For years my words have mostly been poured into my books.
Blog posts became more and more occasional.
We used to talk to one another in the comment section of this blog, and other blogs, but now we talk on social media. Yet I sometimes feel we have less to talk about when we are only responding to an Instagram caption or a Facebook link.
My days of regular, weekly blog writing have ended, but I have been searching for some new way to serve you: my readers.
Is there some way to give you carefully crafted words beyond the books I am continuing to write?
Is there some place where we can still gather and listen to one another? Somewhere quieter and more peaceful than social media, somewhere more communal than my blog?
Friends, there is!
You’ll discover it inside the pages of Paper&String.
Paper&String isn’t a blog, and it isn’t a newsletter.
It’s a digital monthly care package from the Black Barn created–not only by me–but by a community rooted in this place, a community of writers and artists, dancers and dreamers, placemakers and friends called the Black Barn Collective.
In each new Paper&String, we will invite you to
We don’t simply want to share beautiful written words, gorgeous artwork, recipes, and other seasonal goodness inspired by Maplehurst–which we will!–we want to get to know you. We want to hear from you. And so, we will also be opening the doors to a virtual Black Barn. During the first week of February only, each subscription to Paper&String comes with membership into a beta online Black Barn community!
No matter where you live, no matter how many miles lie between the front door of this barn and your own front door, you can come in. You can join the Black Barn Collective. We can’t wait to get to know you.
Doors open but doors must also close if they are to shelter those inside. Enrollment is only open for the first week of February. We will open the doors to the virtual Black Barn again but only once we’re sure we’re serving our founding members well.
Sign up here to be notified as soon as subscriptions are open!
In Alaska, there are many ways to die.
You can die in the air: bush plane, float plane, an airliner in wind and fog. You can die in the sea: barge, skiff, a ferry plunging in the trough. (If you are a sea lion, you can die in the jaws of an orca halfway between your rock and the waves. I have a picture of blood and frenzied sea lions if you are the sort who needs proof.)
You can also die with your feet planted firmly on the ground: bear, cliff, swiftly-shifting weather.
You have come to the edge of the world. The sun is lower. The shadows are longer. Death lurks out in the open here.
When you become a mother, you count all the ways there are to die: babies sleep but do not wake, daughters fall on the stairs, sons are diagnosed and named incurable.
Later, the ways are counted for you, but they are not the deaths you have already met in your imagination.
One day, you do not recognize how much your boy struggles to breathe, but the pediatrician does. She calls an ambulance from the exam room.
Another day, you forget your child’s epi-pen. Thank God, that stranger in the corner of the shop had one in her purse. You learn, to your sorrow, that death is folded within each moment.
Silent. Hidden. Utterly inseparable from love.
In Alaska, there are so many ways to live.
You live in the air: bush planes and float planes fly low. You soar like an eagle, skim mountaintops, explore islands empty except of bears.
You live on the water: the taste of salt spray on your lips, a diving fin whale almost at your fingertips, sea otters like floating teddy bears.
You live on the land: black-tailed deer who are not afraid of you, tide pools filled with sun stars and blood stars and the deep breathing of anemones.
You have come to the edge of the world. The sun is lower. It is a dazzle in your eyes all day long.
Of what consequence is death when the air is like glittering glass?
If you are a writer, you are often alone. You retreat from family and friends seeking the quiet you need to write.
But one day you step on an airliner. One day you step on a bush plane. One day you wade through the water and heave yourself into a skiff. One day you taste salt spray all the way to Harvester, an island like a boulder tossed across the sea.
You journey to the edge of the world, and you discover you are not alone. The world is as full with stories and with storytellers as it is full with the glory of God.
The stories you find on Harvester Island are intimate with death.
There is the story of the old man and the young boy. They vanished on the water, leaving behind only a dog in a skiff and so many broken hearts.
There is the story of the unhappy wife standing on the edge of the island rock with a small suitcase in her fist. She has arrived at the end of her road. She is alive, but she has already died.
There are so many ways to die, but in Alaska, you learn what is true in every place on earth: there is only one way to live.
The only way to live is to die.
The only way to live is to arrive at the end of yourself and then to keep going (you can do this via bush plane, you can do this via motherhood or marriage or any great attempt at love).
Love is what remains, at the end of yourself, at the end of every beautiful story, at the end of every terrible one, too.
Love is our home. It is the place where death is only a fading legend. A tale we will tell again and again until, like glass smoothed and polished by the waves, it loses every sharp edge.
One day, we will let that old story go; we will drop it there, on the black gravel of the beach. For we have traveled 10,000 years, and we are ready for new stories.
Written in the airport in Anchorage, Alaska. With love for all the writers who traveled to that boulder in the sea. I am glad to have met you, there on that line between rock and water, life and death, stranger and friend.
