Friday, August 31, 2012

Outside: Water

Running Monday morning, before sunrise, after a day of much-needed rain, the fog was so thick I could feel individual droplets hitting my face. Two hours later, biking behind my kids on their way to school, it was still there—heavy all around us, changing everything we saw and didn’t see, cool flecks of it wetting our skin. I don’t know why I like that feeling so much, but I do. And I like when the clouds descend to earth and the light changes and the world looks completely different.

There is nothing like the feeling of water—the coolest good thing sliding down your throat when you are thirsty; the blessing you get when you decide wet is wet and stop running to get out of the rain and let it soak you instead, turning your face upward for more; the way a lake wraps around you when you finally relax and let yourself float in it.

It is almost too big a word to write about, water. It conjures up so many other words: washing, cleansing, thirst, deluge, baptism, holy, pure, flood, waves, ocean, lake, river, stream, rivulet, drink, pour, fill, flow, float, bathe, drown, sprinkle. I’ve approached many times and quit, because there seemed no way to encompass it all.

But I can try to get at it in tiny droplets. Or maybe even a lake at a time. Maybe it’s possible to approach the meaning of water like a poem—let it wash over you, let the parts you understand soak in, and hope that next time you come to it more will make its way in. Because you certainly can’t carry it away in your hands.


I love what a lake does with light. Regardless of the circumstances, it always reflects. Calm, choppy, undulating—whatever state the water is in, it reflects what is above. Always, it shines back the light and color it receives, sometimes solid and clear, sometimes broken into a million diamonds so bright they hurt your eyes. But always, the water is giving back some form of what it is shown.

All the time, though, that it is reflecting, a lake is hiding something else. And how can you not love knowing there’s a secret world underneath? You can get glimpses of it from above, depending on how far the light penetrates. You can visit for a while, depending on how long you can hold your breath or what tools you have to mimic a creature that doesn’t need oxygen the way you do. But that world is not yours, and I don’t believe that all the study in the world would allow a person to know it, entirely. The fact that it is there, regardless of whether or not human eyes ever see it—does it make you wonder?

And what the lake is hiding, it nourishes. Light soaks through that surface reflection, or cuts through it in shafts, and there is life there: swimming, waving, floating, teeming.

Do you ever wish you could work that seamlessly—reflecting and harboring and nourishing what was given to you? It would not matter if you were perfectly still or violently wind-whipped. You would inhabit your space, live out your purpose without faltering. Somehow always at rest.

More in this series:    Fern, Moth, Birch, Turtle Hunting

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Monday, August 27, 2012


Sometimes you need to hide someplace and read a good book.

Sometimes you need to sit in the car in the grocery store parking lot at 10:30 at night and listen to the end of the symphony. (This and this really spoke to me last week. That first link—listen to at least 7:11, and then see if you can stop.)

Sometimes the kitchen floor needs to turn into an art studio.

Sometimes you need to go ahead with the read-aloud, even though it’s way too far past bedtime.

Sometimes you need to allow new additions to the already-long-and-complicated good-night kiss routine.

We are well into our new schedule, and it is exciting and a little scary and definitely exhausting. And good. Not perfect, not necessarily smooth, and not without a need for attitude adjustments (mine, too.) But good. I’m thankful for so many moments of grace. And now I’m looking back at this list and thinking, maybe not sometimes—maybe as often as possible.


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Friday, August 24, 2012

Outside: Fern

“Ferns in general may be thought of as largely being specialists in marginal habitats, often succeeding in places where various environmental factors limit the success of flowering plants.”
—“Fern,” Wikipedia

Tell me about things that thrive in the shade. Things that were made not for bright light, but for cool, dappled places. That take scarcity and turn it into a profusion of green lace.

Tell me about the things that thrive off what seems like not enough. The things that take too-cold, too-dry, too-dark, and blanket them with improbable beauty.

Tell me about tender things that surprise you with their strength.

