Friday, December 30, 2011

The daring proposal of 2012

Good photographers know this: a picture is first conceived in the heart with the eyes.  This is what sets real photographers apart from the amateurs.  The ability to see, to frame a shot with their eyes before capturing it with a camera.  We've all seen them, wandering the streets or the parks or events, cameras poised like pens, to speak with film or digital imagery what writers dare on paper.  We've seen their work displayed on the walls of cafes or studios, on tables at markets, in galleries or homes.  Scenes of doorways, alleys, rusted metals, industrial machinery, any type of inanimate object, colors, patterns.  Scenes of insects magnified, animals in motion, nature in concert, people in everyday moments.  Good photographers have developed eyes for seeing what most people brush past on a daily basis and capturing these as art forms.

Beautiful rubbish is an attempt to capture in writing what skillful photographers do with their cameras.  Snapshots of the glorious ordinary, the beautiful ugly.  Don't be fooled by the simplicity, for this is one doozy of a challenge.  In this world, there are all manner of tragedies and devastations, big and small, public or private, assailing us each day from our laptops or newspapers, our televisions or cell phones, from distant countries or our own homes.  We don't have to look very far to see the ugly in this world. 

But what if, each day, we made it our small mission to see just one thing that is beautiful?  What if that one thing opened our eyes to one more thing, and then another?

I propose that 2012 be the year of capturing moments of beauty and grace in the everyday - of doing so with relentless faith. The year we all trained as photographers of life.

When you read my blog, my hope is that it functions as a brief resting place, a watering hole, for the weary reader.  Not that everything you see here will be light and happy, but that even in dark places - especially in dark places - we see that beauty is not swallowed up.  Indeed, it flourishes in hard places. This is a challenge to me as a writer, but I also invite you to join me in this challenge. 

Make it your own.

Every day, we awake to a feast of grace and beauty, awe and wonder, in moments easily discarded.  Some days, though, all we feel we awake to is pain, disappointment, heartache, heaviness, tiredness.  On these days, it is hard to see beyond.  But if we determine to pick up our cameras, our pens or our laptops, and train our eyes to see, our hearts will follow in time.  In time, when we develop that film and look back, the beauty will emerge with each image captured.  

Welcome to another year of beautiful rubbish. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

End of the year reflections

This break from writing nearly every day is both welcome and intrusive, oddly enough.  Taking some time off this holiday season I hope is helping to clear my head and focus my thoughts, before diving into 2012.  I didn't realize I needed it.  But it's amazing how quickly my writing muscles feel flabby after only a few days or weeks of lighter use.  It's not unlike staying in shape.  We work our tushes off to achieve our desired level of physical fitness, only to watch it disintegrate after two weeks of time off, several holiday meals, a few slices of pie...  Ah, well, more challenge to keep us on our toes, I suppose.  

Looking back on 2011, I see several themes in my writing, and if you've read long enough, I'm sure you've noticed, too.  The huge one: gratitude.  I didn't intend for this to be my theme for "Beautiful rubbish," but over the year, it unobtrusively took over my writing.  And I'm so glad it did.  It makes a great deal of sense to me, this theme of gratitude at the heart of my blog - of my life.  I'm learning, with time, that cultivating a lifestyle of genuine gratitude holds the power of transforming rubbish into beauty.  Whether that rubbish be the mundane or ordinary, the frivolous, the ugly, the painful, the things I'd rather forget or deny I'm in the midst of, it's all within the grasp of transformation if I'm willing to learn to see through to the real beauty.  

One of the pastors at my church nailed this theme square on the head recently when he said, "The bible never says to give thanks for everything, but in everything."  Big difference. 

Everything hinges on that for me.  It's taken me nearly thirty years to learn to grasp this simple thing.  I'm not asked to give thanks for cancer or AIDS, for the death of a loved one, for poverty or natural disasters, for lost jobs, for depression or loneliness or anxiety.   I'm simply asked to thank God in all things.  For in all things, God is present, and with his presence, there is grace abundant, there is hope.  Not everyone has experienced this, not everyone believes this, but I am intimately acquainted with walking through the darkness and looking back, with time, to see the outline of God emerge beside me.  I need no more convincing that he is an ever present help in times of trouble, that he will never leave me or forsake me, that his mercies are new every morning and his faithfulness is great.

I look forward to a new year, to stepping into new adventures, to learning to stay put when I need to in a posture of gratitude.   For Christmas, Ricardo is making me a website for Beautiful Rubbish, and I'm excited to share that with you all, soon.   

Enjoy the end of this year, enjoy the moments...  

Friday, December 23, 2011

Perspective in a pause

"I'll have a double decaf tall half soy half nonfat 180 degree no foam with whip latte."  An older woman, she's all business with her order, and I read it back to her to make sure I got it all.  I slide down the counter  to the espresso machine and prepare her drink. 

"How are you today?" I ask as I'm steaming milk.

She sighs and a tense smile forms on her face.  "Oh, I'm fine.  But I had to get my nails done today.  I wish I didn't have to - it takes up so much time."  I study her face and confirm, she's seriously annoyed about this inconvenience.   

I have no response to this, so I smile and nod and focus on finishing her drink, while several thoughts cross my mind.  First, the guy at the top of the stairs hobbling pale with the paramedics into the awaiting ambulance outside our doors.  And then, the homeless man who ordered a latte earlier this morning.  He'd stood behind the counter stooped, with long stringy hair and camouflage canvas jacket with a tiny flag pinned to the collar, digging through pockets for $2.90 to purchase his drink.  I'd seen him before and he was always polite, quiet.  

"Are you a Vet?" I ventured.  

He looked up, surprised. "Yes.  I was in the Air Force."

He shuffled away several steps, then paused and turned back, catching my eye for brief moment, "Thank you."   

Was this a thank you for noticing me?  His forlornness, his gentleness, rubbed at my heart and I came close to tears.

I shake my thoughts back into this present moment, hand the woman her drink and wish her a Merry Christmas, watching her walk away.  Life truly is lived according to our perspectives.    

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


This season of celebration holds the potential for great enjoyment.  I delight in the small things, learning slowly how to quiet my grown up heart and tune into the wonder of a child.  Hot chocolate on a cold night, Christmas movies and sugar cookies, twinkling lights draping houses, the full moon hovering low on the horizon, the scent of fir trees on a farm, ceramic cottages displaying a Christmas village, pictures taken with Frosty and Rudolph, oversized teddy bears and dancing penguins, fake snow falling in downtown Bellevue, the excitement of giving a gift from the heart, a tree lighting ceremony amidst thousands in Leavenworth's town square, fresh wreaths selling at Pike Market, Christmas carols and the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack.  I love it all.

And in my grown up heart that seeks rediscovery of the childlike joy, I find a different kind of joy in moments of remembrance.  For I can so easily forget what is most important.  During worship at church this past Sunday, when we came to our knees for confession as we do each week, my heart filled with sober quiet:

"Arise, shine: for your light has come.
O God, we live as if the light had never defeated the darkness in the world or in us.
We confess that we ignore the Christ you sent to be among us, to be in us.
We've kept the birth of your Son confined to the Christmas season
And do not yearn for his birth each moment in our waiting hearts.

Lord, you came to us in the fullness of time.
Forgive us for not opening our eyes to your coming.
It's time that we prepare for your coming.
Let the earth ring with song.  Let the light break forth.
Let us all rejoice in the miracle of love.
Let Christ come into the fullness of our time - Amen. "

I speak these words on my knees and my thoughts slow and my heart knows.  I have forgotten.  I have not yearned for his birth each moment in my waiting heart.  And my heart also knows, in the place beyond the mind, he is the most wondrous gift.  Waiting to be unwrapped every day, thousands of times over - and shared - in an overflow of love.  There is much love to give away each day, and I tense up and hold it in and run right over or around or straight past the ones who most need a whiff of this love.  

I read this poem today, words from Teresa of Avila, a mystic who knew this love so well:

Just these two words He spoke
changed my life,

"Enjoy Me."

What a burden I thought I was to carry - 
a crucifix, as did He.

Love once said to me, "I know a song,
would you like to hear it?"

And laughter came from every brick in the street
and from every pore
in the sky,

After a night of prayer, He
changed my life when
                                    He sang,
"Enjoy Me.'"

Whether enjoyments abound or seem scarce, whether gratitude pours forth easily or I fight the grumbling, the invitation to an enjoyment that never fades or ceases, beckons to me.  Not as burden, but as joyful freedom.  The full life.

Enjoy him.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The un-PC Advent

Merry Christmas.  I enjoy the holiday season, but I celebrate Christmas.  No matter how politically correct it is to wish people a "Happy holidays," how nervous people become to utter the word Christmas, I can't sell myself out.  Our culture would never require Muslims to cease wishing people a "Happy Ramadan," if in fact they do say things like that, and say something more generic and less offensive, like "Happy festivities."  Christmas may be commercialized, but it is still a celebration originally beginning with and full of Christ.  

As a little girl, I loved when Mom brought home a new Advent calendar for the season.  Usually in the shape of a house or a Christmas scene, with snow and trees and colorful families, numbered with windows from December first to Christmas day.  Each day, Sis and I opened the window of the day, and Mom read with us the verse or bit of Christmas story hidden behind the window.  Each day, we watched as the open windows drew us one step closer to the day we longed for.  Anticipation pulsed in our child hearts.  

Advent literally means "coming" or "arrival"(  The Advent calendars herald, not only the arrival of Christmas, but the arrival of the Christ.  Any more, Advent calendars are more like holiday traditions that help us "get in the spirit" and have fun.  This is a wonderful tradition for families and I love that, but it's odd to me that the Advent of Christ has been cut out of many of these calendars.  The Advent season is one of longing, of anticipation, of hope and preparation, much like the season of Lent.  We celebrate not only the coming of the Christ centuries ago, but his continual coming into our world, into the hearts of those who still welcome him.  The birth of Christ was a historical event, and even so, we long for his birth in our lives and in our world again and again. 

