enough

A squawking skein of geese
scribbles an arrow overhead,
uniting in mid-
flight. In formation, mass
migration lassoes forces
unseen with collective
instinct. As each falls
in line, the deafening
chaos swells. Momentum
gains, I exclaim
pointing a startled finger.
My children notice.

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Tied to their poles, the fabric
of our nation whipped
by angry gusts waves
in front of their school.
Who decides how
high it’s raised?
Each day suffers
another mourning;
today (again)
it hangs exhausted
at half-staff. Too young,
my kids don’t know
the code. I choke
on stifled sobs
and drive us home.

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Beneath looming power-
lines I walk alone,
recharging. Erased
of color, the empty sky
highlights unnatural
hues strewn across shared
space: the litter of leftovers,
empty containers, willing
sacrifices offered
to a capricious god
of consumption.

Absent is sanguine
sunlight drowning
retinas in illusion, shrinking
trash to aberration,
burying sins deep
in tangled woods outside
our field of vision.

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Rubbish resisting
decomposition, awaiting
recognition, begs for someone
to say

Enough.

I bend,
pick up and carry
as much junk
as I can hold.

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roadkill relics

Construction trash left by workmen littered the grass behind the newly bricked entrance sign. They’d be back to finish and clean up, or so their two-month-old promise claimed. But they hadn’t, and now it spread onto the road. The rubbish had morphed from an eyesore to a potential hazard. If not removed, my neighbors and I might drive over the junk for weeks. Broken glass threatened to puncture a tire. I pulled over to the curb and got out of my minivan, leaving my confused kids in the backseat. Plastic grocery sack in hand, I walked over to the edge of the intersection and bent down to clean it up.

With no tools, I had to improvise. My bare fingers served as bristles, sweeping shards of broken mirror and chunky frosted glass into the flimsy bag I held in my other hand. What is this? I wondered, sifting through the pieces.

Splattered across frozen pavement, figurines too big to be chess pieces laid surrounded by a fine powder. Their whitewashed faces wore solemn expressions: pious, pinched, opaque. Were these angels resting on a blanket of fresh snow? Or crime scene corpses outlined with smudged chalk?

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Underneath the pile, I discovered a flattened cardboard box and used it as a makeshift dustpan. Printed on its creased front, I found a gravestone marker: Frosted Glass Nativity. Mass-produced in a foreign factory and sold at a discount store, this set had survived cycles of storage and display only to face annihilation on a suburban street.

Their identities revealed themselves as I took a closer look. Some were maimed, forever mute or lame due to missing heads and limbs, but others were miraculously intact. Some were duplicates.

The January wind bit my exposed skin as I collected the pieces and rushed back to the shelter of my van. Buried under rubble, the survivors clinked together, jostling inside the bag. At home, I sorted through the wreckage, tossing the unsalvageable into my kitchen trash can and examining the remains.

The body count included two identical Marys. With downcast eyes, they crossed their arms against their chests. Their diminutive size and distinct head coverings identified them as feminine, the sole wom(e)n at the scene. Joseph was missing; the baby was left in his mothers’ care. Three complete and two partial wisemen clutched angled packages against the folds of their robes.

The only animals, a pair of sheep, formed mirror images, each with one foot extended, helpless in the absence of their shepherds. An unexplained red splotch marked one lamb’s back.

Propped in the chipped glass manger rested baby Jesus. His pouting lips cooed and limbs extended into the scratchy hay. No swaddling cloth protected his arms as they stretched wide, toward the edges of his dirty crib, longing to be rescued into someone’s loving embrace.

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I rinsed their bodies under the faucet with lukewarm water, then spread them onto a clean dish towel laid on the counter to dry, where they remain.

Christmas is over. They do not fit with our home decor. These discarded idols are broken, chipped, and incomplete, yet I can’t bring myself to condemn them to the landfill.

I can’t shake this odd discovery. Not simply trash, these relics are mementos of faith that carry a musty reverence.  For believers like me, to toss them feels like sacrilege. Two weeks later, I’m still pondering the significance.

These figurines manage to convey the identities of those present at the nativity despite the absence of color, texture, or detail. And yet, they are woefully insufficient: lifeless replicas representing real flesh and blood people that witnessed history’s biggest miracle.

The God of the universe squeezed himself into the body of an infant, small enough to fit in a manger. But God won’t stay in the boxes we create.

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God is still in the business of incarnation, taking up residence in fragile human hearts.

