Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Like a Locked Room

This quote comes my way in rounds, once every 5 or 6 years from a poet I have loved since the day I read his poem about an anemone and wondered how a man could understand so much about yielding.  At the time, it seemed like something only women did, something only a woman could understand.  Now I see that peace only comes with yielding, taking in, taking on, holding, listening, not acting so much--just...being there, and this is available to everyone.  I guess that was a tangent of sorts.  But friends, it is late, and I am tired, the candle burning late and early because I'm searching and can't afford to waste the clues left by the sunrise or those that are whispered from one star to the next.  So, this post will be like I feel tonight:  a bit worn down.  (And something in me knows this is a symptom of self-reliance, that American curse.  Yield, I said.  Yield.  He didn't make me to do it alone.)

Oh, the quote:

Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Monday, November 29, 2010


Lynn, the landlord farmer who grew up in this house, stopped by today with one of his famous fruitcakes.  It was in a tiny paper bag with Nora's name and a happy face drawn on it.  Nora was so sweet about it: "Oh, thank you so much for thinking of me.  I'll put this away right away."  She proceeded to remove it from the paper bag, peel off the saran wrap, shaking it off her hand down onto the floor while placing the fruitcake carefully into the fridge.  These are not the kind of fruitcakes you want to use in the annual Fruitcake Toss competition.  Lynn makes really good fruitcakes.

I wonder what it must feel like for him to walk into his house and see my pictures, books, Christmas Tree, Nora's toys thrown to the wind...all of it in the places where he remembers seeing his own train set, Hardy Boys books, 4-H ribbons.  I feel self-conscious as he stands in the kitchen, which is simultaneously Ila's kitchen and my kitchen.  Each of us has a strong love for this place, and it is this love that keeps the roof shingled, the floor swept, the air living and breathing.

I was just reading about homesickness last night--the kind of homesickness you feel because you understand deep inside you, in that place where God dwells, that this earth is not really where you belong.  You yearn for something you've only vaguely recognized.  I suppose it works like a homing device or like E.T.'s heart.  It groans with longing when it is far from what it knows.  It responds autonomically with joy when it is in close proximity to those things it recognizes as being part of our real Home.  It leaps.  It flips.  It swoops.  It falls in love.  It is love, and it opens the front door, the one you'll only walk through once.  Inside us is that key.  I want to know Him, to make a home for Him here within until He takes me through to see what I only saw as through a glass darkly.  A part made perfect.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


Saturday, Nora and I were carrot-diggers, pulling the row that had grown sugary sweet with the extended season.  (The longer you leave them in, the better they get.  Plus, they "keep" in the ground.   If you want to preserve carrots for an extended period of time, put them in your basement covered in sand in a 5 gallon bucket.  I can already count how many of you are jumping out of bed right now to start your own carrot sandbox.  Anyway...)  The ground was partially frozen, but the sun was warm and the three-pronged shovel Mom and Mike bought me was working great--err, it's like the spork of shovels--sort of a shovel and a pitchfork but with only half a handle--I should learn its name.  Anyway, we dug the whole row out in about 15 minutes while pretending to be rabbits.   Last year I used a small garden spade and it took so long to do I about banned carrots from the garden party forever.  I think I understand why Scarlett O'Hara stood up with a single carrot clasped in one hand after hours of digging and declared she'd "never go hungry again."  She had plans to get one of those shovel sporks, too.

Six months ago, these carrots were nothing but a seed packet of hardened, miniature dreams.  Next season, I plan to learn how to preserve some of my own (seeds, not dreams--though that would be nice, too.)  This seems like essential knowledge to me, right up there with hand washing, bread baking, spare tire changing, and kid hugging.

So, in my refrigerator are 15 pounds of the most delicious and oddly shaped carrots you'll ever meet.  I planted "Rainbow Carrots" and they turned out purple, pink, orange and white.  Each color has a slightly different flavor.  I feel like a kid looking through the Sears Christmas catalog searching for carrot recipes. (Do ya'll have a copy of The Joy of Cooking? Mmmm....)  Cream of Carrot Soup with ginger and orange juice...Spicy Peppercorn Carrot Pickles...Roasted Carrots with Butter and Honey...Carrot Cake...

I hope my life can be full of these small adventures--that I will someday learn how to make the crocheted, beaded snowflakes without looking down once like my Grandma and Aunt Dottie do while watching different versions of Jane Eyre just to compare notes on the various Mr. Rochesters.  The cookie recipe I know by heart.  The song that always finds the notes as it comes out of my throat.

