back of the minivan. “Remember, you may notice some of our friends at church crying. We are sad right now, and it’s okay to be sad. Do you have any questions?”
They have no questions.
Or maybe they do. Maybe it is only that they know by now their parents do not have the answers. At least, not the easy ones they may want.
These past two years, grief has visited family and grief has visited friend after friend, and though these four children are mine to care for, I cannot protect them from sorrow. I cannot pretend this world is different than it is.
If they must know sorrow, I pray, let them know comfort, too.
I’ve always imagined Lent as a season of subtraction. We do without. We live with less.
But the word itself is an old word for spring, and spring is a season of more. In spring, there is a very little bit more every day—more light and more life, as if joy were a buried seed and this is our one chance to watch it take root and grow.
Lent is related to lengthen, and this is the season of lengthening days.
I tried to explain all this to my kids at dinner, but I failed. Shrove Tuesday they love. “Let’s eat all the pancakes in the world!” Elsa said. But Lent? No, thank you. Though my boys were less polite than that.
Maybe that’s why I kicked them out of the room halfway through our post-dinner reading of C. S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian. They disrupted our family reading with laughter instead of their usual bickering, but that somehow made it worse. As if anything were more fun than listening to Mom read about lions and dancing trees.
Still, I wish they’d been there. I wish we could have talked about the turning point in this story, and how it all began when Lucy recognized her failure and stopped trying to defend herself. “I’m sorry, Aslan. I’m ready now,“ she said.
“Now you are a lioness,” said Aslan. “And now all Narnia will be renewed. But come. We have no time to lose.”
Come! We have no time to lose.
Time is flowing on, but time is also moving backwards. This is the meaning of renewal.
Renewal is spring made visible, but it is also winter undone. The tangled threads of the past are set right. Our mistakes are rewoven. Even the power of death itself has begun to be unraveled.
And we can participate.
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke … (Isaiah 58:6).
No doubt, I will long for some shortcut. No doubt, I will want to guide my children toward some other path. I will wish for them some easier way unmarked by grief or hunger or unanswered questions.
I will want to keep them comfortable, but comfort isn’t always our friend. Still, I think I’ll keep a few of those leftover candy hearts in my pocket. A little sweetness to share along the way.
What will we see when the fog rolls back and we arrive at Easter morning?
Perhaps not sunrise. Perhaps we must still wait for that. But even though we go on walking in the valley of the shadow, the sky above is pierced with starlight.
Look at that! we’ll say to one another. This night is more like noonday (Isaiah 58:10).
Then we will turn to our companions on the way, shining with so much reflected light, and we will say to one another: Remember that you are stardust, remember you are on your way home.
Winter came early, settled in to stay, and shows no signs of an early leave-taking.
By Friday, we will have counted forty days since Christmas. The strength of the sun has grown, but I do miss those cheerful days of twinkle-lights and candy canes.
Still, I would not unwind time. Onward and upward. Spring beckons, though it is only a light far down a very long tunnel.
Now, we mark the traditional halfway point of winter. Friday is Candlemas, the day when candles were blessed for the dark days of winter that remained, the day when we remember Christ presented at the Temple and sing Zechariah’s song:
… the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Peace is a way, a path, a choice.
I am sorry to say that peace often looks anything but peaceful when we begin to choose it. In order to seek peace, we must sometimes fix our eyes on the light we only barely see, far down a very long tunnel.
Peace is a wholeness, a completeness, and a rightness. We seek peace and we pursue it when we walk toward–not away–from those things in our homes, our neighborhoods, and our world that are broken, incomplete, and wrong.
We are peacemakers, not peacetakers out to grab whatever we can for ourselves.
The good news is that we seek that which we have already received.
Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you.
We cultivate seeds planted in us long, long ago.
Halfway through this long, dark season, I desperately need to remember all that is special and good about winter. Things like long books, warm fires, garden dreams, geraniums on the windowsill, and so much more.
I need a winter reset.
If you feel the same, I think this gift will help.
The third installment is finally here: it’s a Winter Giveaway!
When I first imagined the book that eventually became Roots and Sky, I pictured an old-fashioned treasure, something like the books I seek out in thrift stores and used bookstores. I thought my stories would be interspersed with seasonal tips and recipes and nostalgic pen-and-ink illustrations.
Almost as soon as I began writing, I realized that the story I needed to tell was simpler and leaner. Those first four seasons at Maplehurst were more quiet and watchful than busy and industrious, and the book needed to reflect that.
But the idea of offering more–seasonal stories, tips, recipes, and beautiful illustrations–has never gone away.
Last summer we celebrated five years of cultivating home in this Victorian red brick farmhouse.
I can’t think of a better way to mark that anniversary than by finally giving you the more I imagined so long ago. In fact, I plan to give you more (and more, and more, and more). I have four gifts planned, each one arriving with a new season.
In collaboration with the talented designer and illustrator Jennifer Tucker of Little House Studio, I’ve created four winter-themed pages from that book of my dreams.
They are free for every one of my email subscribers to download and print.
One comes from my kitchen, two from the garden, and one from my bookshelves. Each page offers something practical and beautiful wrapped up in my own lyrical point of view.
I’m planning to print and frame mine, but they’ll do just as well tacked to a bulletin board or tucked into a garden journal or recipe box. Feel free to share this post with friends who might like to subscribe and print their own.
Simply click the subscribe box below, enter your email address, and a confirmation email will be sent straight to you. Confirm your address, and you’ll be taken to the link in order to claim your download.
