Like riding a bike

Santa Fe

Craig and I are back from a weeklong arts workshop in Santa Fe, him life drawing and me nature writing. We drove from Kansas City with our bikes strapped to the car, watching the land grow from Kansas prairie to New Mexico mesas, from Flint Hills to the Sangre de Cristo range, from 1,000 feet of elevation to 7,000.

I hadn’t ridden my bike in a year. I hadn’t written outside of work since our last blog post two years ago.

Our first morning at the dorms of St. John’s College, I uncoiled the lock and jumped astride my Schwinn to ride to a nearby prayer labyrinth and begin our week in solitude. I remembered the route as being fairly flat – memory developed five years earlier while riding in a car. I reached the labyrinth quickly, not realizing until my return trip the gravity of gravity. I felt the weight of the earth’s weight against me.

I shifted to first gear within a few hundred yards. Before the first of three turns, my rate of breathing outpaced my pedaling. By the time I reached the college turn-in a mile later, I was moving so slowly I could barely balance. I dismounted and wobbled past the student center and classrooms to the upper dorms, my quads and lungs burning, rewound the lock and realized how much more meaningful it would be to pray on campus the rest of the week.

The writing wasn’t any easier than the riding. I’m not really a nature girl.

Day 1 exercise: Write about a powerful experience with wind. I live in tornado alley, so my mind went to … nothing. Toward the end of our 10-minute time limit I wrote a few disjointed sentences about a ferry ride and the need for ponytail holders.

Day 2 exercise: Write about a powerful experience with water. I had a great first line, “I take a drink and begin,” followed by … nothing. I started listing the ways water benefits me and blessedly ran out of time just as I began praising my soaker tub.

Day 2 invitation (i.e., homework): Write about your homeplace. I started 10 different times and went to bed with … nothing. Until 6 a.m., in my waking up, when I could see my scratches coming together into a unified piece, a piece that included both wind and water.

I never acclimated to the hills and altitude. I climbed the 92 steps from our meeting rooms to my dorm room three or four times every day, gasping each time. But I eventually found breath for my writing, remembering my process and seeing how nature can fit into my suburban-life stories. I’m eager to tell them again.

So I’m doing my exercises. I’m back in my writing seat, watching where the road leads, thankful if you ride along.

Helpless Against the Storm

Peony

Here, in my suburban yard where peonies lie thrashed on the ground, battered by weekend winds and storms, I am grateful to have peonies, rooted to the earth, beside a house, strong on its foundation.

I collected strewn branches this morning, filled a bag with switches from the river birch. Each bending of my body was a prayer for survivors in Oklahoma whose lost trees are the least of their concerns, who have nothing but their own shaken foundations.

Each time I snapped twigs and added them to the compost bag I mourned for broken bodies, those buried yesterday in rubble and, closer to home, our dear friend Leonard lying in his hospice bed.

My body stooping, straightening, snapping, stuffing.

My liturgy to remember, to ask that the ravaged can bear the suffering, find relief, have hope.

Lord, have mercy. And grant us your peace.

Spring Cleaning My Pigsty

pig

The temperature dropped, and my squeals rose.

“Who wants to walk through gardens in this kind of weather?!”

As the snow carpeted our crabapple blossoms, my complaints rained down on Craig.

“She can’t really still want to make this trip. We’ll be miserable!”

“She” was a good friend who had organized a two-day adventure for five of us to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, 200 miles south of us. The museum, which opened 18 months ago, was the dream of Walmart heiress and savvy art collector Alice Walton – 50,000 square feet of galleries designed by Moshe Safdie to nestle into the woods of her childhood and display the work of American masters.

A long, winding email stream had gotten our group to its current date, the first weekend in May. We anticipated warmth and sunshine for our gallery and garden walks. We got cold and snow instead.

At my insistence, Craig proposed a staycation. We could tour Kansas City galleries, see a movie and order dinner from the Friday Night Food Trucks. We could find another weekend for Bentonville.

My friend dismissed the idea. Emphatically.

