Looking Over My Shoulder (a Continuation)

I’ve mentioned this before.

I do think it’s worth repeating.

I believe the secret to the dreaming life is knowing when to let go of a dream.




Here is what I have neglected to mention: that dream never really goes away. There are days when you see it back there in the past and you thank God your dream was never realized. But there are other days and other dreams. You look back at them and you ache for the younger you who poured so much of herself into that dream. You wonder, what was the point of all that effort? Was it for nothing?

All this makes you a little less eager to embrace new dreams.


the ruins :: icehouse


I shared my story this week. I wrote it out: how God spoke to me and the language was my desire. But there is more. There is always more to our story while we are living it.

Here is Part Two: My dream came true (the dream I never could have imagined on my own), and it is good. But the old dream, the dream I willingly released, still comes creeping back. Some days, I look over my shoulder. I remember how in that dream I was called professor (not stay-at-home mom). In that dream I wore heels (not muddy garden boots). In that dream I had an easy answer to the question what do you do? In that dream I was admired, respected, and I stood at the front of the room.

Like many dreams, it was a muddy swirl of selfishness and altruism. Of wisdom and foolishness. Most days, I am relieved that I no longer keep office hours. No longer grade essays. However, there are days when I look at the interview jacket in my closet and wonder, with something that might be an ache, if I’ll ever wear it again.

I’m not sure I want to wear it again.

I haven’t given it away, either.

Old dreams are never fully discarded. There is no donations drop-box for the dreams we outgrow.


Standing in the doorway of my closet, fingering the polished fabric of that interview suit, I fear I am Lot’s wife. Will I, too, be punished for looking back?

That is a story I struggle to comprehend. It reads to me like something from the Greeks. Mortal women transformed into swans and trees and the shape-shifting gods who chase them. Certainly, the Bible is a strange collection of legend and history, myth and poetry, wisdom and epistle, but I believe it is God-breathed. Where is God’s life-giving breath in the story of Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt?

But Jesus says remember her and so I do (Luke 17:32). I remember her, and I remember that with the next breath he says whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and I remember that I have lived the truth of those words.

I remember how he lived them, too.

Maybe it isn’t a question of punishment but of choice. I can look back and cry my life away. I can squander these good days with endless longing and salty tears.

Or, I can listen. I can trust.

I can be grateful for memory. I can be grateful for the persistence of old dreams.

I can wake up every day eager to let it all go one more time, and one more time, because I know the only way to live is with empty arms.





These Farmhouse Bookshelves

Friends, a confession: I read some books this summer.

The bad news is that I forgot to start dinner, I never noticed when the baby ate cat food, and I forced all four children to endure 90 minutes of daily “quiet time.”

The good news is that I have so many books to tell you about. Let’s talk books, again, shall we?

(If you’re new to this Saturday series you can browse my previous recommendations right here and read more about my use of affiliate links.)


summer school


Summer, for me, was over the top in every way. Heat, humidity, rain, noise, activity, zucchini. Just Over The Top. I survived by reading novels.

One of my favorites was Where’d You Go, Bernadette: A Novel by Maria Semple.

After reading the first few pages, my expectations were not high. The storytelling is unconventional. Rather than a seamless narrative, you’ll find fragments of communication: emails, texts, letters, newspaper clippings, etc. I worried the book would be some sort of postmodern experiment, more taken with its construction than the story it tells. I have nothing against experiments (Joyce’s Ulysses is one of my favorite books), but, this summer, I wanted something thoughtful and enjoyable.

If Semple’s book is an experiment, it succeeds beautifully. Yes, the form is unusual, but it turns out to be integral to a story that is deeply, warmly human. This is a fun, funny novel, but it makes a serious point: first impressions, even second impressions, might give us entirely flawed ideas about other people.

I loved the hope inherent in this story. I loved knowing that even villains might turn out to be lovable.

