☕️ The Best, the Good… and the Ugly

A Saturday Caesura

Before Christmas, COVID-19 restrictions moved my students from our classroom to their homes for three weeks. We made the transition with resigned acceptance; for too many students extended time alone at home only leads to anxiety or depressive loneliness. To help curb the mental health issues that arose when we had to ‘go remote’ in the spring, I added a “What’s your best thing from today?” to our daily writing exercises. Every day for those three weeks we took time to look for goodness and joy and positive things even when we weren’t necessarily happy about our overall circumstances.

Just this week, our first week back in class, though not back in the classroom yet, a grade 12 student popped back in to our online video session after I had dismissed everyone to work on the day’s assignment. She shared with me that she found the daily focus on “Best Things” so helpful that she decided to extend the practice. She took an empty mason jar, dubbed it her “Best Things Jar” and has been using it to collect more Best Things, each neatly written on slips of paper.

Any guesses what this teacher’s Best Thing for that day was?

My frequent Noticing Walks, a (mostly) weekly writing habit of Saturday Caesuras and Sunday Doxologies, my daily time in prayer and Scripture are all meant to focus my attention, not only on Best Things, small blessings woven into the routines of daily life, but also on the Good Things of God, rich blessings etched with eternity in the human heart.

But noticing the good does not remove the ugliness from the world, or even from my own heart. And sometimes all that ugly looms large and ominous. It consumes.

So I’ve been pondering another aspect of noticing and paying attention: What do I need to overlook or ignore? This question is not meant to ensconce me in blinders, to box me firmly into a position of denial about the world or my heart, but it is a reminder that I do not need to wade into the ugliness or let it weigh me down with anger or swamp me under in despair. Instead, I can respond to the Ugly Things by following Christ’s commands to love God with all my heart, soul, and mind (best way to deal with my heart uglies) and love my neighbour (best way to respond to the world uglies).

If this first week of 2021 has taught me anything, it is that I need to pay attention to what I am giving attention to. I need to focus my noticing, set boundaries on what deserves or requires my attention, celebrate the Best Things, be deeply grateful for the Good Things, respond with love, prayer, and humility to the Ugly Things.

☕️ Thinkski

A Saturday Caesura: New Year’s Edition

Grey snow clouds smudge the horizon. Falling snow blurs the middle-ground and slowly whitens the foreground. I bundle up for a New Year’s Day “Thinkski.” Although I skied these trails yesterday, the new snow muffles my tracks, leaving them at best discernible parallel grooves, at worst, blown into oblivion by the wind or stamped out by snowmobiles. Maintaining my own trails is both an exercise in futility and an act of love for skiing. I reset the tracks more than I ever simply ski them nicely packed and smooth.

As I settle into a rhythmic swish-glide, I think about how this almost daily resetting feels so much like the past year where so many days required a reset of expectations as the world was blown over and apart by pandemic fears, racial violence, political divisiveness, and conspiracy theories. Many days felt like a beginning again, a re-finding of something we used to call Normal even though its exact configuration has always been so elusive that we keep renaming it The New Normal to accommodate all of its mutations. Ski, snow, blow, storm, reset, ski, thaw, snow, reset…

My eyes scan the snow ahead, looking for signs of the trail, but it is my feet that tell me whether I have found it or not. The foundation trail beneath the fallen and blown snow is firm and reassuring. This is the way, it says, ski here.

I think there is a foundational trail through the year ahead as well, just as there was one that brought me through last year and the year before that and the year before that… Choosing each day to orient to that foundation is most certainly an act of loving life and Lord and neighbour. “Stand at the crossroads and look,” said the Lord through Jeremiah, a prophet well acquainted with unrest & lament, “ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”

This is the way, God says, walk here. He is firm and reassuring, a faithful refuge, a steadfast guide.

Christmas 2020: Tiles, Toilet & Turkey

A Saturday Caesura, Christmas Edition

Christmas morning begins in the semi-dark living room, the glow of coloured Christmas lights and candles accompanied by hot coffee (him) and tea (me) with a chaser-splurge of hot chocolate (also me) and a deep dive into words of Christ found in Matthew that speak truths both knowable and beyond understanding. No exchange or opening of presents, just this gift of God’s presence.

I listen to “Bethlehem, Year Zero,” a poem penned and read by Irish poet, Andrew Roycroft, the lilt of his brogue adding to the resonance of his words for this day, this year. It nourishes my spirit like the breakfast bowl of warmed-over Irish oats nourishes my body.

