A few years ago, soon after our move to Maplehurst, I wrote this prayer on a three by five index card:
Lord, please make a way for my extended family to gather more often.
I added it to the small stack I keep in my Bible, and I regularly remembered it in prayer. The paper is softer now, the ink a little bit smeared.
Soon, my husband and I and our four children will fly to Texas for Shawn’s burial. Since the accident in January, my daughter and I have traveled to Hawaii, my husband has made two trips to be with my sister and her kids in Kansas City, we sent our older daughter and son on their own to visit grandparents and cousins. And now we fly to Texas.
My prayer has been answered, but the answer to my prayer is loss.
I have not visited my hometown in a decade. My children have either never been or have no memory of the place, but because Jonathan and I and my sister and Shawn share the same Texas roots, we will gather there. We will gather with my parents and siblings, my nieces and nephews, my in-laws, and with Shawn’s family. We will be joined by my father’s west Texas family, by my mother’s California family, by high school friends and college friends and childhood church friends.
In Roots and Sky, I write:
“I have long wondered if home is the place from which we come or the place we are headed. The estrangement I felt from my surroundings as a child growing up in Texas has always meant that I tend to see home as my end and not my beginning.”
This is a return to our beginnings. I suspect that whatever I find there, I must bring it back with me, a little something extra tucked into my carry-on.
Home is our present and our past. Perhaps, it is time to make my own past welcome at Maplehurst.
That index card is still tucked into the back page of my Bible. I wanted to feel angry when I read it again, but I felt, instead, some mix of fear, awe, and resignation. I believe the prayer came from God as much as the answer, so I cannot muster up any anger, just as I never, truly, mustered up that prayer.
I only received it. Repeated it. Submitted to it.
Instead of anger, I feel compassion for that other me who prayed without seeing, without understanding, but with hope. I believe the prayer was good, and so I believe that the answer is good.
It is also terrible.
Twelve men died in those helicopters, but there will be only 9 coffins. We are all dust, and we all return to dust, but some are buried in earth and others are dust in the sea.
Some part of Shawn has been returned to us, and so we are lucky. We are blessed.
And what are blessings but those gifts that are hardest to receive?
Like this opportunity to gather. This opportunity to go home again. This chance to say hello to so many.
For this gift, this chance to plant our last goodbye in familiar dirt, we say thank you.
And we say, have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us.
It has been too windy and cold since Easter for much gardening. Asparagus crowns, strawberry plants, and a net sack of seed potatoes are all waiting, more patiently than I am, to be planted out. If April showers bring May flowers, then I am hoping April hail and snow really do the trick.
While the storms rage, I read up a storm indoors.
You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit is a new release by James K. A. Smith. I don’t tend to pick up books on Christian discipleship and spiritual formation, or, if I do, my attention wanders well before I’ve turned the final page. Though I haven’t quite finished this one, I’ve begun deliberately slowing my pace. I’m already certain I’ll be reading this a second time and passing it on.
Smith’s argument is at once self-evident and astonishing. It brings into sharp focus so many of the dynamics of my own spiritual journey.
Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am,” but most of us know, intuitively, that isn’t so. What we think touches only a small, small part of our lives. Love, desire, and worship are much more powerful forces in our lives, and we will never be transformed if we limit Christian discipleship to what we think about doctrine or articles of faith.
The difficult but ultimately beautiful truth explored in this book is that we do not always love who and what we think we love.
I read the first installment in the Duncan Kinkaid/ Gemma James mystery series, A Share in Death, a long time ago and promptly forgot about it. I enjoyed the story, but I forgot that what I appreciate most in a mystery series is the slow and subtle revelation of the central characters. This means that if I think a series has potential, I should read them in order and read at least the first two or three. I am so glad I recently picked up book two All Shall Be Well.
