Here in the Valley of the Shadow of Death

Here in the Valley of the Shadow of Death

 

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.

 

The Good News I Can’t Quite Believe

The Good News I Can’t Quite Believe

 

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.

 

These Farmhouse Bookshelves (New Books!)

These Farmhouse Bookshelves (New Books!)

 

September at Maplehurst is for birthdays and books.

And birthday apple pie.

Both of my daughters were born in September. This year, only four days apart, my big girl turns fourteen and my little girl turns five.

September at Maplehurst is also for full hearts and grateful tears.

*

My favorite gifts to give are books, and this month I have a stack of new favorites to give family and friends.

Shawn Smucker’s beautiful new novel The Day the Angels Fell would be perfect for the fourteen-year-old in your life. It would also make a great family read aloud with younger kids, and, honestly? I’m also telling the adult readers I know all about this winsome fantasy. If you’re a fan of Madeleine L’Engle, Neil Gaiman, or even Wendell Berry, then you’ll appreciate this beautifully written, spiritually rich story. This is a gorgeous, gift-worthy hardback edition, too.

You might worry that your child is too young or too sensitive for a book about death, but I can think of few better ways to introduce the topic than through the work of a gifted storyteller like Shawn. Local friends, I’ll be hosting a reading and book signing by Shawn at my home some time in October. Please do reach out to me for more details!

My friend Sara Hagerty has just released Unseen: The Gift of Being Hidden in a World That Loves To Be Noticed. This is also a beautiful, hardback edition with a cover design I love, but, of course, the real treasure is inside.

Sara’s quietly powerful story will transform how you think about success. I am personally grateful to her for giving me a fresh, new perspective on what it might mean to change the world.

GraceLaced: Discovering Timeless Truths Through Seasons of the Heart, by my talented friend Ruth Chou Simons, may be the ideal book for gift-giving. Ruth is a devotional writer and visual artist, and her book is the most exquisite thing on any of my over-stuffed bookshelves. Featuring her own watercolor floral art, luminous photography, and special touches like pretty endpapers and a cover begging you to touch it, this is a book lover’s book.

The seasonal meditations are written in a classic, not at all sentimental devotional style and include beautiful spaces for personal responses and notes. I’m convinced we all know someone who would love to receive this book for an autumn birthday or Christmas gift, or, goodness, maybe just because?

One of my favorite mystery writers, Louise Penny, has just released Glass Houses, the 13th installment in her Chief Inspector Gamache series, set in the quaint Quebec village of Three Pines. You could read Glass Houses on its own, but I highly recommend beginning with the first. The story builds from book to book, and you’ll appreciate the slow unfolding of these characters’ lives.

Louise Penny isn’t the most literary or polished of the mystery writers I appreciate, and yet there is something about her cozy village and philosophical Inspector that has earned this series a very special place on my bookshelf. Penny’s authorial presence can be a little heavy-handed. In writing-workshop speak she is more likely to tell than to show, but that style suits her material. I, for one, want to hear everything Penny has to say. In the character of kindly Armand Gamache and the evocative Quebec setting (not to mention the delicious details of food and drink!), Penny offers serious but cozy reflections on the human heart, relationships, and the nature of evil. There aren’t many mysteries with the heart and soul of these.

If you are a book lover then you probably already know Anne Bogel’s fabulous podcast What Should I Read Next. If not, well, you’re welcome. Anne’s first book (with its own beautiful cover) releases very soon. Reading People: How Seeing the World through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything is the book many of us have been waiting for.

In it, Anne uses personal storytelling to distill the wisdom of various personality tests and templates. If you’ve ever wanted to understand yourself and others better but found the big books on the Enneagram or Myers-Briggs or the Five Love Languages to be too technical or time-consuming, then Anne’s book is for you. Or if, like me, you already love the discoveries these personality frameworks make available, you’ll appreciate this fresh, enjoyable, and personal perspective.

That’s all for now. I’m off to make a little girl’s birthday cake.

But first, which new books do you have your eye on? I’d love to hear.

P.S. I’m giving away a calendar of my flower photography on instagram this week.

 

The Longest Days

The Longest Days

 

Summer days are here: fast, bright, and hot.

We wake early but find that the sun has already beat us to it. These are the longest days, and they start without us. I sip my morning coffee and make my list. How is it possible to feel so behind at 6:30 in the morning?

Summer to-do lists are like none other:

Pick the snap peas while they’re still tender. Cut the sweet peas before they wilt. Visit the u-pick berry farm. Make freezer jam. Write that magazine story due tomorrow. Carve a dent, at least, in the email inbox. Write that check and mail it. Help the boys catch fireflies.

