Making melodies out of the humdrum.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Blessing Hearts

I'm a fan of Southern culture. Now, if you are a born-and-bred Southerner (I am not), the charm may be less conspicuous to you.  Yet having grown up in a quite lovely, but altogether rough around the edges corner of New England, I will tell you that I like the niceties.  Some Yankees that I know (slash die-haaahhhd Red Sox fans slash avid skiiahhhss slash Hahvaaad grads) are quick to call the friendliness phony.  It very well might be. But, it also might not be. Besides, most days I like warm and friendly people and unless you catch me in some nightmare, I usually am one.  So, to my Down-Easters, I say: "Don't worry, they don't want anything from you."

I'm not even sure that a memoir would do the differences between Waco, Texas and Boxford, Massachusetts adequate justice. Sometimes driving around, I'm obliged to re-articulate to myself how it is again that I ended up here, because it just feels, so, well, random.  Remember, Sarah? Remember?  You were working in that cube and you felt like a caged bird or something, and you wanted an adventure and liked the idea of cowboy boots, and "y'all" and social work and here you are. When I tell myself that story, sometimes I feel pretty cool and fly by the seat of my pants, and sometimes I feel like a flake. Maybe there's not a difference.

I sound flippant.  Let me clarify.  Even when I feel my feathers in the wind, I am filled with divine peace and gratitude. I am convinced that God led me to this sweet little spot in the center of Texas, and has graced me abundantly with community that has helped me to heal and trust and believe in a God that has come and is coming and wants me to be a part of it all. 

Still, the culture shock is funny.  And I'll be frank: as much as I'm a fan of southern hospitality...the "m'ams", and the "dowhat now's?" , and the little grocery baggers who say these things to you as they help you out of the HEB, I still miss many things about my roughish and rustic New England town. Am I allowed to miss it and not want to go back? Because I do.  I deeply miss it but am quite content staying right here. 

I'm also hopelessly nostalgic so sitting with the memory can be fun. Let me indulge for a moment:  I liked that the houses were all two-story clapboard colonials. I liked that there were lots of windy roads and stone walls, and town commons, and things and places and buildings established in the 1600's. And, no offense to barbeque or anything, but I liked that there could be things at a party besides well, just that.  Or beans.  There will be always all sorts of beans as long as I am in Texas. 

So, this brings me to the real reason I started writing. The point, if you will, though I usually hate dragging in the point. I used to think the expression "bless your heart" was really odd.  If you didn't know that it's Southern, I'm here to tell you it is.  Sort of like the equivelant of "wicked" in the North.  Perhaps, such expressions could be a greater metaphor for their respective regions. I won't go there.  

I first heard "bless your heart" when I was at my friend Lauren's house in Memphis.  She had a rash on her arm, and her mom kept looking at it and "blessing her heart." I'm really not a literal person, but I did keep thinking, why is she saying that?  And like many idiomatic enigmas I come across here in the South, I first, wonder if it's a Southern Baptist thing. But, "bless your heart" is not.  It's more of a thing that you say with a smile and an emphatic twang and it's mainly just for fluff. I never really liked bless your heart because I thought that it meant something bad or gossipy or rude was on it's heels.  Not that I never participate in these things, but if we're going to be sassy, let's call it what it is and not guise it with the blessing of the heart. 

So, I've found a new-found love for this expression.  Do you want to know why?  On Christmas Day (yes, I worked on Christmas Day), a seven year old boy came into my office.  He is the quiet type that speaks with insight when he does in fact, speak.  And unfortunately, in the chaos of my work environment, I get to listen less frequently than I wish.  He said: "Miss Sarah?"  I said, "Yes?" He said: "I made something for..." I looked up, and he was pointing at me.  I said, "What do you have?"  He showed me this: 

And, I melted a little bit.  What do you even say besides, "I'll put it up on my door!"  I have never met a more sincere blesser of the heart.  He's allowed to say that one :) 

Monday, December 21, 2009

Resting for Christmas

Okay so we are not the most meticulous cookie decorators, but I think they turned out so fun! Sprinkles make everything look better! 

