The Stories We Keep

One of the reasons I write is because I need to process things, to get ideas out of my head and on paper where I can begin to make sense of them or discover some new perspective. Although most of my “processing” remains in my notebooks, I write here because I want to invite others to think and ponder along with me. But we are more than just processors of ideas and questions and observations. We are storytellers and story-keepers. Our lives are anthologies of stories bound together and nestled into a larger, grander story whose opening line is “In the beginning, God…”

I keep stories that have changed my life or perspective, forged new growth or wisdom, or made me laugh or smile. Stories can do all of these and more. Above all, stories anchor me to my place in the world. From time to time, I want to revisit some of these stories, not because my life is anything special, but because, actually, it is. And so is yours.

I’ve done some housekeeping here at Sola Gratia. You’ll find a new page just for stories – some of mine, and hopefully some of yours as well. Soon you’ll also find a page just for Jots & Doodles — Volume 1 Issue 3 will be available soon!

So…pop over to the Story-Keeper page for a story about my brief stint as a Dr. Doolittle imposter.

☕️ Messes & Marvels

A Saturday Caesura

This morning I sat down and wrote some thoughts for this caesura. Thoughts about vulnerability and virus variants and stuck supertankers and murder and violence and other egregious acts against fellow human beings. I wrote a lot of words, but I don’t think they were very coherent. Sometimes I just need to dump everything on a page and let it sit there in a mess for a while. Someday when I will come back to the word-tangle, maybe there will be a clear line of thought that is worth unravelling.

So today’s caesura is not about those thoughts, but about some images from this week. Images like the tiny “hairs” lining the edges of a baby lupine leaf. The lupine is in my classroom at the moment, escaping the heat of the greenhouse until it’s warm enough outside to give it a more permanent home in my yard. I noticed the hairs because they caught the early morning light coming through the window and created a halo around each leaf frond. The glow drew me in for a closer look. Remarkable.

In true northern prairie fashion, it snowed on the day after the first day of spring and I don’t want to talk about how much it snowed or how horrible the roads were, but I do want to talk about how the snow is now melting drip by drip off the edge of the roof. Sometimes a few drops will drip in unison, other times in succession. They remind me of a hand-bell choir. I wonder what song they would make if each drop dripped a note on the scale. Would it be a lament for winter? Or an anthem for spring’s arrival?

The Christmas cactus I bought as a gift for a friend (that I never had a chance to see at Christmas because of Covid) still sits in my kitchen window. It bloomed this week. The brilliant pink blossom looked like an exotic bird from some distant tropical jungle, and even though Christmas came and went ages ago, this blossom was the best possible gift for this week. There are two more budding gifts and now I’m not sure my friend will ever see this particular plant.

Sometimes I need to leave my thoughts in a muddled mess of words on the pages of a notebook I can close and walk away from. And sometimes I need to leave all the messes of the world (beginning with my own heart) at the foot of the cross and focus on the small but extraordinary blessings each day contains. Often I can view the messes with more clarity and understanding when I filter them through the lens of God’s intended goodness for his creation.

☀️ Lonely Places

Sunday Doxology

Praise to you, Lord of the lonely places of quiet solitude where you chose to withdraw for prayer. For rest.

I am drawn to these places, too, because I always find you there and am renewed. Restored.

But sometimes lonely places barge in the door, drop baggage on the floor and invade us with the deep ache of isolation, of exclusion, of being uninvited, unnoticed, unliked, unfriended…

Here solitude stings. Doesn’t soothe.

Praise to you, Lord, even in these insidious lonely places because your hand still guides us, your right hand still holds us fast. Because you are forever and always Emmanuel — God with us — we are never alone.

☕️ Snippets

A Saturday Caesura

Some weeks happen all helter-skelter. Undone to-dos, interruptions, diversions, uh-ohs, and not-agains. Normal stuff occurring with abnormal frequency. Even the weather tried to squeeze all four seasons into a single week. Life seems more manageable when everything practices distancing, takes turns, behaves in orderly and predictable ways.

My thoughts were helter-skelter, too. None of the usual slow mulling and processing of an idea, an image. Just snippets of this and that — some that stuck and some that slid away.

Snippet: I was riding my bike on the indoor trainer upstairs. I look out the window, but the scenery doesn’t scroll by like it usually does when I cycle outdoors. The neighbour’s house just sits there. So do the barren trees, the snow, the fence, the street off to the left. It is boring. But that day I noticed that the snow was pockmarked with little indentations, like a scatter plot with a cluster under one tree and a spray of them in all directions from there. Each indentation was where a sparrow or a red poll sat to munch on a seed from the bird feeder. The word that came to mind when I saw all these mini-dining spots was feast. A feast spread across a yard-sized table. I lingered on the word feast — it felt rich and welcoming.

Snippet: Dean always does the supper dishes as I clean up and put food away. One evening, an evening when I had after-supper plans of my own, the kitchen sink clogged when Dean tried to drain the water. What followed was well over an hour of checking sections of drain, ramming first the small snake and then the big long unruly one through pipes with strange angles until finally the water flowed, drained, disappeared like it was supposed to. My plans? Forgotten. Neither of us could have done that job alone. Sometimes love and commitment looks like wrestling snakes and unclogging drains together.

Snippet: my writing and art have happened in snippets between the demands of teaching school, but each snippet of time has been soul-nourishing. After a season of questioning why I write or draw, I’ve started a project that seems like a perfect fit for my “jots & doodles” and it has renewed my vision for being a faithful steward of the abilities God has given. I’ll share more about this project next week!

Snippet: Because our annual teacher’s convention this week was virtual, I had a rare opportunity to go for a weekday lunchtime walk and on my walk I met a girl who was walking her puppy. Puppies are adorable. This puppy looked like he had a significant share of Jack Russell genes and had no concept of “stranger danger.” He was full-body wiggles and tongue-slapping smiles and isn’t-this-the-BEST-day-ever and can-I-be-your-BFF and isn’t-life-just-GLORIOUS! And I walked away feeling exactly all that but with the wiggles on the inside, smiles sans the tongue thing.

Snippet: I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Ps. 27:13

☕️ What’s in a Name?

A Saturday Caesura

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love mountains. Even as a child, all that rock and snow and majesty captivated me, saturated my soul with goodness. I eventually learned that some mountains have names, and being able to call a mountain by its name somehow made it more of a friend than the other nameless ones. I viewed maps and learned the names of more mountains and that mountain families were called ranges, and then I read books and learned that mountains weren’t just piles of snow-capped rock; they had features as distinct as my nose and eyes and freckles. Peak, alpine, glacier — those were the most obvious ones, but then I learned about seracs and scree, cirques, saddles, and cols. And fun-to-pronounce names like krummholz, bergschrund, arête, and nunatak. Mountains still captivate me, heart and soul, but they are no longer generic entities imposing their glorious mystery onto the landscape. When I look at a mountain or hike to its summit, I now name what I see and yearn to learn more.

So I’ve been thinking about naming and the difference it makes when I don’t see just a tumult of colour in a sub-alpine meadow, but I’m able to say, “Why hello, Moss Campion and Pink Mountain Heather and lovely little Wintergreen.” (I like to think that I’m on such friendly terms with flowers that I needn’t bother with their formal, scientific names). Likewise, the vast night sky seems less vast and unknowable when I recognize Big Dipper, North Star, and Orion’s Belt.

Naming is an invitation to move from abstract, general knowledge to a deeper form of knowing that gives us language for the stories through which we share our learning and our experiences. Naming can be a matter of utility and function, as is the jargon specific to vocation, profession, business, politics, and sport, but even more than the practical and necessary, naming can be a way of paying attention. And paying attention is a way of knowing our world. Paying attention is a way of halting the blur of activity and productivity. Naming and knowing help us prioritize presence over performance.