The vision of Nora galloping on tip toes through the house wherever she's going--this is the kind of joy I mean.  Something new and small each day...something you can learn by heart because your soul was made for loving it.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Mad Libs, Houseplants, and Care

A trip to Et. Cetera (absolutely AMAZING second hand shop in town) yields a 200-page book called "Success with Houseplants."  Who knew it was that complicated?  I mean, should I offer to buy them a drink and how often?  Ask their sign or whether they prefer partial or full-sun exposure?  Is that too forward of me?  Do I mention any unsightly mealy worm fuzz between their leaves on our first date?  When is it safe to tell them that I think I love them?  What if we argue?  What if we don't argue?  I just want them to like me.  I like them.  I think it can work.  Don't you?  I have faith this book holds the answers.  I mean, there are books about cooking, sex, the fall of the Roman empire, and the meaning of life with fewer pages than this.  

Let's take a closer look here.  Page one:  "Variety.  Diversity.  Change.  These words and what they stand for are at the heart of the world of house plants.  A potted plant is not a dainty, objet d'art.  It is a fascinating organism, which will respond dynamically to all the appreciative care you can give it."  

Whoa.  Is this book talking about house plants or is it talking about...all of us?  I mean, try substituting your name here:

Variety.  Diversity.  Change.  These words and what they stand for are at the heart of the world of [your name here].  [Your name] is not a dainty, objet d'art.  [He/she] is a fascinating organism, which will respond dynamically to all the appreciative care you can give [him/her.]

Yeah.  You might be thinking what I'm thinking here.  This is an empowering book, not just for house plants but for all of us who are in the caregiving profession (and that's all of us, folks.)

Now substitute your partner's name, your child's name, your pet's name.  The name of a country.  The name of your pastor.  Your teacher.  Your student.  The name of your president.  The name of your mother.  Your father.  Your sisters and brothers.  Your enemy.  Yes, even that.

200 pages.  Indeed.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Still House

(To be quiet.  Watchful.  Working with hands.  Responding in love.  Kindness and guidance.)

This still house tonight is the house
He has made for me
out of all the different possibilities,
the different configurations of houses
and occupants.  This still house
tonight is the house He has made
for me.  Let me not desire another.
Because He knows exactly what I need
better than I do.  Because I trust Him
more than I trust myself.  This still
house tonight is the house He has
made for me.  And this must be
exactly what I needed
despite how stillness aches.
This still house is good and
fills with sound tomorrow.  But
what is tomorrow when the house
is still tonight?

(He must have heard something I couldn't make out.  A pattern in the silence.  The deepest call of this heart bouncing like a mute ball, silently down the hallway.)

Thrown but not caught.  Resounding.  Throw it again, Sam.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

My mom's stuffing is better than your mom's stuffing.

Well, there might be a little room for a close second, but, seriously.  My mom makes the best stuffing in the world.  So much butter.  So much bread.  So much butter and bread condensed into a single mouthful.  Even one spoonful, I'm sure, has the density of a black hole if you could compare calories to atoms.  In fact, Stephen Hawkings warns us against attempting to put too much stuffing in our mouths at a single time or we'll will warp the space/calorie continuum.  But when it comes to my mom's stuffing, I live on the edge.  And that edge is my belt.  But I figure that's why they made belts with more than one hole.  Am I right?

And just a little tip for all you folks out there who still need to remove the crust from sandwiches:  I have been saving every crust from every PB and J that I made Nora this year in a bag in my freezer, and that's what we used today.  Yes, it has taken up some room in the freezer that I could have used for Totino's pizzas, but it was worth it to see something I would have just thrown away being used today.  It really is true:  one step at a time, one crust at a time, one bite at a time, and you'll get there.

In this sense, I'm thankful for the abundance of very little because very little eventually makes a whole lot of stuffing.  And that's a blessing indeed.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


1992.  I was turning 18, my senior year, living above a bar in downtown Rifle, Colorado called The Red Lion Pub.  Writing in my journal on the floor of that studio apartment, the one that always smelled of Hamburger Helper despite the fact I never cooked the stuff, in blue ink "You are getting too old."   

1982.  Rasa, my youngest sister, makes shoes, hats, coats and pants entirely out of tin foil for my toy poodle.  Such a sweet present.