If you are already a subscriber, check your inbox. Your link should be waiting for you.
Here are two things to remember:
One: TWO WEEKS from today, the offer expires, and the prints will no longer be available.
Two: Spring won’t keep us waiting forever. Look for my spring giveaway in April.
During Advent twelve years ago, I was newly pregnant and very afraid.
I should have remembered the angel’s proclamation to Mary, “Do not be afraid.” Instead, because I had waited so long and with so much agony for this second child to be conceived, the news of a growing baby felt too good to be true. I became convinced that my child would be born with serious health problems.
My prayers had been answered, but I dimly sensed there must be some price to pay.
I had suffered just enough to stop believing in good news and gifts freely offered.
The good news of this season is God’s nearness. A son has been born to us, and his name is God-with-us.
The good news is that the God who came near has promised to return. Advent is that season when we pinch ourselves awake, we rub the sleep from our eyes, and we remember to watch and wait.
“A light shines in the darkness,” and despite everything–everything— we’ve seen, we believe the “darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
My son Thaddeus was born at bright noon on my very own birthday. He was healthy and strong, and I held in my arms the answer God had been whispering to me for months: This son is a good gift. No strings attached.
That was the good news, and it was absolutely true. Yet my grip on it slipped as Thaddeus grew.
He had his first serious allergic reaction at six months old. It was Christmas Eve.
We used the epi-pen and drove him to the hospital for the first time when he was two.
We did the same when he was three.
When he was four, I took him out for a treat and forgot to bring his epi-pen. A stranger with an epi-pen in her purse saved my son’s life.
I remember once standing with an exhausted doctor in a hospital corridor. We were both watching Thaddeus, lying so swollen and so still in that enormous hospital bed, and I asked, “Will he grow out of it?”
The doctor sighed, his eyes never leaving my little boy. I waited.
“Normally, I would say yes. But I’ve never seen a reaction like his. How could a little processed-cheese dust cause this?”
Through a decade of constant vigilance and fear that was still, too often, not good enough, I prayed for my son.
Heal him. Please.
But every single time I prayed, the same few words would drop—like a stone—in my heart:
He is already healed.
I never knew what to do with that stone. Some days I believed the good news: already healed. But the good news couldn’t fully erase the fear that we would make another mistake, miss something, forget something.
And the good news seemed to offer little to a boy who ate his lunch alone at the “peanut-free table” and cried after every class party: I just want to eat what all the other kids eat.
I can’t remember when we first decided to let him try dairy. Two years ago? A year? I know he asked for a long, long while before we said yes. I can’t even remember what we fed him. Was it a muffin baked with a little bit of butter? Or was it a waffle made with a small amount of buttermilk?
I’ve forgotten how it began, but I remember the culmination: cheesy homemade pizza on a Friday night. We let him try one bite. We kept his epi-pen on the counter. We made him wait twenty minutes before another bite, and we peppered him with questions:
How do you feel? Is there any scratchiness in your throat? What about now? Does your mouth itch? What about now?
He ate one whole piece of pizza that night, but we still took it slow. The light of that good news announced for years to every one of my prayers was dawning, but Jonathan and I covered our eyes.
We were afraid, I think, to look directly at the thing we had always desired.
This year, our son has eaten cookies and cakes baked with butter. He has eaten cookies and cakes baked with milk. Twice, he ate a cupcake frosted with butter frosting. Once, he sprinkled parmesan cheese on his soup, and I didn’t stop him.
On Thanksgiving Day, we realized too late we’d forgotten to buy almond milk. We made the mashed potatoes, Thaddeus’s favorite food, with real milk, real cream, and real butter.
That night, having had no reaction to the potatoes, Thaddeus ate his first slice of apple pie with real whipped cream.
“I like it,” he said, in a quiet voice.
A week or so ago, I realized we were out of the almond milk Thaddeus has always used on his Cheerios and his oatmeal. Jonathan would be heading to the grocery store that day, but as I wrote up a list for him, I couldn’t decide whether to add almond milk.
The only thing we had not yet tried giving Thaddeus was pure milk. I knew in my mind he could have it. He ate whipped cream! I knew he had outgrown his milk allergy, but over all these years, I have grown accustomed to doubt and fear.
The last time Thaddeus took a sip of milk, he was three, and it was a glass meant for his sister, and the whole nightmare ended with a bloody mark on his pants from the epi-pen and a trip to the hospital.
My pen hesitated until, finally, I wrote: almond milk (do we need to buy more?).
Maybe Advent is the long, slow leaning in toward the good news we do believe. Maybe Advent is a gradual waking up.
The good news we have waited for has been announced in our lives. I have seen the evidence with my own eyes. My much-loved boy is no longer allergic to milk, and this year, for the first time, he and I will share a birthday cake made with real milk and real butter.
But when I think about pouring him a glass of milk, my hand starts shaking with old memories and old fears, and I can’t do it.
I haven’t yet done it.
When Jonathan brought the groceries home, I saw the familiar box of almond milk amidst the bananas and the avocados.
“You bought more almond milk,” I said to him.
It was a statement.
It was a question.
Jonathan looked at me. He didn’t say anything until he finally looked away.
“It feels good just to have it in the house,” I said, and he nodded.
We are waiting for Christmas. We are waiting for Christ’s return.
But maybe we’re also waiting on ourselves. Gently and with patience.
Because the good news is a bright light, and our eyes are weak. Our hearts still a little fearful. And maybe we need to hear, just one more time, what Mary heard not so long ago:
The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid.