When I lived in Phoenix, I had a lemon tree in my front yard. And an orange tree in my back yard. So when I wanted to make some orange juice, or some lemonade, or just maybe make the house feel festive with natural decor, I had only to step out my door and pull some low hanging fruit from the branches. Many members of my church had citrus trees in their yard too. So certain times of the year, people would bring bags and baskets of fruit to church and just set it on the ground for people to take whatever they could carry. To this day, I sometimes pick up a lemon in the grocery store and think… really, they want me to pay MONEY for this??
I got used to living where fruit falls right off the tree and into your hand - some fruit, you don’t even have to work for.
In this passage from Galatians 5, Paul is talking about a kind of fruit that takes a bit more cultivating than a Phoenix lemon in January. He’s addressing the Christians of Galatia, where some of the teachers in the community have claimed that the law is the vehicle of God’s Spirit. But Paul says, the primary function of the law is to point out transgressions. He cautions the people against placing their ultimate trust in obedience to the law. Law in and of itself is not salvation- the law cannot give life. Only God can do that. To think otherwise is to enter into a kind of bondage, where the law of the land has far more power than it should.
Yes, some laws are necessary because humans have sinful natures, and are capable of perpetuating evil; but the law itself cannot be a vehicle of the Spirit. Often, when humans put too much trust in the law, then the law becomes corrupt and no longer about protection… it becomes about power, and is an idol unto itself.
Paul talks a lot here about the flesh, with a long litany of fun-sounding sins. (Fornication! Licentiousness!) Well, The Common English Bible translates sins of the “flesh” as simply “selfish motives.” So without getting too much in the weeds about particular transgressions, the bottom line is this: like any bad behavior, laws that are rooted in selfish motives, that seek to manipulate and control, are their own kind of evil.
When Jesus was around, he was often concerned that people were prioritizing the letter of the law over human interest or human need. Paul extends that teaching here. Law has its place and purpose, but as a disciple, your first job is to love your neighbor.
The Spirit is at work in that new community of faith, transforming the body of believers into a new creation—into people who are more loving, gentle, and kind. That transformation is not confined to particular laws or practices like being circumcised, or adhering to a certain diet…those are some of the ways that the people of God used to identify themselves. And those laws were important at that time. But, Paul says, in the way of Christ, the new law of the land is love; and the best way to honor it is to cultivate fruits of the spirit. By these fruits, they will be recognized as Christians; and others will want to join them, to get more of that good fruit!
The early church is learning that they are to be marked by the way of Jesus rather than their own selfish desires or need for power. They are to fulfill, if not the letter of the law, then the intention of the law—which has always about love of neighbors… “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” These are people who are called to freedom; not the freedom of self-indulgence, which is without love. But freedom from the weight of laws that only exist to protect the powerful.
Can you think of some laws of that nature? Laws that are meant to exert control over a group or class of people? Can you think of cases in which “the letter of the law” is without nuance, and completely without concern for the harm it might cause, the unintended consequences that will play out again and again in the lives of the vulnerable?
Not to put too fine a point on things, but…
Many of us are thinking today about restrictions on women’s healthcare that don’t take into account a woman’s medical history or circumstances, or risks to her safety and dignity. Laws that force a child into existence but care nothing for that child’s future security or care. Many claim these laws are rooted in love for the unborn baby; but in reality–and in practice, these laws will cause great harm to many vulnerable women, and by extension, children. These laws are going to affect how a doctor can care for a woman in crisis, and among other things, make it harder for a woman to find safety from an abusive partner.
If there is no freedom in the law, then there is surely no love there.
How about immigration laws that don’t consider that a person might be fleeing from mortal danger in their home country? Laws that separate families without regard for the trauma caused to children, without a plan for bringing those families back together? There is no love in that law. That is not freedom.
Then we have laws about guns… We have laws that protect the guns more than the victims, or future victims…
In many ways, we are still living with the consequences of some old laws, particularly Jim Crow laws… While the letter of the law no longer stands, the ripples continue to impact lives and communities to this day. Just like our children and our children’s children will be living with consequences of some of our current practices and priorities under the law.
There is no freedom in such laws; because there is no love.
When folks try to legislate faith into policy, that rarely ends well. We end up living under laws lacking in empathy, that seek only to control or maintain the power of a ruling class. The unintended consequences–or in many cases, the intended consequences– are devastating. We create systems of power that are in no way relational or authentic, and that contribute nothing to the communal good.
What matters, Jesus reminded his people, and Paul says again… is that we love our neighbors. That we place the greater human interest before the letter of the law, and let the law emerge from that place of love. If we did that faithfully, our laws would actually enhance community life. We would see fruits like comprehensive, compassionate healthcare for all; access to safe and affordable housing and childcare; fully funded public schools where kids could be free to be kids, without the constant threat of violence. Our borders could offer sanctuary for those fleeing violence, with swift vetting and integration programs, housing and employment services… Guns would be a privilege for those who could wield it wisely, instead of a right for anyone with a lust for power. Women would have less to fear in bringing a child into such a world; and their own welfare would be prioritized for a lifetime. We would have the most pro-life policies imaginable.