In the midst of bemoaning the commercialization of Christmas, I see that my mourning is every bit as much for my dwindling anticipation of Advent.  How dullness settles like a shroud around the heart of one who is no longer a child.  No wonder Jesus loves the children, and those with childlike hearts.  It's not too late for me this Advent season, to rediscover the joy and wonder, the thrill and anticipation, of longing for Christmas.  Except now I long not for presents underneath our tree, but for the brightness of Christ's birth in my heart, in our world.  

Come, Christ Jesus.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Random people sightings

When I first moved up here from the burbs of Portland, Seattle dazzled and intimidated me with her seeming largeness.  Whereas Portland has a sense of order about her - streets built on a grid, instead of resembling the scribbles of a kindergarten artist - Seattle, in many parts, feels almost illogical.  Or creatively unrestrained, maybe that is more true to our culture here.  Whatever the case, one thing that's crept into my soul after ten years of residence in Seattle is this: we're a small town, folks.  

I began to feel this after working at my Starbucks for nearly three years now.  I run into customers everywhere.  Seriously.  Hiking Rattlesnake Ridge in North Bend, crowding into a bathroom in a brewery at Leavenworth, attending a semiformal event at McCaw Hall, going to church, grocery shopping in Ballard, hunting for pumpkins at a farm in Marysville, sneaking into a non-Starbucks in the neighborhood, riding the bus across town, flowing along in the river of pedestrians through the Pike Market tunnel, catching a bite of dinner at a small Italian joint in Redmond - everywhere, customers.  

And then, there are the people I don't know that lend Seattle a sliver of small town-ness.  Like Corrine at Pike Market Saturday morning, perched on her crate stool outside Le Panier, selling Real Change papers.  Her gleaming, gold-toothed smile made me slow down as I pulled open the door to the French bakery.  "Can I buy you a coffee?" I called out.  

"Why thank you, dear!  But I've already got one." She pointed to her Starbucks cup.  "But that's real nice of you!"  We grinned at each other, and I went inside, inhaling the mouth watering fragrance of buttery croissants.  It was warm inside, but I glanced back at Corrine, sitting happily outside.  I took my coffee outside and leaned against the pole to talk with her.  Turns out, she used to work in housekeeping for Swedish hospital.  "What's your name, dear?" she asked.  




"Ambre?  Now that's a purdy name.  Never met anyone with that name.  Used to have a perfume named Ambre.  Do you know that one?  It was real nice, strong scent, didn't need much of it, if ya know what I mean.  I think it came out in 1969.  I got my first - well, my only - bottle of it when I worked in the hospital.  Some patients left their room, didn't clean everything out - musta got better or somethin' - and left a bottle of it behind.  And that's where I got mine.  Lasted me a long time.  But now, I got no place to wear nice perfume.  Used to wear it going out, church and all that, but there ain't no reason for it anymore."  She looked up at me and shrugged, smiling.  

And then there was Molly, the cashier at Macy's last night.  Not sure how old she is, but most likely in her fifties or sixties - mother of eight children.  Ricardo and I were checking out in line, chit-chatting about parents who drag their little kids shopping late at night, and she scanned a coupon for us.  "I'm not really supposed to do this, but I want to," she explained.  We thanked her, and she stepped out from behind the counter to hand us the bag, continuing to talk with us, giving us free counsel on parenting.  She told us stories of trying to get her shopping done with eight children, how she'd swap babysitting by dropping kids off in pairs at different friend's houses, taking two with her.  

"If you ever have kids," she said, "Make sure you put electronics on wheels, with padlocks.  Then, if your kids don't listen to you, you don't have to fight with them or make a scene, simply unplug the machine, wheel it into another room and lock it up.  Don't even have to say a word."  We listened with rapt attention, amused smiles, enjoying our conversation with this kind stranger.  

People often say Seattle isn't a friendly place.  I haven't lived out of the Northwest for a long time, so I wouldn't know the difference, but I will say this: Seattle is as unfriendly as we want her to be.  Sure, there are the Cranky Pants, the Scrooges, the Paranoid East Coast plants, the perpetually stressed out that speedwalk through the streets with eyebrows furled, heads down, glued to cell phones.  But it's kind of hard to be friendly to people whose earphones are such a part of their daily wardrobe that they must feel naked without them.  Walking through the grocery store, down the streets, on the bus, through check-out lines, at the gym, there's even less opportunity to engage with the masses when the masses have their own soundtracks playing all day long, revolving around each other like separate planets that never need to touch.  

All it takes is slowing down.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Will's gift

Thirteen Christmases have blown by since the last time Will received a gift. 

"I got this for you, Will," I say, placing the shiny red, green and silver bag on the table in front of him at my work.  He sits, drinking a pint of eggnog, though admittedly not good for his arthritis, looking larger than he is in six layers of long sleeved shirts, sweaters and jackets. 

His smooth cheeks glow pink, a flush of unadulturated joy and surprise framing his sixty-something features.  "For me?  You... you really didn't have to do that." 

"Oh, I know... I just wanted to."  Now I'm the one feeling shy.  "But don't wait until Christmas to open it - you may want it before then."

I don't want to embarass him or make a big deal of the gift, so I prepare to leave him alone, until he captures me with his invitation: "Do you want me to open it now?"  The way he says it, the way his eyes reflect vulnerability and excitement, barely contained, melt my heart. 

