Why I Will Not Set My Mind on Things (Too Far) Above

Today, I glimpsed the first haze of pink on the old magnolia tree that towers over one corner of our yard. It is a magnolia tree worthy of a fairy-tale palace, but it presides over a chicken coop and a child’s yellow plastic swing. In summer it becomes the world’s largest shade umbrella, but in April it is a miracle. Too impossibly beautiful to be true.

I have witnessed this tree in bloom only once. I have waited eleven months to bear witness for a second time, but I am scheduled to leave town tomorrow for five days.

I can hardly bear it. Five days of good books and good talk and good friends, but I would trade all of it to be there the very moment the first pink flower opens. I imagine that if I am there I will finally solve a great mystery. If I stand still, and I do not blink, perhaps I can determine once and for all whether the flowers open or whether they alight on the branches like a flock of pink birds.

Last year, I blinked and became sure a great crowd of delicate rose-tinted wings had settled in the branches overnight.

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Painted in Waterlogue

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Set your mind on things above. Those were the words I remember printed on the postcards and posters, magnets and bookmarks in the Christian bookstore I used to visit as a child. I do not remember any books in that store. But I remember Precious Moments figurines, and I remember those words.

Even as a child, I mistrusted them. And not only because they showed up on magnets meant to secure grocery lists to refrigerator doors.

They are good and true words. They are Scripture words, but they seemed at odds with my own way of seeing. As long as I can remember, I have been taken with the miniature flowers blooming in the crack of a sidewalk. With acorn caps like fairy hats. With the hollow spot in the trunk of the mulberry tree, just the right size for my small china dog.

In other words, I have always seen worlds at my feet. I have always seen infinity under a magnifying glass.

And if this great “above” is the blankness of the sky, if it is only a screen onto which I project my preconceived ideas about the Christ who is holding everything together, then I will stick with the things below. Not money or plans. Not ambition or to-dos. But the things we pass by in our rush toward all that does not matter.

Dead, brown grass beginning to creep with green.

Daffodil leaves like bunny ears reaching just a bit higher every day.

And even the heartbreak of tulip leaves chewed to the quick by hungry deer.

***

If I must set my mind on some thing above, I will not let it float too high. I will set it just there, no higher than the highest branch of the world’s most beautiful magnolia tree.

I will set it there, and remember what the stories say. That we began to walk with God in a garden. That Jesus the Christ gave the thief on the cross a great promise: Today you will walk with me in a walled garden, a paradise.

And I will turn my eye toward eternity in the very spot where eternity begins.

Which is the ground, the ever-flowing, ever-renewing, ground beneath my feet.

***

Painted in Waterlogue

***

This Is The Beginning That Has No End

I have seen the first snowdrop, and I have seen the first crocus. Eight baby chicks are cheeping away in our basement.

Seasons generally do not shift like clockwork. They tend to pour like water. But as I stood in the yard yesterday, ringing that snowdrop bell with the tip of my boot, I was fairly sure that this was spring’s beginning. It’s exact, precise beginning, almost perfectly timed with the calendar month.

If spring has a beginning, it also has an end. I could see it unfolding in my mind’s eye: from snowdrop and crocus through daffodil and tulip and all the way on to snap peas and strawberries ripening in June.

***

Three years ago, I was living in Florida. I had only ever been in Florida for vacation, and our two years living there felt like an endless vacation. Which sounds lovely but was, in reality, devastating. At a certain point in every vacation, if that vacation is long enough, you find that you want nothing more than to go home.

Living in Florida, I couldn’t put down roots no matter how hard I tried. And every day my longing for home grew. I cried rivers of tears, and my tears were a prayer: God, please bring me home.

Often when we pray, we have some object in mind. I certainly tend to. But this prayer was different. It was more desperate, and, I think, more powerful, because I had no idea where my home might be. I only knew I needed it. Wanted it. Could hardly live without it.

In my desperation, I began to hear God speak. There is a ballpoint-ink star in my Bible. It is dated three years ago, and it marks these words: “A fountain will flow out of the Lord’s house” (Joel 3:18). Beneath those words I wrote this: “Fountain House Dream.”

I can no longer remember what I thought those words meant. Quite likely I had no idea. Today, I am only beginning to understand them.

***

The day we found Maplehurst, our Pennsylvania home, we visited eight old houses. The only house with a fountain on the property was this one.

Since we moved here a year and a half ago, I’ve imagined that those words “Fountain House Dream” were a small but surprising confirmation. A way of knowing that, yes, this was the place for us.

But I am beginning to think these words mean more than that. I am beginning to think they point toward my true home, which is not opposed to this pile of bricks called Maplehurst, but somehow deeper. As if I could step inside my own front door, and into some other reality. Some endless place.

Spring at Maplehurst has a beginning and an end, and yet observing spring on this hilltop has shaped my imagination. I am waiting for my magnolia to bloom, but I am beginning to see a perpetual spring. Not simply a spring that returns every year, but a spring that is endless.

I believe we were made for spring. We were made for newness. We were made for a spring that never pours itself out. This is spring like a fountain. This is spring like living water – not still water – and it is always new.

I think, despite lying appearances, that we may be living in just this season. I think it began with the very first Easter. Jesus was a seed, planted in death and sprouted in resurrection, and that seed has been growing ever since.

And so it is spring, though early spring. We still see so much dead grass. But come further up. Come further in. The snow has gone. Spring showers water the earth. Flowers are stirring, and water is flowing.

Easter will soon follow. It is our annual reminder, our yearly celebration: we are living a spring with no end.

***

(photo by yours truly)

(photo by yours truly)

***

Because We Have Not Yet Arrived at the End

“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

–          James Joyce, “The Dead”

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library book sale

***

I want to write spring stories. I want to write glorious endings.