If we were concerned with loving our neighbors as ourselves, all of our spaces and systems would reflect, not a desire for power or need for control, but evidence of love; joy; peace; patience; kindness; generosity; faithfulness; gentleness; self control. That would be the harvest we could share with our neighbors in every aspect of public life, if we prioritized the cultivating of those gifts above all else.
And if we did that… well we wouldn’t need many laws at all.
Our job as disciples of Jesus is to make sure we are rooted in the Spirit; cultivating the gifts that reflect God’s presence to those around us, and yielding good fruit that is life giving for all.
When I was serving at Saint Andrew in Kansas, we took a group of youth and church folks to rural Missouri each year to spend the day working with the Migrant Farmworkers Assistance Fund. This program connects workers arriving in late summer for harvest season with vital resources and services — assistance with food, clothing, dental care, school registration and more.
We filled backpacks with school supplies; prepared boxes and bags of food; sorted toiletries; carried stuff to cars; and learned about the lives of these families who travel great distances to harvest the food that lands on our tables each night. It was good work. It was a good time connecting with and loving some neighbors that we often don’t see at all.
As part of preparing the food boxes, some of us were gifted with the task of sorting through the potatoes. As in, finding the rotten ones and removing them from the mix before bagging up the rest. Have you ever opened your pantry and known immediately that there was a rotten potato in there? Imagine that times a thousand. Feeling and smelling our way through these sodden plastic bags was an exercise in grace, and an utter assault to the senses. The awful smell, the slimy feel on your hands, the complete gross-me-out sight of them, once they’ve been extracted from the bag… But we did not want to let whole pounds of potatoes go to waste, just because there was one bad one in the bunch. Nor did we want a family to arrive at home and find one of these languishing in their food box, after working a long hot day in the fields.
So we sorted, and we tossed. Then we washed our hands compulsively and dreamed of the shower we’d take when we got home.
Later, as we were standing in the parking lot waiting to greet families, one of the farm workers came with a gift for us. The volunteers! Two large bags of freshly picked peaches, straight from the orchard. Perfectly ripe, round, and orange-y pink. A sensory abundance. I held one and inhaled for like a full minute. Let me tell you, that smell can redeem a whole day of bad smells.
As I watched happy children skip off with new backpacks and books and school clothes, I thought, there you have it: the life of faith in a snapshot of odors. When you cultivate the fruit of the Spirit, even rotten potato days come with a peach at the end.
What do we have to offer our hurting world right now, church? What is God calling us to cultivate, to yield, and to leave on our neighbor’s doorstep in abundant harvest? Do we have rotten potatoes? Or are we going to have ripe, fragrant peaches fresh off the vine?
Here is the good news… God has given us everything we need to dwell in goodness and life. Sometimes we have to sow, or dig, or water; but really, it is all low hanging fruit. Ours for the taking, abundance to share.
When I was a kid, my family used to spend Thanksgivings on the farm. The idyllic, iconic American experience. Mamaw would spend days shopping and chopping, and woke before dawn to start the turkey.
She always had everyone's favorite pie.
Dinner would involve, among other things, three different pans of stuffing: one with everything; one with no onions; one with no giblets. Plus the copious amount of sides including deviled eggs in a giant Tupperware container–because if you don’t have deviled eggs, is it really even Thanksgiving in Kentucky? All of it would somehow fit on the table that also seated 6 adults. (The 4 kids were relegated to a card table in the den, of course).
As that turkey roasted to the perfection that only childhood memory can muster, I was outside with my cousins, playing on the tire swing and jumping in hay bales. The barn smelled like tobacco and Novembers were warm. This is not a Norman Rockwell imprint on my psyche. It was actual life.
You don’t know when you’re having the last one of those before life happens and people grow up, and everybody gets jobs and car payments and a set of in-laws. But at some point, all those dominoes started falling. Thanksgiving migrated to my aunt’s house in Georgia, and I married into a very large Catholic family where Thanksgiving was less an exercise in finding space for the deviled egg and more a game of Twister to get everyone seated.
Then I moved. To Phoenix. We lived in three different places in 7 years there, transient in they way of Gen Xers in general, and Arizona residents specifically.
We had good friends from home living in Southern California. When you’re a Kentuckian living in diaspora, the 5-hour plus drive across the desert seems like nothing at all, and so the Cali-Kentucky contingent would come to Phoenix to spend Thanksgiving with us. Those years involved the gradual introduction of babies (ours and theirs) and friends’ husbands, and an ever-expanding table of mostly vegetarian fare. The church I was serving at the time always had a big Thanksgiving meal the Sunday before, which meant turkey with an abundance of jello-dishes and store bought salads because– THIS JUST IN– Arizona people don’t cook like your Kentucky Mamaw. But they have their own virtues. For instance, those were the years I learned to put green chiles in everything. Seriously, corn pudding, cheese grits… whatever, it will change your life.
Somehow, even though ministry life means that holidays are the worst possible time to go ‘home,’ that desert was filled with all the goodness of family and belonging that I could ask for. Maybe it’s because there was so much love in the scrappy little church that made a pastor of me. Maybe it’s because my friends and chosen family were willing to drive across the desert just to hold my babies and enjoy pie-for-breakfast-Friday (my favorite, if self-appointed holiday).
Or maybe it’s because home is not a place you go, but something you take with you.
During our years in Kansas City, Thanksgiving was a pieced together thing. Some years we would go to a friend's house rather than burning up the road to Kentucky; one year, I made a midnight run to the airport, in the snow, to pick up my mom. Sometimes we traveled, sometimes we set the table.
All told, in our first 15 years of marriage, my husband and I lived in 3 states: 3 Cities, 3 timezones, and (I’ve lost count but roughly) 9 different houses and apartments. There were times I felt untethered; years I wished I could transport myself to a Rockwell-esque farm scene and whatever ‘home’ means when you’re missing it; times I wished that we had “a holiday tradition” that was just what we did every year, no matter what, and we didn't have so much stuff to figure out. But that sense of lack and longing isn’t what I remember. I remember holidays from those transient years as enforced sabbath time. A few days to breathe in the goodness of our current life situation, wherever that happened to be, and enjoy it with whatever friends and family we could scrape together. Wherever we were, and whoever was there, was exactly who and what we needed at the time.
We are back in Kentucky now, and like the rest of the country, heading into our 2nd pandemic Thanksgiving. So on the one hand, we have plans for about 3 different gatherings to ensure that we hit all sides of the family. On the other hand, we've got a kid at home who is technically COVID positive (though asymptomatic, thankfully) who is supposed to quarantine through Thanksgiving day. We'll do another round of tests on Wednesday and see what's what. But the past week has been a reminder that it's best to stay flexible and know that 'plans' are rarely more than good intentions. And that even our best traditions will give way to real life.
The holidays came around last year at the height of the pandemic, before a vaccine was available. All experts advised that Americans forego their usual family gatherings and celebrate at home... but some folks just couldn't get their heads around it. While many sacrificed and planned family Zoom calls and Googled how to make turkey for 4, or 2, or 1... many, many others went on with holidays-as-usual, having no frame of reference for how one might just... not. And we had a massive January COVID spike to show for it.
And yes, the holidays last year were kind of a bummer... But I was very mindful that the art of being unattached to tradition served us well through that time. And it continues to serve us still. There is a certain resilience that comes with having moved and changed your life a lot over the years, a bloom-where-you're-planted flexibility that embraces your current location, both literal and figurative. And one does not have to make geographical moves to cultivate such resilience. Anyone who has ever scraped together a sense of community from a hodgepodge assortment of people in close proximity will tell you the same. When your tradition is no tradition, you make it work. You give thanks for where you are.
Like many of yours, our family table will be missing a loved one this year. The grief is palpable. But there is also real Thanksgiving for the life that was, for life that remains, and for those who are still with us to celebrate.
Nothing is ever the same as it was when we were kids. In fact, things are rarely the same as they were just a year ago. But I know that my truest understanding of gratitude has grown out of the years when nothing seemed normal or usual... but when I could still look around and see how blessed I was by whoever happened to be in proximity.
Because it's really not about holidays at all, but about finding home. And home, it turns out, is portable. Like the Derby pie I took to Thanksgiving potlucks in both Arizona and Kansas– because if you can believe it, there are folks living in those distant lands who have never thought to put bourbon and chocolate chips in their pecan pie. Home can happen at any table where you happen to be, in any season, in any timezone.
Maybe home is just where your pie is.
In the desert, you can see in the dark.
In my Phoenix years, my house sat at the edge of a gorgeous (if somewhat desolate) mountain preserve. You could see for miles out my back door, the horizon peppered with mountains, Saguaro cactus, and the faint lights of a highway far out in the distance. Cities in Arizona are intentionally low-light, on account of there being major observatories in both Tucson and Flagstaff. Us Phoenix folks in the middle just enjoyed the benefit of pure darkness for our own amateur star-gazing.
Even on a regular night, it was lovely to stroll outside at night (especially in seasons when the night was actually cool, a brief respite from the relentless afternoon sun). But in August, when meteor showers like the Perseid rolled around, we would haul some lawn chairs out back, pop some popcorn, and get ready for a SHOW. Like, no telescope needed, just sit back and watch something spectacular sail past your head. Miracle at the speed of light.
That was awhile ago. Of course, when you live there you can take it for granted that the sky will be there to dazzle and amaze any time you happen to look up. I’ve since lived in cities that don’t think twice about their street lights or their neon Wal-Mart signs mucking up the nocturnal views. So now, when I am lucky enough to find myself in a very dark place after the sun goes down--
I look up.
Last week I was on vacation in California. We spent some time with family in the Bay area, then we headed east to Sequoia National Park. We stayed in the nearest town (to the south entrance), a place called Three Rivers. It is at the bottom of the mountain, and while an hour’s drive and a few thousand feet elevation gain will put you smack in the middle of lush forest and the largest trees on earth-- Three Rivers itself is in the desert. So when I heard there was a meteor shower on track to peak while we were there, I knew where I’d be at night.
Y’all--my fam punked out on me! Every one of them. Even the 10-year-old science nerd. I guess several days of hiking, horseback riding, river-swimming and daily mandatory ice cream breaks (yeah, it was a rough trip all around) was just too much. Come nightfall, everybody was all done in. Evening alone in the dark and total quiet? Don’t mind if I do. (Like I said, rough trip).