"Sure, Will, I'd love that."  I sit down across from him. 

He pulls each piece of clothing out with effusive thanks, saying they remind him of his kayaking days, out on the waters in layers of polypropylene.  "You know, I was just thinking yesterday, trying to remember, when was the last time I received a Christmas present?"  His gaze settles somewhere in his periphery, a distant smile playing across his lips.  "Thirteen years..." he finally murmurs.  I am mesmerized by his face, this kind older man, so street weathered yet gentle, with the distant eyes that flicker momentary light of joy.   

As is so often the case, I'm at loss for words.  The little I know - he has a daughter and a granddaughter and family back east, but he's called the streets home for the past twelve years - leaves gaping holes in his story.  Will possesses a voracious appetite for books - science fiction, philosophy and psychology.  In the year or so that I've known him, moving in and out of my workplace like an afternoon shadow, he's spoken about a book he's trying to write.  It seems he has a bad case of writer's block, or so he says, but I wonder if it's his mind that puzzles him more than anything. 

I invite him to join Ricardo and Mom and I for breakfast on Christmas Eve, but his face changes.  He protests, not wanting to impose, but I can't convince him it would be an honor to have him celebrate with us.  He explains with a story about his mom, about something traumatic that happened to her when she was young, how he can't celebrate Christmas because of that.  To honor her.  It doesn't make sense to me, but this is his story, and so I let it drop.  "Well, if you change your mind, Will, know that you're welcome with us."

"I'm used to being alone," he says.  His eyes are distant again, the spark gone, though he says this without gloom. 

He's inhabited his own world for more than twelve years. 

We rise from our seats - me, back to work, and him, to try his clothes on in the bathroom.  "Thank you, very much," he says again, then softly adds, "You have the heart of a real Christian.  Merry Christmas."

I'm the one who should be thanking him.   

Monday, December 12, 2011

A little absentee note

Dear readers,

I've made it nearly a year now, writing and posting on this blog about five days a week.  I confess, with the fast-paced month of December, with working on homework and papers for my writing class, and with several days of not feeling well, I have taken a few days off from this writing schedule.  Please bear with me: I will be back at it with a regular schedule come the start of the year.  But until then, my writing may be pared down to two or three days a week.  I appreciate all of you, whether I know you or not, and I thank you for checking in on my writing.  

May your holiday season and Christmas be filled with hope, comfort, peace, joy, life -wherever you're at. 

with love,


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Tears for Fabian

I struggle to imagine this.  The searing pain of losing a child.  Me, who is not a parent.  I, who have not born a baby in my womb, labored to give life, nursed at my breast, how can I know how it feels to have that life ripped away?  I cannot.

But one of Ricardo's good friends from high school, he knows.  His seven year old son, Fabian, died yesterday, leaving behind his dad and mom and two little sisters.  He was playing with a gun, innocent as children are, his parents unaware.  When Ricardo told me, all I could say, over and over, was, "That's awful, heartbreaking."  All I could pray is, "God, be near to them."

There once was a Father who loved beyond our comprehension, beyond our reason, and watched his only Son die.  If ever there's a father, a parent, who is intimately acquainted with this intense grief, it's God.  I realize this doesn't fit within everyone's worldview, and so I don't force it, but it's central to mine.  Tonight, as I prayed my simple prayers for Fabian's family, to my great surprise I choked on my words as the warm tears traced down my face.  "You're a father, God..." my voice breaks, I'm crying now. "You understand, you know their pain."  The awfulness of it silences me.  God knows.  I'm quiet, overwhelmed by this flood of emotion washing over me.  I don't know this family, I don't know their pain.  Other than sympathy or compassion, I have no tears of my own for them. No, these tears are different.

These tears are God's.  

It's Christmas and this family is plunged into grief, and this is the season of Emmanuel - God with us - where God put on flesh and came near ages ago, and still comes near today.  To those who grope in the darkness for him, there comes a great light.  But before the light breaks, for those who grieve, there are first the arms of a father in the dark night and the tears of the one who knows.  

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

O Christmas tree: Junior and his vase

We call him Junior.   Is it strange to name a tree?  Ricardo and I share a proclivity for naming inanimate objects.  

Sunday afternoon, we cruise the stretch of highway and wooded back roads, flanked by green mountains, to the Christmas tree farm in Issaquah.  We're quiet, absorbed in the crisp beauty of a late afternoon in December, and then we both chuckle as car after car zips by us in the opposite direction, flashes of red or evergreen or silver with netted trees strapped on the top like a unicorn's horn.   Neither of us had experienced cutting down a tree for Christmas.

I'm prepared for once in my life, all layers: sweater, fleece jacket, rain jacket, gloves, boots.  I'm not about to let the cold deter me from the thrill of hunting for a tree.  Ricardo grabs a saw, I snag a laminated map and make an immediate beeline for the free hot cocoa.  Then we start our tour of the farm, circling through the little trees with discounted tags, then the Grand Firs, the Noble Firs, the Douglas Firs.  The trees with orange tags are marked down, and we quickly see it's because they have chunks of limbs missing, or look arthritic, or have an unseemly distribution of branches and needles.  In other words, they're not beautiful.  We take our time, sniff the air to catch the trees' perfume, marvel at the blue sky and the sun quickly fading behind the mountains.  And then, we make our way back to where we started.