Summer priorities are topsy-turvy. Ripening strawberries and fat peas are things of urgency, but I’ve forgotten where I left my laptop. Was it two days ago, I last used it? There’s an important professional conversation I need to have, but I’ve missed the phone call twice. The first time, I was at the creek with the kids. The second, I was picking cherries.

An afternoon storm rolls in, the kind of summer storm that is all sound, little fury, and I think Lord, I love summer.

The boys start fighting (again), and I pray, Lord, let me survive the summer.

*

Summer days are so long, we have more than one second chance.

Here is one, and here is another. We explode in anger. We apologize. I make them hug. One shrugs. One runs away. We laugh. And we do it all again, three or four times. I maybe cry once, and then I tell my kids how I used to fight so terribly with my sisters I made my own mother cry.

Summer is crying mothers, and fighting kids; summer is fat, sweet strawberries, and lightning crashing like a cymbal on your head.

Summer is more, and more, and more.

Summer is magic.

*

Summer days run fast and hard until evening. Then the summer sun slows, almost stops, and you can hardly tell it’s sinking. Summer evenings taste like forever. I could finish that to-do list if I wanted, but urgency fades in the evening. Why didn’t I realize sooner? These are the longest days, and there is time enough.

Swift, swift times flies, but still there is enough for what matters: porch rockers, bubble wands, watermelon, one last visit to the new trees with a watering can.

The kids watch a movie and stay up too late. You and I walk in the meadow we made when you decided to stop mowing the grass.

There is time enough.

Stop running.

Summer is here. Why don’t we sit a while?

 

 

When Mother’s Day Looks Like Empty Arms (A Guest Post)

When Mother’s Day Looks Like Empty Arms (A Guest Post)

 

I look forward to Mother’s Day. My life brims with beautiful mothers: my own, my mother-in-law, my two sisters, and my sister-in-law. Though my four children never have managed to plan a breakfast in bed, they are not stingy with homemade cards and hugs. When I stirred my youngest awake this morning, she said, before even opening her eyes, “Is today Mother’s Day?” That’s how eager she is to watch me open the brown paper-wrapped craft she brought home yesterday from preschool.

But I remember other Mother’s Days. I remember Sundays when the annual recognition of all the moms in the church congregation brought me nothing but pain. I wanted what they had. Desperately.

Having a mother and being a mother are blessings, which means they open us right up to both great joy and great pain. It seems a fitting thing to remember this week.

I am grateful to my friend and fellow writer Sharon McKeeman for sharing her story of grief and Joy with us.

 

When I was young, I tucked my dolls into bed safely each night. When I was young, I drew haphazard flowers on construction paper for my mom on Mother’s Day. Life was simple and sweet, and I trusted that it would always remain so.

I didn’t know then that I would hold a son stillborn on his due-date. I didn’t know I would caress his perfect but lifeless body before the nurses took him from me. In those moments, life shattered desolate. I returned home from the hospital to my two young sons, and somehow, we celebrated Thanksgiving a few weeks later. My heart had stopped right in its tracks, but the North Carolina sun kept shining, and the rhythm of ordinary and holidays continued. I offered thanks around our turkey-laden dinner table, and I wrapped presents for my children at Christmas. Grief is a long road, but as the chill of the winter months turned to warm spring, I felt my soul begin to revive. Then one day I woke up, and it was Mother’s Day. How could I survive this?

I was afraid I would come untethered, scared that I might just float away. Shame, despair, and heartache were so very close that day, but miraculously Christ was closer. The One who made me and holds my son, wrapped His arms tight around me and carried me through that day. This didn’t numb the pain, but as my two living children kissed my tear streaked cheeks, I lived the truth that, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. (Matthew 5:4 NIV) A mother just barely healing from sprinkling her son’s ashes in the sea, I was comforted. I can’t explain it other than I called out to Christ because I didn’t know how else to survive, and He surrounded me. He held me and didn’t let go.

I wish I could say that since then I have tucked my children into bed safe each night. Thankfully a healthy pregnancy followed the loss of my son on his due-date, but I lost another child when his heart stopped beating at sixteen weeks and another when her heart never began to beat. Even though I held three living children, Mother’s Day become a joke, a time to endure. Even as I collected hand drawn cards and red roses, my soul sank. While around me spring was bursting with life, my heart began to feel as dead as my womb. Despair and distrust of my heavenly Father grew until a friend reminded me that a weeping Jesus is always near.

Jesus entered this mess with us. He suffered and wept; He weeps with us still.

I came to rest in that truth.

I held three children, and I mourned three children. My arms were full, and my arms were empty. Through it all my Maker held me. When I was too weak, too consumed by grief, to hold on, God surrounded and carried me.

