On Planting and Blooming

“Bloom where you are planted” was one of those popular phrases that once adorned coffee mugs and wall plaques and was meant to inspire contentment and purpose regardless of circumstance or situation. I still see it occasionally, mostly in thrift store bins or the nether reaches of cyberspace, but new catch phrases have supplanted it: “Keep calm and carry on,” “Live life to the fullest.” However it is expressed, there is an underlying reality behind these popular dictums: life is hard at times but we want it to still have meaning and to feel like we are going somewhere in the midst of it.

I do not deny this reality. But what I question are the other implications inherent but overlooked within these “purpose-giving” mantras. They all emphasize individual action – we need to bloom, keep calm, live life. We are the ones in control of all such actions. We can make life, direct life, shape life in ways that better meet our desires and expectations. Armed with the right attitudes and a good dose of self-love, we are enough to navigate the vicissitudes of life. Meaning and purpose are results of our doing.

I do not think this is so. Attitudes, towards self and others and even circumstance, are important, but relying solely on our own doing is a trap. Inaction and passivity are not desirable, but much of our society over-emphasizes action and activity at the sacrifice of reflection and rest and looking and listening. And increasingly, the notion that life might actually have ultimate meaning and purpose because God is the creator and sustainer of it, is ridiculed and debunked. Or just simply ignored – even by those who claim to believe in him.  

I am no great theologian or philosopher or apologist, but I am, like everyone else, living a life that is often hard and sometimes those difficult parts grind abrasively against meaningfulness and aggressively erode purposefulness.  When we lost our son to suicide almost six years ago, I never once reminded myself to “Bloom where you are planted” or “Keep calm and carry on.” What continually nourished my soul in the depths of that personal tragedy, and continues to do so in the face of world atrocities and life’s uncertainties is an invitation from God himself: “Be still, and know that I am God…” (Psalm 46:10).  

Sometimes being still before God is actually harder than trying to fix life myself. Sometimes it is helpful for me to think less about blooming where I am planted, and more about stopping where I am planted and looking at what God has caused to blossom and unfurl. I’m discovering incredible beauty in those places.


Living In a Discordent World

The world seems so noisy lately.

So much anger, fear, mistrust, accusation, heartbreak, sorrow. So many words swirling madly in all directions, unanchored, unhinged. So many voices drowning out the steady quiet rhythms of our own hearts. 

Speaking definitively in support of OneThing can lead to a shaming attack for being anti-TheOtherThing. Supporting AllTheThings only increases the pandemonium with contradiction and a crippling erosion of integrity. 

Stick to objective facts, they say. Don’t respond based on emotion and personal belief, they say. But then objective facts somehow morph into alternative facts…and we keep spiralling into post-truth cacophony.  

So. Much. Noise.

Today, I am “aweary of this great world” and its deafening bedlam. 

In exploring the confusions of his own life, Augustine speaks of an unquiet heart seeking rest in its Creator. I feel the unquiet of my own heart and am drawn to this rest, to the Creator whose words still speak life, and who, as the Word, “became flesh and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth.”

Grace and truth. Yes, these words of quiet resilience and unwavering purpose speak a kind of stillness in the midst of the chaotic roar of -isms and schisms, memes and mantras, facts and phobias.  And in this stillness, I can know the God whose purposes are profoundly undaunted by all of the world’s noise throughout all of history. 

__________________
The Merchant of Venice (Shakespeare)
Confessions (Augustine)
John 1:14; Psalm 46:10

Some things I know and need to say

Suicide letter assignment under review after risks highlighted
This story was brought to my attention yesterday and it has left me processing several emotions and thoughts. I do not know any more than what has been reported in the news, and it is not my intention to vilify the teacher involved, but there are some things I do know and need to say.

First, I am a high school English teacher, and I do know that literature is valuable for engaging readers in important conversations about life and the human experience. I do know that understanding character motivation and perspectives are standard outcomes in the curriculum I am required to teach. I do know that writing is an important skill and powerful tool for processing and synthesizing thoughts and ideas. I also know that audience, purpose and format are crucial considerations for all writing. This is also in the curriculum.  

I’m wondering if assigning a suicide letter (regardless of how the assignment is being framed, this is in essence what it is) was indeed the best format for meeting these outcomes.

Second, I am not a statistician or a school counsellor, but what I do know is that in any given class I teach, approximately 10% of the students have written real suicide letters. Sometimes multiple letters. Some have attempted suicide. These are only the ones who have bravely shared this information with me; I am sure the actual percentage is much higher. I do know that our youth and young adults are struggling with very real issues related to depression and anxiety. They are at risk not only for suicide, but also for addictions and self-harm. I do know that we need to be having honest conversations about these issues in order to provide the knowledge and supports necessary to prevent them.

