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.
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.
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.
I got braces this week. And not the magic “invisible” kind. Full on wires, metal brackets, the whole deal.
It’s kind of a long story, involving years of jaw problems that, ironically, multiple professionals have told me were CAUSED by the orthodontia I had when I was younger. It was pretty extensive, involving a couple years in a palate expander, some other tedious procedures, and nearly 5 years in braces. (When they finally came off my senior year of high school, all I wanted to do was kiss boys, free of hardware). Apparently, in the old days, all they cared about was the aesthetics of getting our teeth straight and pretty. They weren’t looking at our whole bodies, considering things like growth and alignment. And so, for a lot of us, all that manipulating caused longer term, whole body issues.
The irony is not lost on me that I am wearing braces to fix issues caused by braces. If I overthink that it keeps me up nights.
I feel like a teenager again, and not in a good way. Much of the experience is exactly as I remember -- the cuts and scrapes on the inside of your mouth, the difficulty of learning to eat and talk around the metal, and the feeling of some foreign body being always a part of your body… But here’s what’s interesting-- I also remember my mouth being really, really sore the first few days after getting a new wire on. But this time, there is no pain. Well, aside from the minor lacerations on the inside of my lip, but you know. My actual teeth aren’t sore.
Could it be that my teeth remember where they are supposed to go from all those past years of wrangling, and so they just snapped back to attention immediately with no fuss or drama?
Our bodies are amazing. They remember.
I used to be a dancer, and to this day, I can easily fall into certain kinds of movement without even thinking about it. A certain song will make me remember an entire combination, something I must have practiced hundreds of times before a performance or competition. While the execution might be lacking, the muscles remember. I mean, I can no longer manage a toe touch in the air and land in the splits; and for the safety of all around me, will not attempt such things at 40-plus. But my muscles remember how to get there, and what to do next, and how to move into the next thing after that. I dance in my sleep sometimes.
During the pandemic I’ve gotten on the virtual fitness train. I’ve been doing a lot of HiiT and weight training, but was getting bored with that. I thought I’d try the whole Barre thing that is all the rage, and I was so happy when I realized it was not just a ballet-based workout but actual ballet. I was ready to dig out ballet shoes and go get my old barre from my mom’s basement.
It was not lost on me that this ‘workout’ is comprised of exercises that, at one time, were just a warm-up for hours of actual dancing--but still! I was all in.
A few days into this new routine, my hips started hurting. I thought it might be my desk chair, or my shoes, or some other external factor. But by process of elimination I figured out that the real culprit was the ballet life I was trying to reclaim. My hips just did not want to do that anymore.
For the uninitiated, ballet--even just the warmup barre exercise--requires a certain rotation from the hips, a “turnout” that you hold through every movement. If you have not been training your body to turn out for years, it does not come easily. In fact-- I never had great turnout, because I didn’t start ballet until I was about 13. At which point, you are basically grown. There are many things you can learn and condition your body to do. But turnout is just not one of them.
Which I just recently remembered. Or rather, my muscles remembered for me.
My body told me that I am a grown-ass woman and somebody’s mother and maybe now is not the time to dust off my dreams of being a professional ballerina. And I’d better not dare even THINK about trying on some toe shoes.
However, there are plenty of miraculous things my body is capable of, dance related and otherwise, that need not cause pain and suffering.
On a side note, I’m concerned that the fitness industry is pushing these ballet-based fitness regimes for grown adults whose joints and muscles are not trained to turn that way. I’m wondering how many other middle aged women are waking up with aches and pains that they think they just need to power through, like any other sore muscle, not realizing that there is something really unnatural about some of those movements, and that your body will actively protest if you haven’t been working towards this since you were 5.
On a more existential note, I’m just over here marveling at what our bodies remember, for better or worse. And what they can tell us, if we listen.
Speaking of listening-- we have a new podcast episode! Check out our interview with Kory Caudill, one of the top pianists in the world. (And we aren't just saying that because he's our people).
