that summer/winter life

The first time I saw the sign pointing one direction towards private staff housing and another towards Eagle Lake Camp, I felt like a subtle barrier had been thrown up between that place and the rest of the property. It was before I knew anything about camp; at first I just assumed that it was somebody’s house, separate from camp operations. It seemed like the sort of outlet one should tiptoe past in order not to disturb the residents. After we joined the Navigators camp staff ourselves, I learned that that’s where we’d be housed during the summers, and I became grateful for the subtle separation. And now that I do indeed live here three months a year, turning left at the sign that points right down towards camp, that separation has slowly diminished.

The distinction on the sign is important though: it directs the camp staff and camper families in the right direction; away from the private housing of people who live here full time without working here. Towards the business center of camp. Towards the beach and the blob, the cabins and the check-in tables. Away from the two and three year olds who are just trying to nap on a Sunday afternoon, and their mamas who need a few hours of quiet.

There is a similar distinction between the life we live at camp and the live we live away from camp. I never expected quite this level of separation between my off-season community and rhythms, and the changes we make “up the mountain”. Yet they exist. Our first summer, I expected to visit friends in the city rather frequently; if I came down every week to get our mail and we came down on the weekends, surely we’d have plenty of time to join the bar-b-ques, the Bible studies, drink coffee on our back patios of a Saturday morning together? But by the end of the summer, I had only seen one friend with any regularity, and that was because she planned to move across the country at the end of the summer.

Then August came, the tenth and final week of camp rolled around on a Sunday morning and rolled past on a Friday. Campers left, and then counselors, and then program coaches, and then we did. And I realized suddenly that the old wooden sign directing the summer staff in one direction and the families in another had never really kept us apart. The girls I’d discipled over the summer took pieces of my heart back to school all across the country and even straight up into Canada. Some of my friendships would be renewed the next summer and some would not and I realized as we moved back into the range of backyard cookouts and enthusiastic greetings at Sunday School drop-offs that I missed the summer piece of my life as much as I’d missed the winter piece through camp season.

I didn’t know how to reconcile these fragments at first. How could I maintain lasting friendships with people if I was going to be gone all summer? And how could I create real bonds at camp if I was only going to say goodbye – maybe forever – after ten weeks? And yet just like the private driveway up to staff housing that loops back around to form a circle with the road, there are unexpected connections through the pieces of my year that begin to thread them together.

Camp is an undeniable part of our lives and unless my husband wanted to change jobs, there’s no way simply wouldn’t move to camp for a quarter of every year. Yet our friends “down the mountain” have taken an interest in our camp life; they offer to come up for Chapel on Sundays and ask how they can pray for us through the summer. They ask about Grant’s role and my role and they flex their tight schedules to meet me for coffee when I do, finally, come down to collect our mail.

At camp, right when I wonder if I can keep my heart open for another season of loving hard and saying goodbye, I am met by people who have answered this same question with a warm and thorough yes. People I never expected to meet take time to learn my name and greet my toddler with high-fives. Counselors I thought I barely knew are giving me hugs, winning over love I didn’t know I had left to give. I find myself looking up strange combinations of names and numbers that make up Instagram usernames so that I can follow this one to Alaska and that one to Wisconsin through their long winters until I maybe see them in the spring.

Camp will always be seven miles from home as the crow flies and remain an hour’s drive on a good day. There will never be a complete reconciliation between these two halves of life. But the way I treat the distance matters. It makes a difference that I remain open to the love these separate communities have to give – to me and to each other. Perhaps they will always seem farther apart than they truly are, but it will always be up to me to see past the dividing ridges, to recognize how close and even intersecting these two sides of the same mountain are.

beauty will save the world

I have always loved this quote, even before I knew where it was from, but I have not always believed it. Even when I heard it perfectly illustrated at a conference about the arts – about the necessity of beauty – even then I didn’t believe it. There was a seed of Midwestern Baptist doubt that nothing, not even the beauty I crave like living water, could be so instrumental in saving the world. But yesterday I found a new layer of understanding.

I wish I could say it was a new understanding altogether but my spirit has rarely learned like that, in leaps and bounds. I grow slowly and deeply and my roots have to push deeper into a thing, a truth or a season or a reality, before I can see it slowly growing in my own life. The thing about beauty is it’s been growing on my heart for the past year and a half and only now can I shape into words how this belief is changing me.

But I don’t have to just believe that beauty will save the world anymore. I’ve heard stories so blatant they spell it out nice and slow for even those as stupid as me. The story I heard this spring was the story of a woman in a choral group that sang old latin hymns. She loved them for their beauty even though she didn’t believe the truth of them. And yet gradually, that beauty became so rooted in her heart that she began to wonder if these words about Christ and saving and hope could actually be true. There were other influences in the gradual renewal of her beliefs, but it began with the hymns of a dead language whose words were very much alive.