And this practice of presence is why naming has become more important to me. Where my devices encourage me to scroll, swipe, refresh, repeat, naming forces me to get the binoculars and look closely — is that a Cedar Waxwing or a Bohemian Waxwing? Where my day-to-day life pushes me to go, go, be, do, naming makes me be still and listen — is that insect-like buzzing a Grasshopper Sparrow or a Clay-coloured Sparrow? Naming invites me to turn from the distractions and enticements of the faraway and beyond to focus on the people and places right here in this small but endlessly knowable piece of creation where I live.

I do not wonder that one of the tasks given to Adam in the garden was to name the other creatures. I think God wanted Adam to have intimate knowledge of the world he was placed in because that world, then and now, points to the Creator who knows our names, who is himself present with us.

☕️ Jots & Tittles & Scribbles

A Saturday Caesura

Whenever my husband sees me staring out the window with my thin blue notebook and a pencil in hand, he asks me how the ‘jots and tittles’ are going. On some days I answer, “Fine.” On other days, I sigh. Sometimes my mind swirls with words and images practically begging to be embodied on the page. Sometimes the words seem to have flown south or gone into hibernation. Or something.

I have another notebook (brown, spiral-bound) and a whole set of pencils, though the latest favourites are H and B, sometimes F. This notebook contains my “scribbles.” When lines and curves and dots won’t cooperate to make words, I repurpose them for other ways to create images.

Creativity is about observing our world and taking the bits and pieces, the broken shards and the impossibly intact, and using them to tell a greater story about beauty and truth and wholeness.

I’ve been trying to use what I have —jots, tittles, scribbles — to tell this grand story of grace and redemption, but it’s a story we all can tell through our unique callings and abilities.

And this story? It’s one our world desperately needs to hear. We need to hear.

Mountains are not easily reduced to jots, tittles, or scribbles…
I could scribble prairie skies for days and days.
Marsh ❤️
My addiction — alpine meadows.
A tree growing on a rock.
How does life flourish in such impossible places?

☕️ The Almost Didn’ts

A Saturday Caesura

The first three weeks of school in the midst of a pandemic with all its uncertainties, regulations, and anxieties has left me feeling like the world and my words are speeding by, the shape, form, detail lost in an indistinguishable blur. One of the reasons I write is to pay attention and to notice things, to find beauty and discover wisdom and wonder. Lately, my eyes and ears and heart have found it difficult to focus on anything in the jumble of life zipping past the window. I’ve not noticed so many things.

So I’m grateful for the things I almost didn’t notice.

I almost didn’t notice the skies pockmarked with dusky clouds and reverberating with the animated chatter of hundreds of geese making travel plans, discussing weather forecasts, channelling the energy of young ones caught up in the excitement and anticipation of their first Great Migration.

I almost didn’t notice that the trees have shivered and shimmied out of some of their summer garb, letting it drop in disarray at their feet like a discarded memory.

I almost didn’t notice the gradual slouching towards darkness that cloaks the morning commute with mystery and evokes a comforting cup of hot chai tea.

I almost didn’t notice the shifting colour palate of the marsh, not so long ago a richly nuanced green, now a motley gold-russet-chocolate-lemon that flavours and textures this year’s marsh fall fashion.

I almost didn’t notice the tracks trespassing on the newly graded road a few hundred metres from our home — a young bear venturing out to leave his bear-foot mark on the edges of society. I wonder if he felt brave and adventurous.

I almost didn’t notice the tears forming above the mask. The voice behind the mask was trying so hard to be brave. Even in a pandemic, school is already the safest place to be for too many teens. I wish I could give hugs.

I wish I could list all the things I didn’t notice. They probably contained so much beauty and wisdom and wonder. But I missed them.

