Blessings in the Midst of Burdens

During the long weekend, my little family piled into the car and headed for Tennessee to visit dear friends at their new house. Somehow we didn’t get the news that a massive winter storm would be sweeping over our entire nearly 700-mile trip down on Friday, or that another winter storm would be sweeping over much of our nearly 700-mile return trip Monday. I guess being rather more disconnected from social media has its disadvantages.

Fortunately, we grew up driving in Michigan.

Unfortunately, most of the other drivers we encountered did not.

And apparently the Tennessee Department of Transportation doesn’t understand how to properly salt their roads. Or, you know, salt them at all.

We were so grateful not to have been stuck on I-40 West, which was closed for hours and hours due to a crash that involved 16 semi trucks, and on which some people were stuck in their cars overnight. (There were still stranded and overturned semis on the highway when we left three days later.) We had gotten off that highway early on and taken a dark, winding, icy state highway that was mostly empty, rolling into the Jackson, Tennessee, area around 9pm. We should have gotten there by 4pm, had it not been for the weather and traffic snarls.

But we did get there. In one piece. And that is a blessing.

We had a delightful couple days hanging out, eating good food, smoking cigars, watching movies, and marveling at how an entire state can be so unprepared for winter weather events, even though apparently it does snow occasionally and, sometimes, intensely. (The lady at Wal-Mart had never heard of using salt to melt ice, and while the store was well-stocked with gardening gloves and grass seed, there was not a snow shovel to be found.)

The trip home was rather uneventful and far less stressful, though the roads were still sloppy part of the way. We were happy to be reunited with our newest family member, who I introduced in my latest email newsletter. (Aside, if you’d like to get on that mailing list for future monthly newsletters, you can sign up here.)

Then this morning when my husband was taking my son to school, my car got a flat tire. And I felt grateful all over again that it didn’t happen on an already long and taxing multi-state drive down treacherous highways.

Sometimes we have to look past our inconveniences to see our blessings.

We had a terrible drive — but not as terrible as some.

We visited the South on the one weekend in years that it was experiencing the kind of winter weather we always experience and, by January, are usually pretty tired of — but it meant that we spent all of our time in the house with our friends, and that’s what we wanted to do down there anyway.

We got a flat tire — but in the scheme of things, that’s not really that big of a deal.

Storms sweep through our lives — but in the midst of them, we can still praise the God who brings us through.

And next time we visit our friends, we’ll be flying down.

Loosening the Facebook Noose and Rediscovering the Natural World

Two days ago, we got about five inches of snow. Yesterday was clear and cold, six degrees in the morning, warming to about twenty. My son spent his snow day largely out in the snow despite the temperatures. Between bouts his snow gear tumbled around in the dryer to get it ready for the next session.

Today it is snowing again and my yard is filled with birds munching seeds from dead flower heads and from the feeders which I’ve moved to the north side of the house so we can watch them from the kitchen and the dining room table. The neighbor’s garage acts as a windbreak for them.

We’ve seen dozens of goldfinches in their dull winter coats all vying for a place on the feeder with the thistle seed in it. House finches prefer the sunflower seeds in the tube feeder. Juncos pick up the scraps that fall to the ground. A woodpecker has been carving away at the seed cylinder that is laced with cayenne pepper to keep the squirrels off it. Sparrows and nuthatches and cardinals and chickadees and the occasional blue jay round out the company.

“It snowed all yesterday and never emptied the sky, although the clouds looked so low and heavy they might drop all at once with a thud,” writes Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which I’m reading for the first time. Winter is a good time for reading anything, but especially nature writing.

I find myself jealous of all that is right outside of Annie’s door in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and I recall how much time I used to spend outside, especially in winter, when I lived in Grand Rapids and volunteered at Blandford Nature Center. Winter and early spring hikes around the property were always far better than those taken in summer. The world holding its breath all winter and then finally releasing it. Each spring hike a wonder as new things came alive. The wonder of spring only made possible by the icy grip of winter.

I think I love winter more every year.

