A Pointless Story Involving Blackberries

A while ago, my father gave me a garden plot which was to be particularly mine, to plant whatever I pleased in it. I tried to grow an apple tree three summers in a row, and every summer the tree died. The first summer, I planted pumpkins as well, anticipating being able to make a truly homemade pumpkin pie in the fall. I weeded all the hot, humid summer, and I watered the plants religiously.

Of the twelve or thirteen pumpkins I planted, maybe five or six grew to fruition, and even then they turned out to be miniature pumpkins. It wasn’t enough to make a pie, so we made pumpkin bread.

If you haven’t realized it by now, this is shaping up to be one of the pointless stories I tell sometimes. Another of these involves robins, and you can read it here, if you want to: A Pointless Story Involving Robins

It’s a new series of mine, pointless stories.

They’re not technically completely pointless–I mean, I’m sure there’s some reason I wanted to ramble about gardens and pumpkins and such, that I’ll get to eventually, but I think of it the same as when I go up to people and forget what it was I had planned to talk about. I sort of stand there and keep talking until whatever-it-was-I-wanted-to-tell-them comes back to me. It usually never comes, but oh well. I’m trying.

The thing about this garden is that it has blackberry vines all through it–it always has. When I was first clearing it out, my dad said I’d have to decide whether to take it out or let it stay. I let it stay, probably because I’m a lazy gardener, and maybe because I like blackberries and it’s a shame to pull them up unless you really have to.

Those vines produce blackberries every year, and I’ve never done a thing to help them out. They don’t need my weeding or my watering. I have never done a blessed thing to deserve the harvest of berries every summer. Admittedly, it’s just a handful of berries, but I always feel delightfully surprised when I find a nice, ripe blackberry or two. It’s something that only happens when I’m home, a distinctly cozy thing that makes me love being at home.

There’s quite a few of those things, like sweeping the steps with my sisters and goofing off, or feeding the chickens, or admiring my father’s flowers, or even washing the dishes with my mom. Home is good.

I was cleaning my room the other day, trying to balance all my college stuff with all the stuff I’ve accumulated before college. You know, trying to be organized. The way I clean is by putting on some music and distracting myself with everything I find. It’s a long process, because I don’t try to clean quickly, but I enjoy it that way. I found all sorts of things, including a couple of old journals. Oh, goodness, Jo.

I liked reading about younger Jo. It was strange, seeing what I was concerned with when I was twelve and thirteen. I saw some ways in which I haven’t changed, and some aspects of myself that have changed very much.

There are some things that I prayed for back then that I never received, or, at least, not in the way I wanted. Some things happened differently than how I thought they would. On the other hand, there were some occasions when I prayed for patience or peace in a certain area of my life, and I realize only now how God answered those prayers. Sometimes, apparently, I accidentally prayed for the right things, not knowing really what I ought to pray for!

That’s what the blackberries reminded me of. Those apple trees that I so wanted to grow and flourish didn’t end up succeeding like I thought they would (although there is a new one growing, so cross your fingers that it stays strong this summer!). I did all I could, and it wasn’t enough.

And then those durned blackberries are there, growing just as easily as anything, without my help, and without my sweaty, frustrated effort. They’re just there. I get the benefit without any of the work. Blackberries are like unexpected gifts that I can’t take any credit for. I’m glad for them, though. And I’m thankful for twelve-year-old-Jo’s prayers that ended up being answered in ways she never would have expected. I’m thankful for those prayers that had no words, but God still knew what Jo needed.

I guess that was the point of this story.

Thanks for reading, friends:)



Letter#2: Very Important Advice

Dear Aglet,

This morning, as I sat drinking the watered-down concoction the cafeteria likes to call coffee, I was struck by this thought, a thought I thought important enough to record here for your sake. Ready, here it is: When I am old, I won’t be young anymore.

I know, I know. Profound. As you read this, I would imagine you are thinking one of two things: either “Wow, Grandma Jo got a lot wiser when she got old,” or the opposite of that. I can read your mind, sonny. “This makes so much sense about how she is now…”

The reason I thought of this is, well, I don’t know what made me starting thinking it. Whatever. I was just thinking that someday I won’t look young like I do now. Old people are pretty in a different sort of way. My friends won’t look young and pretty and handsome either. We’ll all be judged on a different scale–by how we act and whether we have the wisdom of years.

