Letter #8: For Jonah-days

Dear Aglet,

I’ve started writing this probably five times over the past few weeks. Just now I saw that it’s my thirteenth blog post I’ve written a draft for and not published. They’re about various, unimportant things: one is called “Purple hair dye and communion wine” and I think it’s about dressing up as Madam Mim for Halloween.

In other words, I’m not sure I have anything worth saying, but I’m writing anyway.

That last sentence may end up being my autobiography in one sentence.

I tried doing NANOWRIMO for the fifth or sixth year in a row, and all I have to show for it (so far) is one page, handwritten on front and back, about a young preacher’s wife who moves to a town called Marysville, TX, where it’s always dusty and dull and she has to do good all the time and she misses the trees in Arkansas.

I don’t like how it’s heading, so I’m retiring that story, maybe forever.

Everything ends in autobiography with me, Aglet, which is a real shame, because I’ve not gone and done a whole lot with my life thus far. Hence, I’m not sure I have anything much to say. There have been some Jonah-days here lately–days where your soul feels like the grayest of days in November, and it doesn’t seem like anything can make it better.

There have been wonderful days too–days like today, when the sun came out and various poems by e.e.cummings and Gerard Manley Hopkins kept popping cheerfully into my head and distracting me.

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

I cry about everything, mostly, even lovely things. Even while laughing, sometimes. I heard my dad’s voice and cried; heard a sad song and cried; thought about what it would be like to have cancer and cried; thought about what it would be like to have someone I loved have cancer and cried.

Worried about what might happen tomorrow, or in five years. And cried.

It’s ridiculous, especially because I have been down this road so many times, and I’ve made a choice over and over and over not to fret about what happens next (or five years from now), but instead to trust God, who’s infinitely worth trusting.

I need help trusting God and being more honest than simply stuffing my fear into my pocket and pretending that means I don’t have it anymore. Jonah-days will come to you. Whether you’re terrified of things not turning out perfectly or whether you think you’re so strong that hard times will just bounce off whatever rationalistic armor you’ve been layering on as a defense against overwhelming emotion–something will happen that’s too hard for you, Aglet.

You’ll have to decide where to run and what to do when you are overwhelmed with fear, or depression, or anger, or grief, or any of a thousand troubles that won’t be a reality anymore when we’re in God’s presence. But they’re reality now, and they needn’t be pointless. If, when you discover you’ve been horribly wrong about something important, you yield to despair, thinking you’ve ruined everything and you somehow can’t ever fix what could have been, you’ve missed something.

You’ve missed (and when I say “you” you better know I mean “I“) grace, in a way, and the precious illustration of your own desperate need for grace. Feeling heart-sick, or lonely, even feeling rage at the wrongness of the world–all these may drive us to prayer: to wrestling with how on earth lovely things and wretched things exist together, and to asking our Father to fix what’s broken, to fix us.

So yes, on Jonah-days, read Hopkins, read cummings, even read Whitman, but most of all take comfort in knowing that God is both good and great, and He blesses the poor in spirit.

Love, your grandma,

Jo

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Letter #5: A Small Yellow House

Dear Aglet,

I am writing a memoir, which is ridiculous considering how young I am and how far I have to go yet before I have any wisdom or experience or whatever. Somehow it’s more excusable, I think, to write about one’s childhood to someone who is younger, and a future hypothetical grandchild certainly fits the bill. So here you go, you and whomever is unfortunate to stumble across these silly letters in the meantime. Read, if you want to, the first chapter of a (hypothetical) book entitled “A Place Called Waldo: Some Essays About Growing Up Slowly.”

Love, your grandma,

Jo

Before I came on the scene, there was a young though balding man with a fiery red moustache and dishwater-blue eyes whose wife was young and trim and black-haired. She had brown eyes. Their house was nice and small and it sat on the corner of N. Methodist Street in a town called Red Oak. There was a porch, complete with swing, and the house was paneled a pleasant, light yellow. In the backyard there grew some grand old pecan trees, and in a small corner, a dusty, overgrown path circled a lovely mossy well. Lemon balm curled up over the stones of the well, and peppermint plants.

I don’t have much to say about the man and woman when they were really young; I don’t know what they talked about or what they did for fun. By the time I knew them they were the parents of four kids, soon to be five, and my father had lost a little more hair and my mother wasn’t quite as trim. Their eyes were the same as before, though. I don’t remember doing anything but playing in the yellow house; in the yard with the chickens; in the garden with the garter snakes; in the stinky but eminently climbable photinia tree. Playing, playing with my two older sisters and my brother, Tim. We made up all kinds of games, and all of them are a blur in my mind. The best and most dangerous game was flying.

My mom had, and still has, some knack for carpentry, and built not just a double-bunk bed, but a triple. Three beds were stacked with the three girls sleeping one on top of the other, Lydia (the second-oldest) probably a good eight or nine feet above the floor. “Flying” involved climbing to the top of the structure and jumping off with arms spread, until the unceremonious thump onto the carpeted floor ended one’s short, but thrilling, flight. Often my knees ended up braced under my chin, so that my teeth clacked and the breath was knocked out of my chest. The worst episode, however, happened to Lydia, then around seven or eight years old. For some reason there was an old army helmet on the floor having belonged to one of our grandfathers during a world war; perhaps Tim had been playing soldier. Somehow when Lydia flew from the bed, she landed in such a way that her head struck the very real, very hard helmet. I have a vague feeling that my parents put a stop to flying soon after that.

I have glimpses of life at Red Oak, mere flashes of memories, more like short, moving photographs than things that happened tangibly. A snapshot here, a snapshot there, of birthdays and parades and one, single snow day, which covered the back yard in an inch or two of easily spoiled white wetness and melted within a few hours. I remember that my obsession with candy motivated most of my actions as a four year old, and drove me on one occasion to eat every Milk-Dud my brother had hoarded so carefully, leaving only one piece in one of the boxes as a pitiful penance. When my father took me to work (a great treat), my time was divided into three occupations: weaseling candy from his colleagues; hiding a spiky rubber ball in his file cabinet for him to find later; and being terrified of the “dragon” outside his office. In one of the trees that scraped next to the window, there was a compact, black thing attached to a branch, which moved every so often and made strange noises which both frightened and fascinated me. I still am not willing to say for certain the dragon was a security camera, because how can one ever know for sure?

There was a church we attended where, depending on whom I sat with, I was bribed with candy to behave during the service. Mrs. Moon always gave Big Red cinnamon gum, but Mrs. Anita only shushed. You had to wait until after the service to get the good stuff, from the pastor when he stood by the doors with an offering plate full of candy for the children. There were acolytes at the church, who impressed me with their robes and responsibilities of lighting and extinguishing the candles in the sanctuary. If you had asked me my life’s ambitions at age five, they likely would have been two-fold: to be an acolyte and to eat candy. My favorite part of the service was hearing the grownups recite the creeds—it’s one of those snapshots I mentioned earlier. There are green glass windows, which though blurry, let in the sunlight in a uniquely Sunday-morning manner, and the pew is very hard and my legs can’t reach the floor, but my back feels the pew resonate with the voices of the congregation as they say the same words as they did the week before, in the same way as they did the week before: “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

As it turned out, we moved from Red Oak shortly before I was old enough to acolyte (if that can be a verb), and we didn’t recite the Lord’s Prayer in the new church we attended. One would think the old rhythms would have faded over a decade and a half, but they haven’t. Snatches of creeds and liturgy remain: “…I believe in God the Father, Maker of heaven and earth…suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried…come to judge the quick and the dead…” Recently I visited a church which had congregational reading, and while the words were familiar, and it felt strangely comforting to be speaking the same things as everyone sitting around me, my adult tongue was a little halting in its response.

I guess I’m not really old enough to be writing a memoir, if that’s what this rambling story is. I ought to be out living rather than reminiscing about what life was like when I was a kid. If this story is worth anything to me and to you, maybe its worth will be in remembering a long, lovely childhood and recognizing that endings aren’t all bad. I am trying to grow up now, after an awfully long time of not wanting to, after a great effort to cling to the person I was and the people I knew then.

Letters to Aglet #4: Take Notes

Dear Aglet,

Grandma Jo here. I can’t help it–every time I think of how the world might be when you’re growing up and I’m growing old, I wonder if you’ll still use pencil and paper or if everything will be typed onto a screen and stored in a cloud. That just sounds futuristic. Not that it doesn’t happen plenty now, but at least these days there are young dinosaurs like me who still do things the old-fashioned way. Well, sometimes.

Recently some classmates and I got in trouble with a professor for not having taken notes during a guest’s presentation. That got me thinking about why it’s even useful to take notes: why it is necessary that every member of my class jot down several lines of incomprehensible summary of the speaker’s life-story (wasting paper and KILLING TREES, aaaaah) when the reality is that probably none of us would keep whatever notes we took. All that paper would just be thrown away/recycled by those of us who care enough to make the effort.

Well, Professor argued, it would have looked professional. It would have shown that we cared. It might have indicated that we appreciated the time the speaker took to come talk to us. And it would have been a gesture of respect for his life-story.

SO, take notes, Aglet. Be professional. Take notes.

Also. When there is something that you want to remember, take notes.

Around the same time this whole professionalism-thing happened, I realized what a horrible note-taker I’ve been at church. I found all these bulletins with absolutely nothing on them, and then I found one–exactly one–with notes from a sermon that I had come back to again and again since the fall when it was preached. One, Aglet, out of two-and-a- half-years-worth that I might have had.

I remember admiring people who took notes during the sermon. Not when I was a kid, mind you–back then I just drew doodle and passed notes with my siblings. But when I was older and realized what a good thing it is to have a preacher who preaches God’s Word, then I would look over and think, hey, good for that person, writing this stuff down. I didn’t think about why they were writing it down until church changed and I was relying on my memory for things I’d learned and ways in which I’d grown. I didn’t have any specifics–I could maybe remember certain topics or passages my pastor had gone through, but most of what I had was a vague sense that, yeah, this man preached the Bible and I was thankful for it.

Except for this one sermon.

It’s on prayer, Aglet, and I’m not going to try to recreate the sermon for you (I can’t, anyway), but I’m going to write down on here some things that I remember because I took notes that Sunday. It’s more for me than for my future hypothetical grandkid, honestly.

It starts out like this:

The evidence of following Christ is bearing fruit, living in obedience to Christ (John 15:4-8). Jesus is the source of our bearing fruit.

And then I have written three wonderful Scriptures having to do with God’s assurance of keeping those he saves:

John 6:37. John 10:28. Romans 8:38-39.

Abiding in Christ is not the way we bear fruit. It’s the means by which God causes us to bear fruit.

What follows is a mixture of Bible passages and questions and applications and it seems that I personalized them somewhere along the way. So modify the pronouns accordingly, Aglet.

1. Be a woman of the Word (2 Peter 1:21)

-If it’s really God’s word, how does my treatment of it show my attitude toward God? (John 14:15; Deuteronomy 6:6)

-Let testimony about God drive me to worship God and live in Christ (Colossians 3:16)

And then I’d written:

“Oh God, help me delight diligently in Your Word.”

2. Be a woman of prayer

-Pray simply

-Pray humbly (Luke 12:32)

• God delights in giving us gifts because it glorifies His goodness.

• We come boldly only because of Christ.

-Pray expectantly (Job 38)

• When He doesn’t give what we want, how we pray demonstrates how trustworthy we believe God to be.

-Pray regularly

• We pray, not only when we need something, but because we find rest and love and satisfaction in Jesus.

The last thing I’d written down was something I’ve probably known most of my life, but that Sunday it pierced me like a lightning bolt and it was as if the news were brand new:

Christ called me before I wanted anything to do with Him, and claimed by His grace my wayward heart.

Write down the important things, Aglet. And don’t take for granted that you’ll always have a faithful pastor to teach and re-teach you the glorious Gospel. Don’t even take for granted that you’ll have weird, random letters on the internet penned by your weird, future, hypothetical grandparent.

Take notes, sonny.

Merry Christmas,

Your (increasingly strange) Grandma,

Jo

Things I’m Thankful For

Every year of college, I’ve written a prayer for that particular year that I feel captures some of the essential things that happened that shaped me more into me as I ought to be. The essential things, I mean, that, if I’m not careful, I forget to thank God for. So there’s a freshman prayer of thanks, and a sophomore prayer, and a junior prayer. And I’m working, at the moment, on my senior prayer of thanks. Which is crazy to me. Four years goes by fast

So here are some things that happened recently that I’m thankful for.

A conversation I didn’t think I needed to have with an old, dear friend–several of these conversations, in fact, with several such friends–that came at the sweetest time and helped me clarify my very confused and frustrated thoughts.

A hilarious talent show, an apple pie, and my family just being my family.

Going to a football game with my sisters and remembering why I like football, lame English major though I often am. Playing backyard football with my sister and niece, and being tackled into a gigantic leaf pile, after which my niece proceeded to bounce around on top of me (flagrant personal foul). And then just lying there looking up at the trees beginning to change color, and feeling glad to be an aunt and a sister.

While being rambunctious with the niece, I got a slight cut on the inside of my finger, and my dad, for the first time since I was 12 or so, watched meticulously as I washed it, dried it. Then he put the ointment on the scratch, unwrapped the bandage, and put it on my finger. In that moment, I remembered what it feels like to be a daughter, with a dad who takes care of her, and I thanked God for the moment.

I’m realizing as I write this that life doesn’t always look as pretty as the things I’ve just written about. I am in the middle of making decisions I don’t really know how to make, where both alternatives promise to hurt, at least for a while. I’ve listened to other people and the things that make them hurt, and it makes me at once angry and terribly sad.

I have a hard time keeping joy in the midst of tragedy. Sometimes, I can’t feel happy. I have a hard time trusting that things will turn out okay, someday. Better than okay, really. I assent to God’s providence with my head, and then sometimes I simply am not content with how the world works. I murmur. Restlessness consumes my thoughts, and I mope around, as if this life weren’t a gift.

Life is a gift.

Let’s thank the Giver.

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:)