Here’s what I quickly remembered about desert nights as I settled into my chair. Well, first of all, I remembered that you can hear ALL SORTS OF CREATURES scurrying about in the desert at night, and if you’re going to enjoy the sky view, you have to just not overthink it. There are other eyes--and feet, and possibly tails--out there enjoying the view and the evening snacks with you. Live and let live and just don’t go outside barefoot. Trust.
More importantly, I remembered that you can’t look too hard. If you want to take it all in-- or at least, all that you physically can take in, because there is so much the naked eye will just never see--you have to just sort of let your gaze drift and settle, and be as UNfocused as possible. In other words, if you are trying too hard to see something, you won’t see anything.
But if you are there and just present and still, (which, let’s be real, is not my spiritual gift) you will inevitably see something spectacular.
Maybe it’s not right in front of you though. Maybe it’s way off to the left, and you just catch a glimpse out of the corner of your eye. Or maybe it’s straight up above your head, higher than you would normally be inclined to look because who can hold their head at that angle for very long?
By some mystery of the universe, it is the not trying too hard that makes things visible. From the slightest movement to the most spectacular streak of light, somehow, your eye only catches it when not occupied with seeking it out.
And that, somehow, will preach.
Exhausted from trying to figure out what’s next, or where you should be going, or how you’re going to get there? Be still a minute. Maybe the path appears. You’ll see it in the periphery when you quit looking.
Overly focused on something you lost... or never had but feel like you should have? Let your eye settle on some nondescript point on the horizon--out of the corner of your eye, you might see something spectacular that you never knew was there.
Sitting in a dark place? Alone, turned around, aware of the unsettling sounds of wildlife all around you and realizing how vulnerable you are? Lean into that empty space. The darkness is inherently gorgeous.
It holds all the mystery of the world.
We’ve been conditioned to think that ‘darkness’ is inherently undesirable. Make no mistake, there are racist implications with that imagery. White supremacy is just as baked into our cultural assumptions as the certainty that light = good and dark = evil. As an English major hopelessly married to metaphor, I get the power of those images. They are canon, in more ways than one. But in trying to better understand implicit bias and white privilege, I also see how those associations are rooted in some of our baser instincts, the buried places where we’ve been programmed to value whiteness over that which is dark. That is some next level colonialism/Manifest Destiny kind of mess right there.
Can we ever unsee it? Can we possibly extract ourselves from this damaged way of seeing the world, and ourselves in it? Maybe if we can hold space for what’s out there--beyond what our eyes know how to look for. Maybe if we can learn the beauty of sitting in the darkness.
Oh the joys of a summer trip to the library… my kids piling up more books than they can carry, me grabbing a few new release novels that will inevitably rack up late fees, and a few things I’ll never actually read (cause you’ve gotta have a backup)-- and then going home for an afternoon of family reading time and maybe getting ice cream drips on a few pages. Bliss.
This was one of the things I missed most during the pandemic. Our library was entirely closed for the longest time, and then they did “curbside pickup only” which was fine but all things considered, hard to plan for and utterly unsatisfying. I missed the roaming and browsing, and the flexibility to just go when we had a few minutes and were in the neighborhood. I missed finding and picking up things I’d never heard of. I missed watching my kids go to their favorite sections and totally nerd out over things I know nothing about.
Add these tiny joys to the long list of things I will never take for granted again.
Now the library is back! And it’s summer! Let the people rejoice. Also… what are we reading??
While I had a hard time focusing on ANYthing early in the pandemic, I got my reading mojo back about 6 months ago. I’ve also discovered the gift of audiobooks in recent times, so between the actual paper reading and the listening, I’ve covered some pretty good territory this year. The past year-plus has been a good reminder that a book can take you places, even when you can't go anywhere. As we (hopefully) start to go ACTUAL places again, here are some titles that I highly recommend for your summer roadtrip/hammock-lounging/beach-bumming/mountain climbing/porch-sitting adventures.
Every one of these books, in its own way, has the ‘sense of place’ factor--which is to say, the power to take you places-- that makes a book magical. So whether you need a book to take on the road this summer, or you need a book to actually be the road that takes you--we’ve got you covered. Happy trails!
Yesterday I grabbed the last package of pecans from the baking aisle in Kroger. Clearly all of Louisville is doing what I’m doing today--baking Derby pies.
Shoot, I can’t say that. The official name is trademarked, so let’s just say, I am making chocolate pecan pie (or walnut, if you fancy), using a heavy hand with the bourbon. There may be some on the side for sipping.
Of course, when I say “all of Louisville,” I mean those in my fair city who are not actually going to Churchill Downs for the race. My confession is, I’ve never been to the track ON Derby Day. But honestly, if you aren’t going to pay a 5-digit ticket price for a luxury box, you are just going to stand in the muddy infield with all the drunk frat guys who don’t know the words to My Old Kentucky Home. No, thank you. I prefer to enjoy my pie with a few close friends, the NBC Sports’ view of the whole track, and bourbon refills that you don’t have to wait in line for.
You don’t have to be at the track to enjoy Derby Day. Actually-- you don’t even have to be in Kentucky to enjoy Derby Day.