I’m wondering if we can use literature and writing as tools to help students wrestle with these issues in ways that provide a path to move beyond them rather than deeper into them.

And lastly, I am a parent who is in possession of a very real suicide letter. I do know that real suicide letters do not provide any tidy answers to numbered questions about motivation or even any meaningful insight into how the person actually felt about much of anything. I do know that they are so gut-wrenchingly painful to read that even now I am berefit of adequate descriptive words. I do know that the one in a manila folder in our files is my son’s last words; the last time I will ever see his distinctive handwriting; the last time he signed his name with its signature flourish on the J. I hate that letter and yet I cannot part with it.

I also know that real suicide letters that accompany the real death of a child result in parents having to write real eulogies and epitaphs. Both were by far the hardest things I have ever written. Both were as inadequate in summarizing a son so dearly loved as the suicide letter was in explaining why life had become unsustainable to him.

I’m wondering if we can find better ways to voice all the fear and pain and brokenness and love and care and affirmation and say all the words that suicide letters and eulogies and epitaphs can never say.  

A Live Lived and Living Life

The beginning of a new year represents an opportunity to close the door on everything awful and hard and chaotic from the previous year and open the door to fresh possibilities and positive outcomes. This is a comforting and even hopeful sentiment, but what I have noticed is that a new year is simply a continuation of the old. Shocking, I know. The awful-hard-chaotic do not magically disappear no matter how much I resolve that they will. While positive possibilities do exist, they only need a sunrise to present themselves and not some special dropping of a shiny ball in a city that is not even in my country…or time zone.

Over the past years, my ushering in of a new year has looked less like closing doors, making resolutions, and watching fireworks than simply pausing on the path to see patterns of ‘coming’ that can inform my ‘going.’ For example, the Have Learned/Still Learning pattern:

Some of the many things I most definitely and definitively learned this year (which means that they can be completely avoided in the future, or be repeated with absolute confidence of success, or be added to a growing body of either useful or trivial knowledge):

– how to photo bomb a wedding party. Or NOT (perhaps some lessons from the PM would have been helpful on this one...)

– what an olecranon is (companion learning to the above)

– how to cook a prime rib roast (I know, I know, just stick it in the oven, but there’s that changing the temperature thing, and that thermometer thing…and I’d never cooked one before, because…that $$$ thing…)

– how to find a way to record attendance digitally for flex block at school (sounds positively simple…yeah, not so much)

– what Edison must have felt like when his light bulb worked after so many failures (companion learning to the above)

– that I can successfully grow spaghetti squash in my garden (I’m probably the only person who even remotely cares about this…)

– that kingbirds like to hang out in my backyard treetops (funny I never even noticed before…)

– how to identify a Northern Harrier (the only hawk in our area that I can positively identify – so like, this is a big deal for me)

Thank you 2016 for such informative lessons.

But here is the real crux of the matter. Most of what 2016 taught me are the same things I’ve been learning for years. They defy closing doors and well-intentioned resolutions because they do not operate by calendars or clocks or timetables or lists. They operate within the bounds of a lived life…

What I am continually learning (sometimes with moderate gains, sometimes with huge setbacks…but never with the jump to Have Learned).
– that it’s okay for me to correct people when they mispronounce my name, to let people know that my introversion is not snobbery and that my need to process things quietly is not disengagement. 

– that although I will never be the fun-loving, story-telling, “life-of-the-party” type, I do have a voice and that simply listening in on the fringes often provides the most meaningful opportunities to exercise it 

– that adding my voice to some situations or conversations requires a bravery that I do not inherently possess

– how to meet the ever-increasing demands of curriculum and pedagogy without neglecting or overlooking the deep emotional and relational needs of the students who sit in my classroom

– that having adulting children and aging parents places me in an important role as a link between two generations – a role that requires a giving forward and a giving back and a need to do both with wisdom

– how to live love in a purposeful and authentic way, even if it is not reciprocated or even acknowledged

– how to live fully and unreservedly before an Audience of One  

Only madmen, geniuses, and supreme egotists do things purely for themselves. It is easy to buck a crowd, not too hard to march to a different drummer. But it is truly difficult- perhaps impossible- to march only to your own drumbeat. Most of us- whether we are aware of it or not, do things with an eye to the approval of some audience or other. The question is not whether we have an audience but which audience we have. This observation underscores another vital feature of the truth of calling: A life lived listening to the decisive call of God is a life lived before an audience that trumps all others- the audience of One. Os Guinness The Call

Welcome, 2017. I have so much more to learn.