This past weekend, I rested.  While one of the downsides to working in a residential setting is working on holidays (hello 8:30-5:30 Christmas Eve and Christmas Day), one of the upsides is flexible scheduling.  This being the case, this past weekend was my Christmas weekend, and I was able to take Friday AND this Monday off in lieu of my Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  

I made new friends. I slept (until 9:43 am). I downloaded new music (Noisetrade- JJ Heller, PLEASE check it out). I prayed. I baked. I wrote.  I ran. I got a pedicure.  I read.  I ate Chuy's. I drank Shiner Cheer.  I laughed with Brooke. Life is good, and I can't help but ask myself, "How did I get so lucky?" 

More Christmas cake balls! Yum!  Do you know they sell these at a local coffee shop for a $1.50 EACH?!?! 

And as I retired for the evening still with some bounce in my step, Brooke said, "your eyes look brighter!"  And, as I looked in the mirror, splashing water on my face, I thought, yes, they do.  My job is tiring.  I listen a lot.  I problem-solve a lot.  I diffuse a lot.  And I attempt to soften the blows of deep and raw and very human need.  

Now, I'm not complaining or doing that melodramatic martyr thing-- promise.  But I will say that it is helpful for me to remember that the level of stress and crisis I deal with is not so normal, and it might be good for me to remember to sleep a little longer, and self-forgive a little more. 

Peppermint frames, for my kids to put their pictures in.  Just arrange mints on a baking sheet, bake at 250 and they melt into these perfect and festive wreaths! We are even thinking of decorating our tree with mini wreaths! 

Courtney knows all the latest books to have on your shelves, and she recently gave me: "Sabbath" by Wayne Mueller.  Apparently, Lifeway Christian Stores won't carry it because they call it "dangerous."  I say, that's a) ridiculous and b) quite a shame.  Mueller reminds me that the refusal to rest is quite arrogant-- contrary to the inclinations of my good little American self: " 'Remember the Sabbath' means 'Remember that everything you have is a blessing.' Remember to delight in your life, in the fruits of your labor. Remember to stop and offer thanks for the wonder of it."  This life, and all its nooks and crannies-- from conversation to melody to vegetable enchiladas, is one great big gift, and I have no business taking it for granted. Mueller reminds me that it is wise to reflect, and just plain dumb, to take in great stories of pain and suffering without grieving.  Sponges are hardly helpful when they aren't wrung out. And besides that, we're not robots--we're little ones and big ones that are capable of much, but still very small in the vastness of this great big world.  And in the same way that plants and animals and other living things need the basics to keep on keeping on, sometimes we must take ourselves on back to the basics.

So, I am grateful for the things and people that wrung (not wore) me out this (very long!) weekend.  I feel fresh. 

"Better is one hand full of quietness, than two hands full of toil and a striving after the wind."  
-Ecclesiastes 4: 6

Sunday, December 20, 2009

God With Us

I listened to a sermon recently by Corey Widmer, the pastor of my former church in Richmond, Virginia.  You can listen to the sermon, "Searching God" here.  

Everytime I listen to him, I wish that I listened to him more; it makes me remember and miss home, and more importantly takes me to the crux of the Gospel- the outlandish generosity God has shown a broken and bumbling people.  Moreover, he outlines our calling to live in such a way that is a response to this radical love shown to us.  

This sermon in particular comes from Luke 15- the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin.  In short: God rejoicing over our coming to Him. Rejoicing doesn't even go far enough. He is ELATED! that we are His, and the world stops when we finally put our bags down and let Him love us.  In this, I find the essence of a deeply relational, profoundly personal God. When I read this passage, I believe more than other times, that indeed, not a moment goes by when my Heavenly Father is not one with me- in his mind and on his heart so much so that I might be "engraved on the palms of His hands," like the prophet Isaiah says. 

During advent we use language that rejoices over the coming of our Savior: "Joy to the World!"  I love this season dedicated to love and longing, I picture God's people, linking hands, smiles bright, "We are ready!" "We have been waiting!"  "Come to us!"  