I can attest to this after years of having lived “elsewhere,” marking the day as “National Homesick Kentuckian” day--crying into my bourbon even as we sang “weep no more, my lady,” sharing pie with whomever was around, and trying to help my friends and neighbors in Phoenix, then Kansas City, understand what this whole thing was about. Because if you know, you know, but if you DON’T know… well, it just seems like a big lot of fuss for a horse race.
In those away years, I always tried to share the experience with the people in my proximity as best I could. I would say that my transplanted traditions ‘took’ better in some locales than they did in others… But everywhere, everybody loved pie. You can’t argue with the power of pie.
In fact, I have made and shared Derby Pie in so many other places, with so many other gatherings that now, this thing that used to make me homesick for Kentucky now makes me homesick for other places and people. How is that possible? This is Kentucky’s THING! Kentucky’s day. And yet-- anyplace I’ve taken this pie is also home.
I guess home is where your pie is.
This time last year, COVID-19 meant no Derby… Churchill Downs, like every other public place, was shut down tight and silent. The race was postponed until September when, in a truly spooky and post-apocalyptic feeling broadcast, the horses ran with no spectators. No juleps, no fancy hats, no drunken frat guys singing the wrong words loudly…just the sound of hooves on dirt. It was as though the whole pandemic had been distilled into a single, empty, two minute event.
We gathered on our patio with a small group of friends, the T.V. having been moved outside for a socially-distanced watch party. As the opening strains of Stephen Foster carried across the airwaves from that impossibly empty place, my daughter said, “are you CRYING?” like it was weird or something to be crying over a horse race. I said “every Kentuckian everywhere is crying right now. Believe me.”
If you know, you know. But if you don’t know… well, it just seems like a big lot of fuss for a horse race.
Watching the race from just a few miles away that day felt a lot like watching it from Arizona. So close, but so far… So removed from the place itself, but so connected to every other homesick Kentuckian in the world, every other piece of traveling pie...
I will watch again today-- on a friend's patio, from just a few miles away. While Churchill Downs will be at about half capacity, there will be spectators. But I don't feel the need to be there in person.
It is possible to feel homesick even when you are at home. It is possible to feel connected to home, even when you are nowhere near it in proximity. And it is not just possible, but highly probable, that a certain food, or song, or sound of hooves-on-turf, can transport you instantly from home to elsewhere, and back again. Because home is not so much a place as a longing; a thing that you take with you everywhere and, hopefully, share with anyone who happens to be in your orbit.
Home is where your pie is.
“It is getting tricky for me to fix your hair... I feel like I am having to reach UP for the top of your head.”
It was the night before her first day of in-person school. After a year-plus of at-home virtual learning, 8 months into her 6th grade year, she was actually going to be in the building. This gradual, part-time ease into school at the very end of the year felt incredibly anti-climactic in some ways. But in others, it was huge.
And so, I realized, was my daughter.
For the last year or so, she has been allllllllmost as tall as me. Starting to borrow my shoes. She walked up to me the other day while I was standing in line at the grocery store, put her arm around me and said, “what’s up, Shorty?” And she was looking me square in the eye.
And here we were, on the eve of her real live Middle School career-- asking me for a rare blow-dry because FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL (even if it is April); and I realized that the window of her being the same height as me had lasted all of 24 hours. I was literally reaching UP.
“Wait, turn around,” I said. I shifted her around so we were standing back to back in the mirror, and there it was. It was obvious-- this child is taller than me.
This will surprise no one who knows my family. I am 5’2”, so being “taller than mom” is not a huge achievement around here. And my husband is 6’7” in his socks, so we all knew this day of reckoning with his gene pool was coming for me.
She had a moment of delighted, if slightly baffled laughter, as I looked UP at this child I created from scratch. And then she said, all seriousness, "I could sit in a chair, if you need me to..."
It may come to that soon, it really might. But for now, I can still reach her. And for now, I am just sitting here in awe at how much time marches on. Even in a lock-down year when time seemed to be standing still most days. The kids were growing-- and growing right past me--every second.
* * *
We have this little dog, a Jack Russell(ish) named Van Halen. He is mostly just “Van,” unless he’s in trouble, in which case it is his full name. We got him from a rescue when he was probably a year to two years old. This was a year before our daughter was born, so we calculate his age as “Harper-plus-2.” Which means he is probably about 14 now. Maybe 15, at the high end of counting.
I don’t have to tell you that, in dog years, that is getting up there.
He still gets around pretty well for an old man, though he is starting to do strange old dog things. He doesn’t hear very well so you have to get really close to call him now. He is getting much less tolerant of small children, strangers, and really, people in general who want to touch him or be in his space. And most recently--sometimes, in the evening, he will just cry for awhile.
It is truly pitiful to see this dog who has always been so full of life and boundless energy just roaming or sitting in his favorite chair, whining for no apparent reason. I have figured out this behavior correlates with Tuesday nights, when dad has band practice at a friend’s house and is out late. When he’s gone to work during the day, Van is fine. But if it gets past dark and he’s not around, there is something unsettling about that for the dog. I wonder if it is, in some ways, a creeping doubt about his ability to be the Alpha and protect the family when his man-person isn’t home.
