A Killing Freeze

I know that the killing freeze arrived later this year because I checked last year’s date in my journal. I understand that the cold air pouring in even as I type is, if anything, overdue, and yet I wish it had held off longer still.

Winter approaches, and I find myself afraid.

Most of the maple leaves have fallen, but the trees still wear a few. They look like dabs of watercolor paint. It is autumn’s last deep breath before the descent of winter’s gray veil.

Last winter was long, and the memory is still heavy. I love snow falling past the window, and I love pulling my children on a sled through the Christmas tree farm, but winter is not only that. Winter is also dark afternoons and ice in the chicken’s water and snow turned to mud.

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We have all been sick for weeks, and I keep getting better only to get worse again. The baby’s eyes are red and infected, and our whole house shakes with bone-deep coughs.

I am too weary for bad news, I have kept the radio turned off, but terrible tidings slink in, like that draft around my office window. First there was a text from my friend. Such a devastating loss. A week later there was a phone call from family, and that one was so much worse.

They aren’t my stories to tell. Perhaps they aren’t stories at all. They are ruptures. Faultlines.

But you don’t need the details. I’m afraid you’ve heard them before. You, too, have received a text. You, too, have picked up that phone. These are the things that should never happen.

These are the stories every atheist mentions when he or she says they cannot, cannot believe in a good and loving and all-powerful God.

And I find I have no desire to argue with them. Such things should not happen. My atheist friends are absolutely right about that.

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When the text came in, I started praying a prayer I’ve never prayed before. I think every true prayer is given, but the given-ness of this one was more apparent than most.

I prayed Let there be light.

I was still praying that prayer when the phone call came. And now I see no reason to stop. Lord, let there be some light. Dear God, please.

It is a winter prayer, and it beckons me toward spring promises:

For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people …

They will not labor in vain, nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune.

-          Isaiah 65:22-23

I want to believe that these words are true, but I am thinking of two mothers. One labored in vain. One bore a child doomed to misfortune. At least, that is what appears to be so.

But what if death was no more the end than winter is the end? What if these words are yet true for these mothers and their children? All hope seems lost, but maybe that is a lie.

After the cross came an empty tomb in a springtime garden.

Winter is near. They say it will be long and cold. I know for certain that it will be dark. But I also know that on the other side of winter is spring.

On the other side of death is life.

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These Farmhouse Bookshelves

We had our first hard freeze of the season last night. This morning, the sky is a deeper blue than I have seen in quite some time. The sky seems to respond well to freezing temperatures, as if making up for the dreariness of the earth. Though the dreariness will only come later. Right now the leaves on the ground are traced in frost, and the dahlias haven’t yet registered that they have reached their end. Their colors are still vivid.

I am grateful for our long, pleasant fall, but I am also breathing more deeply today. I recorded the date of the first freeze in my garden journal and felt a weight slide from my mind. I can close the page on this growing season. I do still have garlic to plant and a few more daffodil bulbs, but the seasons have taken a decisive turn. Around this bend lie dog-eared seed catalogs and sketches for the new flower garden. Piles of books, too.

When it is cold and dark, we read books in front of the fire like it is our job.

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I recently finished a stunning new novel. I’ve never been in a book club, but when I closed this book for the last time, I wanted only to talk about this book. It’s that good. That thought-provoking. That beautiful. It’s Station Eleven: A novel by Emily St. John Mandel.

I once wrote about books I don’t know why I read but am so glad I didStation Eleven would certainly qualify as one of these. First, I tend to avoid anything “dystopian,” and “post-apocalyptic” is even less appealing. Finally, I have never read any of Cormac McCarthy’s highly praised but violent novels, and I don’t think I ever will. When I heard Mandel likened to McCarthy, I had serious doubts about picking up this book. Yes, this is a book about the collapse of civilization after a serious flu bug kills most of the world’s population, but, I promise you, it’s really not about that at all.

All I can say is to forget everything I just wrote and go read this book. It isn’t violent, so we sensitive-flower types need not fret, but it is disturbing. It is disturbing in the way of excellent art. It gives you new eyes to see your life, your family, our world. It’s a book to wake up your soul. I don’t think it’s possible to read a book like this and stay just the same as you were.