This spring an unexpected bloom has unfurled. After I held death within my body three times, a pregnancy blossomed into a healthy daughter who is filling my arms and heart. After all these years of mourning, we have named her Joy. Our family holds her close and breathes thanksgiving, but I know this happiness is just a step in our journey. There will be more storms, more barren months. The greatest gift comes in knowing that joy was not found alone in this precious little one, but in discovering that Christ weeps with me, and my Maker holds me so carefully that no tragedy can tear me from His embrace.

For every woman with empty arms and an aching heart in this season, I pray that she will feel a weeping Jesus near and comforting her. I pray that a miraculous joy will well up within, defy earthly pain, and speak heaven straight to her soul.

There is an everlasting spring yet to come, and even as these bodies of dust often fail us, its whispers take root in our hearts.

 

 

Sharon is a homeschooling mama to three sons and a daughter. She is a Midwestern girl at heart who now lives with her family on the sunny beaches of Southern California, where they enjoy reading together and playing in the surf. She is an author, educator, speaker, and photographer who shares more of her story as @sharonmckeeman on Instagram and at www.sharonmckeeman.com where you will find her blog, Writing in the Dust, as well as her newsletter, Mourning into Joy, which is filled with encouragement and resources for grieving mamas.

 

Life and Death Among the Trees

Life and Death Among the Trees

 

For weeks now my children have not been able to stop themselves from singing April showers bring May flowers. Even the four-year-old, she who serenades her dinner companions every evening with the months-of-the-year ditty she learned in preschool, knows that this song is not yet quite appropriate. But each one of them also knows that it is raining, again, and something new is just there on the far side of the horizon.

And so they sing.

*

Today is the last day of March, and it is raining cats and dogs. It is raining puddles and mud. It is gushing, washing, rinsing, quenching. I planned to visit the library, but this rain is too much even for the tall, waterproof boots I wear in the garden. It is too much even for my one remaining unbroken umbrella. I am drinking tea and typing these words instead.

*

Someone sent me a message. You know about trees. Tell me, why is my river birch dripping water? Why is it trickling, oozing, seeping, leaking? Is something wrong?

Nothing is wrong, I told her. All trees know how to sing, but some trees also know how to cry.

When the weather turns from warm to wet, a birch tree will drip, drip, drip.

*

Last year in Hawaii, I saw trees sheathed in rainbows.

The rainbow eucalyptus thrives in tropical climates. It is happiest in rain-washed places. It sheds its bark, and what remains are long, vertical strips of color: red, orange, green, blue, gray. Rainbows trickle, ooze, seep, and leak their colors down the length of each trunk.

I saw those colors from the car window as we drove toward the North Shore. We had flowery leis in our laps. Later, we tore the string and tossed the flowers and said one more goodbye to the man who died just there, above those waters. Somewhere just to the right of the rainbow and to the left of the singing whale, he went where we cannot yet follow.

*

I visited my friend this week and saw a rough wooden cross in the corner of her small sitting room. It was our Christmas tree, she told me. Now it is our Easter cross.

I’m sure her tree was beautiful. I have forgotten the name, but she said it was some rare variety: silvery and soft. That beauty is lost. What remains is harsh and looked out of place propped in the corner of the room. It can’t be easy, I thought, to live with this cross.

*

Some legends say that Jesus’s cross was made from the wood of an aspen tree. Apparently, these trees do grow in that region of the world. No matter where they grow, aspen leaves startle and stir in even a slight breeze. It is said the tree trembles for what it has seen and how it was used.

I read somewhere that in Hebrew the name of this tree is baca. This is also the name of the “Valley of Weeping” mentioned in Psalm 84. When I go to check my memory against the knowledge of the internet, I find that baca might mean balsam-tree. It might mean mulberry.

It seems there are many trees associated with weeping.

*

In Psalm 84, the Valley of Weeping changes as we walk through it. By the touch of our feet, it becomes a place of springs. Then the early rains come, but they do not bring puddles or mud. They bring blessing.

I do not want to walk through the valley. I am tired of tears (drip, drip, drip). I do not want to trip over the ugly, bare cross in the corner of the room, and I certainly do not want to carry it on my back.

Today, I do not even want the rain.

But I want the rainbows. I want the May flowers. I want, yes I admit, I want the blessing.

I want to know what the trees have always known.

I want to know what it is to be planted, planted so deep and so well, that not even death can pull up these roots.

Oh, death. Where is your sting? You grab at us. You scratch and claw. And what is revealed?

Only rainbows.

Only water.

Only blessing.

Only Jesus.

 

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