Then again, perhaps I am reading too much into the existential struggles of a dog. Maybe his joints just hurt more at night. Maybe he needs more attention.
Maybe he is just sad.
Or maybe he knows that, even in the times when every day seems the same, when a year goes by and we’ve scarcely left the house, when nothing else has been certain or predictable or really seemed to “happen” at all… time just keeps coming. And at some point, we stop growing and just get older.
* * *
Wednesday was the weirdest weather day I have ever experienced. And I’ve lived in Kansas, where you can have a blizzard one day and a tornado the next. I’ve lived in Arizona, where the “fall” means you need a heavy jacket in the morning, and by afternoon it will be 105 in the shade.
We woke up, this third week of April in Kentucky, to snow on the ground. By late morning, the sun came out, and the snow was melting in huge, clumsy clumps that sounded like someone throwing snowballs at my roof. By noon, it was sunny and all the snow was gone.
And then, about 2pm, it started snowing again. Big heavy, wet snow that stuck to nothing, but came down for a solid several hours all the same. It went on like this all afternoon.
By 6pm, we were at baseball practice and the sun was shining. It was bizarre.
They say if you don’t like the weather in Kentucky, stay for 24 hours and it will change. In this case, it was more like 10 hours-- from Spring to Winter and back to Spring again. Like I say, bizarre. But also, a stunning reminder that this, too shall pass. That the sun always comes back eventually. And that a whole season can fly by in what seems like a moment.
We are, all of us, in deep time. Sometimes we can feel it ticking by in minutes and days; at other times, we catch a glimpse of what it is to measure in lifetimes, generations, eons. The tree at the National Park that is a thousand years old. The artifact at the museum that is ten thousand years old. The outline of the Appalachian Mountains that defy calculation, but speak to time that has begun turning back on itself--grinding back to the dust what it once drew out of the bedrock.
* * *
By the time she went to bed, on the night before the “first” day of school, my daughter was finding less hilarity in her ability to look down at her mother. “I don’t want to be taller than you,” she said. “I like being AS tall as you… but I don’t want to be taller.”
“Yeah, but here we are,” I said. “What can I say, you’ve got your daddy’s legs. We knew this day was coming for us.” It is some consolation to her, I suppose, that she can steal my shoes now. For now.
As with all things that grow, evolve, or live out their season, it is somehow both the most unsettling and the most comforting truth imaginable: that time can crawl, or time can fly by-- but it is always, always moving. And bringing us along in its wake.
Tonight I pray for the most hated man in America.
Not that he be comforted.
Not that he find peace.
But that he might know a thing we call
Because if there might ever be a moment of
“Dear God, what have I done,”
If there might be a shock of horror
At glancing in the mirror,
A slight shudder of
“Whose blood is this on my hands?”
Then maybe there can be this thing that we sometimes call
Tonight I pray for the most hated man,
For the ones who handed him a gun.
For a nation that raised him to fear brown people,
Grew him up to worship the idol of his own whiteness,
And then handed him a gun again, saying
“Here, go protect us
From that one over there,
With his hands pinned behind him.
Go shield us from that man,
Calling out for his mother.”
Let there be a collective sigh tonight of
Lord hear our prayer
And what is it that we have done?
And may we someday fully account for
the number of souls,
Whose blood runs in rivers down city streets
In all this shining, sinful land.
Tonight I will pray for the most hated man,
For all the terror that the bars won’t keep out,
For all the rage that the walls hold in.
Not for his comfort.
Not for his peace.
But that he might know a thing that we call
Transformation-- even if we little know
What it means.
And I pray that he might,
For the rest of his captive days,
Speak with reverence the name of the one
Whose breath he stopped
On bended knee.
“Um, it’s my turn to Take a Selfish.” “No, David. You selfished last time.”
This is one of my favorite sibling moments on Schitt’s Creek, and it comes early in the show when we are still learning that David and Alexis do, for all their dysfunction, have a unique sibling bond. In this moment, you a) hear them speak in sib-code, which only people who have been close for many years can do, and b) get a little more of their backstory as they argue about who last took a selfish, and for what purpose. Part of the beauty of a well-written show is that they don’t have to stop here and explain (for the viewers’ benefit) what it means to “take a selfish.” Even if we don’t have that particular shorthand for it, hopefully we are lucky enough to have a few close relationships-- a sibling, a spouse, a lifelong friend--with whom we have such a history… meaning that we have the space to, occasionally, take a selfish.
I don't know about y'all, but I feel like I’ve been taking a selfish for a solid year.
As the world (or at least our privileged, nearly-vaccinated corner of it) eases back into some semblance of a new normal, I’ve heard a lot of people refer to a “lost year.” A year with no school, no family gatherings, no travel...maybe little work, or few interactions with those outside the home. I respect the sentiment, but I don’t really think of the year as ‘lost.’ Time went on, the seasons changed, and life continued to happen, even if it wasn’t what we were used to. But I am starting to think of it as a selfish year. At least, for me.
For many people, this season has been anything but a selfish one. For healthcare workers, it has been the most demanding time imaginable. For those who are caregivers for elderly or ill family members, it has taken everything they’ve had to give. Educators and other school staff, who have scrambled to keep reaching kids amid unthinkable challenges and constantly changing protocols-- these are the least selfish folks I know.
But me? I feel like I’ve spent a year nesting in, focused entirely on myself and my own family. Granted, in a global pandemic, that’s what we’re supposed to do-- survive and care for the people in our bubble. If we are not frontline workers or caregivers, our best contribution throughout this ordeal has been to stay home; to keep our family’s germs out of the mix so that others could do what they needed to do without added risk of exposure, and without us taking up space in a crowded hospital. But other than keeping my own family safe, and contributing financially to some folks I thought were doing good work… well, it has been a selfish year.
Even knowing that this was not entirely a bad thing (and not entirely avoidable), it seems like now it is going to be difficult-- or at least, take some intention--to break out of this mindset. I’ve always tried to live as an outwardly focused person. But a year of being physically grounded has turned me inward, and I suspect I’m not the only one. How do we go back to living out there in a bigger world? Making room for other people? Reaching out instead of huddling in?
My hunch is, it will not be a switch that we can flip by sheer will. “I CALL AN UNSELFISH!”
Nope. Didn’t work.
I don’t know, fam. I don’t know how we break out of the fortresses we have built from necessity. All I can say is, if you have spent this season of quarantine out there serving others, thank you. And if you have spent it at home, doing your part to dampen the curve, then thank you for that, too. My hope is that whatever comes next will be informed by the spirit in which we have done both things-- that the communities we build (or rebuild) now will have the foundation of all our best, unselfish intentions.
One of the things that has brought me joy in this season has been watching Schitt’s Creek (okay, twice) and finally getting what all of the fuss is about. Initially, I couldn’t get into it. Like many others, I said “These characters are terrible people! I don’t care what happens to them!” If you are still in that place, reader, let me tell you-- it gets better. They are, at the outset, shallow and utterly selfish, yet. They are a family that has built an inwardly focused world because wealth and privilege has allowed them to do so. In those early episodes, they don’t know how to connect with each other, let alone this strange little town where they find themselves sequestered.
But--pardon the small spoiler, this is important--it story of the Rose family is ultimately a story of transformation. The journey of people who experience a crisis of loss as a moment to shift their focus and broaden their world; to realize that they are, in fact, part of a wider community, whether they initially like it or not; that they have responsibility to take part in the world around them and, a foreign concept to them, their neighbors actually care about them too. Part of why the first season is so hard to watch is because they are resisting this reality in which they belong to other people. It is a selfish year. But in the end, they have all grown into people you can relate to; brilliantly flawed characters who have learned how to meaningfully participate in the world around them.
Perhaps it can happen that way.
I've spent most of the week in the Blue Ridge mountains, on a much needed Spring Break trip with my fam and our friends/framily. (I hate that word, because it is so precious. But also, it is the right word sometimes. Especially during these quarantine days, when ‘framily’ are the only people we have had around for more than a year).
After a few days of driving and hiking these mountains--on a day when we have some particularly squirrelly kids in the backseat, and a confused/homesick dog, and the men-folk are out doing mountain men mountain biking things-- I say to my friend, “is it just me, or do all these trees look...dead?”
I mean, everything else is blooming. There are flowers everywhere, and the evergreen brand of trees are looking all bright and aggressively spring-like, and the grass is neon green and just begging to be a deer snack, and life in general is coming up roses. But half of the trees in the forest around us seem… well, they have seen better days. “A little sus,” as the kids would say. Completely dry, barren and brown. Kindling. It’s not looking good. But maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about?
“No,” my friend says, “I thought so too.”
It really does look like half the Pisgah National forest has just decided to call it. Pandemic year + climate change + downfall of civilization. Who would blame a tree for just giving up the ghost?
I was concerned. For the hawks swooping hopefully overhead. For that deer in the road that stopped and, I swear, looked us dead in the eye for a second before sighing and sauntering off into her dying habitat. For the bears that supposedly lurked in the shadows, waiting to eat our trash--but who had remained on the DL for the duration of spring break and so, must surely lurk on the brink of extinction as well.
It is possible we’re all in a fatalistic mood these days. Can you blame us? Because, let’s be real. Look around. The earth is a dying life form. We are just accessories.
But on the third day…
Early in the morning, on the third day, while it was still dark--it started to rain.
I don’t mean a cute little spring shower. I’m talking cats and dogs here. A gully-washer, a deluge, a downpour. For about 12 hours straight.
The earth got a generous soaking while we slept. And by mid-morning, when I ventured out onto the porch with my coffee (and if there is anything better than vacation coffee on the porch, in the mountains, in the rain, then I don’t know what), the first thing I noticed was--green. Everywhere.
All those dead-looking trees had bloomed overnight. In the cold, in the dark, in the holler, a tiny bud just waited to be called out by the rain. In its time, it came.
Maybe Ma Nature didn’t get the memo that Easter was not for a few more days yet. But she beats the pants off the liturgical calendar, every single time.
For my money, in this year that has felt like one long winter/Lent/Holy Week of holding our collective breath, the breathtaking suddenness of that green was about all the church I needed.