Grrr. I grumbled as I packed, pulling out a winter coat, gloves and a hat I had already stored in the basement. Grrr. Out of spite, I grabbed little more than my toothbrush and clean underwear. Grrr. I groused as our departure time came and went – why was the person who didn’t want to go the only one ready on time? Grrr. I griped when Craig managed to take a wrong turn on a route that had no turns.

Then we were there. And Crystal Bridges gripped every part of me.

Had we heeded my sniveling, we would have missed this:

Crystal Bridges

The museum wasn’t the only beauty in town. Amid the drizzle and cold on Saturday morning, we discovered the farmers market around the downtown square. And a gallery of modern art housed in a hotel. And a food truck selling crepes. Coffee, steaming pancakes and adventure with friends kept us warm.

Downtown Bentonville

I hugged my friend and apologized for being quite contrary. If not for her insistence, this little piggy would have stayed home. I would have missed the art and architecture and gardens. I would have missed time with friends and small-town explorations. Thankfully, this little piggy went to the market, this little piggy ate a spinach crepe, and this little piggy cried “Yea! Yea! Yea!” all the way home.

All photos by Craig Lueck. Click here to see his photo illustration from the museum.

 

Today we’re linking our post with Artist Date from Tweetspeak Poetry. Check it out for a higher level of poetic writing than nursery rhymes.

Remembering Brennan Manning, Part 1

Sally's eggs

Friday night at a potluck dinner with friends, I bit into a potato latke that one of our guests had brought, and I started to cry. I blame those tears on Brennan Manning.

The crispy pancake slathered with chunky applesauce took me back to the Fridays of my childhood, when my Catholic family fasted from meat. I saw my dad grating potatoes in our cramped kitchen, mixing in the eggs and milk and plopping lumpy batter into spitting oil. Dad didn’t cook much. He sizzled bacon for Sunday breakfasts, grilled meat for summer dinners and fried potato pancakes for Friday suppers.

The bite I took this past Friday connected me with Dad, whose physical abilities are now limited and who I only get to visit a few times a year. The memory pricked, and the sadness over Dad’s lost abilities and our separation spilled out. My ability to feel myself bleed is because of Brennan Manning.

Brennan was an alcoholic, turned priest, turned husband, turned speaker to evangelical Christians, whose brokenness brought him to Jesus again and again. He knew the audaciousness of God’s grace, and 15 years ago his words helped crack open my calcified heart. He taught me to stop beating myself up and to love and accept myself for who I am, Beloved of God.

Brennan Manning died Friday. I hope to honor him in the next day or so by writing about that discovery, but today I remember him by quoting from the introduction of his book The Ragamuffin Gospel in which he explains who he was writing for:

The Ragamuffin Gospel was written for the bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt-out.

It is for the sorely burdened who are still shifting the heavy suitcase from one hand to the other.

It is for the wobbly and weak-kneed who know they don’t have it altogether and are too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace.

It is for inconsistent, unsteady disciples whose cheese is falling off their cracker.

It is for poor, weak, sinful men and women with hereditary faults and limited talents.

It is for earthen vessels who shuffle along on feet of clay.

It is for the bent and the bruised who feel that their lives are a grave disappointment to God.

It is for smart people who know they are stupid and honest disciples who admit they are scalawags.

Brennan Manning wrote for himself. He wrote for me. And I’m extremely grateful.

Confessions of Two Fundamentalists

Color blobs

Craig’s image usually flows from my words, but today I wrote from his watercolor.   

 

“You’re such a word nerd,” Craig teased. I had just finished listening to an audio on apostrophes – why it’s okay to write farmers market but not womens shoes* – and I embraced the accusation. I also wondered if he caught its irony from where he sat at his computer, as he had most every evening the past month, experimenting with images of snow.

Yet I see why I’m the nerd in our relationship. People are intrigued by an artist’s eye – how cool to see that a white mound actually contains a rainbow of colors – but give an icy shoulder to an editor impassioned by proper possessives, pronouns and punctuation.