2003.  The big 3-0.  We play a live radio show that night, covers of Johnny Cash, 20 bucks woven between the strings of an old acoustic guitar strummed like you can hear that train a comin': ccchhhhk, chkuh. cchhhk.  For my birthday, Jason at the Flicker Bar mixes me something called a "Jackie O."  It has umbrellas, sunglasses, suitcases, scarves, sadnesses.  

2010.  Nora and I in the guest room at mom's house.  Thankful for time, how it passes, how much healing is done from one year to the next.

1983.  My first slumber party.  We pretend we're in a band from Scotland and lip sync to "We're Coming to America" by Neil Diamond at least 4,374 times.

1973.  The doctor asks my mom if she can wait a little bit longer to have me so he can catch the Thanksgiving game, so I wait.  Back home, Mom and Dad watch Saturday Night Live and time the contractions.  



Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Pinch Me: I Must Be Dreaming

1.  1984.  My mom comes home with Prince's Purple Rain album, purchased at the Rifle Dime Store--the only place in town that carried records, lipgloss, prescription medication, and gum until Walmart moved in.  The Dime Store is closed now.  I had my ears pierced there when I was 10.  I rode the 1 cent pony right before the bees sting, earring gun, grown-up-now gold studs were in place.

2.  1978.  Standing in shorts on a fire ant hill while my dad talks to a man I don't recognize.  The man slaps my leg hard, his red fingers burned there.  I'm speechless but for the tears now welling.  "Fire ant," says the man but I'm not sure if I wouldn't have rather been bit by 100 ants instead of the sudden sting of a stranger.

3.  1982.  First snow.  The light is gray through the homemade curtains.  I get up slowly so I don't wake my sisters sleeping beside me.  Pants.  Socks.  Boots.  Shirt.  Coat.  Two more pairs of socks on each hand.  Walking outside, the endless white fields reach into absolute silence.  I breathe in too quickly and the air burns my nose.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Adventures and Rest

Nora and I have been knocked out with a pretty hefty flu for the last week.  Thankfully, Nora is doing much better after being put on some antibiotics a few days back.  (And, yes, I finally made an appointment for myself.  The Smith in me doesn't do doctors.  Or dentists.  We pull our own teeth and walk off broken bones.  It's genetic, I'm sure.)  It's been so hard to sit still.  With plans for Christmas cookies on hold and four solid days in pajamas (tomorrow I am definitely putting on some "daytime" clothes, possibly mascara), I got in bed tonight feeling like I'd about seen enough of that bed when suddenly this random thought appeared:  Watch Alice In Wonderland, you know, the new one with Johnny Depp.

And I did, and here's what I'm thinking:  What would my life look like if I viewed it as some amazing adventure that required that I find my own "vorpal sword" and with it faced at least 6 things I thought were impossible before breakfast, even a frumious bandersnatch?

At one point in the movie, the Mad Hatter tells Alice that she has lost much of her muchness.  Basically, he's saying that when she was a child, she was much braver, but somehow the (adult) world had made her a coward, somehow less of what she was made to be.  What was I made to be?  How can I be brave?  What does it mean that I was made with courage?  What should I do with it?  Where is my help needed?  Open my eyes, so that I might do this work.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Biggest Stack of Essays I've Ever Seen. Ever.

Okay.  Get a load of this:

I'm not trying to brag.  I'm not even trying to gain your sympathy, but yes, those are all the essays I need to grade over Thanksgiving break.  Some snafu in my perfect teaching plan went south and I ended up collecting over 100 essays the week before break.  I was thinking back to when I was a student and hated the idea of having a paper hanging over my head the whole break, one that I'd stress about each day, inevitably resulting in "anxiety snacking" when the holiday was already one of the more calorically threatening ones out there.  Despite the heartache and heartburn, I wouldn't begin until the night before it was due.  (Yes, I was that student, the one who always turned in her rough draft as if it were the final draft.  The one who relied on one or two accidentally insightful discoveries to carry the weight of the whole essay.  The one who read the book, loved the book, and I suppose that impressed the professor enough to warrant a high score.)  So, thinking back on that poor, tortured student who felt guilty the entire Thanksgiving break for procrastinating her work, I made all the essays for my classes due BEFORE Thanksgiving.  Oops.   