Here—I will tell you a story, too:

My grandmother, the one I never knew, was a mother and a musician and a teacher and an artist. A queenly woman. She died of pneumonia during a flu outbreak when she was only in her forties, after a lifetime of struggling with severe allergies and asthma. I have always thought of her as strong in heart, weak in body. It recently struck me, though, that a woman who survived her birth only because the neighbor lady sucked the fluid from her lungs to get her breathing, who most likely survived two bouts of tuberculosis, who struggled to breathe off and on all her life, with very little of the medical intervention available now—that woman must have been incredibly strong, period. And from everything I know about her, she lived abundantly.

Does it make sense when I tell you that I feel her legacy as keenly as that of the grandmother I knew most of my life, who lived to be 97? Neither one has seen the end of her influence.

Tell me about those things—and those people—made just for their specific time and place—the ones who blanket their world the way ferns blanket the forest floor, delicate and strong, graceful and bountiful, soaking up every last bit of light.

More in this series:     Moth, Birch, Turtle Hunting

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Violin Lessons

20+ years of taking violin lessons, plus the years I’ve taught—hopefully I’ve learned a few things. There are times, though, when I hear myself saying something to a student and think: Did you HEAR that life metaphor? If I could better apply that I’d be some sort of genius at my life! But the middle of a lesson is not quite the right time to ponder things like that, and the moment passes quietly.

I love those moments, though, so I thought I’d put them together into a neat little list, gleaned from all sorts of people and places and situations:

• What you hear under your ear and what you project to your audience are not always the same thing.

• If you want to learn that new technique, you have to be willing to risk failing. A lot.

• All happy, all sad, all exciting, all tranquil, = boring. Tension and release, going to or moving away from—that’s what pulls us in.

• No matter how many times you’ve played it, there is always something new to discover.

• Sometimes you hate a piece and you have to play it anyway. Playing it like you hate it, though, doesn’t really improve the experience for anyone.

• Practice does not make perfect. But striving for perfection will make you better so you make it your goal—and figure out some way to get comfortable with falling short.

• When you add a new skill, expect everything else to fall apart. You will eventually piece it together again and it will all be stronger.

• It’s hard to communicate anything when you haven’t considered what you’re trying to say.

• Learning is messy.

• Learning is often slow. (Those once-in-a-while times when you get to make a breathtaking leap in what you can do are usually proceeded by a long, hard climb.)

Please feel free to add to my list in the comments below. What have you learned?

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Monday, August 20, 2012

How Good

How good to walk into the woods with one request on your heart:

Show me something—

and part of you knows that’s an easy request because of course there will always be more to see, but part of you worries also that maybe you won’t see it, maybe you will just walk by and be too busy worrying, or too busy telling children “Come on, we have to get back soon” or simply too busy inside your own head to be watching carefully—

how good to then see something,

and then more,

and more.

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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Outside: Moth

I wasn’t ready to commit to this being a series at first, but there you have it, that’s what it is. Technically, this is number 3.

I have nothing against butterflies. They are completely magical. Delicate, colorful—how can you not be glad to have seen one?

Part of their magic, I think, is that they seem to be always moving. You can follow one a long way, trying to see it up close, but just when you think it will land it is off again, elusive as a thought.

I’ve had a different experience with moths. Not the nervous ones that throw themselves at porch lights. The other ones—the ones you find in daylight, at rest. The ones that surprise you because you always think of moths as frantic and dusty and colorless, but this one is so big, so beautiful, so still.

There is something special about a creature that allows itself to be seen. Holding a luna moth is a different experience, altogether, than chasing a butterfly. You move and breathe differently, your whole concept of fragile changes.

And that, really, is what I want to leave you with today.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Where Are You Going and Where Have You Been?

There is evidence everywhere.

There is a fire circle on our front porch, and I have no desire to move it. I first noticed it on Sunday. All three of my kids now aspire to be counselors at the camp we went to earlier this month, and apparently they are honing their skills. And remembering, I’m sure. The lake and the cross and most of the people are missing, but we clearly brought a lot home with us.