It's 5pm. You've spent the past 8 to 10 hours of your life on a computer. Possibly multiple computers. You've oscillated between screens and tabs; you've written documents, powered through hours-long Zoom calls, helped your kids with "new math" and any number of technical difficulties with remote learning, answered a few texts, read and written more emails than you care to count; and/or stared at a spreadsheet until the little lines start to dance and possibly talk to you.
Is it really only 5:00?? If it is, and if you are calling it a day, then good job. Many of us working from home these days-- or even working at a real live actual office-- have trouble punching out and logging off at a designated hour. With these strange days of multi-tasking work, school and household management--often from the same space--the lines between 'work' and 'not work' hours blur easily. You may step away at a certain time but... well, if your office is in your house, you are really still there, aren't you?
Regardless of your live/work situation, the bottom line is that most of us are spending many, many hours looking at screens on any given day. And often long past 5pm. We are looking at screens to pay the bills and order groceries online. Screens dominate our entertainment and social lives too- interactive video games, virtual happy hour with friends, and of course, the binge watching. Netflix, Prime, Hulu, Peacock...wherever you choose your escapist plot lines.
Which is to say: many of us are in full-on sensory overload mode a whole lot of the time. And in such a state, the gift of being able to sit and LISTEN to something without having to LOOK at something is wonderfully life-giving and possibly even healing. Whether it is music, news radio, or an audiobook, the sound nurtures another part of the brain. We learn something, we spark our creative energy (who knew that was still there??), we might even find ourselves feeling rested and renewed.
Maybe this is why podcasts have taken off as a new favorite medium--we are tired of looking at stuff. We just want to listen.
All that said, dear reader, thanks for hanging in and reading this far, getting through all these WORDS on a screen to get around to what I'm really here to tell you:
today, we are launching a new podcast!
And by "we," I mean me and my little brother. Chris and I have always talked about how much we'd love to work in radio, or how great it would be to have a show. One day recently, the pieces just started coming together, and even though it all happened quickly, this first episode feels like a thing we've been planning for a long time.
So with that, let me introduce you to the pilot episode:
Most folks have a small town somewhere in their past.
And for many of us: it’s complicated.
“Where Y’all From” explores the often fraught relationship between where we’re from and who we are. In this pilot episode, brother-sister cohosts Chris Smallwood and Erin Wathen introduce their hometown of London, Kentucky, sharing thoughts on "global chicken" (also known as KFC), local flavor, and the funky Americana that makes all of our small towns feel like home.
In future episodes, we will interview guests -- mostly, folks who are from small towns but no longer live there anymore. We will ask them about what foods and funky facts make their hometown unique; we will talk about how they place they come from impacts who they are and what they do; and we will talk about the complicated tensions of being homesick for a place where you don't really want to live...or maybe you do, but you can't.
Our hope is that time spent listening to us, and our guests, will feel like a retreat from routine and other demands. We want you to feel like you've been someplace. We hope to leave you feeling inspired. After hearing other folks talk about the places they're from, you might even come away feeling a little bit more connected to your own community, your own story, your own sense of place in the world.
So with that very long introduction, may we present, Episode 1: Global Chicken.
We are dust, you know?
It need not be a churchy thing, to think about this.
It need not always be marked on our heads,
the dark stain of our living and someday dying.
It is a thing we know in our bones,
maybe especially when we have been sequestered for
going on a year that feels like many more.
Do we need to cover our faces with dirt,
when already they are masked
when already we know that even breathing can be
a dangerous business in these frail human forms?
We are plenty practiced in rending our hearts,
have scattered ashes far and wide
to the very ends of the earth.
We are covered in dust.
Have been daily called up into this knowing
of our eventual end.
We are marked. We are reminded.
This season is redundant.
And what can we give up or lay down
that has not already been taken?
What small joy or comfort has not already been added
to the long list of things unsafe, untouchable?
we lean towards a dim winter light
that lingers near the corners
where two dark lines cross in the middle.
