A New Name

 

“you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls”

Isaiah 58:12

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We have arrived at those muddy, brown days between winter and spring. When I cross the yard to the chicken coop, it feels as if I am walking on a sponge. We have had a few warmer days and a few sunnier days, but it is not yet clear to me if the damage of this winter can be undone.

Somehow I find it harder to believe in spring the closer it comes.

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My daughter is learning about the Holocaust in school. Every afternoon she shows me some newly acquired fact, as if she half believes that this time, this time, I will contradict her teacher. I will say, No, no, it wasn’t as bad as that. Instead, I only ever say yes. Yes, it’s true.

Here is what she does not say: How do you go on living in a world where such things have happened? Still happen?

Here is what I do not say: I don’t know.

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As a writer, I pick up the pieces. Even the ugly, broken pieces. I arrange them and rearrange them, and I search for hidden meaning. I find patterns, and they always say the same thing. They say, Look! Here is something beautiful. Here is good news.

Except that recently, I can’t seem to find the pattern. The broken pieces remain only broken pieces.

They are so many. They are so sharp.

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Because it is Lent, we begin each Sunday service with The Decalogue rather than a hymn. We hear the list of God’s ten commands, and they are like stones that form a wall that enclose a garden.

Gardens grow best within the shelter of a wall, but we have torn down the wall with our own hands.

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Perhaps we must first listen to the bad news if we hope ever to hear the good.

Perhaps it is sorrow for all the broken pieces and all the tumbled stones that gives us courage to stand up. To rise up, leave the sackcloth and ashes, and go searching for our new name.

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What Were You Made To Do?

You were made for the impossible thing.

You were made for the goal you cannot conceivably achieve. You were made for the task you are ill-equipped to manage. The high bar you can never reach.

You were made for the thing that terrifies you the most. The thing those others can do but never you.

You were made for the dream too good even to dream.

Some of you know this. You have already seen that the impossible thing slowly, gradually becomes more than just an impossible thing. It becomes a prayer. In other words, impossibility is shot through with cruel desire. You hardly know how it happens, but somehow you begin to want this impossible thing.

Until, one day (but truly it is never one day; it is always slowly over many days) the prayer is answered. The promise inherent in prayer is fulfilled. And the impossible thing becomes a gift, given freely.

To you.

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Writing is my impossible thing. It is the dream I buried in a million books. Books I was convinced I could never write.

My friend Cara Strickland, a writer of delicious details, sent a few questions my way. They are questions meant for writers, but I’ve been considering them with all our many impossible dreams in mind.

  • What are you working on?

I am working on noticing.

The more I notice, the more convinced I become that our lives, and the world in which we live them, are not the chaotic, meaningless jumbles they often appear to be.

When I notice the connections among a few dots, I write out those connections here on this blog. I try to do this once per week, but dots do not always obey our commands (pleas, bribes, etc.) to reveal their associations.

But I keep showing up and, sometimes, I am rewarded.

Slowly (very slowly), I am also writing out the connections among some bigger dots. Dots like homesickness and desire and kingdom come. I am gathering up these bits in a file called “My Book.” We shall see whether the title of this computer file proves itself prophetic.

  • How does your work differ from others of its genre?

One of my greatest fears is that it does not. That, indeed, there is nothing new under the sun. But I find in the Psalms a command that has also become my prayer: “sing to the Lord a new song.”

I think this is why we are here on this planet. To sing to our God a new song. But, like most commands we find in the Bible, it is impossible. It asks too much. Every word I write rings in my ears like an echo of some other, better writer.

But I am learning to stand in the river that is the source of every new thing. I am learning to recognize the new when it bubbles up like a spring. New words, new stories, new beauties, new mercies. New is the keyword of the kingdom of God, and we are Christ’s own. We hold the keys to the kingdom.

  • Why do you write what you do?

I write because the world holds so much beauty my heart would break if I couldn’t pause and gather some of it up.

I write because there is a river, and it has filled me with good news. Somehow I, the quiet one, the cautious one, want only to “go up on a high mountain” and shout “Here is your God!” (Isaiah 40:9).