Hovering over me was the Chihuly chandelier. Chihulys are the pigeons of Seattle. They’re everywhere and even if they don’t get in your way, you can’t help but build up a kind of antipathy toward them. – Maria Semple

Over the summer, I spent more time gardening than reading, a first for me. Of course, when I wasn’t gardening I was often reading about gardening. I’d read this memoir years ago, but when I found it on the shelf of my local used bookstore, I was happy to read it again.

William Alexander’s The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden is funny, self-deprecating, and surprisingly informative. Reading about battles with garden pests and plagues should be discouraging, but Alexander’s honesty (and his recipes!) allow us to see just how rewarding life in the garden can be, whether we’re winning those battles or not.

With the kitchen garden established, I decided – in an act of horticultural hubris perhaps not seen since, well, since Yahweh designed the Garden of Eden – to Build a Meadow. – William Alexander

This new book by award-winning memoirist Beth Kephart was one of my great finds of the summer: Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir. If you have even the tiniest dream to write memoir (or even a blog post based on personal experience) this book will be your Bible. It is inspiring, it is instructive, and it is beautifully written.

I think this book deserves a much wider audience than only writers and writers-in-the-making, however. First, Kephart offers lists of must-read memoirs. Some were familiar to me, but many were not. Her descriptions of what makes each memoir valuable would make this book worth its purchase price even if that’s all it offered. But it offers a great deal more.

This is a book to wake us up to our own lives. This is a book to reveal the treasure that is our own experience. This is a book to help us shape the stories that must be shared.

If all your memoir does is deliver story – no sediments, no tidewater, no ambiguity – readers have no reason to return. If you cannot embrace the messy tug of yourself, the inescapable contradictions, the ugly and the lovely, then you are not ready yet. If you can’t make room for us, then please don’t expect us to start making room for you. – Beth Kephart

And you? Read any good books this summer?

The First Gift Was Desire

If this room were hanging on the wall of a museum, like a painting, I would call it “After the Celebration.”

The fabric birthday banner is draped over a dining room chair (having fallen, gracefully, from the top of the china cabinet). A pile of gift bags, in shades of pink and purple, is stacked on the floor waiting for a return trip to the third-floor closet. I think there may still be a few candles, slick with the crumbs of a cinnamon-apple cake, hiding beneath the birthday cards lined up across the tabletop.

I am not yet ready to sweep away the remains of this past year or the party with which we ended it. I am following the trail of these crumbs trying to piece together the story of my baby girl’s first year.




I suppose it is more my story than hers. One day she will look at photos from this day and feel utterly disconnected from the beautiful baby in the pink dress. If I can discover the story, the meaning that lurks in a messy pile of remembered odds and ends, I can pass it on to her.

A better gift, I think, than any doll or keepsake book or slice of cake.


I don’t have what it takes (and what does it take? Time? Skill? Dedication?) to pray long or complicated prayers for my children. Instead, I ask for a verse, I write it on an index card, and I pray it just whenever I find myself sitting at my desk.

All year my prayer for this child (my second daughter, my last of four babies) has been less of a prayer and more of a long exhalation of gratitude. I have prayed this: “A longing fulfilled is sweet to the soul” (Proverbs 13:19a).

However, this story doesn’t begin with longing. It begins with my determination not to ask or desire. It begins with a hole in my heart where longing should have been.


After the birth of our third, I gave away the baby things. I packed clothes in boxes and mailed them off. I left books at the used-book store. I sold the pricy breast pump on consignment.

This made perfect sense. Having finally earned my PhD, I was embarking on a career that left little space for more babies. I would soon round the corner of my late 30s. But beneath the reasonableness was something much darker: fear.

I had three children, but I had never conceived without doctor visits, invasive tests, medications. Even the surprise of my third pregnancy arrived only after months of tearful prayers.

I had always assumed we’d have another daughter. I sometimes remembered the tiny pink things I had packed away years before, but when I tried to imagine praying for another baby, waiting for another baby, I couldn’t.