For now we see as through a glass, darkly..imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror. Frosted glass blurs our vision, making objects translucent by scattering the light passing through.

All that I know now is partial and incomplete. Much like the church as a whole: imperfect vessels holding the light of the world. Much like me: guilty of offering the world fuzzy, distorted glimpses of Jesus.

Maybe the breaking is necessary to sharpen our sight and expand our understanding of God. Maybe when our beloved idols are tossed out the window, our faith can be reborn. When I surrender my partial understanding, I make room for it to grow.

“Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.”

1 Corinthians 13:12-13

 

limited presence

I stopped making official lists of resolutions in my mid-thirties. Instead, I began to select “one word” each January to guide me through the year. In a season of chasing after young children, composing lists of unattainable goals felt futile. The simplicity of selecting a one-word vision convinced me to make it an annual tradition.

My 2017 word was present. This lofty concept embodied my intent to practice awareness, foster gratitude, and offer my words as gifts to others.

I wore the word on a silver chain around my neck and engraved on a bracelet on my wrist. These physical reminders prompted me to engage when I would rather retreat, to look deeper when I was tempted to skim the surface. 

A review of my year revealed some progress. But in the end, what stood out were my limitations.

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Present has a cost. That’s why we say that we must pay attention. It demands a lot of vulnerability and intentionality. Present carries a lot of weight. My hope was that repetition and practice might make me stronger.

But success came only in spurts. Little victories drawn in sharp peaks were immediately followed by flat lines and valleys on the landscape of my days. Oh, I showed up…only to withdraw again and again. Distraction and weakness prevented me from catching up with my shadow and maintaining my focus.

What I discovered was this: my inner static clashes with the noise of the world around me. To lean in and listen deeply means filtering out my complicated motives and confronting my deep-seated fears. Awareness stings and reveals me in ways I can’t predict or control.

*

This fall, my grandmother died. At 94, her body was giving out and she knew it. Instead of fighting the inevitable, she faced the end of her life head-on. She chose to forgo invasive treatments that might have lengthened her days but limited her ability to live them fully.

When I got the news of her decline, I wanted to imitate her courage and make the most of our remaining time together. The anticipation of this loss made my eyes sting and burn, wearing me out with the intensity of impending grief. I did my best to stay present, to process my emotions, to offer my words as gifts to her and others in my family. By the day of her funeral, my spirit was spent. 

In the midst of my family’s season of loss, the world kept spinning. Others in my world were suffering their own pain so I tried to show up for them.

News came of the death of the husband of my college friend, a man my age. One rainy Sunday afternoon, I drove to a church on the other side of town to attend the calling. A hug and a few moments of conversation were all I could offer. Ashamed, I found myself unable to stay past the visitation for the funeral. I retreated to the safety of my car, shaking as I held back pent-up emotion. Tears had only been a blink away for weeks. Once they started, I wasn’t sure when they would stop.

Loss loomed across the street as well. I took brownies to a neighbor caring for her mother in her final days, but couldn’t offer much comfort. As my fresh grief collided with her reality, I lost my composure and my words.  I wanted to make it better, but felt helpless to ease her pain. These encounters exposed my own frailty.

Reflecting on my “one word,” I felt the sting of failure when I acknowledged the truth:

My instinct for self-protection demands I keep a safe distance. My fear swerves me away from conflict in order to avoid pain. My pride tempts me to surrender to pull of the urgent, neglecting what’s important. My insecurity crafts a false image to please other people. My energy, my will, my capacity, and my understanding are all limited – by my personality, my sin, and my humanity.

But God used a walk in the woods to remind me: His presence is boundless.

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Lines from a poem I memorized in college but hadn’t thought about in years floated through my mind as I hiked on a November afternoon, fallen leaves crunching beneath my steps.

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

This e.e. cummings poem, whispered by the Spirit, reminded me of my favorite psalm. 

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“Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?

   If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
   if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
   If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
   if I settle on the far side of the sea,
  even there your hand will guide me,
   your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
   and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
   the night will shine like the day,
   for darkness is as light to you.”

       Psalm 139:7-12  

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There is no place I can venture, no hard moment I will ever face, that God’s presence can’t reach. God is omnipresent, free of physical or spiritual limitations. God is omniscient, fully aware of every detail, reality, and need, never shocked or overwhelmed.