I don’t like the look of mass market paperbacks (perhaps because they all look the same to me?), but, despite appearances, this is a great series for fans of Louise Penny. Scotland Yard detective Duncan Kinkaid interviews suspects in a London of stewed tea and curry takeaways while Inspector Gamache enjoys tender baguettes in a quaint Quebec village, but I think they have a lot in common. These books are a great way to pass the time until Penny’s newest book comes out in August.
Next week I’ll be participating in the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Michigan. I’ll be speaking on a panel with Preston Yancey (I’ve heard his latest book Out of the House of Bread is wonderful, and I’ll be reading it myself soon), Addie Zierman (I told you how much I enjoyed her latest memoir, Night Driving), and another wonderful writer Sarah Bessey (her latest is Out of Sorts: Making Peace With An Evolving Faith).
I’m looking forward to hearing from some of my favorite writers, including Christian Wiman, Leslie Leyland Fields, Luci Shaw, and George Saunders.
I met blogger Anne Bogel at the last Festival of Faith and Writing. If you are looking for a new book to read, I highly recommend her podcast What Should I Read Next? In each episode, Anne talks with a thoughtful reader about three books they love and one book they hate. Based on those titles, she recommends three books to try. I almost always learn about some new-to-me title, and it was a conversation on this podcast that reminded me I’d abandoned the Duncan Kinkaid/Gemma James series too quickly.
After a brief hiatus, the Roots and Sky book club is back. Laura Brown asks such thoughtful questions. I hope you’ll check it out, either by offering your own comment or “listening” in. As a bonus, you’ll find several audio recordings of me reading from the book.
I recently shared a Roots and Sky-themed installment of “These Farmhouse Bookshelves” on writer Rachel McMillan’s website.
I have a new piece called “Comfort Food For Those Who Mourn” at Grace Table. It includes a recipe for my family’s favorite dessert.
Do you have a favorite comfort food?
On Saturday morning, Jonathan and I woke up in the dark.
I took my time peeling back the covers. I debated whether or not to change out of my pajamas. Eventually, I wrapped myself in a bathrobe and tiptoed down the stairs. Outside, I stepped into my tall, rubber gardening boots and wondered if Jonathan was inside warming his hands by the coffee maker or outside hiding eggs.
A pile of garbage bags, bright white beneath the moon, lay where they’d been tossed up the cellar steps. That was my answer.
I heaved up one of the bulging bags and began tucking cold, plastic eggs into every extra-tall tuft of grass.
The moon was bright and full, drifting behind the top of a spruce tree.
Around 6:30, I heard a whisper on the dark, “I feel like I’ve stepped into a book.”
One of our guests for the weekend, an old friend from Chicago who finished reading Roots and Sky on the flight into Philadelphia, was up and out, eager to help hide eggs.
By the time we finished, my back ached, but I could tell it was going to be a beautiful day. My fingers were stiff with cold, but the air was still and the just-rising sun promised a swift warmup. When our friend left for a jog, Jonathan and I slipped back into the kitchen for coffee, the giant pink magnolia fluttering its butterfly wings behind our backs.
“I think this will be the prettiest day we’ve ever had for the egg hunt,” I told him.
It was. The most peaceful, too.
The staggered start times for the egg hunt helped. From his perch on our stepladder, Jonathan made sure the younger hunters had found their first egg before he cried “ready, set, go” for the next group holding easter baskets and paper bags in excited hands.
Some kids found too many eggs, some found maybe not quite enough. One neighbor brought her pet bunny on a leash. Another neighbor wore full Easter Bunny costume and posed for pictures with wide-eyed kids.
I think it was the best egg hunt yet.
Now Easter has come and gone, and the world outside my window is responding with greener grass and tulip tops. The climbing rose over the vegetable garden arbor is suddenly furred with tiny leaves.
I should feel hopeful. I should rejoice. The tomb that held Jesus is empty.
But all our other tombs are not.
By Easter morning, the golden perfection of the previous day had vanished. The sky was low and gray, and a sharp, cold breeze had penetrated the kitchen. We didn’t light a fire in the woodstove, but we thought about it.