SnowballThanks to Miss Claeys, my ninth-grade English teacher, I’m a stickler for the fundamentals. She taught me what makes a sentence whole and how I tear it up if I dangle participles or misplace modifiers. She demanded perfection. If an essay had misspelled words, the highest grade it could receive was a B; with a run-on sentence, it earned at best a C. In my quest for A’s, I kept my dictionary open and followed every subject with a predicate and period.

Craig also espouses the basics, not the ABCs, but the ROY G. BIVs. He spent three hours every day of his first year at the American Academy of Art with Vern Stake, his very own Miss Claeys, learning the Fundamentals of Art. Every week in class he drew or painted from a still life arranged at the front of the room and was brutally critiqued on his form, lighting, perspective and color. Every week at home he painted a color chart that filled our kitchen table, a carefully constructed grid or wheel with dozens of colors, each hue a smoothly brushed square or triangle butting against another box a small gradation lighter or darker.

He mixed and applied color every night, oblivious to his new wife’s hope for a little attention. I staged a protest one night, lying on the kitchen linoleum next to the table where he painted. He stopped working long enough to cover me with a blanket after I fell asleep.

Each of us is rather fanatical about our craft.

If we’re not careful, we become peevish. When Craig and many others at our church were praising a new novel’s portrayal of the Trinity, I couldn’t slog through the overwritten scenes. The painting I bought at a charity auction hangs at work because Craig said it was based on a formula, not fundamentals, and he refused to let me hang it at home.

But usually we remember that the craft is only the foundation, that it’s simply the support for the work we’re building, the scene being rendered, the hope or outrage painted with words or brushstrokes. We don’t use the fundamentals to seek perfection, but to express truth. To create art. Beauty found in the swirls of color breaking through the lines. Truth sometimes proclaimed in fragments. A square’s edges softened by the flow.

 

* Click here to listen to the fabulous Grammar Underground lessons of June Casagrande.

 

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

Cardinal

The cardinals have migrated to the Vatican, roosting in the Sistine Chapel to pick a new Bishop of Rome. The closest I’ve come to a cardinal is watching redbirds through my kitchen window. But I have met a bishop, the Most Rev. John Donovan, who stood before the altar of St. Ann Church in the spring of 1967 to confirm me as a soldier for Jesus. I was 9 years old and seeing red, and not because of the scarlet robe the bishop was wearing.

My classmates and I had prepared for weeks. I had somehow messed up two years earlier on my First Communion Day – according to Sister Margaret Mary, God sent rain that day because we second-graders had been disobedient – so I wanted to get my Confirmation Day right.

Everything I needed to know – the answers to our 103 catechism questions – was contained on the sheets Mrs. Gabel had mimeographed and stapled into my yellow catechism folder. The bishop would quiz us during the service, as he would the confirmands at all the parishes in the diocese, and we didn’t want to be the class that disappointed him … or her.

I intended to prove myself worthy. I carried my folder home every day. I wore its cover thin from studying those questions: Who is God? What is man? Name the 12 apostles. The 7 sacraments. The 10 commandments. I learned every answer, word for word, even the hard sacrament (Extreme Unction). I could impress Bishop Donovan with my knowledge of papal history: The first pope was Peter, picked by Jesus when he said, “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.”

We packed the front pews on Confirmation Day, brimming with maturity. We girls had traded our wide-ribboned hats for lacy triangular veils, our white anklets for nylon stockings. I stood on my black patent toes to see Bishop Donovan at the end of the procession of altar boys, Father Mayer and the other parish priests. I rose and knelt and sang and responded through the liturgy until His Excellency came around the altar and descended the steps to stand before us. I sat upright, my hand ready to shoot up. It was quiz time.

He posed his first question: “What is the greatest commandment?”

Greatest commandment? I mentally flipped through my folder. I didn’t remember the commandments being ranked. I glanced around, hoping someone else knew the answer.

A hand went up. “I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt not have any other gods before me?” It was more a question than an answer, but a good choice. God put that commandment first, so it must be the most important.

But it wasn’t.

Another brave soul ventured: “Honor thy father and mother.”

He probably got points with his parents but not with the bishop.

The next guess, “Remember the Sabbath by keeping it holy,” was another great choice – we were sitting in church after all – but still wrong.