My friend Cindy Crosby writes in the tradition of Annie Dillard, though she is in the great wide prairie lands rather than the mountains. If you enjoy nature writing, you may like her blog or her book The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction. Here’s the description from Amazon:

More than a region on a map, North America’s vast grasslands are an enduring place in the American heart. Unfolding along and beyond the Mississippi River, the tallgrass prairie has entranced and inspired its natives and newcomers as well as American artists and writers from Willa Cather to Mark Twain. The Tallgrass Prairie is a new introduction to the astonishing beauty and biodiversity of these iconic American spaces.

 

Like a walking tour with a literate friend and expert, Cindy Crosby’s Tallgrass Prairie prepares travelers and armchair travelers for an adventure in the tallgrass. Crosby’s engaging gateway assumes no prior knowledge of tallgrass landscapes, and she acquaints readers with the native plants they’ll discover there. She demystifies botanic plant names and offers engaging mnemonic tips for mastering Latin names with verve and confidence. Visitors to the prairie will learn to identify native plants using the five senses to discover what makes each plant unique or memorable. In the summer, for example, the unusual square stem of cup plant, Silphium perfoliatum, sets it apart from its neighbors. And its distinctive leaf cups water after the rain.

 

A gifted raconteur, Crosby tells stories about how humankind has adopted the prairie as a grocery, an apothecary, and even as a shop for love charms. Rounding out this exceptional introduction are suggestions for experiencing the American prairie, including journaling techniques and sensory experiences, tips for preparing for a hike in tallgrass landscapes, ways to integrate native prairie plants into home landscapes (without upsetting the neighbors), and a wealth of resources for further exploration.

 

An instant classic in the tradition of American naturalist writing, The Tallgrass Prairie will delight not only scholars and policy makers, but guests to tallgrass prairie preserves, outdoors enthusiasts and gardeners, and readers interested in American ecosystems and native plants.

Earlier this week, two red-tailed hawks took a brief respite in a maple tree in my back yard then went on hunting. I felt lucky to see them. And I feel lucky that I live in a place that gets a real winter, which always feels like my own respite. A Sabbath season.

I’m winding down my year of reading A Year with C. S. Lewis: Daily Readings from His Classic Works. Today’s selection includes this observation: “When promiscuity is the fashion, the chaste are outsiders. They are ignorant of something that other people know. They are uninitiated.” Lewis is talking not just of chastity versus promiscuity in this selection, but of the desire to be part of the Inner Circle of mankind. To be in the know. An early 20th century version of FOMO (fear of missing out).

I never used to care about being at one with the Zeitgeist. I was comfortably on the outside, not even looking in, because I was spending my time looking at the same kinds of things Annie Dillard and Cindy Crosby were looking at. And I felt with certainty that was the one in the know, in the inner circle. I noticed the things that mattered while everyone else was whirling about trying to be current. I was the insider and they were all outside, not even looking in, because they were too busy for the slow, constant, predictable motion of the natural world.

Sometime in the late 2000s, that changed, and I’ve spent a decade far more engaged with the tumult of mankind than I could ever have imagined I’d be. It’s probably 100% due to my entrance into social media by joining Facebook in 2007. And honestly, I’m not happy about it.

There are things that have to be said, wounds that have to be opened, policies that need to change, and power structures that should probably be toppled. It’s certainly unclear if social media is the most effective place to do this. It certainly is clear that social media makes people feel less understood, less connected, and more anxious and depressed than they would otherwise be. It is the ultimate irony of our times.

The history of mankind and the history of everything else in the world run on parallel tracks, one frenetic and anxious and bumpy, the other timeless and deliberate and while not unchanging certainly changing slower and for more logical reasons sometimes.

Maybe its too early for resolutions, but this has been on my mind. This desire to jump back over to that other track for a while and remember that the weight of the world’s problems are not a burden I need to carry. I can’t carry it.

In his first letter to the church in Thessalonica, Paul encourages them to “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.” And to the Romans he says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” This is hard to do in a democracy. It is made all the more difficult when media and social media seem designed to stir up anger, fear, dissension, and self-righteousness.