Whatever store of desire had fueled my prayers for three children I had used it all up. I was empty, so I gave away every last object that might say hope.


Here, then, is the beginning of the story.

It is the quiet, twilit hour of bedtime. I am sitting at the end of my daughter’s turquoise bedspread. Her face is lost in shadow, but I can hear her voice clearly: “I want a sister.”

I have heard these same words before. I have heard them many times. I think it is exasperation that prompts my reply, but I wonder now if it was my own desperation?

I tell her, “I can’t give you a sister. Only Jesus gives babies. If you want a sister, you have to ask him.”

You might think this memory became meaningful only in hindsight. But that is not the truth. I knew something had happened as soon as the words left my mouth. It felt as if a boulder had shifted. Where there had been nothing within me but irritation there was something new.

Was it desire? Was it hope? I’m not sure I can name it, but it felt like this: pain.

My daughter prayed, and here is where hindsight does color this memory. Looking back, I really cannot say whether it was her prayer being offered or my own.


Elsa Spring is One!

“I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him.”
I Samuel 1:27


*first photo by Kelli Campbell, second photo by Christie Purifoy

Your Favorite Posts and a Thank You



Happy New Year, my friends.

Recently, someone I love sat at my kitchen table while I fiddled with pots and pans. She asked me if I love to cook. I told her that despite evidence to the contrary (shelves of cookbooks, dozens of kitchen gadgets), I don’t really enjoy cooking. I’m usually in a hurry to get it over with. But here is the truth: I love food, and I love feeding people.

This blog is like that for me. I love stories, and I love sharing them with you. Without you, there would be little point to all the hours I’ve spent tapping away at this keyboard.

Thank you. I’m so grateful for your presence here in 2012.

For those of you still in the mood for looking back, here are a few of the most popular stories from the past year at There is a River.

When my daughter’s young classmate was murdered, I wanted her to know that darkness does not get the last word. The last word is Shalom.

Half-way through 2012 we went searching for a new home. This is how we knew we’d found it.

This was the year when God led me out of the desert I had wandered in for two years. Now I know that deserts are terrible, beautiful places. God brought me to the desert because he loves me.

In 2012 I received a great gift. Her name is Elsa Spring.

I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to a new year as much as I look forward to 2013. God has shown his goodness, and I can’t wait to discover what’s next.


“Memories are the key not to the past, but to the future.”
– Corrie ten Boom

Home Is … This Moment Right Now

autumn kaleidoscope

I’ve written before how I refuse to live in the moment. I still stand by that. Mostly.

But here is something new (one more new thing in a season of new things): I’m learning to make my home in the moment.

If life is a river moving relentlessly forward, the present moment is like an eddy in the current.

It is too easy for me to press on and on, searching for whatever is next, desperate to fit the pieces together into some kind of meaningful pattern. Today brought this so tomorrow will bring … ?

But what if I can discern no pattern? What if, having reached the end of myself, God seems largely silent?

He may be the silent and invisible God, but he is never absent.

Sometimes, when I stop seeking, stop rushing (even if the rushing is only the rush of thoughts in my head), I realize that I am slowly circling.

Like that yellow leaf we saw in the puddle at the bottom of the hill.

I am caught in an eddy.

Why fight to keep moving? This is a good place to be. I could make my home here.

And it would be like this: a warm baby sleeping on my chest. The sounds of the high school football game blowing in on the wind. The crunch of technicolor leaves under my feet. Children with cold, pink noses.

A baby-boy-turned-big-brother who says, “Elll-saah. Elll-saah. Where is Elsa?”

 “Life isn’t long enough to do all you could accomplish. And what a privilege even to be alive. In spite of all the pollutions and horrors, how beautiful this world is. Supposing you only saw the stars once every year. Think what you would think. The wonder of it!”

– Tasha Tudor (one of my very favorite children’s book author/illustrators)


Pin It on Pinterest