Love Stories

I once wrote some thank you stories as a way of honouring the ways that people touch my life in the midst of everyday ordinary. Over the past days, as I have been trying to pay more attention to what it really means to live love and live loved, I have begun to see how love continues to weave threads of story into my life:

M &H plus 3 kidlets who call me Aunty and let me pretend to be a grandma come for dinner and we light candles and laugh and snuggle and have a doll-dress fitting session (major hemming needed). Dean still defrosts, desnows, and decolds my car. Every. Single. Morning. CC and I have spoken exactly once on the phone, yet she sends a gift of genuine compassion and protective care. CD paints an image with her words that remind me that I can fully trust God with the broken pieces of my heart. Lucas pauses his day to simply be with us (and then takes home extra bags of pyrogies and the left over chocolate cake.) Dean goes shopping for something else and brings home warm cozy fuzzy soft clothes for me so -30 feels like a delightful hug. R & T send me pink thank you roses and I am overwhelmed at such sensitive graciousness. DH sneaks into the examining room while I wait for the Dr to check out my creaky elbow, taking a few moments from her nursing job just to see how I’m really doing because she knows that creaky elbows are nothing compared to hearts with gaping holes. Amanda sends cookies. I hope they get here soon. She says they are delicious.  

I have lived loved in so many, many ways this past week. Thank you. 

And since love always travels best on two-way streets, I am also trying to be more intentional about how I live love for others. I have so much learn about how to do this well.  

What love stories have been woven into your life recently? 

On grief and love and paradoxes

I saw so much yesterday that I never wanted to see:  

a father gazing at a daughter’s casket with a profound mixture of numbing grief and forever love 

a mother with head and heart bowed low, willing a measure of calm in the storm that has stolen normal from her family

a brother, broken and brave, speaking clearly and boldly words of love and remembrance that captured, but can never replace, a sister

a whole pew-row of friends and former classmates, clad in every shade of grief imaginable, suddenly aged beyond their years

a sextet of tear-stained young women escorting the casket of a friend they never envisioned would not exist anymore

I cried for them all. I cried for all the ways that they are hurting. I cried for the ways that this kind of hurting is so painful in its familiarity

I’m still crying.

But I also saw much yesterday that I am so very glad I saw and experienced.  

the young women escorting the casket honouring their friend with loyalty and respect and dignity as much in her death as they did in her life because that is what true friends do

the friends and classmates living out all shades of love and care for each other… hard-holding, clinging-close embraces, silent gentle touches, firm understanding handshakes, hands on shaking shoulders, hands in clutching hands, eyes and hearts spilling and tumbling, always in the unspoken knowledge that this breathing and grieving would be done as an act of community.  

the snippets of blue ribbon and little blue flowers tucked into braided hair defying the blackness of grief, declaring remembrance of a life that was and memories that always will be

the hands that embraced me, not as a former or current teacher, but as an equal in this paradoxical community of grief and love; the sensitive words that acknowledged that this is indeed a déjà vu grieving for me, that there are painful past wounds made newly raw that needed to be honoured every bit as much as this present grief. Thank you.

my own heart, with its permanent gaping hole, so full of love for these young men and women that I wasn’t sure which was causing the most pain, the emptiness or the fullness. And therein lies another paradox – that something so broken could contain so much. Sola Gratia. By grace alone.

Yesterday was hard. But yesterday we caught a glimpse of what it means to live love and live loved.

 We need to keep doing this. Our community and our world needs this. We need this.

Careless and Broken

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” 
So Nick, the narrative voice in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, summarizes the lives of his frivolous cousin and her unfaithful husband.

🚴🏼   🚴🏼.  🚴🏼.  🚴🏼.  🚴🏼. 

I didn’t have to cycle back to the campground where I was hanging out with friends for the Canada Day weekend. I could have just thrown my bike in their truck with the kayaks after our afternoon paddle at Pyramid Lake. But since I had pedalled up the hill to the lake, I felt I had earned a nice downhill cruise. It’s a cyclist thing.

I wasn’t even on the main road yet when I came down a small dip and into a blind corner. And just around that corner? 

A large wedding party, all decked out in peach-coloured dresses and dark suits, stretched across the road for a photo. I braked hard, automatically unclipping my right foot from the pedal to anchor myself to the ground upon stopping. Unfortunately, the loose gravel on the roughly paved road made my bike slide to the right. I fell hard to the left, my freed right foot rendered useless in preventing it.