Now, don't get me wrong.  I actually love grading essays.  I savor them.  I have a really nice pen.  I get to drink a lot of coffee in one sitting.  I pray before I start, asking God to help me see the potential, the brilliance rather than the occasional grammar smudges-- the seemingly random appearance of the comma  or the complete disregard for the gravitational laws that govern MLA formatting.  But when you are looking at 100 essays, the math starts to get a little daunting...

I am beginning to see the irony here--the other day I posted about God giving me the work that I need to be doing.  Well, folks.  Here it is.  And, yes, I am grateful despite the fact that these essays actually weigh more than the turkey most of us will be cooking over break.  There is something to be learned here.  Sometimes the work we get is pretty challenging.  I mean, sometimes it's going to seem impossible.  But just you watch.  It won't be.  It never is.  

Have you ever noticed when you are doing something in Him, how that thing seems...graceful?  I mean, it's almost too easy to do.  You think it should be harder, but it isn't.  It feels natural and good and kind of exciting.

I see each of the minds, the souls, the hearts bent over the glowing screen to write each word...hope upon hope.  Word upon word.  And I get to see each silent secret they put down there on those pages.  And I hope these writers felt like it was the easiest thing they've ever done.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Work: What is it good for?

I'm noticing it's been 10 days since I last put something up here.  Where have I been?  Working.   I teach for the English department at Concordia University.  I remember the first time I was shown around campus right after I'd moved to town from Georgia, still not quite sure what I was doing in Nebraska but certain there was something I was supposed to find here.  (Sidenote:  I was both shocked and encouraged that there was a sculpture of a naked man on campus--I often hold my office hours there if the weather is nice.)  Now I know what it was that brought me here:  the long string of prayers I'd released into the night skies like anxious kites waving above my bed as I held Nora-- waiting for the monitor she wore to sound off signaling to me that her breathing had stopped for longer than 20 seconds -- these prayers had been answered.  Nora was off the monitor, I was finally near family, and had found a farmhouse like the one I'd dreamed of for so long, even down to the windmill.  When I walked around the house the first time, Nora on my hip and wet leaves clinging to my boots, everything was dead and damp but I could still see the life here.  I peeked through the window into the kitchen and could smell cookies and bread.  I saw the hardwood floors and knew how many times I'd wash them.  I saw the apple trees, asleep at that time, and counted the apples I'd peel, mix with sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg and freeze for apple crisp later.   I looked into the long expanse of Nebraska fields surrounding the house and felt the breath I'd been holding for so long finally released in that space.  Air.  Sky.  Dirt.  Breath.  Home.  And it all came about from a "random" conversation in a combine between my landlord (he grew up here in this house) and my stepdad's mom.  (Well, prayers are often answered this way, yes?)

And more prayers were answered.  I spent a semester teaching and learning poetry with 12 Concordia students every Wednesday night for a semester.  I'd been with Nora 24 hours a day since she'd been born, and for the first time in a year, I found myself brave enough to leave her side, brave enough to begin talking about language when words had seemed so frivolous for so long.  It seemed that getting Nora to where she was had taken almost everything I had--from the discovery of a blood clotting disorder at the beginning of the pregnancy that meant two injections a day for 9 months for me (into my stomach, no less--I'm definitely over my fear of needles now), Nora not gaining weight and me finally finding someone who could explain why (not just, "you are under too much stress and not producing enough milk"), to her stop-breathing episodes, the frantic CPR, the monitor, the worry.  I knew all I had to do was wait.  The doctor had said 6 months and she would grow out of it.  And we had made it.  She was in the clear.  Beautiful, strong, brave Nora.

I was astonished to be teaching again, like I'd entered some secret room made just for me.  (I don't mean it to sound so self-centered--it was simply a very precious and crucial and necessary place for me, one I knew God had brought me to as a way to bring me closer to Him and as a way to recover from such an intense year).   The final night of our class, we gave a poetry reading at the Gallery, and I drove home with the sun setting and my heart bursting like sequins, and the May air smelling like life could spring instantaneously from a seed that you'd held for too long in your palm if you'd just uncurl your fingers.  I pulled up the gravel drive, walked in the door and was told to go look behind the house.  It was dark by then and the moon was walking its way up through the trees.  While my stepdad Mike and my mom had been there watching Nora, Mike had tilled a patch of ground for my first garden.  I walked up to it, this big, dark square of earth in rows and mounds and I got on my knees and cried.  I thanked God for hearing me and pulling me ashore to this good ground.  Everything, I mean EVERYTHING that night was telling me to live, that I was ok.  It was time to stop letting worry be my work--to drop that exhausting and worthless weight.  It was time to get down to my real work, to give, to listen, to grow.  I knew for certain then that all I had to do was ask to be shown the work He wanted me to do, and He would give it to me whether it be the work of being Nora's mom, an English professor at Concordia, a house keeper (in the truest sense) or an occasionally successful gardener.