On first glance, these little Noble Firs for $15 seemed perfect.  However, on second inspection, we see the needles are yellowing.  We touch the branches of a few and the needles float down to join the dirt.  Yet we're determined, not unlike shopping at Goodwill - sometimes, you just gotta hunker down and search - to find a treasure.  

"How about this one?"  Ricardo asks.  We've already looked at this little guy, but I strain to look closer.  Can we live with some of his dry branches?  He's short and squatty, not at all elegant, but his branches are full.  We look at each other, and a smile passes between our eyes.  

It takes all of ten back-and-forths of the saw to cut him down, interrupted by our videos of each other having a go at it, laughing at the spectacle.  Ricardo snaps a picture of me hugging our tree.  It looks like we snapped off the top two feet of a fat Noble and are running off with it.  

"Should we net him?" I ask.  I want to see him strapped to the top of my car, but in the end, he sits in the backseat like a chubby child surrounded by green crumbs.  

At Ricardo's apartment, Junior sits in a metal vase we bought at Goodwill, decked out in white lights and a mish-mash of ornaments.  We turn off the lights, sit back on the sofa, and admire him in all his squatty glory.

It's like Linus said in A Charlie Brown Christmas: "It's not a bad little tree.  All it needs is a little love." 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Dr. Huff and my musical knees

After today, I will receive a bill in the mail from Group Health for some largish sum, and when I do,  before I groan, I will stop and remember Dr. Huff's mini sermon in the sports medicine clinic, me sitting on the crinkly tissue paper bed in rapt attention, the experience of hearing God's voice in this unexpected way.   

I drove to see Dr. Huff for my noisy knees.  For their continued, increasing cricking and cracking and popping, for the worry that all the invisible pieces of mysterious matter floating around in the space around my kneecap are bits of bone that have flaked off like chunks of ice caps with no place to go.  The truth is, I've been grinding down the "what ifs."  What if there comes a day when I can't run.  What if the pain returns. What if I can't dance or jump or play.  What if I have kids one day and I have to limp after them.  So I sat on the tissue paper in the examination room with Dr. Huff and his kind eyes, telling him my concerns, and he listened.  And then he looked at my knees and listened to them, too.  

"So there's the sound, huh?"  He said.

I winced as I squatted and straightened back up.  "Yeah, that would be it."

"They're... musical."  And then he smiled.

This caught me off guard.  Musical knees.  But I went with it, because I liked it, and because I could feel it was the beginning of a "talk" that I needed to hear.  

"Some people's knees are more talkative than others," he continued.  "Like you.  You've got talkative knees.  But that's not necessarily a bad thing." 

I nodded, hungry to hear what he had to say.

"I don't like those diagnoses people give - 'You'll need new knees by forty or sixty' - as if they had a crystal ball or something.  Let me tell you, I have no crystal ball.  There are no crystal balls.  We have no guarantees about tomorrow.  I guess I just want to reassure you a little, not to go about your activities in fear.  Fear that you're 'doing damage' to your knees or your body, fear of how your knees will be down the road.  I'd encourage you to rip that tape out that's on continuous replay and run without it.  Because you don't know what the future will be.  But right now, you can do pretty much whatever you want.  You don't appear to have arthritis.  You don't have the bone-on-bone thing, because you'd feel that pain.  You may need to modify some of the things you do, but really, I think you have some talkative knees.  Musical knees."

Man, did he have my number.  Haven't I been playing that tape a long time?  Haven't I been intimately acquainted with the reality that we have no guarantees for tomorrow?  I just needed to hear it again.  And probably again.  And then again some more.  Don't live in fear.  This time from the mouth of sixty-one year old, thin-as-a-rail Dr. Huff with his own talkative knees - since his twenties - that have never really slowed him down from living.   I just need to learn to appreciate the music of my knees, my own little woodland symphony of bone and soft tissue and who knows what else, the song of chipmunks cracking open an acorn.

Though I won't sell any tickets to this symphony, the trip to Dr. Huff is a bill worth paying.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Inspiration from my hall of literary greats

Throughout my writing course, I'm learning to see sentences anew.  I admire them short.  I delight in them long and graceful, like a guided float down a gentle river, a succession of camera shots laid side by side in colorful subtlety, and oh, how the prose sings and rises and dips and dives!  So, I read my favorite authors differently, and it's as if I'm discovering their brilliance all over again.  I thought I'd share sentences from some of these writers whose styles and boldness and artfulness I most admire.  For, in some ways, I feel my writing is a genetic compilation of them all.  

Ann Voskamp, from One thousand gifts

"All new life labors out of the very bowels of darkness."

"I want to see God, who pulls on the coat of my skin and doesn't leave me alone in this withering body of mortality; I want to see God, who gives gifts in hospitals and gravesides and homeless shelters and refugee camps and in rain falling on sunflowers and stars falling over hayfields and silver scales glinting upriver and sewage flowing downriver."