There are papers and schedules on the dining room table, and three backpacks full of new supplies waiting close by. School starts tomorrow, and it’s not homeschool, and there is so much to be ready for. For all of us.

There is a small scar on the inside of my right wrist. It will probably fade away completely, but right now it is a reminder that I jumped off a wooden platform on a rope swing and went out over a lake and let go, and while I’ve done that before (years ago) this time I hesitated very little.

There is stuff all over my desk. Schedules, and notes from friends that I want to respond to, and plans for a birthday party, and two or three projects I’m working on, and a mug that belonged to my grandma, and a green beaded necklace that one of my daughters left behind. All my efforts to order and live my life, along with bits of the things and people I love.

I would so much rather have a book that is scuffed and dog-eared and marked-in, sheet music that got rumpled because I played it with a friend, a house scattered with toys and projects, a body with the scars of three cesareans, one-on-top-of-the-other, than anything that is pristine or tidy becaue it is un-used.

I love the evidence, if only for what it points to.

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Sunday, August 12, 2012

Outside: Birch

It was Middle who pointed out that certain trees glitter.

“Like those, with the white trunks?” I asked, pointing to some birch trees on the side of the road. Yes, except the ones she was talking about were all white, the leaves too. We never quite figured out exactly which trees were her favorite on that trip, but the image is there in her head, working on her.

And, because this is the way my mind works, I started wondering which tree is my favorite.

I’ve always been fond of willows—their graceful shape, the way the branches reach out only to return to and touch the earth. The promised space within them, hidden and quiet and green. The small, delicate leaves.

I love maples for their color in the fall, and redbuds for their color in spring, as well as the way their trunks twist and spread. I love shagbark hickory because their bark is simply amazing.

But birch trees—is it only because they are in a way a namesake? Bjork—bjørk, actually—means birch.

It’s hard to say if I loved the tree first, for itself, or only after I learned I was connected to it by name. I sat watching a cluster of them one recent afternoon on a trip north. Tall and slender and swaying a little in the wind, leaves glittering like coins. And have you seen their bark in the winter? I fell in love with these trees in a new way when I discovered that against a backdrop of snow and brown-barked trees, birch bark is multi-colored. Subtle, but breathtaking when you come up close.

I can’t help but claim birch trees as my own. They are sort of my favorite by default. Maybe it doesn’t matter if I romanticize them a little, knowing their name is already mine. They make themselves easy to attach oneself to. And if—just in case—having the name means some of the characteristics might somehow magically rub off on me, I wouldn’t mind a bit.

What’s your favorite tree? And—maybe what I’d like to know even more—what does a name mean to you?

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Thursday, August 9, 2012

Busy, Busy

We are gearing up for school here, as well as a whole slew of birthdays.

I am used to September as the start—and end—of everything. Being a September baby myself, and having no memory of a time I was not on an academic calendar, the move into September has always felt more like New Year’s than January 1st. Goodbye old, hello new. But also hello, Older. The excitement was always tinged with an awareness of something lost.

The fact that all of that has shifted into August only makes me feel like time is moving faster. Remember those days when a single year constituted a full sixth of your life? It’s funny, now, to think that I once saw adults as—what did I see them as? Settled? Smug? Old? There’s no denying that I am one of those mysterious creatures now, yet I feel none of those things.

But today is Youngest’s birthday, not mine, and she is bursting with the new maturity of Six. All three kids are starting school next week, and their excitement is building. There is so much to get done right now, and so much to look forward to. In some ways, I do want to slow it down. Soak up every moment. At the same time though, something tells me that would be impossible. It would dampen things too much. And so—busy, busy—we move forward and embrace what’s ahead, knowing it will always be tinged with a slew of other feelings as well.

Maybe that just makes the cake all the more delicious.

