this can happen

Saturday mornings are made for coffee and if you are wise in the ways of really making it a weekend, you take your coffee out walking with an old friend in a beautiful neighborhood. Or at least, this is what I did last Saturday. I met Sarah at a coffee place on the familiar corner of a wide, slow street. It’s called Good Neighbors, and is there anything more to say than that? 

We took our coffee to go, walking through the cool morning and talking as fast and enthusiastic as you can only do when you’re all caught up on news and move on to conversation. We talked about everything. The summer camp at which we became friends and still work for, which sort of latte each of us ordered, the freshness of the lilac hedges we walked past. Tattoos came up somehow, and in no logical sequence, tattoos led to my writing. Reluctant as I am to talk about my writing, everything seemed to tumble out in confidence of a supportive listener. The big dreams, the ones about this memoir and that book of essays, the questions about building an audience – maybe I’d held on to those secret thoughts for so long they spoke up of their own accord. I talked, laughed ruefully, wondered and dreamed a bit, and finally shrugged. 

“Who knows though. I’m not really sure what I’m doing.”

“Gianna,” Sarah turned without stopping and looked at me, face all lit up like spring, “this can happen.”

This can happen. 

I hung on those words for a minute, and she poured out enough ideas and strategies to build my dreams sky-high, iron-framed and concrete-founded. 

This can happen

It’s been five days of turning over every single suggestion she named and writing down question after question, marketing, hashtags, giveaways, monthly emails – and despite how logical and actionable every single thing has turned out to be, I still can’t believe the three words she said first. This can happen. 

It’s carried me all week now – all tired long week of parenting in a safer-at-home order, bruising my shins on the steps, wading through days of uninspired writing, closing my journal or my laptop or my mouth with a snap because I feel like sometimes I’ve run out of any words to say at all. But I remember that tiny sentence that opened a whole world of hope, and I think it to myself again: This can happen

Sometimes that’s all the seed of hope we need to keep a dream alive – one person who knows how to put shoes on a dream and make it start walking. Somebody stares at the sky with you, and sees your same dream, the one you thought was just a fleeting shape in the clouds, and calls it real. One person who can look you in the eye and say, “Yes. Here’s how.” 

I hadn’t planned on taking our conversation from the tattoos I want to the books I plan to write, but there we were, and there was magic in the unplanned sharing of dreams, because now those dreams have a confidence in them that isn’t just mine. They’re backed by somebody I trust – and sure, I’ll still have those days when I can’t see what value there is in any of my work, or I wonder why anybody would want to sign up for a future monthly email from me. But I have Sarah’s enthusiasm to fall back on too, now. I have somebody who cares about these things becoming real, somebody who won’t be shaken or disappointed when I write a bad sentence or a bad paragraph, or when nobody takes notice of an Instagram caption I crafted with heart and vulnerability. 

So darling, whatever that dream is, I want you to hear it from me: this can happen. You may not have all the details figured out and maybe I can’t tell you exactly how to train for the marathon or survive basic training or learn to lead-climb tricky rock walls, but don’t let that hold you back: this can happen. You can do this. You’re not alone. Find somebody to talk to, somebody who knows which step to take. But don’t forget that I’m here cheering for you. Your dream matters. Your goal can become a reality. Your ideas are important. 

Darling, this can happen. Remember it. Say it to yourself often. And if you know somebody who needs to hear it too – send them these words. Heck, say it to them yourself. This can happen. I’m not alone; you’re not alone; nobody is alone. Big things can happen when we begin to tip the balance from wondering to acting, to encouraging and hoping and planning. Let’s take time this week to be Sarahs – to pass out hope like coffee on a Saturday morning and remind each other the ways that big things can really, truly grow into being, one tangible, tiny step at a time.

some assembly required

Do we build our lives moment by moment? 

I have nearly finished arranging the wall above our chairs in the living room. A large framed poster, a small piece of art from a craft fair, two photo grids with miniature clothes pins, a star-chart, a macramé hanging. One framed picture card left to hang. A few photographs left to clip up to the photo grid. Not complete, but close. 

I’ve collected the things over a long time. It took even longer to realize I wanted a gallery wall like this. I’ve never fallen in love with the gallery walls Pinterest has to offer when I search for them. But somehow the homemade macramé, year-old star chart, framed poster from an Airbnb, photo-grids that are just gold-colored cooling racks from a kitchen, and craft fair art from ten years ago all belong together. A motley crowd, joined by the fact that I admire them, and some occasional overlapping colors. 

In so many ways we’re moving into this new home the way I’ve collected art for our wall. Piece by piece, bit by bit. We settle one thing here and then there until we find where it belongs, where we love it. Should the clock stay in the kitchen, or do we hang the spice rack there next to the fridge and move the clock to the dining room, pop of color between two windows? I pushed the huge, wheeled coffee table back and forth across the room three times in one day while Erik napped. I stopped when I was too tired to remember my own opinion about where it should go, and too tired to push it anymore. We grew to rather like it where it is though, and I haven’t had to sacrifice anymore of Erik’s nap times to shuffle it around. Good thing too, as there’s a box with bathroom cabinet supplies waiting out in the garage and I still don’t know where my mixing bowls are.