Anne Lamott, from Bird by bird

"Write straight into the emotional center of things.  Write toward vulnerability.  Don't worry about appearing sentimental.  Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraudulent.  Risk being unliked.  Tell the truth as you understand it.  If you're a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this.  And it is a revolutionary act - truth is always subversive."

Tony Cohan, from Mexican days

"It had been a long day's journey.  An Aeromexico red-eye from L.A. had landed me in Mexico City just past dawn.  For the length of the rattling morning ride across the clotted, smog-stung capital, I'd listened to a taxi driver rail against that cabron Presidente Fox, ex-governor of my state of Guanajuato.  Then the hot, turning bus trip eastward through glaring sun and pale empty mountains, past gypsum digs and cactus farms, ever deeper into eastern Mexico, while Schwarzenegger blew away the world on the video monitors at max volume and the wide blue Mexican afternoon condensed into inscrutable fog."

Donald Miller, from Blue like jazz

"I am something of a recluse by nature.  I am that cordless screwdriver that has to charge for twenty hours to earn ten minutes use."

Alexander McCall Smith, from The full cupboard of life

"A few hours later, as the sun climbed up the sky and made shadows short and even the birds were lethargic, when the screeching of the cicadas from the bush behind Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors reached a high insistent pitch, the butcher drew up in his handsome old Rover."

Philip Gourevitch, from We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda

"The dead at Nyarubuye were, I'm afraid, beautiful.  There was no getting around it.  The skeleton is a beautiful thing.  The randomness of the fallen forms, the strange tranquility of their rude exposure, the skull here, the arm bent in some uninterpretable gesture there - these things were beautiful, and their beauty only added to the affront of the place."

The apostle Paul, from his letter to the Philippians

"But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ.  Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him..."

James Bryan Smith, from Room of marvels

"You must let him love you as you are, not as you intend to be.  Let him love you as you are, without a single plea for reform.  It is all about grace, Tim.  All of life is grace.  We deserve nothing; we are given everything. Until now you have only experienced the drippings of grace.  You have longed for the real thing, like the longing for the scent of a flower you have never been able to find, or the echo of a tune you have not yet heard, or news from a country you have never visited.  Well, now you have found it.  Grace is the very thing you have been searching for, and it is all around you."

David Lida, from First stop in the new world: Mexico City, the capital of the 21st century

" Even if you're the only one in the car, in traffic you're never alone.  A galaxy of characters makes its place of business at every stoplight.  Four guys in ratty T-shirts and dusty baseball caps, their expressions blurred by the glue they've sniffed, carry transparent bottles of murky liquid in one hand and filthy rags in the other.  No matter how elaborately you beseech them not to touch your windshield - shaking your head no, waving your arms back and forth, even shouting at the top of your lungs - most of them become momentarily deaf and blind, and cannot be deterred from 'washing' your windows, defying you not to give them a couple of pesos for their trouble when their done.  Or one peso.  Or half a peso.  Or nothing, and it's on to the next car."

Jesus, from the book of John in the Bible

"If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.  He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water."

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Birthdays in heaven

Happy 62nd birthday, Papa, your fourth in heaven.   Do you celebrate birthdays in heaven?  When age and time fade, swallowed in the sea of eternity, do birthdays go on? 

If so, I hope you've prepared a feast of Mexican food for all your friends and family there.  I can imagine you bent over by an enormous oven in your kitchen, pulling out tray after tray of enchiladas with raggedy pot holders.  If I listen carefully, I can almost hear your deep laughter, the way your mouth opens and your eyes disappear in folds of skin, telling jokes to a captive audience.  

And you would sit down at a table the length of a giraffe, at least, surrounded by beloved ancients and newfound friends, old acquaintances and strangers who feel familiar, because are there really strangers in heaven? And there'd be Grandpa Ross at the table, Uncle Brian, Cousin Tina, family, too, you hadn't known.  Would the angels who watched your back while you traversed the earth be there, swapping stories of adventure, close encounters, moments when they gazed in awe? 

At the head of the table, I imagine your most honored guest would sit.  His laughter fills the room, intoxicating joy.  He's the greatest storyteller, keeper of all the moments of your life, regaling all with memories from your infancy and boyhood, young man and mature adult manhood.  His eyes, moist with love for you, twinkle life.  His voice captivates.  His heart, tender, spills across the table to all who gather.  The real feast.  He would sing a song for you, the one I wrote that first birthday without you, and tell you we're ok, that we love you.  That we miss you. 

I hope there are birthdays in heaven.  

And Papa, please give God a hug from me.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Checking Walmart off my list

For lack of brain juices flowing this morning, I share a random word of thanks, which also doubles as a somewhat embarrassing confession.  

I'm grateful I can check "Black Friday at Walmart" off my list of things I never wanted to do and never need to do again. 

It's early, and I don't think it's necessary to go into the reasons why I don't respect Walmart as a corporation.  Suffice it to say, I'm not a fan.  But I love my sister and I respect her and she lives close to Walmart and finds really good deals for her and the family.  She is not only a huntress of bargains, but she has the patience necessary to wait in line for them, two skills I admire and am lacking in.  