But if that doesn’t convince you, it’s a compelling story. A pager-turner. The writing is beautiful, the characters are rich. And days after finishing it, I am still haunted by a single image. There is a moment when we come upon a group of survivors who have made their home in a building that was once a Wendy’s fast-food restaurant. This new world has no fast-food (and, on the flip side, no antibiotics), but humans still flourish. The old restaurant door must have worn out and needed replacing because the door on this former Wendy’s is hand-cut from heavy wood. Also, someone has carved the front with delicate flowers and vines. A work of art in a place once devoted to everything fast, cheap, and plastic.

Because survival is insufficient. – Emily St. John Mandel

Another recently finished, dearly loved book is Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time by Dorothy Bass.

It’s a lovely, wise book. You’ll find a mixture of accessible scholarship and personal storytelling. You’ll find a bit about Sabbath and a bit about the Christian church calendar. But, mostly, you’ll find lost wisdom. Time is not our enemy. And each day is a gift. Live in it, and be glad. It isn’t always an easy or intuitive way to live, especially in our harried culture. But this book will help. It is helping me.

Preparing and eating is a major component of our days, isn’t it? As much as I love food, I struggle with that. I struggle with the time required to plan and shop and cook and clean. I resent the hard work, and I resent the time it asks. I’m praying to let go of resentment. I’m praying to grow in gratitude for the daily gift of food.

A good cookbook helps. I know one reason I have struggled with preparing meals for my family is the challenge of my son’s many food allergies. Anaphylaxis really takes the fun out of things.

Against All Grain: Delectable Paleo Recipes to Eat Well & Feel Great by Danielle Walker is saving my life in the kitchen. Paleo recipes don’t all work for us (my son can eat almonds but no other tree nuts or peanuts), but most of these recipes are for foods we can and want to eat. I’m recommending this book to anyone with allergies or food sensitivities, but I also think this is a great cookbook for anyone who thinks they should cut back on wheat and dairy and refined sugar. Which, if we’re honest, is probably most of us.

There is a lot I could tell you about these recipes, but I will only share one story: I have tried and failed to make or purchase a dairy-free, gluten-free, nut-free birthday cake for my son for eights years. They have all been disappointments, some bigger than others. This past summer, I made the chocolate layer cake from this book. It was easy, used ingredients we already had on hand (though mine is the sort of kitchen where coconut oil and almond flour are always on hand), looked beautiful, and … well, my husband took one bite and looked at me with huge eyes.

“This actually tastes good.” I nodded in agreement. “No. I mean it. I would serve this to people! This tastes real.”

So. It’s good. You should check it out.

Tell me, what’s on your reading list for the dark days ahead?

 

Because We Have Already Died (A Reflection on the Eve of Halloween)

My friend looks up toward the trees and says I had forgotten how graceful dying can sometimes be.

I follow her glance and know that she is right. I, too, have forgotten. I remember autumn through snapshots. Which means, I remember the brilliance of that one sugar maple down the road. Or, I remember the startling red of a Burning Bush shrub against a deep blue sky.

The snapshots help me to remember true moments, fiery moments, but they do not give an accurate picture of the whole.

Autumn, taken as a whole, does not look like clear, bright brilliance. Here in my corner of Pennsylvania, it is gentle. Faded. It is burnished gold and copper. It is gray clouds and wet pavement.

This autumn world does not rage against the dying of the light. It smolders, quietly. Gracefully.

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This time of year, it seems Christians like to talk about Halloween on the internet. I tend to abstain from those “conversations.” So much depends upon context. Like the context of our own memories. Like the context of our own communities. Often, the internet is a conversation without a context.

Here is a bit of mine.

In the church of my childhood, Halloween was ever-so-slightly taboo. We wore costumes, but we wore them to collect candy at our church’s “Harvest Fair.”

As new parents, we discovered the great adventure of escorting a tempermental two-year-old ladybug down city streets. We stole her candy when she wasn’t watching, and we hugged our neighbors. We tried to catch the eye of their over-tired  Dorothy or Scarecrow. To tell each one we had no idea it was them.

Still, decorating my home for Halloween always seemed like a step too far. Until we came here. Now we live in the farmhouse on the hill and how else can we entice our neighbors and their children to climb our hill, to receive our gift of love and candy, but with a few smiling ghosts and candle-lit pumpkins?