☕️ On the Wearing of Masks

A Saturday Caesura

A brief history lesson: Michel Montaigne was a French nobleman who lived during the 16th century. He liked to think and write. Over his lifetime, he wrote a lot of words about a lot of things. Eventually, all his “little attempts” at writing and thinking were collected into a book he called “Les Essais” and the essay genre was born. So what did Montaigne think and write about? Check out these titles: “On Cannibals,” “On Thumbs,” “On the Wearing of Clothes in Public,” “On Fear.”

If he were alive today, maybe he would write about the wearing of masks, too…

Because who knew that in the 21st century mask wearing would lead to so many debates, protests, law suits, so much intense emotion and divisiveness. We can’t breathe. We feel uncomfortable. We don’t like being mandated to wear one. We demand our rights. Our glasses fog up.

The deep irony is, of course, that we humans are actually amazingly adaptive to mask wearing. We put on masks to hide our deepest breath-robbing, heart-throbbing fears, to put a new face on our discomforting guilt or shame. Being our own master means the right to wear whatever mask best suits our need to appear the way we think others want us to be or to hide the parts we don’t want anyone to know. Our closets are full of masks for all occasions:

Don’t want your friend to know you are intensely jealous of her? There’s a mask for that (it may look a little critical and snarky, but hey, better that than admit to jealousy.)

Don’t want anyone to see the crippling guilt you carry because of a harmful choice you made? Yup, got one for that, too (it may be a little bold and boastful, but it should cover all that unnerving insecurity if you wear it consistently enough).

Don’t want anyone to know the pain and loneliness that overwhelm your very existence? You could choose the classic Perpetual Smile mask, or perhaps the more ‘modern’ Zen-Mode version. Like everything mask-related, you have choices. Many, many choices.

Some of us wear so many masks that we don’t even know who we are without them.

I’m wondering if it’s time to just put on that cloth face mask that may actually prevent someone else from getting sick and put our energies into the unmasking of our attempts to remake ourselves into someone we think we can live with when God has told us all along that being made in his image is unfathomably good. Believing this and living accordingly does require trust, humility, wisdom, authenticity, and truth. But no masks. Zilch. Zero. Nada.

Montaigne probably would have a lot more to say about this topic than I do (and he for sure would have quoted Cicero and Socrates and not used the word ‘zilch,’) but maybe part of being authentic is to reflect on truth. And that is simply what I attempt to do in these Saturday musings.

☕️ Fall

A Saturday Caesura

Yellow leaves, (and a few greenish ones), lie in scatter formation on the back lawn. Three trees lie there also, more shattered than scattered, victims of core rot and the 90 kmh winds that accompanied a severe thunderstorm earlier this week. The leaves lost their grip in that wind, but they are also succumbing to the inevitability of fall. Fall once felt at least a summer away, but now here we are, easing into late sunrises and early sunsets, golden fields, fading flowers…falling leaves.

Fall is a “back” season: birds fly back south, students and teachers go back to school, vacationers head back to work. Eventually we will turn our clocks back an hour and settle into the extended darkness of winter. This year, we wish we could also go back to some pre-pandemic normalcy. If we had a sense of control in our lives before, we’ve lost our grip on it now. We skitter-scatter with the winds of uncertainty.

The downed trees splayed across the lawn are an obvious aberration in the back yard; their tragic posture is clearly “not normal.” But the reality is that only three trees fell; all of the others are still standing — a rather normal thing for most trees. The winds of last week didn’t topple them, nor the winds of yesterday, and neither will the winds of tomorrow or next month, or possibly even next year. “Normal” still surrounds us; some truths and realities haven’t changed just because others have. Uncertainty about some things doesn’t mean that everything is toppled and uprooted. I, for one, need to pause and remember this.

We can go forward rather than spend our days longing to go back, trusting that ageless truths and the God who is Truth will not change. Ever. No matter how the winds blow, trees fall, or pandemics spread.