The dark sky gives way to ordinary grey. It starts snowing, lightly.

I fill the bird feeder and the wood box, stoke the fire, don my painting clothes and put a final coat on the window trim in the bathroom we’ve been renovating. We work together to adjust the new shower drain, brainstorm solutions for tiling uneven, unsquare walls (old farmhouse syndrome), abandon the tile idea, reinstall the vanity, re-plumb the sink, reinstall & re-plumb the toilet. It needs a new seat, we agree.

I change clothes, wash renovation residue off my hands and prep the turkey, saute onions and celery and garlic for the stuffing, peel and chop two small turnips, put them on the wood stove to cook. While the turkey roasts, I lend a hand here and there to ongoing endeavours in the bathroom, tidy up tools and rags, vacuum dust ‘n bits.

We are only two here, but texts, emails, phone calls connect us to family and friends throughout the day – a glittering of grace and joy and love that sparkles like hoar frost in the sun of a winter day, like tinsel in the lights of a Christmas tree.

I exchange the everyday ivory tablecloth for something festive red and green, set out stemware, silverware, white cloth napkins. He exchanges overalls for an apron and carves the turkey while I make gravy, dress the roasted carrots and brussel sprouts with balsamic glaze, whip the turnips with a touch of cream and dollop of butter. We keep the food hot on the wood stove, serve ourselves there on pre-warmed china plates. We light candles, (an everyday supper routine), hit play on Kenny G’s Christmas album (still in the CD player from last year), give thanks to God for the gifts of this day, this year, and savour the meal, the work of our hands, the blessings of life and marriage and home.

It is not a “magical” Christmas Day, but it is one rich in meaning that extends beyond the hours that define it as a day, just as the birth of the God-Man, the Servant-King, carries its deepest meaning far beyond the hours that defined that night in a stable in Bethlehem, year zero.

☕️ 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.

☕️ How to be a Listener

A Saturday Caesura

Make space for stillness.

Attune your ear, yes, but especially your mind and heart and hands.

Eschew all enticements to wander off beyond focus.

Steel against conclusions prone to back-flip over beginnings.

Resist fixes and platitudes which run rough-shod over

love and grace.

Offer a whole presence

though it may feel too easy and too hard and never enough.

Choose a heart posture

that allows stories to breathe vent weep groan gush

stumble spill sigh trickle scream…

Catch them. Hold them. Just hold them

even if they leak between your fingers and feel sticky

or heavy or slippery or awkward.

A Listener carries stories that aren’t meant to be carried

alone.

☕️ Home Invasion

A Saturday Caesura

Our house was invaded last week. Strangers arrived and made themselves at home, and while I was (am) happy to have them, their presence left me feeling not at home in my home. It’s interesting how our lived-in spaces become such an extension of ourselves that changes niggle and unsettle us.

When I say that the ‘invaders’ are an antique dining room set, a multi-place setting of Royal Albert china (Old Country Roses, complete with all the accessory serving dishes, a bell, and shoe-shaped toothpick holder), crystal, stemware, silver, and table linens (actual linen linens), I know that eyes will roll — first world problems, get a life already and all that.

And I understand; this dis-ease in my own home, a home that is generous, warm, secure, and not lacking in any device designed for comfort and ease (except a dishwasher), is not even close to real discomfort. I know this.

The issue is that I am not a china-crystal-silver kind of person. I never have been. My mother-in-law is, and these new arrivals are hers. They felt right and proper in her home, but here, among my basic white Corelle, Pyrex, and mismatched accessories (not to mention my feathers, pebbles, bird nests and dragonfly wings), they feel ostentatious and decidedly not me.

So I’ve been compelled to adjust to a new home-persona (for lack of a better way to describe it), and in the process I’ve pondered a couple of things.

One of them is how the juxtaposition of china tea sets and old milk cans and bird nests and glass covered-cake-stands is not unlike a family with its eclectic mix of personalities, preferences, and perspectives. Families may share homes for a time, but individuals don’t necessarily experience life the same way. And then we add new members and become members of other families, each person bringing a whole self to sit alongside other whole selves just as flawed, quirky and unique. Feathers and crystal. Pebbles and silver. Sometimes we don’t seem to fit together at all…and yet, we do.