Context. It changes things.

Changes us.

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the ruins :: kitchen?
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We live in a culture that largely ignores death. Our children no longer walk to church through churchyards dotted with graves.

Our own church is that rare thing with its own cemetery, but it is all the way around by the back door. My children often ask to walk that way, but I am in a hurry. Another time, I say, as I rush them through the front door.

I am sorry for this. And so, this year, I am grateful for Halloween. I am grateful for the space it opens up. I am less grateful for the gory zombie poster set at a child’s eye level at the local Wal Mart, but mostly I am grateful for the opportunity to talk about death. About dying. About our baptism and what it might mean that we have already died with Christ.

Which is, to say, we will have a conversation about living.

Soon, we will bring out the plywood grave markers my husband made last year. Our kids painted them gray with black crosses and the letters R I P. We will tuck them near the crumbling stone foundations of the old farm buildings, and we will drape them with twinkly lights.

As we outline a path for candy-seeking neighbors, my daughter will ask me again about those letters R I P. And as darkness settles, and the lights begin to flicker and gain strength, she will tell me It’s beautiful, Mom. So beautiful.

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the rainbow window
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Narrow Roads and a Spacious Place

At first, the wilderness appears wide open. It is unexplored. Who knows what wonders wait to be found.

When we first moved to Florida, we were eager to explore new roads. We caught glimpses of water – river or ocean – and we pressed on. But the river always remained hidden behind endless waves of Spanish moss. The ocean was a mirage, a blue spot on the GPS we could never quite reach.

The real ocean hid behind grassy bluffs or gated mansions. Park your car and pay your fee, and you’d find it. But it was not open to the wanderer. To those with a car full of kids who only wanted to drive and believe they were free.

Wilderness roads are straight roads. To meander without a plan across a network of straight lines will only lead to disappointment. There can be no circling back in some surprising way. There is only that moment of disenchantment, that moment when you agree it is probably best to turn around.

The wilderness looks like a spacious place. You cannot see the edges, no matter which direction you look. But there is no real spaciousness here.

In the wilderness, you wander but you are also hemmed in.

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I grew up with the siren song let’s go for a drive. When my parents couldn’t take our squabbling for one more minute, they piled all four of us in the station wagon.

Where are we going? we always asked.

Crazy, my mother always answered.

Years later, heading out for a long drive became our favorite date. Especially in the spring. In the spring, you never knew when you might round a bend and find yourself slowing, slowing, and finally stopping to watch the wind dance in a field of bluebonnets. We’d park your pickup truck by the barbed-wire fence and roll down our windows.

All the better for watching flowers dance in a field we happily admitted we would probably never find again.

*

The roads are my favorite thing about my new home. This promised land.

They are narrow and curvy. They force a slower pace. You must stop at every bridge to let the car opposite cross first. You often find yourself caught behind horse-drawn buggies or herds of Sunday cyclists.

In this place, there is no scenic route. There are only the familiar roads, with their familiar beauty, and the turns you haven’t yet taken. The eighteenth-century farm you’ve never seen. The historic blacksmith shop you never noticed. The “ancient burial ground” half-hidden behind a brilliant maple tree.  I lose miles wondering who might be buried in this “ancient burial ground.”

The daily chore of Kindergarten carpool is a thirty-five-miles-per-hour roller coaster. Gypsy Lane carves a path through the forest. Schoolhouse Road curves along the edge of a steep hill. I can see sheep and a fast-running creek down below.

Old stone barns and shabby farmhouses and that one crazy place with the alpacas. Every single day I forget where I’m headed.

Every drive, every errand, feels like a Sunday afternoon drive in God’s country.

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On the hard days, and in the hard places, I sometimes resist gratitude. To “give thanks in all circumstances,” can feel like shutting my eyes. Like pretending.

But giving thanks has nothing to do with renaming a prison a spacious place. It is only the grateful acknowledgement that God never leaves us behind. He always comes back for the lost sheep. He always makes a way.

These days, I am looking back. I am remembering and giving thanks.

Thank you, Lord, for the hard, straight roads that led me here. Thank you for the wilderness.

Thank you, Lord, for the Promised Land. This spacious place where every road leads somewhere new.

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