But pretty dresses and formal suits were all still intact.  

Thanks to a certain TV show and a plethora of YouTube videos where people’s painful mishaps are a form of entertainment, my crash evoked some laughter and hoots from the wedding party. Followed by a couple are-you-okays. 

I’m not sure yet, I replied as I gingerly stood up to assess the damage. 

The wedding party responded by turning to face the photographer and resuming their photo shoot.  Now start walking towards me, I heard her instruct. 

I moved my bike, flagged an oncoming car so they wouldn’t plow into the oblivious wedding people, and then went into shock – my body’s natural response to the badly broken elbow I now cradled as I sat in the ditch.

The wedding party continued with their photo shoot, eventually moving off the road but remaining within my range of vision. Surely if I could see them, they could see me. Sitting there in pain, no doubt white-faced from the shock, clutching my left arm, steadying my breathing.

If they did, they didn’t care.

🚴🏼.  🚴🏼.  🚴🏼.  🚴🏼.  🚴🏼

Careless people. We all know them because we have all fallen victim to them at one point in our lives. Carelessness comes in many forms: neglect, self-centredness, insensitivity, flippancy. Sometimes carelessness is deliberate: gossip, slander, exclusion, abuse, cruelty. Our news feeds scroll story after story of people being careless with the lives of other people. I could provide links to current stories, but by next week there would be new ones to replace them. Maybe even by tomorrow. 

This was certainly not my first encounter with careless people, just the first requiring hospitals, air ambulance, and surgery. As painful as it is, being smashed physically is still easier than dealing with the aftermath of someone’s carelessness with heart and soul. Physical healing generally has a predictable timeline. Six weeks, the surgeon said. Emotional healing charts its own course. Either way, like Tom and Daisy, carelessness is oblivious to the brokenness it leaves behind. Someone else has to deal with the mess. 

But here is another truth, an insightful perspective from a friend: carelessness comes from brokenness. We are a broken humanity on so many levels- our families, our racial and generational interactions, our governments, our work places, our forms of entertainment, and our relationship with the One who created us. All that brokenness leaves us centred on our own pain, the injustices against ourselves, our rights to something better. ‘Our lives matter’ has become a necessary mantra in various forms. Or hashtags. We do matter. All of us. So why do we chose to live with such careless disregard of others?

It is easy for me to speak of the times when I have been broken by someone else’s carelessness. I have fresh wounds, physical and emotional, and even old ones still have tangible scars. But what about the times when I have been careless? How many people are left wounded and scarred in my wake? How many messes have I left behind as I retreat into whatever fulfills my sense of self at any given moment?

I am deeply humbled by these thoughts, knowing in my heart that I have without a doubt been the careless one, even if I can’t (or won’t) recall a specific instance. Carelessness and foggy memory have a comfortable complementary relationship. 

But what humbles me even more is that God chose brokenness in order that I might be made whole. He was wounded, pierced, crushed for my sin. Purposefully. Deliberately. Rather than a carelessness that ends in brokenness, His purposeful brokenness ends in forgiveness and restoration. 

Oh what a marvellous grace, a grace far greater than my sin and carelessness. Far greater than what I deserve.

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Unfolding

The geese come first. A few random stragglers glide in early, braving late snow and still-frozen lakes, followed by gaggles more, gathering in fields like concert-goers waiting for the show to begin.  

Soon saucy, raucous gulls flash black-tipped white against spring-blue skies.  

The ice begins to recede from puddles, ponds, and lakes, and the ducks quack their way back. The marsh behind my house becomes a constant cacophony of waterfowl-speak.  

As if all previous arrivals were simply the opening act, the majestic and stately swan gracefully soars in, its deep, bass trumpet resonating across the bulrushes.

Robins are the next to trill their way north, filling the early morning sky with their song long before I actually see the familiar red breast. 

One calm evening, the frogs, almost always unseen, add their gurgly, bubbly, throaty croaking, and I wonder again at their ability to survive beneath the ice and cold of winter.

Leaves bud and spread green, first just a light frosting dabbed on tree tops, then a full-blown bright new green that embraces the landscape. And the wind, alternating warm and cold, has something new to play with. Leaves flutter a melody no longer silenced by winter.

After a brief pause, the red-winged blackbirds fill the song spaces with their riffs and rills, spreading wings and strutting red and gold epaulets as they stake out their territory in the marsh.  

Grackles, elegant heads shimmering green-purple-blue in the spring sun, chirp conversationally as they forage for spring food.  