Sometimes I feel as if all of life were scattered piecemeal around like this, waiting to be unpacked and admired, or not, depending on our own choices and actions. The choose-your-own adventure novel happening right here when I decide to move the clock and leave the writing desk; who knows what lives will begin or end on those decisions? 

The most wonderful moments of our lives are tucked in, just waiting to be noticed and gathered up over years. A picture, a feeling, a kiss. They’re as real as the photos clipped to the gold kitchen cooling racks and as intangible as the seconds stepping steadily by in the clock. You’ve got to keep your eyes open. 

At this moment in these years, I think my eyes are open. I call Erik sweet baby boy child and I feel his smile alter the thrumming of my heart when I do. I stand on the first step to kiss Grant and some days my heart stops altogether, just for a second; just to hold that soft moment out of time, where it belongs. 

Every morning the waving arms of the trees trace their arcs across the floor. Every evening the faint luminescence of the moon ignites the snow in cool sparks and glows subtly through the white curtains. Every week I get a text from Johanna and I send one and we slowly plan around our baby boys’ naps to spend time together, sipping hot coffee or pushing strollers on long walks. The trickle of friendship seems to color all of my days by the buzzing of texts on my phone and the dates we keep for thrift shopping, eating gyros, stumbling into Toddler Time at the library only a few minutes late. 

In our last home the walls were plaster, no hanging of picture frames allowed without the express permission and assistance of the landlord. I resorted to the use of command strips. I didn’t want his help with my interior decorating. It felt odd and intrusive. The small blue picture-card in its glass frame wasn’t sticking with the command strips I’d stuck to the back of it, so I carefully unscrewed the small bracket for hanging and saved it in my toolbox. The frame was flat enough against the wall then; the command strips were still on it when I unpacked the first box of our décor in the cottage. 

It was just a guess that the hanging bracket would be in the toolbox, in the capsule of nails and tacks I kept there, but they were. I took them out, found the Philips screwdriver with the right sized head. I’m not new to a toolbox but I’m still a bit timid around it. And there I was anyway, getting a picture ready to hang on the gallery wall I’d designed. Piece by piece, year by year, beautiful things have come and stayed. Friendships, photographs, clocks, coffee tables, coffee dates, a family. 

Ikea furniture comes with the prior knowledge that some assembly is required. You can walk through the maze of assembled showrooms and show-homes with a belly-full of Swedish meatballs from their café, but when you pick that furniture out of the warehouse and put in on your unwieldy cart, you’ve got a box full of pieces, an instruction manual with no words, and one extra wooden peg for good measure. Assembly, styling, use, appreciation; all are up to you now. Nobody’s going to come and hang the mirror on the floor-to-ceiling cabinet that holds your newly inspired minimalist wardrobe and bookshelf both. You’ll never sit in the chair if you don’t start twisting in the screws, pounding in the pegs, attaching the legs. 

Life is a lot like that, I think. You can get all the good things in the world and you’ll never see them if you don’t look. You’ve got to put together the pieces. 

I don’t think life is easy. There are months when grief drives through you like the twisted sharp steel of a train wreck. You feel the sharpness in your throat and the throbbing in your mind and the heaviness in your feet. Yes, those days come and sometimes they come to stay for a while. 

But when they go again? When the sun traces tree-shadows on the floors like moving laughter, when the kiss is long and slow, the evening hands you a cup of wine, the morning brings a smiling toddler in footy pajamas sliding down the stairs on his tummy – we’d be fools not to laugh along.

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.

life-changing

“Like I don’t want to hype the coffee up but it will change your life,” the text read. I almost laughed. Regardless of how life-changing the coffee will be at this new place, I am just looking forward to spending an evening with this wild, beautiful friend of mine.

Perhaps because I am a word-nerd and perhaps because I’m looking forward to good coffee, I’ve been thinking about that text message all day. (Heck maybe I’m just crazy for thinking about a text message all day. You decide.) Around lunch time, laughing through a staring contest with my toddler, the silly joy of it all just landed where I needed to hear it: what if you let it change your life?

Not in a big way – I don’t mean that. I’m not going to be stopping here every weekday AM for my morning coffee or anything. But I could let this expectation of great coffee fill my evening up with joy like a helium balloon so sky-bound it tugs against its string.

And if coffee can change my life, why not a silly staring contest with my toddler over lunch? Why not the contrasted flavor of sweet potatoes and a bowl of chili? Sometimes there just enough laughter involved in my grinning boy smearing his lunch across his tray (who says you can’t play with food?!) that clean up brings a memory and a smile, not a groan. On Wednesday the sky was pink with sunset clouds that hovered behind bare tree limbs. I left the sidewalk for the grass and snow, just to be more inside the sweet soft dusky beauty.