Obviously, your grandma has some growing to do on that last point. Hahaha.

What was I saying? I keep distracting myself with funny thoughts. Will I be like that when you know me, I wonder?

“What is Grandma Jo laughing about?”

“Oh, something she did/said/thought amused her.”

“But it’s been a whole two days since then!!”

I like my sense of humor because it can turn my life into this running sit com, full of mishaps and ridiculous misunderstandings that seem, at the time, world-ending. I get mortified easily, but give me a couple days and I can’t stop laughing about whatever the mortifying thing was.

Like the time I felt called to defend the honor of my father’s mustache. It’s a long story, but it culminated with me half-yelling at the offensive person that, “when he gets to be my dad’s age, his facial hair will probably look bad too!”

It was a terrible comeback, one of my worst yet.

I did eventually apologize, but in the interim I would think about it and just laugh at how ludicrous the whole thing was.

Facial hair (somehow!) reminds me of what I wanted to say in the first place. I wish that people my age could see one another in the future. I think it would give us all a lot more humility if we could a). look in the mirror at our fifty-year-old selves, and b). realize we look no better/worse than any other fifty-year-old.

Future grandmas and future granddads, if they could see each other’s seventy-year-old selves, wouldn’t place as much stock on what their twenty-year-old selves looked like. One of these days, I will not be young, and even when I smile, it won’t look quite the same. Boys will begin balding, and eventually we should probably all stop wearing flip-flops and shorts.

That’s okay.

None of that mattered in the first place. And even though I slip into thinking it matters now, what matters is whether people commit to loving each other beyond years and beyond appearance.

The most beautiful elderly couples I’ve seen aren’t beautiful simply because they’ve stuck together for all these years. The best ones are the ones who still treat each other as if they are precious and beautiful. They were never thinking of their outsides when they fell in love with the beauty of something inward.

Till next time, Aglet.
Your Grandma, Jo.

Thoughts on Herbert and Lewis

Sometimes, you can tell when I have a paper to write because it’s then that I have most of my ideas for the blog. This is partly the inconvenience of inspiration; but mostly the delicate art of procrastination. It’s not that I actively delay writing required essays. It’s just that they do have a tendency of being written eventually…at ungodly hours of the morning. I don’t always remember, on the other hand, what it was I wanted to blog about. So blogging usually wins.

I finished C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves just now. Holy smokes. His were such good, good thoughts, and I am sorry it took me this long to read them. Most of this post will likely consist of me quoting Lewis, and, later, a sixteenth century poet named George Herbert. Less Jo, more Clive Staples. It should be good:)

First, though, here’s an introduction for why this particular section resonated so much. I’ve been trying to understand why everybody hates Calvinism/Calvinists. And while that sentence is probably too much (and too vague) to tackle right now–besides being off-topic–I will say that I think a big part of it is that big, fat “T” in their whole TULIP acronym. Total Depravity.

Um, guys. You need to work on your marketing. That is kind of heavy stuff for being the first letter in the acronym. It’s not very pleasant, or attractive, to contemplate unless you understand more of the grace side of things. So it makes sense, that, if you just know just a little bit about Calvinism, you might not like it. No one wants to think they’re completely depraved. Maybe? I apologize because I am rapidly getting in over my head here, and I’m talking more than I said I would. Let’s get back to Lewis as fast as we can.

Anyway, every so often something comes on my Facebook newsfeed from this group called “Depraved Wretch,” and, especially early on, my reaction wasn’t exactly charitable. My reaction was usually something along the lines of “Whoa. What is wrong with you guys, guilt-tripping everybody and ruining my day? A Day on which I felt perfectly fine and comfortable and…conveniently forgetting all the ways in which I didn’t measure up. Until now, when I remember them all. Thanks for that.”

[Note to the reader: Every now and then on this blog, the sarcasm setting gets turned on, and it’s hard to turn it back off. Please know that I am genuinely interested in both sides of most things, and I try not to make fun of ideas just for kicks. I’m not a huge fan of cynicism, in fact. Also, while I’m explaining in this parenthetical, I apologize to people I’m probably offending. I don’t always know what I’m talking about–in fact, it’s rare that I do. Helpful comments are both welcomed and filtered.]