All good commandments, the bishop assured us, but not the greatest.

After much coaxing, he eventually got some version of the answer he wanted: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength.”

“Now,” the bishop continued. I sat up for the next question, glad the hard one was out of the way. “What’s the second greatest commandment?”

What? Another ranking? If we didn’t know the greatest, how could we know the second greatest?

By some miracle, and a lot more coaxing, someone eventually got it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

I hoped the bishop was finally ready to ask a question from our catechism folder – he had 103 to choose from. Instead, he turned and climbed back to the altar. The service was moving on.

That’s why I was mad as my name was announced and I stood before him. After weeks of preparation to understand our faith and show the bishop what we’d learned, we never got the chance.

I hoped Mrs. Gabel wouldn’t yell at us on Monday. We knew our prayers and creed and the difference between mortal and venial sins, even our state of original sin thanks to Adam and Eve and the serpent. It wasn’t our fault the bishop only cared about love.

Firm in my Beliefs

Souper Bowl Snacks

My two 20-something co-workers never saw it coming. I quietly stirred my pot of soup and listened to their conversation until the wisdom soaked up through decades of hollow striving and longing boiled over.

We were in the conference room, the table converted from desktop to buffet table for our company-wide Souper Bowl Lunch. I was warming up the Italian wedding soup I’d assembled that morning, filled with hand-rolled meatballs made from locally sourced chicken and freshly grated Parmesan cheese, organic broth, and vitamin-rich spinach. My love would pour out with every ladleful.

BurgersThe women surveyed the full table, noodle soups and chili, salsas and creamy dips, Tostitos and  Wheat Thins, and pronounced all the food – except their salad and dip – off limits. These Paleo women shunned this blatant display of carbs. As I stirred my offering, I saw its other key ingredient swirling around, a cup of orzo, a rice-shaped pasta, and knew that it was as evil to them as the brownies across the table.

The food dismissed, the women talked next of exercise and getting rid of their cellulite, then of keeping their skin firm. “I use anti-aging cream every day,” said the smooth reed next to me.

Hot Dogs“You use anti-aging cream?” I tried to keep my voice neutral, to hide my surprise and, worse, my judgment.

“I need to stay ahead of the wrinkles.” She spoke with conviction. “As soon as I see any, I’m getting Botox.”

“You’re already considering Botox?” My voice and eyebrows were on the rise.

“For sure. I’m not going to let myself get old.” Her companion agreed.

“Botox. Wow.” I looked at their trim bodies and smooth faces and imagined the fallen soufflé of my own body, all doughy, saggy and rutted. But my mind was keen, springing back from the blow of their firm beliefs in staying firm. “You won’t ingest food like beans or bread or pasta, but you’ll inject poison into your face?”

“I am not going to look old,” she insisted.

Fruit plate“Oh, ladies” – I really wanted to call them girls because I was feeling a bit maternal, sad they had embraced our culture’s lies about beauty and how to maintain it, but I’ve scolded others, even the owner of the company, that we females are women, not girls, and that we really shouldn’t have to keep fighting that battle – “ladies, I wish you could see what I see when I look at you. You’re young and smart and beautiful. You’re hard-working and ambitious. You’re fun and adventurous. You’re awesome, and I don’t want you to miss all that because you’re waging a war you can’t possibly win. You will get wrinkly, but that’s okay. You’re so much more than the smoothness of your skin, and it’s those other qualities that really matter.”

Remarkably, one of the women was smiling at me: “You sound just like my mother.”

“Thank you.” I welcomed the comparison, glad another sister got stirred up in the effort to show our daughters their worth. And if she’d been in the room, I’m sure she would have been as ready as I was for a spoonful of cheesy meatballs and pasta plump with rich chicken broth.

What He Said, What She Heard

He said, She said

“You’ve spent the whole day in that same spot,” Craig said to me Saturday night around 9.

The spot is my reading corner, a cushioned chair and ottoman beside the fireplace, bookshelves at my back, my computer or newspaper on my lap, a coffee or Diet Coke on the table beside me.