As Roethke said: "deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light." Everything in its season. All things bloom in good time.
Or, if you prefer the gospel of Springsteen: "everything dies, baby, that's a fact/but maybe everything that dies someday comes back."
May it be so. Amen.
How much time is too much time to spend reading Air BnB reviews? Asking for a friend...
Since we all know the friend is me, I’ll just tell you that I'm in vacation planning mode, and no help for it. Once I get here, you may not see me for awhile. I can spend hours, days, weeks, just perusing locations and destinations. And I’m perfectly happy about that. In fact-- few things make me happier.
It has always been thus. But after a year of quarantine, my vacay planning vibes are just extra at the moment. I've decided to lean into rather than away because really, it's kind of a freight train situation and I couldn't stop it if I wanted to.
Before you holler at me that THE PANDEMIC IS NOT OVER-- I know this. I do. I am looking at reasonably remote locations. We will wear masks. We avoid crowds. We will eat outdoors or cook for ourselves whenever possible.
But still. The very idea of being able to plan a trip is a joyful thing after this never ending lockdown winter. And when I heard that every adult in Kentucky would be vaccine-eligible by April--and since I have a 4th grader, and every 4th grader in America gets a free National Parks pass for their family through the National Parks Foundation [to which I am a regular donor, so I guess I'm technically paying for it, but still]-- it kind of feels like the whole universe is saying: go.
So I dusted off an old favorite book that is literally falling apart from overuse, if not recent use: Frommer's Guide To National Parks of the American West.
In our younger (read: pre-kid) days, my husband and I wore this thing slick out. When we moved from Kentucky to Arizona, we took 6 weeks off between jobs and did an epic tour of the west. He still had his Marriott employee discount at that point, so we would camp for 3 or 4 nights, then find a hotel so we could shower and do laundry or whatever. Then we’d drive awhile and to it again. It was one of the best times in my life.
We’d been married for two years at that point, but I think that is the trip when we learned to Be Married. We learned to be really on our own, away from all our other people; we learned what a 5,000 mile road trip will do to your car (even a Toyota); we learned how to fight, and how to just let shit go; we learned to navigate.
And when I say navigate, yes, I mean both literally and figuratively. But I also mean, without smartphones or GPS devices. Can you even remember those days?
Sometimes, it is beyond my reckoning how we used to get around town, much less across the country. But as I flipped through my ancient Frommer’s guide, and I see all the notes and underlines and circles that 20-years-ago-me thought were interesting or important-- I remember that we really did just have that book and an atlas. And we just went.
We had cell phones, but they didn’t do much. They didn’t even have signal half the time, especially in the wilds of Zion or Yellowstone. No navigation. No TripAdvisor app, telling us where to find the best burger in Montana. No AirBnB finding us a place to stay when we couldn’t find our preferred (heavily discounted) chain. No roadside assistance on speed dial when we had a busted tire in East Jesus, Utah; or a completely melted car battery in Idaho. These were things we had to just… figure out.
And I guess we did.
Once we settled in Arizona, we still made good use of that gospel. Day trips, weekend trips, week-long vacations-- when you live in that part of the world, all these amazing places are right in your backyard. And so we went.
Flipping through this book is a trip, in more ways than one. It has phone numbers-- actual phone numbers, you guys-- to call visitor centers in various park-adjacent towns. To ask the nice, helpful folks where you should stay, plan your hikes, see if they can help you book a campground… can you imagine calling an actual person for that?? Like you can’t just sit down at your laptop with your Saturday morning coffee and read the traveler reviews of thousands who’ve gone before you?
It reminds me of this whole other world we used to inhabit. It’s not a bad place to visit, by any stretch. I have never felt so free in my life as I did during those nomad weeks, deciding each day where we would pitch our tent-- literally. But it does draw into sharp relief how much things have changed. Not just in the past two decades, but the past year.
We all know that much about the travel industry has changed, at least for the short term. Fewer people on planes, masks everywhere, more outdoor dining, lowered capacity at museums and other tourist spots… but I am noticing some things about what I’m looking now for as well.
For instance, I’ve always avoided crowds, tourist traps, and “high season” as much as possible. But my reluctance to book in really popular locales is kind of next-level at the moment. You could not pay me enough to go to a theme park this year-- possibly ever again.
And miss me with any rental or reservation that does not have a very generous cancellation policy. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that things can fall apart quickly. Flexible travel is the only travel left, as far as I’m concerned.
My hunch is that, as the ice breaks and more of us begin to venture out, much will change about the way we travel; and some of that change will be permanent. Our ways of thinking and interacting with the world have undergone a radical transformation over the past year-- and we are only beginning to glimpse what this new world will be.
We are writing the book of these days as we speak. In 20 years, we will read it again and marvel at how we used to do things. Or rather- how quickly we found a new way of doing things.
One thing that I know has not changed: travel is healing, and restorative in a way that few other things can be. The family time, the off-grid time, the ‘see where the wind blows us today’ feeling that can only be accomplished when you leave your work and your stuff and your walls behind… for many of us, this is soul movement. How we get there may look different--whether for the short term, or forever-- but as for me and my house, we will go.
And, as with much of life-- we’ll figure it out when we get there.