Yesterday it came home to me in my own way: I had tucked my toddler in for bed and stepped outside for a walk. We live in the woods, at camp, with other families: there were people who’d hear him if he cried, and I only wanted to walk the quarter-mile loop of the driveway a few times. There were birds singing. A sunset glow was gathering on the opposite hill. Wildflowers were blooming – some I know, like shooting stars and blue flags and golden smoke and alpine bluebells. Even more that I want to learn were pushing their blossoms up in places I didn’t expect, catching me off-guard with perfect tiny white blossoms and surprising fragrances. Last year’s rose hips marked the places where this year’s roses will bloom.

I walked in that wide loop for a long time, just savoring the freshness of the air and the presence of the flowers and the singing of the wind on the tops of the hills. It’s moments like that which give me the ability to go back to being a mama with more gentleness. Walking and solitude and beauty give me the chance to be restored. They save the way I talk to my toddler, or my husband or my friends. They change the way I write, process, imagine. They save the way I see the world, the way I understand beauty and its small saving graces. Yes, beauty will save the world, one wildflower, one tired mama at a time.

There’s hope in this knowledge; when I can’t find or get to beauty, I can know it still exists. It still changes things. It still saves in it’s own small God-made ways. And when I can, it saves me, sends me back to God again in ways that don’t quite happen in a church. Yes, beauty will save the world, sometimes whether we realize it or not.

your story

I have had a head cold for three weeks and counting now. I’m not even disgusted by going around the house, picking up my used tissues, or scooping up the pile of snotty toilet paper that’s inevitably accrued next to my bed each morning. I just do it. I’m tired of it, sure, and I cry with frustration sometimes when I just want to take a short walk without feeling exhausted or blowing my nose in the cold again, but whatever. I’ll get better eventually. (I’ve been to a doctor and there really is nothing serious wrong with me. Don’t worry.)

In an attempt to self-medicate against the discouragement of feeling like crap all the time, I’ve been binging good books, listening to all the podcasts, and enjoying conversations even though they kill my already-sore throat. But none of those things have had the substance I’m looking for. No matter which encouraging thing I listen to or what lovely ideas and lives I read about, they don’t really cheer me up. Because I start to get jealous. Even in the little conversations, envy of my friends’ non-congested voices and un-achy throats starts to creep in. I don’t like jealousy, and here it is even in the moments when I’m just trying to find a little courage.

I’ve never cemented the habit of simply not comparing myself to others. It’s ugly, written that bald-faced and plain, but it’s true. I compare my voice, my figure, my writing style, my perceived success to how I perceive theirs. I even compare the things I like doing to the things others like doing. Do I host like she does, do I have a vision like that, have I written anything that motivating, will I ever be able to publish as much as her?

I could, and should, ruminate instead on how full and beautiful my own life really is. I tend to forget that my own story is the one that matters most to me – not in a selfish way, but in a centering way, a way that recognizes the influence each of us has and uses it. I think when we pay too much attention to the stories we aren’t living, we make our own lives less effective, less deep and true. It’s like cleaning your house while you’re mentally planning a menu, and interrupting yourself to add to the grocery list. Nothing will get done the same way it will if, while you clean, you plan and focus and strategize how you intend to clean the house to your best ability. Not that our lives are really much like a house, but I think you can picture the difference between a clean house with the dishes drying on the counter, and a clean house with the counters bare and flowers arranged on the kitchen table.

We’ve got to come back to our own stories. I am realizing how imperative it is to really see our own lives, begin to recount the story of ourselves. Knowing where we are and where we came from is crucial if we want to see the beauty in where we are going. I know this all sounds vague, but I think acting on it is simple. Start noticing. See the people in your life, see the patterns, see the joy and the pain. Some of it needs changing, sure, but a lot of it is just good stuff, even if it’s hard good stuff. And be thankful, too. Recognize what is good and cling to that – write it down or photograph it or get a tattoo or throw a dinner party. Remind yourself where you fit in the grand scheme of humanity, of the Church; in your community, your family, your own house. Give yourself an orientation tour of this life you live, and then use your one sweet life to make that space beautiful.

And sure, it’s good to draw inspiration from the stories other people are living. Perhaps they’ve had ideas that sparked your own. Perhaps their story was the courage you needed one day. But don’t settle into comparison. Take that courage and turn it into something difference-making.

I’ve never experienced the spring rush of allergies like so many others, but that’s what the doctor thought my head cold was. I protested, informed him I wasn’t allergic to anything. He smiled, and reiterated, “We see a lot of allergy cases this time of year. You’re not alone; you’re in good company.” That statement somehow gave me a bit of hope, even though it wasn’t what I wanted to hear. Allergies, good company – hearing that give me the framework in which to set the story of being sick for three whole weeks. It’s a grounding piece of information. And even if I still think that the snotty nose my toddler had three weeks ago is part of this, or the sinus infection I just fought off, or the lowered immune system that pregnancy brings – at least I have a framework.

On my way home from urgent care, I was listening to a podcast by Christie Purifoy and Lisa-Jo Baker. The more I listen to their podcast, the more I usually compare – the more I wish my story was similar to one of theirs. But today even while I listened, I came to a reminder: my story is my own. I can’t exchange it for Lisa Jo’s or Christie’s, but I shouldn’t want to either. If I could, I’d miss out on all that was meant for me. Allergies or no allergies, I don’t want to go along so envious that I miss my own life; do you?

songbirds

It can be hard to figure out what to write in this space some days. I’m not always a thinker of deep thoughts, a studious philosopher-type.

Some days I just take long walks with the wind a little too cold on my ears and the stroller bumping against my palms and I look for reasons to be grateful. These days the reasons come in the form of songbirds. They sing brazenly from the tops of pines, invisible but vibrantly present. They warm me to my core, ears and all, somehow. I think maybe it’s not even just the birds; maybe it’s the reminder that the long migration of winter will end.

I hear the songbirds and I think of blooming crabapple trees, of smelly Bradford Pears that look like white mist. I think of flowers; some bloom in orderly beds and some grow riotously beyond their own borders and some just pop up wild, like the pink wild roses in tangled hedges at camp. I think of sunshine that feels warm on bare skin. I think of the hours we spend with friends, finally outside again after months of playing indoors, meeting in coffee shops or bundling up for short walks to the park.

Summer feels like freedom until it’s here and then it brings the same regularity of discipline and cultivated habits that I’ve had all year. It’s a strange life to see summers as free time all our growing up years until one day we’re grown up and summers are still work time. But in the middle of the work time that used to be free, I realize again and again that moments of free-heartedness never really left. Because there were songbirds singing here in the middle of winter.

There are belly-laughs in the longest days of parenting. There are breakthroughs in the most drudging hours of writing. The sun breaks through the sky for a sunset glow on the gloomiest cloudy days. There’s always something.

So hang in there. Raise your eyes above the snow drifts and look at the wild blue sky. Even on the darkest night, the stars are still shining above the clouds. Remember the songbirds, because they remember you.

what can I do to help?

The best way I know how to describe my community is that they are helpers. When people have babies, they bring meals. When somebody’s sick, there are offers to babysit, bring over a stash of chocolate or cup of coffee. When it’s just a long day and the kids are, well, kids, somebody’s ready to listen. They just help.

Last Saturday I stood in the kitchen adding one dash of almond milk after another to a batter that still looked too dry. S finished chopping the strawberries. “Anything else I can do?” W heard her ask and turned towards me too; “Yeah, what can we help with? You look busy.” So the strawberries got mixed into the slightly-less-crumbly batter and the teapot was pulled off the shelf I couldn’t reach and we all settled into the living room to enjoy our Christmas brunch.

I would love to summarize our year with pretty thoughts tied in a bow for your advent admiration, tucked under a perfectly-tapered, not-shedding-needles tree. But, life.

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We moved, wholly or partially, four times this year. Some of our things are still tucked in the back of a garage, cringing as passing time lessens the possibility that I will label them “necessities”. I was lucky just to find the Christmas lights. Also, please somebody explain the mystery of perfectly operational, gently packed Christmas lights that mysteriously just die in the year between. But we have two working strands and they wrap halfway around the living room and my point is really just that our year was unsettled.

In May we moved up to Eagle Lake Camp for Grant’s job. In August we moved back, and packed up our home. In September we moved out of our house and into flux, and in October we moved into the cottage. I still don’t know where our large skillet is, but the lights are stretched above the windows and the throw blankets are on every piece of furniture and it’s feeling like home now.

But our friends have been even more comforting than the cheery yellow throw blankets we tuck around our feet on cold evenings. They brought us meals when I was sick this Spring. They shared their coffee when we all moved up to camp this summer. They gave a lot in the give-and-take of monitoring our collective kiddos at the staff housing lodge. They loved us and supported us and when I try to think of this year as a whole, they’re in it one way or another.

So, thank you, friends. Thank you for memories, thank you for friendship. Thank you for putting down roots with us, sharing meals with us, wiping up spilled milk and consoling unhappy babies and drinking a quiet cup of coffee with us. Here’s to next year. Here’s to community. Here’s to crumbly scones and hot coffee.

breaking days

For nearly a week now I’ve been clinging to five-minute increments of quiet while E plays flips the stiff pages of a board book or gnaws contentedly on a toy. And in between those five minute spaces I’ve tried everything.

“Are you still hungry? Is it your teeth? Do you need tylenol again? You can’t be tired already… Shall we go outside for a bit?” Anything. Anything to stop the grunting, the whining. Camp is flexing its muscles, rejoicing as a strong man to run a race. The woods are wearing their Sunday best. Ocean Spray like lace spills from rocky outcroppings, Showy Daisies and Black-eyed Susans pin an emerald cape to the shoulders of the hills. The meadows wear lavender flowers of Columbine in their hair. And for a week I struggled every day; just don’t cry, just don’t cry.

I cry anyway. By the time he goes down for his morning nap I have been tempted to pull my hair out so often that if I had any follow-through, I’d be bald. When he wakes up, too early and still cranky, the angst has scarcely had time to settle. I try to remind myself of all that is lovely.

“You’re a sweet boy, and we adore you,” I whisper. He stares blankly while I spoon up more applesauce and attempt to smile around the despair I feel. I try to play with him. He only wants to be held. I try to let him play in the other room; maybe if I am out of sight he will be content. I only get one dish washed before he is crawling across the kitchen, wailing heartily with real tears in his hazel eyes. Forget the dishes. Maybe he needs another nap. Ten minutes of “cry-it-out” later, I reluctantly admit this is not the solution either.

All the camp is blossoming, all the hearts are reveling in discipleship and the study of God together. These are glory days, and these are breaking days.

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Yet somehow, these days drive me deeper into faith, deeper into marriage, deeper into parenting. I pray nearly constantly, and God begins to answer. After nearly a week, the teething abates slightly, the smiling boy is back, recommencing his giggles. Grant digs in, buying me chocolate, telling me to set aside the dishes for when he’s home, changing the diapers. I get down on the floor instead of cleaning or scrolling or reading, and we play tag, tackle, chase. The beauty begins to shape out of the frustration. The glory of life grows slowly back up beside the brokenness. I take time to look at the hard edges of parenting a 1 year old and I ask God for eyes to see what he would show me; ears to hear what he would tell me, a heart to receive what he would give.

When we walk down to dinner, I point out the way bushes bloom out of rocky crevices. I chatter back to E’s cooing and we discuss all things wide and wonderful. I breathe deep and smile at the wriggling boy, and count the stars in the waving grass with the few minutes I’ve been given.

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the succulent and I // repotted

Last week I repotted my succulents. I bought them from Sprouts nearly two years ago; the dark aloe in copper colored pots played perfectly into my wedding color scheme of rose gold and green. I used them as centerpieces and kept them as living souvenirs of that day. I’m not a green thumb, and I don’t think they’ve thrived under my care, but they’re still alive.

After keeping them alive – somehow – for so long, I decided to stop hoping and start learning. I looked up how to repot them; it seemed like a logical first step since they’ve grown so much. Then I learned how often to water them. Having tabs about succulents open on my web browser is one thing, but it was another completely to walk into the garden section at Walmart and ask for the correct potting soil. It was yet another to grab an old kitchen spoon in lieu of a garden spade, buckle my baby boy in the patio swing, and start scooping a few handfuls of gravel out of the alley behind our house to act as drainage in the bottom of the pot.

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They are happily repotted now. I just watered them for the first time (you’re supposed to wait about a week to let them adjust to the new soil.) I’m a little worried that they haven’t loved being transplanted, but hopefully they begin to adjust since they have more room to grow again.

Today we beginning our move up to camp for the summer. We don’t need to bring our entire household since the staff housing there is furnished, but clothing, books, baby toys, cold-weather and rain gear, hiking boots, and anything else we may need up there that we won’t need down here is going in today’s truck load. I’m feeling like my succulents must have, lined up beside the patio waiting to be transferred, at the mercy of gentle fingers and an old kitchen spoon. We’ll be living next to families I already know and love, but I haven’t known them long. I’ve gone to camp before and been in the mountains, but never this camp, never for a summer, never in this role. It seems like a  natural role to assume, but a challenging one. It will require adjustment.

Somehow, despite all my nervous anticipation, fear of the unknown, the strangeness of the “camp-wife” role, I’m excited. I flourish in the outdoors, honestly. And I’m beginning to think I’ll adjust well, having more room to grow again.

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I used to joke about being a “black thumb” – once a cactus under my care died for lack of water. But there is something about nurturing plants that feels very much like embodied hope. Perhaps even our doomed-to-decay bodies have the essence of life flowing in their very fingertips. Perhaps in a sin-broken world we can still thrive, grow, even nurture.