Craig was right. I sunk in at 6:30 a.m. with the newspaper, struggled for hours to design a new webpage (check out our new Art Library) and prepared for the discussion from the book of Genesis I was leading the next morning. At 9 p.m., the newspaper was back in my hands; I was determined to conquer the Saturday crossword puzzle.

Craig was also wrong. We walked three miles together that day. We ate dinner with our daughter and her friend. We cleaned up the kitchen together.

What was Craig really saying? Was he simply making an observation or was there a deeper message? Perhaps he meant:

  1. “You sat in that chair all day while I did all the work. I ran errands, bought groceries and made dinner. Why can’t you get anything done?”
  2. “After a long week of travel and going straight back to work, I’m glad you had a day to relax.”
  3. “I’m amazed at how you can focus for hours and not give up until you’ve worked through your problem.”
  4. “You’ve been working all day, and I wish you’d spend time with me. I’m lonely.”

My immediate thought – still, STILL, after years of knowing better – was No. 1: I was being criticized. Inwardly, I fended off the attack with anger: “I built the webpage you wanted for displaying your art. I planned tomorrow morning’s discussion because you were burned out and needed time away from leadership.” It was an instantaneous, fully formed defense.

Despite my thoughts, I responded with something like, “I guess so.” Then I returned to the puzzle, 20 Across, a four-letter word for “graceful genie of myth,” _ _ R I.

What fueled my internal assault? Why did I assume he was calling me lazy? How is it I blame him for the lashings I give myself?

Craig is naturally a doer. He readily helps others. He’s generous with his time and talents. I’m naturally a thinker. I readily sit and talk. I’m generous with my ideas and assessments. We know that and most times are comfortable with the other person’s way of engaging the world. The problem comes when I’m not comfortable with the way I engage the world.

If I feel small in the midst of his largesse, it’s not because of him; it’s because of me. It’s the voice inside me that says a good wife buys groceries and sets a welcoming table; she doesn’t get lost in an idea or challenging crossword puzzle. There was a time decades ago when he questioned the merit of me reading all day, but now he has more books on his nightstand than I do.

Craig is my greatest champion. The generosity he gives to others he gives first to me. He believes in me and my overactive mind, in the way it processes and analyzes. He loves to see me challenged. He wants me to be happy.

He shopped and cooked on Saturday because he saw I was occupied and knows I’d rather he love me by helping out than by bringing me a dozen roses. Plus he was hungry and couldn’t find much food in the house.

What he said to me Saturday was, “I love you.” By Thursday, I finally heard him.

 

Read other thoughts on love this Valentine’s Day at emilywierenga.com and her Imperfect Prose Thursday:

 

A Door with a View

6 Doors

The walkway to our front door is usually littered with twigs from the river birch that shades it. After dodging those, visitors squeeze through two overgrown yews to reach the stoop. The path sinks a few inches where it connects to the cement slab, requiring extra quadriceps work to lift you up and forward to the front door. Once there, you have to knock because our doorbell hasn’t rung for years. The rusty knob jiggles as we turn it to let you in and then tug it firmly to make sure the screen door latches.

After putting you through these paces, we at least welcome you with a glass of water or cup of tea. All the ice or lemon you want.

Surprisingly, people come. The front door gets as much of a workout as the people walking through it. Our son and daughter-in-law visit or drop off their daughter for an afternoon with Grammy and Grampster. On small group nights, women walk right in. Our college daughter’s friends scatter their shoes throughout the entry for movie or game night.

Door 2Regular readers might remember our morning walk post at the end of last year that ended with the observation: “I’ve had seasons of intense service but right now am more focused on time for writing and time with Craig, our family and friends. But seasons change, and as the new year begins, I’ll be watching for my next movement.”

Craig and I weren’t compelled to measure up to a particular standard of service (although I have in the past and always came up short). We weren’t hunting or striving. We were noticing and waiting, open to receive.

Our gift of service came through that open door.

The daughter of a friend is getting married this summer and asked if she could live with us for five months before the wedding. She’s living at home with her parents, whom she loves, but wants to live independently on her limited budget until the wedding. She wants a place to transition from being a daughter to understanding the woman about to be a wife.