And then, it comes….high in the air, the unmistakable winnowing sound of the snipe. I don’t know why, but I find something comforting about the return of the snipes.

Spring is still unfolding… terns will soon be be performing arial acrobatics around the gulls. The warblers have yet to bring their cheery song and constant flitting to the willows in the back yard. Yellow-headed blackbirds always trail behind the red-wings, as do the orioles with their crystalline call and brilliant orange plumage. Clever little marsh wren hasn’t returned to stuff my birdhouses with sticks – yet. Quiet, unassuming and shy sora will probably return completely unnoticed.

I like tracking the unfolding of spring. In the midst of a world that seems increasingly unpredictable, where so much of what could be counted on as true and right is being upended and distorted, it anchors my soul to be reminded through the gradual process of spring renewal that God’s order still supersedes man’s designs.  

“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.’ ” (Lam. 3:22-24)

If the unfolding of spring is so glorious, how much more the unfolding of the plan of God for our world – for my life.  

Yes, I will wait for Him.

Thank you stories

As is so often the case, sentences and ideas have been surfacing, floating, eddying in my brain over the past months.  I take so very long to process sometimes.  I knew I wanted to write about several moments of grace that have deeply encouraged me, but I wasn’t sure how I wanted to frame them.  And then I read a post by Naomi Zacharias and found the story that inspired her: a perfect frame for my picture of thankfulness for some of the people who have touched my life so far this year. 

Sheri sings a glorious truth to the inbox on my phone and I listen again & again and feel that truth anchor itself deep in my heart. Jo thoughtfully sends a sweet something-other-than-bills to Box 640 and my frayed-at-the-edges day mends itself over a cup of tea. Dean daily fills in the gap of not (ever) having a garage or a dishwasher and I (always) have a warm, snow & frost-free car and clean after-supper dishes. In the middle of a store, Lucas opens his man-child arms wide and gathers me into a love-you-forever embrace. Amanda texts me “How is your week?” and we chat and I absolutely love that we can chat. B emails from a college classroom, thankful for a personable teacher who genuinely cared. C messages (with glee) that she passed her English diploma exam. After a barely-squeaked-by semester, J comments that the most appreciated thing about class was a reasonable teacher who understood that hard life things sometimes outrank schoolwork. C says we need to get together again; our life-journeys have similar themes and it helps when someone can honestly say “I get it.” Brian & Pam come and hang out and we visit, ski, eat, share, and laugh and it’s okay that Alberta beat Northern Ontario. N, S & R allow me to practice being a grandma and I hope it means as much to them as it does to me.  Amazingly, S is still okay with long conversations over hot chocolate/tea and outdoor adventures with an old lady 36 years her senior. K sends a postcard from France. K & L listen over lunch to the realities that still tug, pull and ambush as we attempt to move forward. In everything, God is unchanging, forgiving, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in love.

Thank you.

Stars and Light

The deep darkness of the sky last night only made the myriad of stars more vivid and awe-inspiring. Odd how the darkness necessary to see all those pinpricks of light scattered across the universe is never the focus when we gaze skyward at night. Rather, we stand amazed and spellbound by the beauty of the light, as minute as it seems from our earthly vantage point.

The year that ended in the middle of that starry night was filled with much darkness. We saw it on our news screens, heard it in our voices, felt it grip our hearts, tasted it in our fears. It became the focus, and we missed the stars, the light that makes the darkness lose its power to pinion our hearts and minds.  

We just celebrated the incarnation of Jesus, the arrival of God in human form, as a baby no less. But perhaps in all our celebration and tradition and other trappings of the season, we forgot this foreshadowing of the larger story: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” 

Darkness in the world is not a product of modernity. 

The miracle in the cradle is only worth celebrating because of the sacrifice on the cross and the defeat of death and darkness by the empty tomb. Jesus declared to his followers, “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.”  

Light inhabits eternity.

There are 525,600 minutes in a year.

 Astronomers estimate that the Milky Way Galaxy alone contains about 100 thousand million stars. 

So here is my thought: if we can be in awe of the thousands of stars we can see with our naked eye, and focus on them rather than the darkness, is it also possible that we can see the Eternal Light in those 525,600 minutes rather than allow darkness to render them meaningless? 

“This is what God the Lord says— the Creator of the heavens (including the billions and billions of stars!), who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: ‘I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you…I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them (the year ahead is certainly unfamiliar), I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them.” 

An invitation for 2016: “Come…let us walk in the light of the Lord.” 

________________________

Isaiah 9:2; John 12:46; Isaiah 42:5-6,16; Isaiah 2:5

Photo by Mathias Krumbholz