And that leads to the other thing. My mother-in-law loved to create meal experiences for her family. At 92-years old, her kitchen glory days are over, but her presence and legacy lingers in these ‘invaders’ of my home. Just as she preferred the baking pans used by her mother, treasured the porcelain tea cup hand-painted by her Aunt Charlotte, and served meals on this same dining room furniture inherited from her mother-in-law, I can eat a bowl of soup from her-now-our-china knowing that the only real value in all of these objects is the memories and the people they represent.

So while interior designers would have a hard time defining my home decor because it doesn’t fit any recognizable (or popular) category and they would be mortified to see bird nests displayed in crystal fruit nappies, I’ve come to embrace the revised feel of our home because it even more fully represents two things I love: God’s created world in all its intricate beauty and the indescribable gift and legacy of family.

PS If you ever come to visit, I promise to thoroughly wash the fruit nappies before I serve dessert.

☕️ 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?

☕️ Adventures in Learning

A Saturday Caesura

Cold settled to the bottom of the sky this week, left glitter hanging in trees, spread a generous helping of white over autumn’s abandoned and decaying glory. The night the cold arrived, a stray kitten found a warm hideaway shelter, curled its baby tail around its pink baby nose and settled into that deep, world-abandoning sleep recognizable in babies of all shapes and sizes. In the early(ish) morning, the little kitten, a soft-grey tabby, went on an unplanned, very un-kitten-like adventure — to school.

The stowaway was not discovered until the student pulled into the school parking lot and heard something other than the usual purr of his truck engine. And so it was that kitty, smelling slightly of engine oil and still oblivious of the dangers of fan belts, found himself tucked into a flannel-lined jean jacket and smuggled into Room 210. Not that the secrecy part of the smuggling operation was particularly successful. The teacher, somewhat experienced with reading student body language and quite knowledgeable in techniques of interrogation, was quick to spy the bulging jacket, ferreted out an equally quick confession, and further declared that if kittens were going to attend English class, then she, as the teacher, would exercise her authority by being the first to cuddle it. Which she did. Of course.

And so it was that kitty found new warm shelters in various laps, explored an intriguing maze of legs (human and non-human), left tiny paw-prints on papers and desk tops, tapped a few Chromebook keys for good measure, and purred and purred and purred (and meowed), and then, oh glory of all glories, lapped up a dish of goodness made from three creamers smuggled (successfully) from the staff-room fridge, the contents mixed with a bit of water, and, once that was gone, munched on a generous scoop of tomato-basil flavoured tuna graciously donated from someone’s lunch. Oh, that all un-kitty-like adventures could result in such bounty, such an embarrassment of riches.

Any suspicions about how much school-work was actually done that class are probably warranted. Kittens are magnets and there is nothing in the high school English curriculum about magnets. Or kittens for that matter. Nothing. Nada. However, there is an entire general outcome related to collaboration and group work, and if one were to assess the class ability to collaborate based on their collective responsiveness to kitty’s frequent meowing and their ability to offer lap-space in an equitable manner without any squabbling, then it could be argued that, even in Grade 12, having a kitten in class is conducive to learning. And if the quality of learning was gauged by the full, round kitty-belly and the steady, rumbling purr, then the class certainly achieved a standard of excellence that day.

Just Keeping In Touch

A Saturday Caesura

Sneaking into my classroom is nearly impossible. With the door situated near the front of the room, everyone sees who arrives late. So it was obvious when one of the grade 12 boys tried to slip in unnoticed. As if that was ever going to happen. That it was not me he was concerned about was also obvious because we made eye-contact while he skulked just outside the doorway. Still, his behaviour was uncharacteristically fearful. I know English is not everyone’s favourite subject and this particular student would certainly choose friends and farming over fixing sentence fragments, but really? Get in the classroom and sit down already.

He would take a cautious step, peek into the room, and, turtle-like, retreat to the hallway. This continued for too long. I told him (again) to come in and sit down. The whole class told him to come in and sit down — one voice in particular rising above the others, overly inviting, almost taunting.

I’ve been a teacher long enough to catch on to student shenanigans fairly quickly, but the truth behind this little scene surprised me — not because of anything overtly serious or sinister at play, but because it was so blatantly simple.

They were playing tag.

“It” was already in class, patiently waiting for his intended tag to arrive. In fact, this tag game involved several students, clandestine trips to each other’s homes and places of work, various levels of secrecy as to who was actually “it,” even a group chat to coordinate who was playing and who wasn’t.