But before I fall into the trap of thinking I am "earning my keep" with God here, this passage occurs to me:

"Then said they unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?  Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that you believe on him whom he hath sent."  John 6:28-29

Start there, Lisa.


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Light Exposures

1. So, it feels weird to be writing so openly in a blog, and I am finding it interesting what I decide to publish and what I keep private. It's exposing all sorts of aspects of my person--the egoist, the sinner, the show-off, the self-hater. It is harder than I thought to write an honest word, one that helps rather than destroys. (I consider deleting this paragraph because I start so many sentences with "it" and because I wonder...I need to stop wondering. Start wandering. Curriculum means "journey." I learned this talking to someone today about "Edgar Poe." How strange that sounds, though it is technically correct.)

2. (And already I can hear Him calling me away from all this "I". Yes, there is Light and there is The Word and now let's talk about what words are made of--breath and spirit combined in sound. Muscle of hand connected to the head of all things traces a thought on the white light page. Like my good friend under that cathedral there--it's so simple and so complex--the architecture of light, the space of the word contained in our heart, in the heart of the world that continues to call us out of this world and into that heart that is the wor(l)d beyond, within, beyond...I am not sure. Despite this lack of clarity in me, I still know.)

3.  Tonight: While walking through campus like a hungry baby bird with my head tilted to the sky and the moon and the trees, I understand this is not the climate of the earth. I realize I am weaving, and wonder if I will be mistaken for a drunk or a poet or a baby bird. The breeze comes from another planet, one with our summer's warmth smelling of the browns and yellows of autumn's decay and rust. The combination was disorienting. I duck inside the building but secretly want to explore this new planet until very early in the morning.

4. For the Word He gives me to wear: an armor, a shield, a sword. HOLD THE LINE. HOLD THE LINE. HOLD THE LINE. For the love of God. Hold the line. (A line held in my heart. A memorized muscle.)

5. So many encouraging notes and conversations. May the love He gave me find a way back to those friends.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Courage and Fragility

I am waiting for words.

I imagine but I do not do:  the simplicity of hand-washing the dishes, finally peeling and freezing the apples, baking the pumpkins, unraveling the rust colored yarn from an old afghan, combing Nora's hair.  Silently.  To speak through motion, through repetition, through stillness, and patience, and watching.

The more fragile I let myself be (I am the master of self-containment), the more courageous I become.  Can this be right?  It must be.  It has to be.

There were deep-throated barks coming from the yard at midnight.  Big dogs.  I could tell this already.  When I opened the door, cold on my legs, I saw two pony-sized neighbor dogs pawing at one of the kittens.  And I yelled and I ran them off, but the kitten was gone, stillness in the grass, the other two mewling from the tree.

This is not the first I've buried, and as my landlord says, nature has a way of taking care of over-population.    I found myself in bed later writing to mom about one of the kittens being "taken out."  And I regretted having said it this way.  It was beyond regret.  There was something wrong in my thinking, something hardened.  I can always tell when something isn't sitting right with me.   I feel a sort of stillness of the blood, like ice drawing a line through my veins.  I told God I was sorry I had spoken so coldly about one of His creatures, one He imagined and made and loved.  I told Him I couldn't let myself feel for this one little kitten because I knew there would be more kittens, more tiny deaths in my life.  And the answer was so clear and so good:  Mourn this kitten, and I will bring you healing when you are ready.  So, I cried.  But I didn't cry all night.  It stopped.  And I knew I had responded the way I had initially wanted to respond but had choked back, all business and shovel.   And it was as He promised.  He never left my side as I let my own heart break so it might continue to love.

I am really just a little seed under the pressure of water and weight and heat.  Inevitably I will need to break open if I am to produce any fruit at all.  Give me strength.  (And You do, even today--three Thank You notes, a card from a friend afar, and a note written in pencil on a torn piece of cardboard left on my desk that simply said:  Just so you know, you are loved.)

How the words arrive.  Alleluia.