But what I think is funny is that in our imploring and our exultations, sometimes I forget that it is not we, the receivers that have an ounce of anything to really offer.  "Welcoming" brings along with it this idea of hospitality and graciousness.   It is fun to welcome a beloved friend into a home cozy and lit with candles- soup on the stove, bread on the oven. At least it is for me.  I like giving and offering parts of myself to people that I love.  

But may we remember in this season, that despite our humble exclamations to the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace: "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!" It really is He, who is coming after us. And while in His graciousness and lavish love, He finds our offerings and preparations perfect, they are pittance to His glory. 

I am reminded of a quote by Simon Tugwell my best friend Chelsea shared with me a long time ago, and while I never think of it as advent-y, for some reason, it is today:

"So long as we imagine it is we who have to look for God, we must often lose heart. But it is the other way about: He is looking for us. And we can afford to recognize that very often we are not looking for God; far from it. We are in full flight from Him...and he knows this and has taken it into account. Where we thought finally to escape him, we run straight into His arms.  Our hope is in His determination to save us, and He will not give in."  

Emmanuel, God with us.  Amen.  

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Favorite Things.

I try very hard not to get too attached to material things. Recently at a staff meeting, my boss made the point that an individual's bank statement easily translates into his or her value system, and I cringe when I hear this because I know mine reads sweaters and ballet flats and dangly earrings far more than it should.  It's a work in progress.  More accurately, I am. (a work in progress, that is). 

Nevertheless, sometimes I think it would be fun to have a favorite things store.  The mood would be altogether whimsical and earthy and delightful-- think free spirit meets quirky bookworm all in a quiet, bucolic setting.  And twinkle lights.  There would be twinkle lights. 

So, I've decided, here are a few of the things my non-existent store would have: 

1. Fabric. 

I spend hours in fabric stores and I can't even sew.  I want to learn someday, but even before I do, I will still buy fabric.  I lay it on top of my dresser, and tuck the jagged ends under.  I pin it to foam board and frame it to hang on my wall. I drape it over the back of my desk chair. Layers of fabric make rooms look lived-in and warm, more approachable even. Some might say that the mish-mosh of prints and patterns is haphazard, but like I said earlier, I'm all about that work-in-progress.  And besides, who ever said perfection was completion? 

2. Tea 

No, not tea like sweet tea or, in the North what we'd called "iced" tea. But, hot tea poured into tea cups and boiled in a real teapot.  It's proven to ease tension and stress and gets to include things like chamomile and lavender (yes, please). AND, I would put those inspiring quotes on the tea bags, that say things like, "love what is ahead by loving what has come before" or "let things come to you."  I mean, talk about warmth. 

3. Pretty Paper Products 

I hope that letters never go out of fashion.  I think about how Jane Austen's characters lived their lives in hopeful anticipation of the mail carrier.  Great and terribly important topics were broached with the ink pen.  I find it funny how the most ill-fated news, like the Mr. Collins' engagement proposal or the deceitfulness of Mr. Wichkam is padded with fluffy words like "felicity," "tincture" and "lamentation."  

While I am grateful for the convenience of our cell phones and emails, and even more, the exclamations and innuendos of dear ones that live far away,  I still like opening envelopes, and smiling to find the familiar script on the enclosed pages. 

And please, can we not use the term, "snail mail?" 

4. Used Books 

When I lend out books, I like people to mark them up. This is what I say before handing them over: "Underline the important parts, dog-ear the pages, sign your name, and date it too." I try not to sound neurotic when I say this, but I really like people to do it.  I think that's because books are very living to me, and I think they change me the way relationships, and conversations and all beautiful things can change me.  And the way people respond to the written word, does something in fact, to the words themselves. Lifts them off the page.  Gives them color and dimension and body.  

So this store of mine, would have plenty of books-- tattered and worn, because those are the colorful kind that hit you just so. And wasn't it Frederick Buechner who said, "The story of any of us, is in some measure, the story of us all." 

I think so. 

5. Earrings 

I know it's frivilous, but I love face-framing little jewels like these. 

I think there would be other things, like perfume and candles and recipes to share.  But for now, this feels like a good start :). 