When I first joined Facebook, it was fun. It was a waste of time, no doubt, but it was fun. Now it’s mostly not. I’m not dumping it entirely for 2018, but I’m taking a step back. I’m unfollowing A LOT of people. I’m limiting my time on it, and eliminating it entirely on weekends. I’m going to go quiet. Take a Sabbath rest. Rediscover my blog, which I’ve let go quiet this fall.

I’m really looking forward to 2018. A time to start fresh. A pure white blanket of fresh-fallen snow. A year of possibilities. A year to buckle down and work on what pleases me. A year to lead a quieter life, at peace with those around me.

I’m not worried about missing out. I’m looking forward to it.

 

Today’s Painting: Spring Is Coming

Today I painted snowy mountains. It was a relaxing afternoon after two days of intensive learning, coaching, and teaching at Write on the Red Cedar 2017 (which was awesome, BTW). I did manage this time to remember to take pictures after each major stage, so here’s how this painting came together…

You start with the bottom covered with black gesso (let dry completely) then cover the whole thing with a thin coat of liquid clear. Then you put some black oil paint at the bottom as well.

The sky is next: prussian blue, a bit of black, and a bit of alizarin crimson, then fluffy white clouds with tinges of pink and yellow ochre.

Mountains are next, put in with the knife.

Highlight and shadow colors are mixed and laid on with the knife, and then comes the snow. Keeping the angles making sense took a lot of brainpower for me.

Then I added in a couple closer, shorter protrusions, which push the big mountain back a bit.

Next come distant pine trees and more snow.

Each layer pushes the last one back in your perception, and the fields of snow between help to keep them separated.

Next come Bob Ross’s happy trees. These are a little fuller than I wanted to make them, but I’m still getting the hang of it.

Add in snow beneath the trees, then pull it down with a dry 2-inch brush to make reflections. Voila! Instant water.

I ended up adding some bare trunks to make the trees less full, plus a couple more rock outcroppings because I thought there was just too much white snow all in the middle of the painting.

This one was definitely challenging, but fun!

Winter through a Warm Filter

I think when winter settles in, lots of people immediately put on their grumpy glasses. Everything about winter irritates them — the cold temperatures, the snow, the driving — and they are miserable until April. They see life in winter through a cold filter, like this:

Winter at Fenner Nature Center

Others put on a different pair of glasses. They see winter as a chance to be cozy at home, a chance to do winter sports, or even just a welcome blank space in their social calendar (post-Christmas, at least). They see beauty and artistry. They see life in winter through a warm filter, like this:

Winter at Fenner Nature Center

No matter what our station in life or what the season, our enjoyment of life is directly correlated to how we choose to see it. If we see adversity and enemies and obstacles everywhere we look, if we see everything as an inconvenience to us, then that’s what we’ll get. But if we can see that winter is merely a wondrous part of the yearly cycle of nature in a temperate zone, maybe we’ll enjoy it a little more.

Winter at Fenner Nature Center

After all, we’re all experiencing the same winter if we’re in the same area of the country. If you hate it and your friend loves it, the difference isn’t in winter, it’s in you. It’s in how you’re choosing to experience the exact same circumstances as your friend. Maybe if we stop complaining, we won’t feel so put upon by winter (which really isn’t out to get you — it doesn’t even know you’re there).

Winter at Fenner Nature Center

I have a friend who is experimenting with liking winter this year. She hates it, but she’s decided not to complain about it. And you know what she realized for the first time? Just how much other people were complaining about it. The experiment is ongoing, and I’m not sure if she’ll last until spring finally comes, but for right now, I’m really proud of her. If you’re normally wearing your grumpy glasses all winter, I encourage you to try it out, even if just for a week or two.

Winter at Fenner Nature Center

Besides, if you just can’t hack it, I’m sure Florida will take you.

Frigid Photography

It’s cold, cold, cold and snowy in Michigan lately, which suits me just fine. I stopped off at Fenner Nature Center today to take a few pictures on the way to pick up my son from school. I trudged in snow drifts nearly up to my knees and it was still coming down.