When my presence fails, God remains present, both to me and to those I love. In 2017, as I encountered my limitations, my view of God was enlarged. May it continue to be so in the years ahead.

we wear autumn

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This year, we wear autumn.
The temperature shifts;
we shiver, our rough bark exposed. Hanging
on our fragile frames,
the season wraps itself around
our weary shoulders. Thinning
fabrics no longer cover. Bundled
beneath layers we huddle
hidden in the valley
of the shadow.

Time narrows.
Delicate clock hands still
encircle each day twice
but daylight shrinks
and slinks away.
Cracked windows slide
closed to prevent drafts
from whistling through.
We hunker down.

Here
there is room only
for what matters now
and what matters most.

Like leaves, 
we anticipate the fall
beyond which
we cannot see.
We linger at the peak
and sway together.
Nature’s jewels
grasp hands, resist
as best they can,
fade and wither,
drained of fleeting presence.

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An amber ache echoes
in our empty spaces,
the stripped-bare places.
Shapeless words shed meaning,
drift out of reach.
Hours escape ungathered
by the insufficient span
of our outstretched arms.

A chorus forms
from chaos. Displaced accents
both confuse and soothe
with predictable
unpredictability. Geese glide
squawking in overhead flight.
Back porch wind chimes strike
chords in incidental
syncopation. Suspended

notes haunt
and float.

Moments slip:
I cannot catch and hold them.
The warm honey of evening sunbeams slides
through cracks in clenched fingers.
Frost sharpens the air, revealing
the shape of our breath exhaled.
Winter tiptoes nearer.

This year, we say goodbye. 

IMG_20171106_145748812In the parting,
we lose parts of ourselves.
The silent shift uproots us
but traces remain etched in fractal patterns
engraved on paper-thin hearts.

Stillness fills the air
with conspicuous absence.
Woodsmoke saturates
shampooed hair, weaves
itself into fibers
of wool sweaters.
The permeating musk
of this waning season marks us:
spritzed on the backs of wrists,
the thin skin behind both ears.
We breathe in its scent,
embracing others
left behind.

The changing landscape settles
by degrees, lingering
in defiant lament.
Unexpected winds gust,
stir settled clumps, free others
to fly wild.
Shafts of light unmask
true colors.
Cold fronts shake loose
our facade, strip away
our fullness, surprise
and sting with bitter chill.
Some leaves never fall.

This year, we lost you.IMG_20171124_155829680

In stages, and then all at once.
Is autumn’s end ever
not sudden?

Its mournful bellow drowns out
resurrection’s refrain.
Even Jesus wept in autumn.
Our tears till the soil.
Though now it lies fallow,
we await the promised
unearthing of buried song,
the coming spring.

As our shared season ends,
I will carry your name forward
into all the ones to come.

necessary fires

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A few weeks ago, my husband and I hiked California’s Sequoia National Park. Its beauty was breathtaking. Thin air and a cloudless sky formed a haze of unreality. Skyscraper trees towered over us in the aptly named Giant Forest. Black tattoos branded their robust, ruddy trunks. Following well-tended paths atop a pine-needle carpet, we spoke in hushed tones like nervous children in a fairy tale wood. Our necks ached from craning to glimpse their tops from where we stood, far beneath their outstretched arms. Nature’s majesty made us feel small in the best way.

But fear almost kept me from this adventure. Traveling outside of my comfort zone makes me susceptible to scary whispers. Potential dangers rattled around in my mental backpack as we prepared for the journey: an airplane crash, a bear attack, a fall off the side of a rocky mountain cliff, an impending nuclear warhead reaching the west coast. They tempted me to sink my roots deeper into the solid ground of the known and to stay put.

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Despite the worst-case scenarios that haunted my imagination, I pressed on to see these natural treasures firsthand. I wasn’t disappointed. My Midwestern eyes widened in disbelief as I used both hands to grip the pinecones-on-steroids that littered the forest floor. Up close, I marveled at the magnitude of the sequoias, wrapped my arms around a portion of their prickly girth, and breathed in the earthy musk of their perfume. We walked across a fallen giant large enough for a car to cross. Took pictures in the monstrous shadow of its gangly root ball. The reality of their presence inspired reverence like a photograph never could.

 

 

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Reading the text printed on placards throughout the park, I learned that in the early part of the twentieth century, the superintendents of this national park practiced ongoing fire suppression in order to protect the sequoias. Their motives were good, at least on the surface. The goals were to preserve the natural beauty while also earning profits from tourists who flocked to see it. It seemed wise to limit or remove the risk of fire damage to the trees and the surrounding man-made structures. But over time, the forest started to die.