What it seemed like to me (past tense, yo) was that those people on the Depraved Wretch page were focusing too much on their sin, almost wallowing in their unworthiness and glorifying that over their new identity in Christ. So my question was this: as a Christian, what’s the balance between a). continually recognizing your unworthiness of God’s grace and b). having hope in God’s grace, not dwelling on your past before Christ. Can you go to either extreme (I think yes) and if so, what’s the difference between remembering your own unworthiness yet rejoicing in Christ’s worthiness on your behalf and being crippled by the temptation to despair in who you once were?

Maybe this is too simplistic, but I think it has to do with the difference between guilt and conviction.

So this is where I’ve been lately. And then I read Lewis, and it made a little more sense. Let’s read some Lewis, shall we?

From his chapter on Charity,

All those expressions of unworthiness which Christian practice puts into the believer’s mouth seem to the outer world like the degraded and insincere grovellings of a sycophant before a tyrant, or at best a facon de parler like the self-depreciation of a Chinese gentleman when he calls himself “this coarse and illiterate person.” in reality, however, they express the continually renewed, because continually necessary, attempt to negate that misconception of ourselves and of our relation to God which nature, even while we pray, is always recommending to us. No sooner do we believe that God loves us than there is an impulse to believe that He does so, not because He is Love, but because we are intrinsically lovable. The Pagans obeyed this impulse unabashed; a good man was “dear to the gods” because he was good. We, being better taught, resort to subterfuge. Far be it from us to think that we have virtues for which God could love us. But then, how magnificently we have repented! As Bunyan says, describing his first and illusory conversion, “I thought there was no man in England that pleased God better than I.” Beaten out of this, we next offer our own humility to God’s admiration. Surely He’ll like that? Or if not that, our clear-sighted and humble recognition that we still lack humility. Thus, depth beneath depth and subtlety within subtlety, there remains some lingering idea of our own, our very own, attractiveness. It is easy to acknowledge, but almost impossible to realize for long, that we are mirrors whose brightness, if we are bright, is wholly derived from the sun that shines upon us. Surely we must have a little–however little–native luminosity? Surely we can’t be quite creatures?

In Jo’s words, surely not quite totally depraved wretches?

Lewis goes on to explain why those strange individuals who embrace their identity as wretches do so:

…Grace substitutes a full, childlike and delighted acceptance of our Need, a joy in total dependence. We become “jolly beggars.” The good man is sorry for the sins which have increased his Need. He is not entirely sorry for the fresh Need they have produced. And he is not sorry at all for the innocent Need that is inherent in his creaturely condition. For all the time this illusion to which nature clings as her last treasure, this pretence that we have anything of our own or could for one hour retain by our own strength any goodness that God may pour into us, has kept us from being happy. We have been like bathers who want to keep their feet–or one foot–or one toe–on the bottom, when to lose that foothold would be to surrender themselves to a glorious tumble in the surf. The consequences of parting with our last claim to intrinsic freedom, power, or worth, are real freedom, power, and worth, really ours just because God gives them and because them to be (in another sense) not “ours.” 

Here is where the connections were made, and Jo got quite happy. There’s this poem, which I love, written in the sixteenth century by a fellow named George Herbert. It’s called “The Holdfast,” and I’m going to put it right here for you to read:

The Holdfast

I threatened to observe the strict decree

Of my deare God with all my power and might.

But I was told by one, it could not be;

Yet I might trust in God to be my light.

Then will I trust, said I, in him alone.

Nay, ev’n to trust in him, was also his:

We must confesse that nothing is our own.

Then I confess that he my succour is:

But to have nought is ours, not to confesse

That we have nought. I stood amaz’d at this,

Much troubled, till I heard a friend expresse,

That all things were more ours by being his.

What Adam had, and forfeited for all,

Christ keepeth now, who cannot fail or fall.

If you think about it, it is sort of a comical picture, how we try to get this relation between ourselves and God exactly right. It’s this ridiculous cycle of humility and unconscious pride, and I guess I understand my initial frustration. Sometimes it seems like it would be better simply to rest in the finished work of Christ. But then I go back and read what Lewis said, and I waver again. After being clear as mud, and probably offending all seven people who read this, I better conclude with the thing I really wanted to say all along, quoting Herbert:

All things are more ours by being his.