I assumed Easter would be the climax. After months of heartache, we gathered with our friends and neighbors on a perfect spring morning. But instead, Easter itself felt anticlimactic, as if the only thing to do now was wait.
Resurrection is a great promise for tomorrow, but what about today?
I have thought about that question all week.
I thought about it while I planted out violas and alyssum in the flower garden. I started those seeds under grow lights in the basement about a month ago.
I thought about it while I sat in a chair beneath the magnolia tree. In that spot, the chickens are noisy, the cat I am allergic to insists on jumping into my lap, but the air smells like honey.
I thought about it while I spread fresh wood chips on the paths between the beds in the vegetable garden. I even thought about it when Elsa brought me a handful of daffodils. She’d picked them, “for me” she said, from beneath the baby apple trees. The stems were too short for a vase, so I tucked them into my tiniest drinking glass.
One afternoon, I pulled up a recipe for dinner on pinterest, but another of my pins caught my eye. It was a graphic my sister Kelli made for me with one of her photographs and words from an old blog post. It said:
“We are not waiting for resurrection. We are living it.”
That is the truth I’ve been searching for all week. That is the truth I’ve been living all week.
The empty tomb isn’t the end. It’s the beginning. It is new life for me, today. It is hope for this world, today.
Shawn’s death isn’t the end. Not for him. Not for those he left behind. We ache. We grieve. But already we have seen beautiful things begin to grow in the emptiness.
Spring is a perpetual season. Its eternal roots lie within the very first Easter, like the few golden daffodils I tucked into our scarred, wooden cross. Jesus was a seed, planted in death and sprouted in resurrection, and that seed has been growing ever since. Because of Jesus, the Christ, who was and is and is to come, we are living a spring with no end. – Roots and Sky
All of the photos in this post were taken by my sister, Kelli Campbell, April, two years ago.
Life right now is all about watching the giant magnolia tree over our chicken run slowly unfold its blossoms.
Life right now is also a forecast of cold and (though I refuse to accept it) snow that might put an end to these pink petals over the weekend. In other words, life right now is beautiful and hard.
Life right now is discovering that a few of the rafters in our roof were resting on air, the original chestnut beam having rotted away long ago. But life right now is also our new friend, Dr. B. (“Doctor of Old Houses”), who promptly left his scaffolding, drove over to his own old house, and picked up a replacement chestnut beam he had handy.
Right now, I am reading books by the bow-window in my bedroom and watering seedlings that sit beneath grow lights in the basement.
I am loving Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr. While at work on the novel that would become the Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See (yes, he’s that Anthony Doerr), Doerr was the recipient of an award to live and write for a year in Rome. He found out about the award the day his twin sons were born.
Writers begin as observers, and Doerr models this beautifully. This is a memoir of Rome, of parenthood (and insomnia), and the writer’s craft. It is also a book that gives me hope. As readers, we know that during the period Doerr writes about he is engaged in a creative effort that will succeed beyond anything he can imagine. And yet, Doerr struggles with insecurity, doubt, writer’s block, culture shock, and the exhaustion of parenting infant twins.
For all of us, life can feel impossibly difficult, but this book reminds me that no matter how each individual day feels, our days are adding up to something beautiful and meaningful.
I also recently finished Addie Zierman’s new memoir Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark. On the surface, this is a memoir about one mom’s rather desperate road trip escape from Minnesota’s winter toward the beckoning sunshine of Florida’s beaches.
Zierman brings her two young sons along for what turns out to be more of a search for the light of God’s presence than southern sunshine. The faith of her young adulthood was fiery and intense, but that kind of faith flickered and dimmed long ago. Zierman hits the road in search of a God who often seems hidden and silent. Whether or not you relate to Zierman’s phase of life or the trajectory of her spiritual journey, I recommend this book. Zierman is a gifted writer, and this memoir is incredibly well crafted. Once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down.