So, out of solidarity on, technically Black Thursday, I ventured out at 10pm with Sis and Mom and Ricardo.  After car-stalking pedestrians in the parking lot, Ricardo claimed a spot in the far reaches of the vicinity, and we followed the masses inside.  I admit, I even felt a surge of energy.  Maybe this won't be so bad, I thought.    

Then we stepped through the wide mouth of the store, into the land of florescent lights and already Disneyland length lines, of sleepy-eyed children dragged along for the ride, of shopping carts that don't fit in the spaces between people, and employees directing traffic with impressive friendliness.   

I tried to be brave, took a deep breath, gave myself a little pep talk: "It's just one night, you can do this, and even if you wanted to back out, you all came in one car.  Suck it up, Amber."

Our mission: $1.96 movies.

We bumped along with the current of people flowing to the back of the store.  In the sea of bodies, I heard a tall guy say as he passed by, "They're going to have to pump some oxygen in here." I snickered, then wrinkled my nose, because the air had indeed already been sucked clean of oxygen, and he at least was getting the best selection.  We arrived at our destination in the back, where movies and electronics and music displayed.  There the  movies sat, stretched at least ten cardboard displays long down a wide aisle, surrounded by swarms of people four bodies deep.  I just stood there, until it dawned on me, I'd have to reach inward and harness some aggression to actually scour the movies for desired titles. 

We split up, perhaps unintentionally, Mom and Sis, Ricardo and me, hunting for movies in the mobs.  At the end of maybe thirty minutes, I felt dizzy and light-headed, my initial energy zapped.  Ricardo and I wandered the back aisles for awhile until we noticed the lines for electronics were much shorter than the snakelike lines at the front of the store.  At least we could find the end of the line and see the cash register, maybe fifteen people ahead of us.  Our optimism faded when we realized the line moved about an inch every five minutes.  I glanced down at a box out of place on the shelf ledge I wanted to sit on.   A 30-piece rubbermaid tupperware set for $6.88.  We picked it up, looked it over, shrugged.  "We're already here, might as well," I said.  Turned out, everyone else wanted this tupperware because it was already out of stock throughout the store.  Our big victory at Walmart.

The four of us escaped with glazed eyes and tired shuffles just before midnight, with a collection of movies and our tupperware.

Monday, November 28, 2011

At the holiday precipice

The trees ceremoniously shed dead leaves of gold, the seasons shift as hands on a clock, and here I stand once more in hesitation at the precipice between November and December.  The holidays.  

Maybe it's just me, but it's not easy being honest about how I really feel about the holidays.  I yearn for those days, many turns of seasons ago, when I felt excitement about the holidays.  That cozy, curl up in front of the fireplace, bake cookies, decorate the tree, shop for gifts, sing carols, sit in the living room in the glow of white lights, Advent calendar, Christmas Even candlelight service, Christmas morning breakfast with the family sort of excitement.  Even though I know the deep treasure of Christmas is not these things in themselves, it's been so long since Christmas felt good.  

But I'm not interested in writing the "Woe is me" stuff.  I know I have a lot to be thankful for.  I am filthy rich by most standards of the world.  I have a warm place to rest.  I eat three or four healthy meals a day.  I can shower every day in hot water and dress in warm, clean clothes.  I drink water that I don't have to boil or buy in a bottle, unless I want to.  I have a job and a regular income and health benefits.  I own a car and I can actually afford the gas to fill it.  I have family and friends and a boyfriend that love me.  I am well educated.  I am healthy.  I live in a country that, far from perfect, is still a land of freedom and opportunity compared to many nations.  I live in a beautiful city, in a beautiful part of the world.

And, while any of these things are subject to change, my most precious possession is not one that can be taken away.  The love of Christ.  His life, in me.  Hope.  

Still, it's a fine line to walk between being real and being thankful.  

I'm thankful for all these things, and more than these.  So much more than I can count.  But that doesn't change the fact that I miss the way things used to be at the holidays, with my family.  I miss my Papa.  This Thursday, he would have been sixty-one.  This Christmas will be our fourth one without him.  Time enough, I had originally thought, to adjust to him "missing" from our family.  Time enough, it seemed, for the table not to feel empty, for our family not to feel like we're walking with an uneven gait.  He balanced us.  And I notice his absence and how our family aches for him like a phantom limb.  

So I think there's room for honesty and gratitude during the holidays.  The holidays are painful for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons, and there's no reason to gloss over this.   

Yet.  I'm thankful for the ways my family is learning to walk in a different stride, learning to run again. 


I'm thankful for hands to hold. 


For the shelter of each other's arms.

It's times like these when we learn to share our hugs, to wrap each other tight.


We cry, we laugh, we pull each other along. 


And we thank God for the beauty of life that blooms white in the seasons of death.    

I may not enjoy the holidays as much as I used to.  But then, I may be more aware of my gifts than ever before.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thank-full: Day 15... Ricardo

"You look exceptionally happy these past few months," Doug, a long time regular at our Starbucks, comments today.  "Things must be going well with you and Ricardo?"  