Snowy Day at Fenner Nature Center, December 2016

Snowy Day at Fenner Nature Center, December 2016

Snowy Day at Fenner Nature Center, December 2016

 

Snowy Day at Fenner Nature Center, December 2016

Snowy Day at Fenner Nature Center, December 2016

Snowy Day at Fenner Nature Center, December 2016

Snowy Day at Fenner Nature Center, December 2016

I wish I’d had more time and my snow pants on. After only about ten or fifteen minutes I had to be on my way.

Spring? What’s this “spring” you speak of?

Spring break is always touch and go in the Midwest. But this year takes the cake when it comes to crappy weather. It snowed at least a little every day, and sometimes it looked like this:

April 8, 2016

Now, I’m normally not one to complain about snow; I consider it part of my mission on this earth to balance out everyone else’s constant whining about it. But everyone has their limit. Thankfully, it is mostly melted now and the forecast for Wednesday through Sunday is phenomenal. This weekend I hope to finally finish clearing away to old leaves from the gardens and get the yard bags out to the street for pick-up.

During the rotten weather this past week I did use my time well, adding about 8,000 new words to my current WIP. This week I’ll have to put that on pause as I go over I Hold the Wind one more time before sending it to my agent. I’ve also been putting together my first newsletter, which should be going out at the end of the week! If you want to get this subscriber-only content, you can sign up here.

I’m cautiously optimistic that spring truly is coming to stay this week, which puts me in a generally hopeful mood, as does the news that, for the first time in a long time, we may actually be getting a tax refund this year. Now, if only the housing market in mid-Michigan would bounce back a little more…

Ah, well. One thing at a time.

Winter Has Arrived

Yesterday afternoon I took a solo walk at Fenner Nature Center. There had been a lot of puns and Christopher Walken impressions and general noisiness in the morning, so after lunch I geared up for the colder weather, grabbed my camera, and headed south. As I stood by my car getting my camera over my neck, made extra puffy with scarf and goose down, a man started shouting in another language at his kids. I looked up to see seven or eight whitetail deer bounding by in a line, the sound of a far-off dog an indication of what may have disturbed them. I turned back to the man and shared one of those smiles you only get to share with a stranger when you’ve both witnessed something wonderful. He gathered his kids and piled them into the car. I set off into the grassland.

Fenner Nature Center, January 2016

Fenner Nature Center, January 2016

Fenner Nature Center, January 2016

Fenner Nature Center, January 2016

Fenner Nature Center, January 2016

I saw a very occasional person, heard a dog bark once or twice. But the principal sound I heard was the wind whistling through the bare treetops and the shuff, shuff sound of my own walking.

I never use a trail map when I’m there, which may explain why I made two new discoveries yesterday. I took a couple smaller side trails I’d not noticed or simply not taken in the past. One led me to an observation blind built of plywood. The other led me past this…

Totem Pole, Fenner Nature Center

I have no idea what the story is behind this totem pole, but it has lots of wonderful carvings of people and animals, including these guys…

Totems

A look at the map later shows that both of my discoveries are clearly marked. I guess that’s one reason to use a map.

Fenner Map

The woods were quiet and filled with the subtle colors of winter — white, grays, and browns — but without the leaves to distract and cast shadows on the tree trunks, their underlying yellows, reds, oranges, and greens were easier to discern.

Fenner Nature Center, January 2016

All in all a lovely, cold, windy day. It snowed overnight as well and now the trees are blanketed in white and the grass is finally buried and the windchill is near zero degrees Fahrenheit. Winter has finally come. And I couldn’t be happier.

Fenner Nature Center, January 2016

Suddenly, Snow

Winter's Arrival, Highway 52

The power of poetry. Two days after my lament, we’ve finally had a bit of snow. And lots of sudden ice on the roads. You take the good with the bad. This morning there are flurries and the ground is still powdered with white. I believe it’s all supposed to melt tomorrow. But for a moment yesterday afternoon, it was glorious.