I recently shared my writing in a few new places around the web.
First, I wrote On Tears (And Other Blessings) for my friend and fellow writer, Sara Hagerty. I have given Sara’s first book Every Bitter Thing Is Sweet to more than a few friends (and sisters).
Second, I shared some family stories in a piece on love and grief for my friend, Mary Bonner. The day I sent this reflection via email turned out to be the day Mary’s mother’s health suddenly declined. She didn’t read my words until she’d returned from her mother’s funeral almost two weeks later. By then, the words I wrote were for her, but perhaps they are for you, as well.
The first Roots and Sky online book club continues! Laura Brown is leading a thoughtful discussion, and you can even find recordings (two so far) of me reading chapters from the book. Here are week one (thresholds), week two (testimony), and week three (winter).
“Without habit, the beauty of the world would overwhelm us. We’d pass out every time we saw – actually saw – a flower. Imagine if we only got to see a cumulonimbus cloud or Cassiopeia or a snowfall once a century: there’d be pandemonium in the streets.” – Anthony Doerr, Four Seasons in Rome
I write fondly of this beautiful, crumbling old house, but the actual crumbling makes me want to run away crying.
I crop and edit my instagram photos to emphasize beauty, but the truth is often a whole lot less beautiful. The truth is original wooden windows layered with paint. There are rotting sills and decrepit, ill-fitting storm windows. The truth is decay around the roofline soffits. The truth is window shutters so deteriorated I worry they’ll turn to dust if we remove them for repair.
Last week I stood on the lawn with a local carpenter. We craned our necks toward rotted wood three floors up. He heaved a deep sigh and said, “Honestly? I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
He told me some houses are like Hondas. You go to the shop, you buy a new part. But my house was a fancy sports car. Every replacement part costs more and is harder to find.
Is our home the shelter version of a foolish, midlife crisis? Because that isn’t the life I would choose.
The life I would choose is safe and sensible. It’s modestly priced. It’s manageable. Never overwhelming. In this dream life my sister and her kids live nearby. Showing up in the gap (the great and terrible gap) where Shawn once stood, would be easy and natural.
Life would be easy and natural.
In Roots and Sky, I write that “I am living an adventure in stability. Mine is a pilgrimage in one place” (184).
When Jonathan and I arrived at Maplehurst with our three kids (and one on the way), we didn’t only feel called to come. We felt called to stay.
Jonathan is an engineer, I am a writer, our kids tug us in the direction of a dozen different hobbies and interests, but together our life as a family is about place-making. Together, we are cultivating a place; we are tending it, transforming it, and sharing it with others.
I always assumed our faithfulness to this vision would be tested. Perhaps I would resent the chickens and the gardens and wish for a summer-long road trip instead. Perhaps I would grow tired of canning tomatoes, cooking for others, and changing bedsheets for guests twice in one week.
Now, almost four years in and with this house on the cover of a book, it isn’t weariness but fear and desire that have caused me to question all of it.
This house needs more than we have to give.
What if we can’t keep up?
My extended family needs more than we have given in the past.
Shouldn’t we put their needs first?
While I was in Hawaii, someone asked if I would be willing to move to live nearer to Kelli and the kids. It broke my heart to say it, but I said it.
I may be willing, but it still doesn’t feel like my choice. Or, if it is my choice, I will not choose to ignore the voice that has, for so long and so consistently, whispered only one word: stay.
We came to Maplehurst with vision. We knew our future was planted in this place. Yet the strange thing about vision is that sometimes you carry it around like a pair of eyeglasses in your pocket. The weight bouncing against your leg is the only reminder of everything you cannot yet see.
After the carpenter came two craftsmen. One loves old windows. One loves old plaster. They salvage the parts, or they make them with their own two hands.
I stood with one, our necks craned three floors up, and he said, “This isn’t a house. It’s a home.”
And I knew then he saw what I had seen, what I wanted to see again. Not rotting wood or peeling paint, but a home open enough for neighborhood Easter egg hunts and reunions of family and friends. A home spacious enough for nieces and nephews to spend every summer here.
A home powerful enough to draw us all away from the sensible and the manageable and on toward something much more terrifying, much more beautiful, and altogether more abundant.
The record of post drafts here on my blog dashboard tells me that on January 14, 2016, I was working on a new installment in my occasional series of book recommendations, These Farmhouse Bookshelves.
I never finished that post, and I didn’t read anything for a month.
I want to finish that post, but I can’t finish it seamlessly. Everything is before and after for us right now, and so much in our lives is sorting itself out around that dividing line. I feel such compassion for our before selves. They are innocent and unseeing, and it hurts to think of all that they didn’t yet know.
Still, if I could go to them and give them some message it wouldn’t be anything earth shattering or even all that original. It would be only the well-known words from Frederick Buechner:
“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
When I began this post, my before self was still waiting for snow to fall at Maplehurst. This has been the mildest and strangest winter anyone around here can remember. Three feet of snow fell while I was with family in Hawaii, but now I have seen the tops of the daffodils emerging a full month early.
With no snow outside, Elsa and I enjoyed Snow by Cynthia Rylant. Actually, I may have read it to myself a few times after Elsa fled my lap. It’s that good.
It captures everything I love about snow and hits that perfect blend of truth, poetry, and accessibility. I am often frustrated with the more self-consciously beautiful or poetic picture books because they aren’t concrete enough to grab my child’s attention.
If you’ve ever read a book to a three-year-old you know they can’t hear the line “the snow looks like ice cream” without interrupting, “Where’s the ice cream? Where, where?”
Poetry that doesn’t rely only on direct metaphors is a great thing in a picture book. Is the best snow the snow that comes in the night or the snow that sends you home from school? There is poetry in that question even a three-year-old can understand.
My before self had also begun reading a great new book called To the Table: A Spirituality of Food, Farming, and Community by Lisa Graham McMinn.
A book about “eating with more intention, compassion, and gratitude,” I would recommend this book to everyone who enjoys Michael Pollan’s Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, or Fred Bahnson’s Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith.
The illustrations and recipes that accompany each chapter are delightful and there are discussion questions that would make this book perfect for a book club. This book is full of rich spiritual wisdom and well-researched information, but it is a lot of fun to read, too.
A year and a half ago, I wrote a blog post about family and friendship.
I had just returned from a reunion with my parents, siblings, and our (many) children at my parent’s home in Kansas City. I wrote about how hard it is to live far from family and to see them so infrequently. I wrote about that emptiness, and I wrote about the special ways God fills that emptiness.
Now my after self knows that was the last time I would see my brother-in-law Shawn. Soon after that visit, my sister and her family moved to Hawaii.
Of course, that small blog post means so much more to me now, but I might not even have remembered it if a book had not been waiting for me when I returned home from Hawaii.
The Gift of Friendship: Stories That Celebrate the Beauty of Shared Moments, edited by writer and photographer Dawn Camp, is a collection of reflections by Christian bloggers. Dawn has gathered meditations on friendship by bloggers like Lisa-Jo Baker, Tsh Oxenreider, Jennifer Dukes Lee, and many others.
My post is there, too.
And I have yet one more reason to believe that though the future is, mercifully, hidden from us, it is never hidden from God.
You are each invited to an online book club for my book Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons.
Hosted by writer and editor extraordinaire, Laura Brown of the website Makes You Mom, the discussions will take place each Wednesday during the month of March.
Makes You Mom is a literary website that celebrates motherhood and welcomes anyone whose life has been shaped by a mom.
I will show up occasionally to answer questions, but I will not listen in or interfere in the discussion. Laura and I want everyone who participates to feel free to ask their hardest questions.
You can find more information about the book club here.