His comment catches me by surprise.  I haven't felt "exceptionally happy" lately - not that I'm unhappy - but then, I can't see my countenance.  Happiness, in my dictionary, is as reliable as the weather reports in Seattle, as stable as the emotions of most pregnant women, its longevity rivaling the latest update of smart phone technology.  So I rarely rely on it in my vocabulary.  I don't argue because, when I think about it, I know that I am, in fact, happy.  And Ricardo plays a huge role in that.  But really, I'm beyond happy.  I'm thankful.

And I tell Doug that.  "I'm blessed," I say.  In the God leaned down, squeezed me in a bear hug, kissed my cheek, and handed me a bouquet of creamy blue and violet hydrangeas for no good reason sort of way.  

For the few times Doug has talked with Ricardo, he's perceptive.  "You've got a quality guy," he says.  "He's got this strong sense of being a man without having to assert himself.  This confidence and maturity.    It's hard to find these kind of guys anymore.  You've got my approval, for whatever it's worth."  He flashes me two thumbs up.    

And again, he's right.  

I'm thankful for Ricardo's strength, confidence and maturity, as much as I'm thankful for his gentleness,  humility and childlikeness.   He's got his pride, but doesn't hold it so tight that he can't dress up as a big plush dog for Halloween and go out to dinner.  He's as comfortable shooting straight with his thoughts and feelings as he is receiving the straight edge of mine.  He knows when to talk, and when to sit back and listen to my verbal processing.  Not only that, he's the kind of guy you want in your corner, because you know he'll champion for you, and he won't back down, but he knows when to walk away from a fight.  

In the beginning of "us," he shared one of the best pieces of advice passed onto him from his grandfather, which he's sought to understand in ever widening breadth: "Don't try to understand women; just love them."  That we're different is no mystery.  We both know I'm, by nature, a more emotional creature than him, full of complexities and layers I don't often know how to articulate.  Ironically, for all his laid-back, affectionate acceptance of my female mystique, he often has me figured out long before I launch into an attempt of an explanation.   Then there are the cultural differences and the language differences and the faith culture differences, and even when those can creep up and rear-end us at times, that we can always come back to this place of common ground, of mutual respect, of valuing each other's differences and not wanting to change the other, fills me with a deep sense of God's presence.  

It's not been easy learning to be loved as I am, to believe that in someone's eyes, I'm always beautiful.  I find myself expecting his love to fluctuate with my performance, my moods, the days when I feel someone else has temporarily commandeered my body, and I wonder, "Why is he still here?"  Surely this is the end of him, I think, like the revolving door of love.  I've grown a lot, healed a lot, but still, work hard at not expecting him to up and walk out on me.  The wounds ran deep when he met me, but with time I see, love runs deeper.  

While the feelings of happiness, giddiness, the I'm-head-over-heels-in-love sort of highs, I'm learning, may pay a visit in the morning and leave after lunch, the love for this man has unpacked its bags and settled into a room of its own.  I'm thankful that ours is not the rose-colored glasses kind of love, the "love that's all pink," as Ricardo says.  I've seen him for him and he's seen me for me, and at the end of the day, I just want to be in the safety of his arms, to see his contagious smile and twinkling eyes, to know that I've come home.  

It's this man I give thanks for today, and every day.  


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thank-full: Day 14... rain boots

Rain falls today from charcoal skies, like a broken pipe spewing water in a room of industrial fans.  And, superficial as it may sound, I'm deeply thankful for my rubber rain boots.  Purple penguin boots, to be exact.  I had to throw my others out - three pairs in three years - due to excessive splitting of the rubber.  It's not worthwhile to wear rain boots if you can't splash in puddles, not unless you're wearing them solely for fashion, which I'm not.  I wear them until they're holey.  There is great pleasure to discover in puddle jumping.  Please try it.  Then you, too, can add it to your list of thanks.  

Monday, November 21, 2011

Thank-full: Day 13... doxology

In a room crowded with bodies of all ages, voices raise in acapella song, babies lift newborn cries, old men rumble bass, and young women lilt soprano, while guitar and violin, piano and keyboard, djembe and drum set, quiver in the silence of instruments.  Outside, the sun streams on frozen grass, and though my ears hear nothing but this song inside, I imagine the voices outdoors joining the hymn of praise: the trees, half adorned in beauty, half naked; the lakes and rivers and streams; the birds nesting high, the squirrels scavenging below; the dogs and cats and farm animals near and far; the flowers bending low in cold; the sounds of the city in motion.  We share this moment every week, and somehow, it never fails to fill me with longing.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise Him all creatures here below
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost
O praise Him, oh praise Him
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah!

I long to hear more.  When I hear this song of creation, I feel so small.  I fill with awe.  I sing my little part of this tune every day, most days in varying degrees of off-key, and some days I imagine my voice sounds so very nice, and it's hard to tell where I'm at until I hear all the voices together.  Each voice - young, old, in-between - human, animal, creation, we all sing our part in this eternal song.  

I love this doxology, and I'm thankful, in this holiday week, to join my voice with all creation in a song of the simplest, deepest gratitude.   

Praise God from whom all blessings flow...