  • How does your writing process work?

It works like this: I stand near a sink overflowing with dirty dishes, a paper calendar in hand. I carve out quiet time. This is exhausting, difficult work. My knife is never sharp enough. And then, typically, I must let go of the time I have so carefully cut away. The baby does not nap, or the preschooler will not fulfill the “quiet” portion of his afternoon quiet-time obligation, or school is canceled, or I get sick, and on and on it goes.

Until, while wiping the counters or raking leaves or changing a diaper, I am visited by an image. Maybe two. The beginnings of a story.

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My friend Laura Lynn Brown sings beautiful songs. She sings with words (you can find her award-winning essay “Fifty Things About My Mother” at Slate). She sings with paintbrush and pencil. She sings with an Irish flute. I’m passing the baton of these questions on to her. Look for her own thoughts on writing and the writing process at her website in the coming weeks.

Now tell me. How do you sing your own new song?

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 “Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.”

(Psalm 98:1)

Our Stories Come From Hunger

Our Easter feast began the day before, on Saturday morning. One hundred or so neighbors. Two thousand or so eggs. Warm sunshine and hot coffee. Conversation and sticky children.

Or maybe it began earlier that week. When my sister and her four children tumbled, along with the crayons and crumpled napkins, from their minivan. A three-day road trip from Florida suddenly ended.

It is Easter, and we have feasted. On cousins sprouting like weeds and epic games of Monopoly. On baby chickens discovering bugs and grass and baby lettuces discovering rain.

We have feasted on hard-boiled eggs turned somewhat unappetizing shades of blue and my mother’s recipe for Greek chicken.

But mostly, we have feasted on time. On moments stretching into days spent at the table side-by-side with family.

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under The Tree

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Family, for us, has always been feast or famine. Separated by miles, our mailing addresses like stars in a far-flung constellation, we do not relate casually. There is no dropping by. No Sunday lunches then home again. No Christmas gifts delivered in person. No grandparents to babysit for date night.

We have only not enough (telephone calls and emails) or too much (three daily cycles of the dishwasher and four of laundry just to keep the show running).

We know Lenten hunger, and we know Easter fullness.

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Feast days leave little space for story-making. Not storytelling. There is time for that as we sit at table. Storytelling is a necessary part of celebration.

But story-making is born of hunger rather than plenty. It is our longing that reveals the contours of new dreams and new stories. Because we hunger, because we do not have, because we suffer, we search for meaning like desperate sailors search for land.

We search for cool blue in desert wastes. We search for Kelly green in stubborn snow.

In winter, we toss in our sleep, and we dream of spring.

In spring, we sleep dreamlessly and wake refreshed.

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“For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Matthew 7:8

I Have Written No Essay Today

And I am sorry. I wanted to give you metaphors that sing, but I have only this empty page and a blinking cursor. This is doubly unfortunate because today’s essay was intended for the column at Living the Story. In other words, today’s essay had a deadline.

I feel embarrassed by this blank page, as if it exposes something of which I am deeply ashamed. It seems to matter more than a blank page should.

This page is my life, I think. I rush and worry, trying to fill it up with words. I am terrified that I might run out of words.

 

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Typically, I fill my empty pages quickly. So quickly, in fact, I rarely notice their emptiness. That this page has stayed blank longer than most, I blame on my ragged throat and tissue-burned nose. I blame it on my flexible work-from-home husband who was not, this week at least, able to work from home. I blame it on the baby girl whose cough matches my own.

She knows the baby signs for “milk” and “more” and “banana” but not for “sick.” I have to read it in the way she clings to me, the way she asks for food then tosses it down, the way she makes it impossible for me to live. Because isn’t my life composed of tasks ticked off, essays written, deadlines met? Which means today my life is not being lived. It means today this essay is not being written.

Or is it?

Perhaps even our blank pages have stories to tell?

I hope you’ll click through to read the rest of this one for the Living the Story column at the website BibleDude.

While you’re there, I hope you’ll leave a comment and let me know you stopped by.

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.)

 

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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?

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