Scientists began to second-guess this strategy, suspecting that efforts to prevent all fires stunted growth and prevented regeneration. Human interference in the form of both invasive development and extreme fire suppression was robbing the trees of a healthy environment. Fires that did occur were becoming more catastrophic. Their research led to the eventual acceptance of a theory that once seemed counterintuitive: Some fire is necessary for growth in the lifecycle of the trees.

A sign along the path entitled “A Fiery Life” states: “Fire has influenced every sequoia in the Giant Forest. Over thousands of years, lightning fires have burned here as often as every 3-9 years.” I read on to discover: “Curved healing rings grow over wounds, restoring the trees’ protective surface. Every mature sequoia has healed many wounds. Most are caused by fire.”

Blazes brand and carve out sections of their towering trunks. But they continue to grow.

 

Another plaque listed “Fire’s Friendly Effects.” While fire kills some of the sequoias, it also:

  • Heats and opens their cones, causing seeds to rain down
  • Deposits seeds onto cleared soil fertilized by ash
  • Kills insects and fungus that threaten seedlings
  • Removes trees that compete for sunlight, moisture, and nutrients so others can thrive
  • Renders the area less flammable for years to come so seedlings can take root

There is purpose in the process. Benefits result from the burning. Human attempts to control the forest’s environment threatened its very health and existence by preventing necessary fires.

I am guilty of the very same thing.

The forest reminded me that risk suppression is an ineffective method of fear management. Avoidance of unpleasant realities leads to unintended consequences.

Overprotected sequoias suffer from problems including “lack of mineral soil, inadequate soil moisture, plus low-light conditions under a dense forest canopy.” Fire ecologists have stated that “without fire or other kinds of disturbance, sequoia seeds either do not germinate at all or seedlings do not survive if germination does occur.” (Restoring Fire to the Sequoias, National Park Service Website)

Translated to soul-level: overprotection stunts our growth. We add fuel to an eventual catastrophic fire when we snuff out every potential spark. Symptoms may include: spiritual shallowness, blindness or tunnel vision, unchecked pride, and death. If I attempt to live pain-free, I’ll be insulated, isolated, and unchanged. When I let fear rule, it smothers both the bad and the good.

Long is the list of threats and dangers I try to suppress. Physical discomfort. Uncomfortable questions. Unpleasant news. Distasteful opinions. Hurt feelings. Bad memories. My own mistakes. Potential failure. And not only for myself, but for my children.

I reflected on fires I’ve already walked through: unexpected losses, injuries that took time to heal, disappointments, unanswered questions, discouragement, and conflicts with loved ones to name a few. When I’ve engaged and faced them head-on, they’ve been productive. By burning away my self-centeredness, pride, sense of entitlement, and the illusion of control, God has used them to help me grow. In the aftermath, I’ve been more receptive and responsive. Seeds of compassion, understanding, gratitude, and trust have taken root.

The dictionary definition of “life” is the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death. I have a long way to go, but to stay safe and static is not the way to really live.

Fires will come. If I spend my life obsessed with pain prevention, I’m wasting my energy.  Better to allow the necessary fires to do their work. If I don’t, I’ll be consumed. Mature trees bear their scars proudly, as proof they have persevered.  Change comes slowly, but no experience is wasted if we’re planted in good soil.

 

 

 

becoming

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The giant’s head rests
atop textured concrete tendons
in city center park planted.
Spackled stone freckles speckle
a long neck stretched
above a ground-green blanket
to display her fractured face.

Mirror images frozen contrast,
transfix. Her personality split
along vertical midline seam unzipped,
suggests a need to be fixed.

She is a woman divided.

Incomplete puzzle forged
her Picasso skeleton forms
from geometric shards.
Scaffolding etched in charcoal smudges,
winding steps of Escher-drawn staircases
built of cranial bones stripped bare.

An unfinished soul.

Neurons scurry to assemble
a pieced-together-whole from disparate parts.
Sky fills the spaces between features,
paints her skin unblemished blue.
My eyes untangle curves,
unravel, find fullness
as cascading colors ignite her frame.

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Her blue eye widens, surprised
by the miracle. Transformation.
Ruby lips part to form
shapes of yet unspoken words.

My brain reassembles the broken visage
repairs the crumbling facade
of the woman caught in the midst of becoming.

She stares straight
at and through me
below in the spiderweb of shadows she casts.

I swear I saw her wink.

 

*poem inspired by the statue “COMING TOGETHER” by Niki de Sainte Palle, Sept. 2001