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Tuesday, August 7, 2012


There is a child in my life who keeps presenting me with hearts. She sees them everywhere, and for months has faithfully brought them to me, sometimes as gifts and sometimes just to show. But both her seeing them and her faithfulness in sharing touch me.

This is my quiet, held-together child. The one who looks up at the clouds and can list, endlessly and in minute detail, what she sees there. The one who stuns me with how she uses words. The one who can sense, a paragraph away, the passage in a read-aloud that will make me cry and warn me, “Mom. Don’t you dare start crying!”

Because if I cry, she will have to, also.

It is overwhelming to even brush up against the pain in this world, just as much as it is overwhelming to brush up against the beauty.

It is hard to know what to do with it all, except maybe to practice faithfulness in seeing and responding and sharing, in as many ways as you are able.

So for you, today:

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Thursday, August 2, 2012

Outside: Turtle Hunting

Youngest is desperately worried that she will not get what she wants most for her birthday. This is a hard thing, because I know that she will not. Her parents and grandparents all agree that this most-wanted thing is a little too expensive and a little too mature for her to be able to handle. While we plan for her to have it someday, we are also sure that now is not the right time.

The pain of that for an almost-six-year-old is not lost on me. Does it change that much as we get older?

*       *       *

Last week our family went to Family Camp, a place which is turning out to be one of those magical, outside-of-time-and-place places. There are activities for families together, and kids alone, and parents alone, and whatever combination of togetherness and separateness and adventure and quiet you can imagine.

One of the family activities we signed up for during the week was turtle hunting. Middle, though, was the only kid interested, and so we set out, Middle and her parents and the counselor assigned to our family for the week, to hunt for turtles.

I really had no idea what to expect.

Our counselor took us to a quiet spot on the lake with a dock and still, murky water and lily pads. Before I had even stepped onto the dock, Middle spotted a turtle in the water, and our counselor was plunging through once-quiet water in pursuit of it. There was lots of looking, much lunging after frogs, and finally the capture of one baby turtle complete with a leech on its shell. We admired frogs’ throats, and the way the turtle tried to swim when it was held up in the air. We were amazed at how the leech moved out of water, looking for something to attach itself to. Later on we made sap boats—dabbing pine sap on the ends of sticks and placing them in the water to be propelled across the surface.

*      *       *

It turns out I am not very good at spotting turtles, catching their heads peeking out of the water, silent as sticks. Even when somebody was pointing straight at one, I had trouble seeing it. Once, though, I spotted a frog, glinting emerald green in the water, only to realize that there was not just one frog, but 5, 6, 7—maybe 10 of them in the vicinity, all moving to safety once discovered.

I am not very good at spotting turtles, but it turns out I am quite adept at finding dragonfly wings. That particular afternoon, while Middle had an abundance of frogs to chase and our counselor plunged in and out of the lake after a phantom turtle (which most certainly had to be watching and toying with him,) my gift was dragonfly wings. I kept finding them, alone or in pairs, floating on the surface of the water like leaves, so delicate that everything around them seemed to grow still in their presence.

I wasn’t looking for them. I wouldn’t have known to look for them. But that afternoon they were plentiful, and I hope not to forget that sometimes when you are looking for turtles you find dragonfly wings floating on the water instead.

They are beautiful, and I never even knew I wanted to see them.

*      *      *

I do not know, really, how to accommodate longing—Youngest’s, or my own, or anybody else’s.

Sometimes you discover there are things out there you didn’t know you wanted until you laid eyes on them. How does a person ever learn how to balance wants against needs?

Sometimes the want turns out to be a need as well, but you aren’t ready for it. Sometimes the timing is off. Sometimes you were too busy longing for the wrong thing to understand what was most valuable.

Sometimes, though, you have the gift of a moment—the fact that you touched a dragonfly wing when you thought you were hunting for turtles—and everything shifts.

It makes me wonder how far something as delicate as a breath can carry you.

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