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

On Organizing

The drawers to my dresser will never be organized.  It is a sorry sight, actually.  They are oozing out sweaters, and running clothes and socks that don't have their matches.  I try very hard to fold my clothes nicely and tuck them away tightly but to no avail.  This dresser corner has a permanent case of "morning room."  I wouldn't care except that I do, because for better or for worse, the way things look matter to me.  

In college I roomed with a friend who had that kind of dresser that you opened, and saw everything arranged just so, I began to suspect that the clothes might, in fact fold themselves. I watched and tried to mimic, but it just didn't work. By the end of the week, her clothes still had clean lines, and mine were crumpled.  My wardrobe is eternally indebted to Downy Wrinkle Release.  

So, I am reluctantly coming to grips with the fact that I am disorganized, unorganized (however it goes), but quite organized in my own way. I know all disorganized people have this perfect mess claim, so I won't try to further that point, but I will say that the organization thing, functional though it is, is sort of boring.  And I know it's weird to find the dog leash in the fruit bowl, but hey, you found it and remembered that your banana would go bad if you didn't bring it for lunch today. 

So, since there is nothing worse than coloring inside the lines when all. you. want. to. do. is PLEASE scribble outside of them, and heaven forbid, draw your own picture, I say, please do. At the risk of showing some skin, or some heart, even. Create. It's life-bringing. 

And for the "put-togethers" and "matchy matchers," I appreciate your boxes and your crisp, clean lines, really, I do. And I realize I am probably taking several of your orderly feats for granted. Regardless, I say to you: Dare you to let it get messy. 

Friday, December 11, 2009


This little one looks like she is very ready.  But waiting. Oh-so-patiently waiting.  I am reading, once again,  "Letters to a Young Poet."  Below is a quote from page 26 that sits with me each time.  I am endeared by the young poet's anxiety towards life, and in awe of the gladness and confidence with which Rilke writes.  What a standard he sets forth! I think I read this book so much because I so want to take it to heart. 

"Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come.  But it comes only to the patient, who are there as though eternity lay before them so unconcernedly still and wide. I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful, patience is everything."   -Rilke

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Ordinary. No Extra.

I think I'm a "more is better" person. I suppose this is kind of embarrassing to admit since it makes me gluttonous and grabbing, but I say  it on the pretense that I'm not alone. We're a "more (and more, more, more, more please) is better" kind of culture. So we fill and strive and seek, and seek some more, all to quiet the discomfort of never actually "arriving" (shocker). And then what? Do we go numb?  

I've heard this rat-race rant before, and I bet you have too. I've heard it and continue to whole-heartedly participate although I'm not sure why because when I think about life as a mad-dash it totally stresses me out. 

The thing is we are all off to these fabulous destinations lickety-split. And I've found that sometimes these "ends" are idealized just as we like them, when really the good stuff might not be the things we're conjuring but the things that are right in front of us-- slapping us upside the face.  The things we are pushing, heaving even, out of our way, so we can get to our shiny places that don't exist. 

I know I ignore the beautiful slaps in the face because I don't think they are exciting enough.  I think they are boring, and sometimes it's hard to mesh with things that are just unabashedly, no-strings-attached, given let alone open up to something that has nothing to do with us. 

I had to write this because I have been thinking about it ever since I saw Robert Frank's photography exhibit at the MET. You can see one of my favorite pictures of his above.  I went with my sister over Thanksgiving and it was a part of the "American Stories" exhibit.  Critics lambasted Frank's work as it appeared in his publication of photos called, Americana, because it showed "the dark side" of America.  "Dark side?"  Really? Or just raw side? Life, perhaps as it is and not as it shoulda, coulda, woulda might be.  

Chill out folks, we get what we need.

It's just okay.

When I was really little, I used to ask my sister to tell me this.  Even when it didn't make sense. Especially since she was younger and smaller, and half the time I thought that I knew a lot more than she did (I didn't and still don't). 

 But for some reason when she said this,  I would breathe. And breathing is important.

So everything will be okay, really.  And smile people, it won't mess up your hair. Promise.