I tend to think of seasons as four separate compartments to the year. Like nesting boxes in graduated sizes.
I forget that they are more like the Lego blocks in my son’s latest creation. Interlocking and overlapping. Difficult to pry apart.
Recently, I stood over the sink and ate a peach. It tasted perfectly peachy, and the juice ran in rivers down my right arm. Like a sunset, melting.
I held the fading summer sun in my hand, and watched gray clouds hauling themselves briskly across an autumn sky. Yellow leaves somersaulted across the grass.
I also tend to think of prayer in separate compartments. Like the paper trays I keep on my desk.
There is the inbox and the outbox. There is a spot marked urgent and one for the less pressing overflow.
If I think long enough, I can assign each prayer a neat label. Answered. Unanswered. Ongoing. Expires in five days. The paper trail of prayer is clearly defined. Requests move in one direction. Responses in the other.
But of course prayer is nothing like my paper tray. Of course, of course, I tell myself. Of course it is so much more like standing in a chill autumn wind while you hold summer in your hand.
The truly astonishing thing about prayer is not that our prayers are sometimes answered. The thing that never fails to startle me, to wake me up and scatter the paper piles of my mind, is that even the prayers themselves are given.
First, the prayer like one falling leaf.
Then, the answer, like the taste of that sweet peach.
On Friday, I breathed out the heaviness of the whole week with the thought It has been a long time since someone prayed for me.
That sort of thing was once a regular occurrence. I lived on a cushion of tightly knit community, and I rarely went more than a week or two without someone reaching out a hand. Someone holding out a prayer.
But two cross-country moves in four years have disrupted so many once-regular things. And every so often I let myself feel the jagged edges. Every so often I lean into them and breathe my own jaggedness.
Which is one way I know to pray without ceasing.
On Saturday a friend drove thirty minutes to come sit on my porch. While our children played, we talked. And we prayed.
She reached out her hand. She gave me her prayer.
I responded, with surprise and with gratitude, Amen.
Which came first? Like chickens and eggs. Like seeds and flowers. Prayers and answers are a puzzle I hope I never solve.
“We thank and praise you, Lord, for the gift of your victory over death, for the gift of holy awe that comes upon us as we enter into our Easter joy. Christ has passed from death to life, may we always know you as our way through the desert, our food and drink as we thirst. You are our safe passage through treacherous waters and the home that awaits us at the end of all our journeys.”
– an Easter prayer, from God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter
I grew up hearing Christians say, “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” Maybe you did too?
It’s a sentiment that makes sense to me. Plenty of not-so-great things (and some down-right awful) probably fall under the heading religion. Yet, in the days since Easter Sunday I’ve been thinking how grateful I am for relationship and religion.
Because Jesus came to us, we can see and know God. This is true not only because he died and defeated death, but because he lived. He lived. And now we know what life was always meant to be. Through Jesus we can relate to a God who is vast, beyond comprehension, and yet personal in his love for his creation. Now we live, not by bread only, but by relationship with the Word.
What good is religion, then? Isn’t it merely the false, the superficial, the man-made?
It is also the form so many souls have given (and will give) to their worship. It is an often intangible relationship made material: in bread and wine, the washing of dirty feet, the standing, the kneeling, the hands reaching out in praise and in prayer.
It is candlelight. It is incense. It is light glinting on a gold cross. It is a crescendo of voices. It is one voice reading Scripture aloud for an entire hushed crowd.
It is astonishing and creative.
It is beautiful and traditional.
Of course, it can also be awkward and frustrating. The uncomfortable pew. The piano in need of tuning. My five-year-old deciding he must visit the bathroom just as our row is ushered forward for the Eucharist.
Sometimes we do religion well. Sometimes not so well. And it sure takes a whole lot of effort. The musicians spend hours practicing. The tech-savvy come in early, stay late, and shrug off the irritated looks when the sound system malfunctions through no fault of their own. A dedicated teacher takes the two-year-olds outside for an egg hunt, and some important but often unseen person lingers behind to turn off lights and lock doors.
Is it worthwhile?
Jesus showed us the value in celebration, in gathering, and in breaking bread together. He read Scripture aloud, and he taught. He often prayed alone, but he also begged his friends to pray with him. And in his eagerness to eat a Passover meal with his disciples (Luke 22:15), Jesus promised that our rituals and God-given traditions will one day find their fulfillment – their perfection – in the kingdom of God.
For now it takes effort, whether we gather in a home, a school gymnasium, or an art-filled, stained-glass space. The bread must be baked. The invitations delivered. The space cleaned before and after. But, together, we are creating an outward expression of an inner joy.
We are saying “thank you” and “please come” to all that has been promised.
“Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before
the Lord our Maker.”