I drove into it going west on I-69, coming back from Pontiac where my sister was graduating from the corrections academy of Oakland County. The sole representative in her class of Grand Traverse County where she will be working, she took the top academic honors.

I was in proud attendance, as were our parents. Alison spent the last fifteen years in child protective services and then adult protective services, hard jobs that wear you down, especially as resources continue to be stripped. The road to the moment in the photo above started somewhere back in the late spring with application, then a battery of tests and background checks and interviews, then five weeks away from her family at the academy.

As we run out 2015 and think about the year to come, I pray it’s a year of renewal, growth, satisfaction, and joy for all of you, but especially for her.

Sisters

Old Dog on a Snowy Morning

My dog is fifteen years old this month. She’s lived with us for nine of those years

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Half German Shepherd and half Samoyed, she was built for the snow by centuries of selective breeding. The jobs for which she has been bred include keeping watch over reindeer, sheep, and people. She’s done an excellent job watching over us, always certain to alert us when a nefarious old woman was walking down our street or that infernal mailman was stuffing junk mail into our mailbox.

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These days her hearing is starting to go. She doesn’t bark at the people passing by or the mailman. She isn’t usually waiting by the door when we come in, because she no longer hears the car coming in the driveway.

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In her younger days, she would spend hours outside in this kind of weather. But a foot of snow overnight and single digit temperatures this morning were less enticing to her than laying under the dining room table as the humans in the family enjoyed freshly baked cinnamon rolls.

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She’s well into her retirement years. Walks are shorter, naps are longer, treats and people food are ever more abundant (“She’s old!” is my husband’s bighearted justification for all the special treatment). I’m not sure how much longer she will be with us, but I am sure that she has been a very, very good dog.

Waiting for the Snows

But for a few days in November, mid-Michigan has been naked this winter. Today was rainy and in the 40s and felt like spring, a melancholy masquerade in late December. Two days out from Christmas with no snow on the ground and even the most summer-loving Midwesterner must feel an itching wistfulness. When we moved to Lansing from Grand Rapids in 2005, it was a green (brown, really) Christmas. During the week following, I was working in my new yard, pulling English ivy from walls, trimming tree limbs with a saw my father got me for Christmas, and digging up sandstone rocks from beneath the ground. I was more than 50 pounds lighter then than I am today, eager to make my new home my own. Nine years later and I have nothing to do in the garden despite the warm temperatures and the soft earth. The garden is “finished” as far as that goes.

I won’t lie; the lack of snow has got me down. What is winter without snow except a long, dull stretch of cloudy sky and gray-brown earth? Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. There are lights on the house, presents under the tree, family coming for good food. I’m anticipating the smiles on the faces of my son and husband as they open up their gifts. I’m listening to carols and playing them for my son on the guitar at night. Tomorrow night is our candlelight service at church. Everything is as it should be–except the snow. Funny how one thing out of place throws off the whole thing.

One thing out of place.

When I turned my calendar to December a few weeks ago, I was met with an envelope containing a letter I had forgotten I’d written. Last night I cheated and opened it a week early. At my husband’s bemused urging, I read it out loud. It was cheesier than I can imagine myself being. Or maybe it wasn’t cheesy so much as it was too sincere. We had a couple good laughs during my oration. Still, I was pleasantly surprised to find that most of my hopes for myself had come to pass in 2014. One very particular one did not–one thing out of place–but I am slowly becoming okay with it. Perhaps the most surprising thing was that I was ahead of where I had claimed I hoped to be when it came to my writing. And yet, for much of the second half of 2014, I have been impatient and felt as though I was lagging behind. My January 2014 self, the one who wrote that letter, seems a more reasonable person than my December 2014 self. And I’m glad that she reminded me just how much I have accomplished this past year.

So I wait for the snow and I wait for the fulfillment of a goal I hadn’t really given myself a year ago. I remind myself that I’m right on track and that Christmas comes whether it snows or not. I may feel that there is still one thing out of place, but in reality it is just my own impatience. God’s time is rarely our time, is it?