And why not? I am the storyteller. I am the one tap, tapping at this keyboard.

I know that others in this world are observing spring’s first blooms and taking walks on balmy nights. My snow-covered world is not the world in which everyone is living. I am winter-weary, and I want to move on to other themes.

But I have ceded control over my own stories. I have made a promise (to myself? To God?) to write stories rooted in my own particular place and this particular time.

And this place is snow-covered.

And Easter is still a long way off.

***

On Saturday I walked the halls of a large art museum. I listened to echoes. I stared into the deep brown eyes of a woman who died in Egypt thousands of years ago. Her funeral portrait is lifelike. It hangs at eye level. She looked about my age. We might have been neighbors, I thought.

After that, each work of art seemed connected to some soul. The silversmith who worked the bracelet. The painter who held the brush. The model who sat for hours. The dancers portrayed in silk. The anonymous ones who wove the tapestry.

Each room revealed more of the vastness of our world. So many people live on planet earth today, I cannot even conceive of them all. But add in every life in every place and each time for all of history? My small mind struggles to believe there is a God who has known and loved each one.

***

The end of the story is always the best part. It is the place where the messiness of the middle is resolved. The point where pain is redeemed and suffering fades into something beautiful. It is the place where I want to pitch my tent.

But I do not think we are always given that choice.

I keep seeing one particular crucifix. I encountered it in one of the museum’s rooms of medieval art. It was carved out of wood and out of anguish. The Christ figure was elongated and emaciated. Reaching tendrils of warm wooden hair seemed to say that this is pain without end.

This is suffering unfinished.

I drove long miles between the art museum and my house, and I thought about the crucifix. The carving was small enough to hold with one hand, but I wanted it to be bigger. I felt the heaviness of all those lives, like shades in every corner of the galleries. I wanted Christ crucified to be big enough to heal every soul for all time.

And I wanted it finished.

As I drove, snow began to tumble through the air. I could see it churning in the light of streetlamps and headlights. As it dusted rooftops and cornfields, I could feel winter settling back in for a longer stay.

***

We privilege endings, but we live in the middle.

This place is snow-covered.

And Easter is still a long way off.

 

The Slow Life

I worry a great deal about the shape of my days.

This worry is a symptom of privilege. It means I have choices. For the most part, my days are not ruled by desperate necessity.

Instead, each one of my days unrolls like a red carpet. It is a carpet woven with hundreds of tiny choices. First, what should I feed the baby for breakfast? Next, should I spend this hour playing Candyland with the four-year-old or cleaning the kitchen? Then, should I read a book while the baby naps or try to write something? Until, should I spend the evening balancing the checkbook or watching PBS with Jonathan?

Choice after beautiful choice until my day is spent, and I lie in bed wondering where the hours fled. What did I accomplish today? Why did I never manage to send those emails? How could I have forgotten to do the grocery shopping / take that book back to the library / return that phone call / schedule that appointment?

Worry. Guilt. A resolve to do better tomorrow but never quite sure what tomorrow should look like. This is the blessing and the burden of choice.

I am an overly sensitive, introverted person. I require a great deal of space in my days: time for sitting and thinking. Time for sitting and reading. Time for taking that walk, pulling the baby behind me in her sled. Never enough time for cooking or cleaning or whatever else it is I’m supposed to be doing in my life as wife and mother.

Which means, I rarely do anything without guilt. Guilt says, shouldn’t you be doing more / working harder / accomplishing bigger?

 

IMG_0140

(photo by yours truly)

 

I don’t think this is only a problem for mothers at home with small children. I can remember breaking out in hives from the stress of life as a college student. My life is more complicated now, but I have, at least, learned to avoid that kind of strain. I have learned, at least, to let myself live slowly, even if the price I pay is no longer hives but a constant, low-level guilt.

I want to be done with guilt. I want to believe that my most important job, the most critical task, requires space. It requires quiet. It requires rest.

The most important item on my daily list is always this: to be his witness. To open my eyes and see. To open my ears and hear. And only then, to open my mouth and sing of what I have seen.

It might happen while I sit still. It might happen while I work. But it will never happen when I rush.

I want to remember that the person with the most important job of all was never in a hurry. Jesus knew there was time enough.

 

IMG_0077

(photo by yours truly)

 

“You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “that I am God.

Yes, and from ancient days I am he.”

(Isaiah 43:12-13)

Advent (Day 17): Something New Returns

I’ve told you this before. How this is my year of deja-vu.

I felt it again when I pushed those red snowboots onto her tiny feet. The boots look barely worn, but I know they are nearly a decade old. I remember how my oldest, my other daughter, wore them on Chicago’s snowy sidewalks.

Jonathan and I have goofy grins as we watch our baby tumble in snow for the first time. We’ve worn these smiles before. I know we have. Strangely, they feel brand new.

I thought it would be different this time. This fourth baby.  This second daughter. And it is.

But not in the way I thought. I assumed it would be recognizable. Known. Like a comfortable coat we’ve worn before. Instead, it feels surprising. There is the shock of newness. We’ve lived it before, but this is no second-hand delight.

It is as if an echo had something new to say, something new to reveal, with each repetition.

At Advent, I am accustomed to seeing the baby in the crèche as the already-was. The one who came but not the one I am waiting for. I look toward King Jesus and wonder how long, but what if that baby is new every year?

I’ve heard this before. How we must make room in our hearts, in our communities, for him to be born again. I always thought it sentimental.

I’m realizing today that doesn’t make it untrue.

 

 

Maplehurst Baby

 

What if he could be born again and again to us, shocking and miraculous every time?

What if Christmas could bring us the yearly return of a joy that is always new?

 

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