The Ants Go Marching…

“I am going to try not to focus so much on myself or drawing attention to myself. Instead, my aim is to draw your gaze to the curious things of the world, to the little wonders that don’t have to be there, but are.”

That’s how I described what I wanted to achieve with this blog, two years ago. I’m afraid I haven’t done a very good job of “not focusing on myself/drawing attention to myself.” That’s most of what I do. I’m not exactly apologizing for the failure, because I know that another reason for writing is to get thoughts and worries out of my head that are not benefiting me or anyone else, just replaying over and over in my mind. Confession is a large motivation for this site. Knowing and being known. Asking for confirmation that I’m not alone; trying, in turn, to reassure others that neither are they alone. All valid reasons for writing, I think.

But today I’m going to try to do what I said I was going to do. So listen, if you want to, as I talk about ants and other creatures, all of whom do a lovely job of glorifying God, simply by being themselves.

Today I sat outside for a while and watched some ants. First there was a tiny black ant, a sugar ant, I think, which was hardly noticeable on the wooden railing. I almost had to squint to see it well, to make out its antenna exploring the knots in the wood. I noticed the blur of green in the background, and focused out. Immediately the green leaves came into sharp, clear distinction, with the ant once again barely distinguishable from the brown plank. I experimented like this more times than I care to report here. Easily amused, I guess.

Easily amazed, is more like it.

You should try it. Our eyes are amazing! And so are ants.

Anyway, there were other kinds of ants: fire ants, which were black and a brownish-red, and some yellowish ants, with extra long bodies. I was so used to their tininess that I jumped a little when a black ant three times the size of the others came scurrying along the rail. It was huge in comparison! Also it looked uncomfortably like a spider. Then I found a fireant on my sleeve and freaked out (just a little) and flicked it off. And I felt kind of bad for flicking it away, so I looked down at the ground to see if it was alright. [Not that you would have been able to see it among the leaves, Jo. Goodness.] And then I saw…

…what looked like part of a black and yellow jump rope. You know how jump ropes have those speckly patterns in several colors–well, this was exactly that pattern, and it was exactly that same thickness.

 I finally realized I was looking at a snake.

I only shuddered a little, before realizing it was a speckled king snake. As much as my parents trained me to avoid snakes and poison ivy and everything that hides in the leaves during the summer, they also taught me that king snakes were different. They’re the good snakes, because they aren’t poisonous and they don’t like the snakes that are poisonous and aggressive. So I like them. Kind of.

I started thinking about camp last summer, and how, as a counselor, I couldn’t be afraid of snakes anymore. I even got trained to handle the milk snakes and corn snakes. I knew those snakes’ names; I knew what their habits were–how they were prone to seeking heat, even if that meant attempting to snuggle up in the counselors’ sleeves; and I knew they weren’t going to hurt me. Not really. I would rattle off fact after amazing fact to the girls, most of whom were never convinced that snakes weren’t evil. [“Snakes are awesome, girlsies! They’re just one example of how incredible our Creator is.”]

Toward the end of the summer, I got trained to handle Pearl, the nine-pound rainbow boa. She was an amazing creature, and her name was accurate. Her scales would glint rainbow colors in the right light. Since her body was pure muscle, I always felt she was stronger than me–and, holding her, I was conscious that it was her choice how tightly she would wrap around my wrists. She decided when to release her grip; I had uncomfortably little to do with it.

All through the summer, part of my job was to convince these girls that God’s creation displays His glory. An animal can be powerful–even dangerous for humans–and still reflect God’s design and imagination. [Nature’s cool, guys!]

After watching Mr. King Snake slither off, I headed back to campus, when I heard something rustle in the leaves near me. And despite all that high-faluting language about how I got so brave this summer, my heart did a floppy thing. I comforted myself by thinking through the passage in A.A. Milne’s “The House at Pooh Corner” where Pooh reassures Piglet that just because he gets a little scared, doesn’t mean he isn’t brave.

“You only blinched inside, Piglet.”

Thanks for reading:) If you want to read a wonderful poem by D.H. Lawrence called “Snake,” you can find a copy here: