Advent 2014: Flock Watchers

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Merry Christmas, friends. Thanks for being with me this season. I feel out of my own words (blessedly, actually), so I'm moving aside for the shepherds. This is how I imagine them.

Flock Watchers

I know what you're thinking--
if he were a king, we wouldn't
be the first to know.
Another clear, cold night
spent with sheep and the fire,
making small talk, rubbing hands together.
This is no life for the comfort-seeker,
but still. Sometimes the holy silence
rains down on us like meteors.

Tonight, it was the singing, 
goddamn choirs in the air.

I'll never be able to say
why or if we lost our minds
(and almost our livelihoods),
covering the fire, leaving sheep,
traipsing into Bethlehem.
Maybe we were flattered, or frightened,
or maybe the flask too hastily drunk.

We arrived, chattering and out of breath,
stumbled into the barn making bets.

Hush! A baby, a mother,
pile of clothes, afterbirth, rustling hay.
Whatever we bet on, it wasn't this, 
this raging, gestational love
that, of all things,
appears to shepherds first.

Advent 2014: The Longing under Everything

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Today, I loaded and uloaded the dishwasher twice. I took my kids to basketball camp, did a few hours of work for a client, walked the dog. I opened six Christmas cards (things are looking up in the snail mail department), left a bag of caramel corn for the mail carrier, and roasted an eggplant. I put on my apron and made shortbread and toffee. I folded three loads of laundry and put an out-of-office message on my email account, readying for vacation. I went outisde after dinner and took this photo of our roofline, reminding myself that light needs darkness.

And under, through, over, between everything, a knowing that I'm not alone in this world and a longing for more of the Beloved. Kids finally in bed, I picked up Rilke. Let him say it:

In deep nights, I dig for you like treasure.
For all I have seen
that clutters the surface of my world
is poor and paltry substitute
for the beauty of you
that has not happened yet... 

 

Advent 2014: How can I Keep from Singing?

I went caroling with a group of folks from church this morning. We had our adopted grandparent neighbors over for dinner and sang with them. Then another group from our church knocked on our door and caroled to us. It's been a singing kind of day.

And I remembered a story I'd forgotten. 12 years ago, my mother-in-law Phyllis and I went on a tour to China with 10 other women. It was October and I was four months pregnant with Wyatt. One night, our driver got lost in the foothills and we were much longer on the bus than we'd planned. There wasn't much left to say one another, we were all tired, and someone started singing a Christmas carol. We sang for at least an hour, starting new songs as they came to mind. In the middle of China, with so many generations and stories between us, it was the songs we had in common.

Today felt like that. And, along with all the other things I'm sure I'll determine to do more of in 2015, singing is offically one of them.

Advent 2014: Flesh and Blood

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Listening to an interveiw with James Martin today, and he said, "There's a reason Jesus didn't come to earth as a book." Walking with Padre in the woods, I laughed out loud. I would buy that book! I'd study it. I'd quote it. I'd be inspired by it, and follow that damn author on Facebook. 

But that's not how it happened. Whether it's "true" or not, the story is that he came as a baby. A pooping, peeing, crying, needy baby. Completely helpless, on the margins, breaking into our human story not as a celestial being, an oracle, or an angel, but as one of us. I've been confused for a long time about the divinity of Jesus, but I'm not hung up on it anymore. The Incarnation moves me, no matter what. It's the flesh and flood, the hands and feet, to all of our ideas about goodness and justice. It's the crazy, here-and-nowness of God. 

Krista Tippett, who's OnBeing podcast is a huge, sacred part of my life, says she doesn't "do" Christmas because we've tamed it, commercialized it. That disappointed me. Things will always be impure. We'll always take something good and mess it up with our egos, our need for control, and the things we leave out of the story. But I'm into wonder these days. And if lights on houses, little felted Santas, and wrapping gifts late at night helps to usher that in a little bit, I'll take it. I remember Mary again--overwhelmed, unlikely, poor and young, still saying, "I'm not sure what this is about, but let's do it."

Advent 2014: Astounded

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It's was easy to land on a topic today.

Loretta's school, Roosevelt Elementary. The teachers and staff have been practicing all month for a production of The Nutcracker, their gift to the students. It blew us all away. The students, all 450 of them, were absolutely silent (except for lots of periodic laughter) as they watched their teachers dance and prance around. 

I know these teachers. I know that, by now, they are tired. They have persisted since September in setting up good norms for their classrooms. They've patiently handled behavioral problems. They've soldiered on with kids who are having a hard time reading, writing, or understanding math. They've gotten to school when it's dark and left when it's dark. They've sent hungry kids back to the cafeteria in the morning because it was obvious they didn't have breakfast. What they understand, more than I ever will, is that, for many of these students, school is where the best things happen to them. And that's why they worked their butts off on this holiday performance. In spite of their fatigue, they want to make it magical. They want more love in these little lives.

And this staff really, really likes each other. I work with groups and organizations of all kinds, and often they call me because they are in trouble. They cannot even dream of the kind of teamwork and camaraderie that I witnessed today--the laughter, the trust, the bringing out the absolute best in one another. You know me. I teared up. Okay. More than teared up. Cried.

Like some of you, I read too much news. And lots of it is about the failing education system in this country. I know there are problems. I witness many of them firsthand. But in this Title One school in my neighborhood, the problems definitely are not with these amazing, marathon-running teachers and staff who give their all every day. I feel so blessed to be part of it. Happy Holidays, Roosevelt Bears. Christmas came in that loud, hot gym.

Advent 2014: Very Forgiving Cookies

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Biscotti couldn't be easier to make. That's the trick Starbucks (or lots of processed food!) plays on us, making us think there's alchemy going on in some commercial kitchen.

You form a butter cookie dough into logs with your hands, bake them, let the logs cool a bit, then slice then diagonally into fingers and bake them again so they're crispy. And the best thing? They keep in the cookie jar forever (like a month), ready for your afternoon cup of tea or a friend that stops by. (I used this recipe and threw in a little bit of Meyer lemon juice and rind instead of the orange liquer.)

I've been elfing it around here, making little batches of things when I have time. And, at the same time, tearing up for the loss and violence in the world, praying for justice to roll down. It's always that tension of recognizing all the good in my life and knowing that my work, our work, isn't done until there's goodness for everyone. Thinking of that little family in a stable helps me hold out for the impossible.

Advent 2014: Little Colorful Mary

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I spent the day on Bainbridge Island with Jenn and her children, Lucca(8) and Leona (6).

It's hard to pick my favorite parts--taking the ferry over, lying on Jenn's couch reading magazines, having coffee and lunch in her kitchen, having a beer in the pub before catching the ferry home.

But then I saw Leona's chalk drawing of Mary, and that was hands-down the highlight. Leona put her arms around me when I left and asked me to stay. That was good, too.

Advent 2014: Let Evening Come

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I've had lots of encouragement the past few weeks to let the darkness in--Emily's gift to me of Barbara Brown Taylor's book Learning to Walk in the Dark, images of birth, incubation, hibernation. And just the physical fact of the sun setting at 4:30, everything slowing down, and all the lights in our neighborhood able to shine only because of the dark.

These postings have given me occasion to go back to many favorite poems. They are like bread and water, keeping me more alive all these years. This one is from Jane Kenyon.

Let Evening Come

Let the light of the late afternoon
shine through the chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don't
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come. 

 

Advent 2014: Look how Far the Light Came

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Emily left an hour ago. Too soon. 

She and Loretta had crafting time while I laid on the couch and read yet another Geraldine Brooks novel. My dad stopped by and I made him a cup of tea. 

We turned around, and Loretta and Emily had made this beautiful paper star. My dad lifted it up so we could admire it, and the setting sun sliced through the room just at that moment, lighting up the star like its namesake.

Reminded me of a Bruce Cockburn song:

So many miles, so many doors
Some need patience, some need force 
All fall open in their own due course
To allow us this time

And you're limned
In light, golden and thin,
Looks to me
Like you're lit up from within 

And look how far the light came
Look how far the light came
Look how far the light came
To paint you
This way 

And this light
Is a guest from far away
Passing through
The last whisper of day

And look far the light came
Look how far the light came
Look how far the light came
To paint you
This way 

Some days are lit up. Today was one of those. My cup overflows.

Advent 2014: Creamy Carrot and Yam Soup with Coconut Milk

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Emily is here for the weekend. Three kick-ass days of walks, snacks, gifts, and now we are sitting side-by-side at my kitchen table with our twin laptops. She's being good and working on her final paper for the quarter, and I'm being bad and blogging instead of working. Bliss.

My Dandelion Organics box (bless it!) includes carrots almost every week this time of year. While we munch on them pretty constantly, I'm having a surplus issue. The answer is soup. 

As you are aware (Like, "Shut-up-already-Sarah!" aware), I enjoy facing down a disorganized, overstuffed fridge and tackling it. So a few bunches of forgotten carrots makes me happy. 

I was telling Emily this morning that one of the principles of my life has been, "Take what is given." There are too many choices. Too many choices in the cereal aisle, too many choices of church denominations. Too many choices of water bottles at Target and self-help books at the bookstore. I have been blessed so many times by deciding to go the neighborhood school instead of considering all my options. Or by making a little backyard bouquet of branches instead of driving to the store for a gift. Or by rescuing the carrots instead of entertaining every recipe for soup that might be out there. Purposely limiting my choices has kept me sane.

And since it's Advent and I'm still into Mary, I think of her again: May it be to me as you have said. Not submission, but surrender. Not fighting against her life, but finding the mystery (or the carrots) that are already there. 

Creamy Carrot and Yam Soup with Coconut Milk

2 Tb. vegetable oil
1 large onion, finely diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 Tb. favorite Thai curry paste (red or yellow)
3 Tb. fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
2 Tb. soy sauce
1.5 pounds carrots, peeled and chopped
1 large yam, peeled and chopped
1 15 oz. can coconut milk
juice of one lime
salt

In a large, heavy stockpot, heat vegetable oil. Add onion, garlic, and ginger and saute until soft and golden, about 10 minutes. Add curry paste and soy sauce and saute a couple minutes more, adding a splash of water if necessary.

Add carrots, yam, and water to cover. Simmer for abour 40 minutes until everything is very soft. Using a blender or food processor, puree in batches until very smooth. Return to the pot, add coconut milk, bring to a simmer, and add salt and lime juice to taste. 

Serve with toasted coconut or chopped cilantro if you want.

Advent 2014: No Excuses

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Unexpectedly, I found myself completely untethered last night. The kids were at sleepovers, Yancey was working, my bid for drinks with friends didn't work out. I looked at my long list of things I should do and spurned it. (That's good for me. And not normal. Sigh.)

I love going to movies alone. I can get there way before the previews start. I don't have to talk with someone else about whether or not to get popcorn (no), if they should wait for me while I run to the bathroom. And best of all, whether or not they like the movie we just saw. I can love it or hate it or somewhere in beteween and not discuss it at all.

But I have this platform--ha! So I guess I'm not as capable of shutting up as I'd like to think.

I saw The Theory of Everything about Stephen Hawking's life. I don't understand the physics he's spent his life exploring (Though I think Wyatt might. He's been in a Stephen Hawking phase for a few years.), but what an incredible story. 

Like many of you, I find myself at a crossroads in my life, knowing there is more to my calling than I'm living right now, and being scared about the next steps. I don't want to fail, I don't want to miss the boat, blah, blah, blah. And it's incredibly easy to stay in the shadows, get into my deficiencies. But my spiritual director asked me this week, "What would it feel like to live out of your strengths?" And Stephen Hawking's story asks me, "What good excuse do you have to hold back?"

Maya Angelou says, "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you." Like Mary carrying God, there's divine light in all of us that's waiting to be birthed. For Stephen Hawking, he had a story to tell about the cosmos, and he told it despite terrifying, debilitating odds. What's my story to tell? What's yours? What would happen if we just got started?

Advent 2014: Holding up

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We've had windstorms around here the last few nights with gusts up to 50 miles per hour. Lying in bed listening, unable to fall asleep, I've had some numinous moments, feeling blessed to be awake when no one needs or wants a response from me. Knowing I'm suspended and held.

Here's a poem from Christian Wiman's new collection Once in the West about being bent but not broken, about holding up in spite of the storm:

After a Storm

My sorrow's flower was so small a joy
It took a winter seeing to see it as such.
Numb, unsteady, stunned at all the evidence
Of winter's blind imperative to destroy,
I looked up, and saw the bare abundance
Of a tree whose every limb was lit and fraught with snow.
What I was seeing then I did not quite know
But knew that one mite more would have been too much. 

Advent 2014: Just in this 24 Hours

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It's a been a long, full day. Sitting down here to write, the capacity to string a theme together or tell a story just isn't there. But I can always find things to notice. Just in this 24 hours, I'm thankful for:

  • My clients early this morning who run their surgical floor with humor, precision, and compassion.
  • The music and stories I got to listen to in the car.
  • My dad who showed up at 5 am (!!!) to watch the kids. Is that above and beyond or what?!
  • My produce delivery from Dandelion Organics. Especially the gargantuan bunch of dino kale.
  • The doctor who practiced his active listening skills on me.
  • Taking a few minutes to make my bed, which always makes me feel in charge.
  • My clients this afternoon who love their boss and their workplace. Makes me light up inside.
  • Breeze's leftover soup that we enjoyed tonight and having a family dinner, finally.
  • All the loving, hardworking parents at tonight's PTA meeting and all the laughing we did.

And finally, this quiet moment at the end of the day and how the Christmas tree illuminates everything. Thank you for being here with me.

Advent 2014: Slow Down, Already!

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What is better than falling asleep next to a child?

Last night, Loretta was grumpy. I mean, really grumpy.

Finally, I got it through my thick skull that she might just want to end the day early and she might need some of my attention. We lay in bed together, she read me some books, I fell asleep.

I think that's how God is with us. Like Loretta, she just wants us to slow down, and she'd rather fall asleep next to us than get things done on her list. With Anthony De Mello, I want to stop and notice today: "Behold the One beholding you and Smiling."

Advent 2014: Time to Ditch the Sorting System

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We had a full, Spirit-filled day. I took my nephew's advice and, instead of ruminating on Advent, we just lived it. Went to church and sang, sat around during coffee hour instead of rushing away, and spent all day at Breeze and Colin's house eating, playing basketball, decorating cookies, and talking. Since I had blessedly zero time for composing anything, I want to share some bits from Nadia Bolz-Weber's book Pastrix, which I started this weekend:

Here's the whole problem with...grace. It can both sting and comfort. My own fundamentalist wiring will always lead me to want two sets of labeled containers--in this case, Bad: the conservative people who hate the gays and Good: the liberal people who love the gays. I might always put people and things in those containers, but the problem comes when I start believing that God uses the same sorting system.

I want the kingdom of God, and myself...to be more impressive, more....spiritual. To look like I think it should. But I have learned that...the kingdom of God is more like a workplace--filled with type A personalities, whose sense of entitlement would rival Paris Hilton's, alongside slackers, who take too many smoke breaks and spend their money on scratch tickets.

What makes the kingdom of God is not the quality of the people in it...Rather, what makes us all blessed is that...God comes and gets us, taps us on the shoulder, and says, "Pay attention, this is for you." Dumb as we are, smart and faithful as we are, just as we are.

Amen.

Advent 2014: Saved by Movement

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Loretta (and our whole family alongside her) ran a 5K today to complete her Girls on the Run program. I can't tell you how inspiring it was to see hundreds of parents, some of them pretty out of practice, running or walking alongside their daughters and everyone just celebrating their bodies, being alive on this rainy day.

I'm convinced, especially at the end of 2014, that I've been saved by movement. Not metaphorical movement, but getting arms and legs pumping and lungs working hard. In the constant grayness between November and April, it's moving that clears my head and keeps sadness at bay. In daily struggles with back pain, it's moving that stretches me out and reminds me how much I can still do. If you need more convincing, I absolutely love this little video: Can you limit your sitting and sleeping to just 23 1/2 hours a day?

It's easy to get preachy. That doesn't inspire me. What does inspire me is the reality that we are such complex beings--heart, mind, AND body. Thank you, Universe, that I got out of bed this morning, that I could run with Loretta. Thank you for all the automatic functions in this amazing body of mine. Thank you for the pain, even, and help me to befriend it. Amen.

Advent 2014: Don't go Overboard with this Reflection Stuff

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My sister, niece, and nephew got here tonight. I miss living 10 minutes from each other. But now we get to spend the weekend together, haul out sleeping bags, and hear Loretta and Hannah Mae whisper and giggle into the night. 

I wish one of us had been diligent enough to follow my nephew Ezra around with a notebook and record all the ridiculously funny things he says. 

Last night, Naomi pulled out the Advent devotional they've been reading from. Ah. A nice little poem or life message, coming right up. 

Ezra, in his inimitable little kindergarten voice, said, "Mom, don't get so caught up in Advent that you forget about giving gifts." Indeed. Let's not get carried away with this introspective #$*. There are some candy canes to eat.

Advent 2014: Loving me Anyway

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I sure hope you're not surfing over here expecting tips on Christmas ham or 10 new kinds of cookies. Ha! Not this week! Last night, Wyatt made his own bagel sandwich for dinner. Loretta made Top Ramen. Later, I had toast with smashed avocado and blue cheese. And a bowl of popcorn once the house was quiet. I'm sure I've mentioned how Top Raman is truly revered in this house. It's sodium-packed empty calories have soothed a lot of trials.

I've talked to a few folks lately who report they're forgetting to love, cherish, or take care of themselves. This poem was born out of experiencing the kind of loyalty, presence, and love that I think is available to us all the time if only we'll stop and accept it. In whatever form it comes.

My Deepest me is Dog

I feel like a jerk half the time--
hurrying kids out the door,
mumbling under my breath 
at an irritating driver or
sudden rainstorm, putting off
important things that need doing.

But he adores me anyway,
following from room to room,
curling up wherever I am,
starting straight into
those deepest parts of me that,
despite my best efforts,
are infinitely, pefectly loveable.

Advent 2014: Emptiness

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The day is almost over. What a mercy it is that it's only 24 hours before starting over, not 48, 72, or even 25.

Yancey is at work, kids are in bed, dog's been walked, and I feel empty, like I gave everything there was to give today. 

It was highs and lows, like most days are. I got my first Christmas card in the mail and cleaned up a big unmentionable dog mess. Received a few sweet texts from friends and had to pay a speeding ticket. Said "I love you" to my children and husband and noticed Wyatt's toe is infected and am plotting how to get him to the doctor tomorrow. Went on a walk with a dear friend and teared up at her sad news. Made and dropped off dinner for another friend and had searing back pain all day.

Maybe my very favorite lines of poetry in the world are from Denise Levertov's The Tide:

Clean the littered beach, clear
the lines of a forming poem,
the waters flood inward.
Dull stones again fulfil
their glowing destines, and emptiness
is a cup, and holds
the ocean. 

Like hibernation before birth, emptiness comes before fullness. Until I feel my own emptiness, my own depletion, there won't be room in my cup for the filling. And even at the end of today, I know I'd rather take the constant emptying and filling--the tide going in and out--than stagnation. I'm sure I'll ride the waves again tomorrow--it will be a privilege. As Joanna Macy says, "You're alive! Dial up the magic of that!

Advent 2014: Hibernation

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If Christmas is a day of celebration, Advent is a season of waiting. And maybe not patient, airbrushed waiting, either! When will the light come?! When will this darkness be over? And when will the birth happen?

My friend Tony Robinson writes this: "There's a tendency in the Church, perhaps particularly in a season like Advent...to censor out raw emotions. Church becomes a place to be polite and on our best behavior or to be only upbeat and happy." And not just church. I would add holiday parties, annual Christmas cards, Facebook posts, or running into a friend around town.

What we lose in all of that is the depth, energy, and new life that can come from hibernation, from "keeping the door of the steam bath closed," as the Desert Fathers would say. 

Here's a poem from Jan Richardson that came my way this week, and it makes me want to find a place in "the gathering dark" and wait to see what happens.

In the enclosure of your heart,
O God,
enfold me
and give
the courage of Bear:

to enter the cave
in the season of slumber,

to lie down defenseless
in your gathering dark,

to know your sustaining
as my soul is made ready,

to give myself over
to dreaming of birth.