And let the artist's stroke tell the story
of all the miraculous life
that dwells in dust and darkness
all the beginnings marked by ashes
and the endless wonder of having
nothing left to lay down.
Americans will spend about 21.8 Billion dollars buying Valentine's stuff this year.
That's nearly $4 billion more than it was last time I looked up that number, about 4 years ago.
When I think about what we could do, collectively, with nearly $22 billion, it boggles the mind. No, scratch that-- it literally breaks my heart.
For one thing, it would cover our National Parks budget for about 8 years. Or fund the National Endowment for the Arts for a few decades. How many hungry children could be fed? Student loans forgiven? Refugees resettled?
We could make a longer list, but you get my point- we have the resources in this country to do so much collective good; to meet so many needs; to solve so many complex problems. But when you come right down to it-- our hearts are just in all the wrong places.
Valentine's Day itself is not the problem. A holiday designated for love? Sure. Fantastic. But... when did “love” get saddled with all this stuff? Billions and billions of dollars worth of stuff?
I’d venture that most of the billions are spent on flowers, jewelry, stuffed animals, and any other number of things that come in the shape of a heart. Which, by Monday, will be marked down 80% at Walgreen’s and Target and every other store in America. Not long after that, much of it will be in a landfill.
This holiday is just one of many that draws attention to our consumer sickness. That sickness is big, and multi-layered, and it’s not Saint Valentine’s fault. It’s also not the fault of Baby Jesus or the Easter Bunny; or Saint Patrick, the Great Pumpkin or Uncle Sam. On every one of these days, we wade through the sea of sugar and cheap plastic crap that will ultimately flood the landfills we use to hide our addiction. The dam will only hold for so long.
So there’s an environmental concern, and a sweatshop concern. But more than anything, there's a heart concern, underlying all the paper and diamond ones. The real emptiness that might make us feel like we *have* to buy this stuff, or else we have somehow failed at the whole love thing.
More to the point, this is an illumination of the scarcity mentality… The one that tells us we cannot possibly afford to insure all of our children–or educate them, or provide them with clean water and air, or protect the resources for their retirement someday–when clearly, we have all the money in the world to spend on… What, exactly? Another engraved picture frame? Another charm for that bracelet? Another bear holding a heart? (What can I say, SNL gets it).
Can we fix all of these complex problems by abstaining from flowers and stuffed animals today? Maybe not. But practicing a bit of mindfulness about our own spending and gifting can go a long way to change our thinking about what is needed, what is important, and what is worthwhile. And that shift might, in turn, change our thinking about what we can, and cannot afford… As a family, as a country, and as people who have to inhabit this earth together long after the landfills overflow and the rivers run dry.
Here are a few ideas for how to celebrate this day of love without breaking the bank–or contributing to our collective national junk pile.
This is modified for COVID times from a post that originally appeared on Patheos.
How’s your creative energy these days? Mine is in the tank. I hear that’s going around.
The guitar I bought last summer has not been touched in months. I have little bandwidth for reading. I cook the same rotation of things for dinner pretty much every couple of weeks. Playing with my kids? Forget about it. (An as-yet unnamed grief for me in pandemic times is that I started it with two kids, but will emerge on the far side of it with two tweens/almost teenagers. Like all of us, they have grown up fast this year.) I spend time with them, yes. But anything that could be construed as creative ‘play’ has mostly left the building. Not only are they on the verge of being too big for such things-- I just don’t have it in me to pretend things these days. That part of my brain is off the clock.
As for writing-- I’ve tried explaining to friends and fam why I have chronic writers block when, in theory, I should have all the time in the world to write. I have no travel, no daily commute, no social engagements, no evenings and weekends spent running kids to endless activities, and few of the errands that can consume us in normal times. I’ve been stumped.
It makes easy sense, at some levels. I read somewhere that the part of our brains usually devoted to creativity is now devoted to processing endless changes to our ‘normal,’ facing a relentless string of daily decisions in this new reality, and, you know, staying alive during a global pandemic. Not to mention that the 4 people in this house are almost always in this house. One of them frequently banging on drums. So there’s that.