Maybe we need more moments like this. Maybe looking up at the smallest, most simple things can change our ordinary lives in the most profound ways of all.

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.

old and new

Colorado Springs, Colorado, Anselm Society, Fanciscan Retreat Center

Maybe they were just rust spots but when I walked by slowly I felt the orange-printed echo of fellowship. These weird patio stains happened because people sat here, talking. They argued and they laughed and they encouraged and they cried and whole friendships left their tattoos on the concrete patio for the rest of us to see and take hope.

I saw a tree that had been strung with barbed wire to make a fence a decade ago or more. There was a crease around the rusted wire and dark green moss was growing into that old scar and it was beautiful. Scars have no need to end in ugliness, I thought, and the thought gave me hope.

We sat in church one week, listening to passionate teaching from Colossians, learning verse by verse the ways Paul tells us to live like Christ. “We’ve all heard that we should live like the world is about to end, like this is our last day. But what if we lived like this world is about to be made new? What if we lived like heaven was breaking into Earth?” My soul grasped at that thought and has not let go since. I realize it with cartwheel-inducing joy: that is the vision that has slowly been taking over my sight this year. Scars twisted away from ugliness towards glory? Rust stains cemented proof of relationship? This is beautiful. This is real.

This is, somehow, the beginning of something. There are whole wide reams of sight and knowledge to rediscover. Lean into this with me. Look for the newness. Look for the magic. Don’t all our favorite fairy stories end with the world being regained, recovered, evil fought back and goodness reinstated? I know there will be a new heaven and a new earth one day but let’s not write this one off just yet. Maybe if we look closely, his kingdom is coming on earth as it is in heaven. Coming right here in this old imperfect globe.

Colorado Springs, Colorado, Anselm Society, Fanciscan Retreat Center

initiate

I am an initiate

starting, but not familiar yet.

In the autumn it was “Hello, we haven’t met,”

but they welcomed me in, fellow Mama, camp Mama.

I floundered and wondered at their conversations

and wished I had history to make a translation, but

I am the initiate.

At Christmas it was “White Elephant” and I laughed

happily until my gift was different and

I laughed bitterly and I knew

I was still the initiate.

In May they said Happy Mother’s Day and I asked

What should I pack? What will I want for a summer at camp?

Then we were traveling

and on gravel roads, I slid and slipped

I still felt like an initiate.

The sun was rising somewhere but the fog kissed my fingertips

beauty comes at me in catched breaths and gasps.

Pine trees hold raindrops in sunshine and glisten

when my footsteps echo the birds stop to listen

I recognize home lights of housing like beacons

the air herself bends around me to receive.

Initiate, maybe, but not uninvited.

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counting

Songbirds are not as common in Colorado as they are in northern Minnesota. I miss them. Each time I hear one, I listen. I want to write it down, remember it. The songbird trills warm me gently like audible sunshine.

Last year I created the habit of cultivating gratitude. Each morning as often as I could I wrote down something I was thankful for. Anything, even simple things. A healthy meal. A quietly playing boy. Baby smiles, husband flirting, slow dancing, clean laundry, sunny days, snow on the mountains.

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I’ve gotten a bit out of the habit lately. This year I wanted to practice trying new things in courage, but I haven’t stuck to the gratitude as much, at least not to writing it down. But each time I hear birdsong, I still stop to listen.

My friend Mariah once gave me a tiny book Santa Claus on the cover. There was twine strung through a hole in one corner – it was meant to be a Christmas ornament. Instead I started writing down what I was grateful for; 1, 2, 3, … I skipped every other number to leave space for her. Then late in the winter I gave the book back.

“Here – it’s a gratitude journal for you!” She smiled and started writing; 2, 4, 6, … A few months later she gave it back.

“I originally gave it to you – I want you to have it!” she said gleefully. I read through her moments of gratitude and remembered my own. I kept writing. Later I gave her a small journal I had picked up in India. “I got us another,” I said eagerly, “Let’s keep writing!”

Journals have been going back and forth for almost four years now. We hunt down the sweetest, prettiest small notebooks and journals we can find for each other. One came to me at my bridal shower, a yellow leather book with loose-leaf pages on tiny five-ring binder. Another came with a baby package she sent us; this one a tiny journal with an adventuring compass on the front.

I get to see her in four days. I have a tiny notebook that didn’t quite have space for 600 numbers, half-full and waiting to memorialize her happiest moments. Time and again when I’ve forgotten this habit of counting, counting, that I learned first from Ann Voskamp, I suddenly remember Mariah and our shared tradition. It brings me back to rootedness. I plant myself in gratitude, listening eagerly to the few songbirds we do have, counting their trilled whistles slowly and happily.

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