Craig and I have had other people move in for several months, and she seemed like a natural fit for us. The meeting we scheduled to talk with her and meet her fiancé turned out to be a formality. She moves in Monday.

Door 1I’m not naïve. I realize there’s a cost when a friend or acquaintance becomes a roommate. We don’t know her habits, we have to remember we’re not signing up to be her parents, sometimes I want to be left alone or am ticked that I have to keep the bathroom clean.

Even more, inviting someone into our house means inviting them into our lives. I’m happy to let her know we watch Downton Abbey and Elementary, but she’ll also learn that I indulge in Nashville. She connected with our desire to eat locally raised meat and eat seasonal produce, but she’ll soon know that most weeks we also order takeout pizza, Maria’s Special Supreme. Whatever grand thoughts she holds about us will be tempered with the reality of who we really are. She’ll see what our 31-year-old marriage looks like. It’s possible I’ll teach her more about how not to treat her husband than how to love and respect him.

In turn, we’ll see the optimism and passion of a young woman eager to begin the biggest adventure of her life. We get to encourage her hopes and dreams. And likely be inspired to reach for ours.

Come Monday when our rickety door opens, our imperfect selves will welcome the discoveries standing on the threshold.

 

This week I’m participating with Emily Wierenga’s Imperfect Prose on Thursdays. Click the image below to read more. 

A Reading from the Bottle of Pantene

Wash, rinse, repeat

The idea for this blog squirted out of my shampoo bottle the other morning. As I lathered and rinsed my hair – I wash it too often to need to repeat the process – I realized those venerable three steps are the same ones I need to take to maintain trust and connection with all the people in my life. See if you agree.

Wash. When – not if – I get in a lather about something, there’s always someone whipping up that anger in me. I sometimes froth privately, sometimes spume publicly; either way, some part of my connection with that person is scrubbed.

Rinse. The lather often subsides on its own; the inward or outward tension fizzles as we move on with our days. But a sticky residue remains if I fail to rinse it off. I may need to talk through my frustrations, understand an opposing view or apologize for my actions.

Repeat. On a shampoo bottle, this simple word seems like a marketing ploy to get us to use twice as much shampoo as we need. In life, if we really want close, trusting relationships, the repetition never ends – doesn’t the Bible mention something about forgiving each other 70 times seven times, and wasn’t that really a metaphor for always?

Seeking and extending forgiveness is a daily practice. I hope to see and address each small wrong to keep it from bubbling into a bouffant of offenses that snags my relationship with those I love.

Here’s an example of combing through the tangles.

Wash

At the end of a family vacation a number of years ago with Craig’s sisters’ families, he and I were packing suitcases and hauling them to the car alongside one brother-in-law and his kids. Where were our kids? Sprawled on the bed relishing their last few minutes of cable TV. Seeing the contrast in our families filled me with shame – why hadn’t I taught my kids to be helpful? – which I instantly covered with anger. I returned to our room and berated my older three kids for being mindless, lazy and self-centered. I was loud and ugly.

Was their desire to watch a few more minutes of shows they couldn’t get at home so malicious? No. The malice was verbally abusing my kids because I was ashamed of looking like a bad mother. From my shame, I shamed them.

Rinse

Soon after I finished my tirade, I knew I had to come clean and apologize. Unfortunately, my kids had scattered and I had to hunt them down one by one. I found Kristen in the hallway. “Kristen, I’m sorry for yelling. I should have just asked for help. Please forgive me.” That wasn’t too hard.

Repeat

I found Anna in the room. “Anna, I’m sorry for yelling. I should have just asked for help. Please forgive me.” Two down, although the second was a bit harder.

When I saw Dave in the lobby, I was overcome by the realization that a few seconds of lathering had hurt three of the people I love the most. I teared up as I apologized to him: “Dave, I’m sorry for yelling. I should have just asked for help. Please forgive me.”

All three were quick to forgive. The harder part was forgiving myself for my automatic willingness to sacrifice their love and respect so that I could present us as the perfect family.

Then, as now, perfection eluded me, but at least I felt tingly clean for the long ride home.