Still. I look around my house and think to myself: I’m always HERE, why can I not spend a few hours a day doing this thing I love?
And then it occurred to me-- I’m always HERE. But what I write about is OUT THERE.
Just as I dearly love to read a book that has a strong sense of place, I also write with a sense of place. Both content and form are shaped by my physical location, in more ways than one. It is, in part, about geography: I am a different writer in one landscape than I am in another. When I lived in Arizona, the desert itself found its way into my voice, in some ways that stayed with me and some ways that I lost when I left. Living in Kansas, I never really connected with the Midwest scenery in the same way; but what I wrote was still profoundly shaped by the people around me and the community where I lived.
Beyond that, I had physical spaces in which to write. A favorite coffee shop, a favorite bar, a favorite corner of the library.... I had quiet places, and places with a low hum of activity. Even when I was not writing, I was places- church, the gym, my kids’ school, people’s homes, hospitals, bars and restaurants, my daughter’s dance studio, my son’s baseball practice… Our days were an endless cascade of nouns! People and places everywhere.
I may not have been writing about the places, but I was writing from them.
When we moved back to Kentucky, I was back to the climate, geography and culture that I knew in my bones. But working from home, I had to try a little harder to be out among the folks. I found a favorite coffee shop, a favorite corner of the library. A place to sit at church while I was waiting for the kids to be done with an activity. A two hour window of time to myself every Saturday while my daughter did her theater thing. And, of course, there was travel. Lots of it.
Over the course of a decade, from this litany of locations, I wrote two books, hundreds of sermons, and nearly a thousand blog posts. Who knew there were so many words in the world?
And now I am always… well, HERE.
I know what a privilege it is to be able to work from home, to be fairly sequestered in this place to stay healthy and keep others safe as well. I also know that this is all temporary. In the meantime, it helps my spirit tremendously to be able to name why we struggle to find creative space --when much of our lives are situated in a single place.
Despite my recent lack of focus, I did recently finish reading News of the World, by Paulette Giles. I saw the movie trailer, and well, you had me at Tom Hanks. Being a strong believer in finishing the book before starting the movie, I powered through the whole thing.
I’m a sucker for a good Western anyway, but this one just resonated deeply. The story itself is a great one, but more than that, I loved the landscape and the premise. In the post Civil War frontier of northern Texas, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kid travels from one small town to another, and he reads people the news. He curates selections from multiple publications, and people pay to come hear him read these stories.
It’s a great reminder that, well before the days of the 24-hour news cycle, the globalization of everything, and tiny devices that put the whole world at our fingertips, people-- many of whom could not read, and would never travel beyond their own county line-- craved a glimpse of the outside world. To hear those stories was an escape, yes, but it was something else. A connection to something much bigger, in a world that must have felt very small.
These days, our worlds have gotten very small again. And in many ways, that’s not entirely a bad thing. But something primal remains in our being that wants to be part of a bigger story. So just know, when you have trouble creating in your own space--which is likely the single space in which much of your life takes place these days-- that the longing for the story is, itself, the spark or creation. It is often drawn out by the people and places you orbit. But the essence remains, even when your orbit gets much smaller.
I have no magic formula for drawing out that creativity when time and space is acting against it. But remember that whether you are struggling to play your music, or paint your picture, or bake your masterpiece, or play cowboys with the kids and their stuffed animals... that story is still there, and will be called out in its time. The same creative energy that formed the world--that separated light from darkness and called up life from the depths of the earth-- it still moves, and moves in you. However quietly it might be stirring at the moment.
I will keep trying to write small things from the small world I inhabit these days. I will write about bread, and winter, and things that give us life while so much of it is standing still. I will write from memories of the desert, and long roads that used to call to me regularly, and are still out there somewhere. I will write about the people in my small orbit, and the news from this small corner of the world.
How about you? What are you creating these days? Or what is creating space in you?