Several days later, the game was still going. One morning as class ended, a harried shuffle and scuffle with giggles and shrieks somehow led to a perfectly executed quadruple play, several breathless (masked) students, and a new “it” resigned to her role as they tumbled into the hallway.

I’ve thought about the game all week. As sophisticated as they have made it, this group of grade 12 students are still playing one of the oldest, simplest playground-backyard-indoor-rainy-day games of all time. Tag. Touch someone and they are “it,” charged with the task of touching someone else. The game has twin but opposing objectives: touch and avoiding touch. I’m wondering if the game for these teenagers isn’t really about the avoidance though. They are, like all of us, inundated with messages regarding social and physical distancing. The length of a hockey stick, 46 Timbits, 2 beavers, 1 cow — however you measure the recommended distance, it doesn’t allow for touch. For good reason.

But there is also a good reason why we use phrases like, “Let’s keep in touch,” or, “I’ll get in touch with you later.” We use the language of touch when we talk about, long for, reach out for connection. We have so many tools at our fingertips for staying connected across the distance of time zones and continents, but this doesn’t take away or lessen the need for our fingers to connect with living, breathing humanity — even if it is only for the millisecond it takes to poke someone and say, “You’re it.”

The darting away to avoid being tagged back is more accurately an invitation to follow, to “keep in touch,” to extend the give and take of connecting into days and weeks and lifetimes.

Tag. You’re it.

Note: Lore Ferguson Wilbert wrote a thoughtful and articulate book on the whole concept of touch that goes far beyond a random game of tag. I recommend it! Handle With Care: How Jesus Redeems the Power of Touch in Life and Ministry

☕️ On Gratitude Calendars

A Saturday Caesura

Rain and grey defines this day. The few leaves left on the trees appear tired and waterlogged. Fall is fading towards a some sort of finale while winter lurks backstage. The drippy chill has not hampered the chickadees and blue jays cavorting outside my window, however. They appear delighted and energetic, as if rain is a thing of joy. The calendar may remind us to set aside this weekend for giving thanks, but my feathered neighbours remind me that gratitude can be written into every calendar day. Consider the past week:

Monday: reading through some brilliant-funny-wistful pieces my grade 12 students wrote about “the stories we wear” brings to mind a pair of hiking boots that have played a supporting role in many stories and adventures over the past 40 years. Gratitude for the miles and memories I’ve hiked in those boots spills over into gratitude for the man who encouraged me to buy them, then married me so we could continue to tromp through life together.

Tuesday: it is the season for glorious sunrise vistas from my classroom window. I turn off the lights and sit and absorb the rich colour, the majesty, the fading brilliance. I breathe it in and then breathe it out in gratitude throughout the day as students pull my attention away from windows and sun and clouds to books and assignments and forgotten pencils.

Wednesday: my evening walk or run is sometimes not much more than a forced routine I go through because I know my body needs the movement, the catharsis. But today I come home out of breath from both exercise and wonder, amazed at how the same routes and kilometres can contain such nuanced beauty that no two days look, smell, sound exactly the same.

Tiredness seeps in on Thursday. Lack of sleep, too many to-dos, the ongoing challenges of teaching in a pandemic restricted environment evoke a sense of weariness that clings to me all day. But weariness does not excuse me from being grateful: for the student who has a cup of hot tea waiting for me when I return from the photocopier, for the bowl of thick chowder for supper, made with fresh corn gifted from a friend’s garden, for a good rest at night.

Friday: just the thought of teaching a double-block of my most challenging non-academic class on the day before a long weekend puts me into survival mode. So I am not only grateful, but also pleasantly surprised when this rag-tag, rough-and-tumble group of mostly boys (only two girls — quiet, dependable) completely usurps my plan to have them listen to an audio-book version of the novel we are studying in favour of three of them, self-appointed, taking turns reading aloud to the rest of the class. Sixteen-year-old boys who would much rather talk about trucks, fishing gear (yes, one student brought his rod and tackle box – not sure why), quads, dirt-bikes, hunting, farming, skateboards, food, and all manner of shenanigans characteristic of such boys are actually reading a book together — without me. I watch and listen and breathe gratitude for what feels like a miracle.

Our calendars don’t come with the particulars of thankfulness neatly typed into the allotted box for each day, but if we look closely, if we have the right heart-posture, we can see all the ways that minutes and hours and events and landscapes and people point us towards a grateful response to the Ancient of Days, the God who cannot be contained in boxes –calendar or otherwise.