Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Curating with gasps

I recently discovered the artist and writer Maira Kalman and am utterly charmed. In the first glances at her work I wondered if I was looking at a child’s art project because her drawings are folky and simple. But what quickly emerges is cunning truth about the subject and a subtle humor that reveals a mature hand behind the work. Her gift is to give you pause. To reconsider what you nearly passed by, what you so quickly consigned to the trite and ordinary, to pause for a minute and find unexpected meaning and/or beauty.

BrainPickings describes her work as having: “a spartan sincerity … an elegantly choreographed spontaneity – words meticulously chosen to be as simple as possible, yet impossibly expressive; drawings that invoke childhood yet brim with the complex awarenesses of a life lived long and wide.”

She has published a number of books but the one I discovered first was My Favorite Things. I had to get past the title  – at first, all I could hear was Julie Andrews droning on … “these are a few of my favorite things… da-da, da, dah..” But the book quickly invites you to look at her list and think in new categories. At the same time she asks the reader a serious question: “How do you curate a life?” I ask, how do you curate your life? Or mine?

 “…We begin with a portrait…” she writes.

In her hand-written, plain prose she tells us she has been chosen to curate an exhibition for a small museum in New York City, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and what a dilemma it is to choose from among centuries-worth of objects! Post cards from the Hotel Celeste in Tunisia. Hats. A fragile vase carefully painted in red and green and signed – someone loved it enough to keep it over a lifetime then pass it on.

This is why her work captured me: It struck me that her filter is one through which we could all strain our own collections. She writes: “The pieces I chose were based on ONE thing only – a gasp of DELIGHT.” Then she asks, “Isn’t that the only way to CURATE a LIFE? To live among things that make you GASP with delight?” (p. 9)

Of COURSE, not everything is going to make you gasp. What inspires me may quietly turn you off.  (If you are kind you won’t mention it. And I promise your inspirations won’t make me sign you up for an exorcism.) I began to realize that is why some of the very things others pass over will make another “gasp with delight.” It can be quite an individual matter. For example, I could see by the cover illustration on her book that Kalman enjoys photos of dandies from the 1930s. The way they dressed and paraded across the sand in their garish red and white stripped suits on the beach at Coney Island looking all satisfied with themselves. They make me smile.

I understand that not EVERYthing needs to make me gasp. I don’t want to have an asthma attack when I climb into bed at night. I mean. There needs to be calm scenes. Functionality. Quiet colors. Soft beds. Crisp sheets. Most of my bedroom is not required to make me gasp. We understand. But there are things I might now keep and others I may shed because she has named this way of curating.
I am intrigued by possibilities. By a new way of thinking about what everyday things can delight. What causes us to gasp? In this world with so much that is broken, broken, broken, I wonder if we could keep some of those good things, and also share a little. Like the annoying “Little Drummer Boy,” (oops. I guess he’s not on my gasping list.) perhaps I can give you what I have, which isn’t much, I admit. I can give what I write this year. I can keep on trying to stay focused long enough to make something of it. If my writing can cause you to, well, if not GASP with delight, but perhaps give a slight twitch in your nucleus accumbens (look it up.) that would make me very happy.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Work, writing, and dodging rotten fish

 Tell me what made you think I’d want to read about what you did yesterday? Your books didn’t arrive on the UPS truck when they were supposed to and now all your orders are late? You need new socks because all your old ones have holes? Waaa. Hearing about whatever it is you are up to is a waste of my time. Throw rotten fish.

There is a person in my life who sits on my shoulder, watching, someone who lifts an eyebrow and a corner of the lip while reading my sentences. I sense a cynical vibe asking, why aren’t you doing something more meaningful? Feeding the hungry? Something valuable. Perhaps you should clean your closet or something. But stop this bushwa.

We (Denis & I) often talk about how every square inch of life and reality belongs to the Lord Christ. That includes calling and vocation. Part of my calling right now is writing. Working on another manuscript. Posting to my blog. Writing my quarterly publication “Letters from the House Between.” Answering mail. Even after all these years of understanding the importance of being faithful in what you’ve been called to do today and not imagining some big sensational save or Pulitzer Prize for your astonishing work, I can have doubts about what I do.

This isn’t strictly a “Christian” problem; people who don’t necessarily practice a faith also suffer from the guilt of living in a world with so much misery and sorrow and trying to reckon the worth of what they do. Recently I watched a 60 Minutes program about Syrian refugees that was so heartbreaking I sat on the couch and bawled. How could I be living in safety with a bowl of popcorn and a can of Coke while thousands were escaping up a hill into a Jordanian refugee camp  - their wounded bodies and hearts repositories of violence – their faces pinched with starvation and fear – How could I go about being a barista or a software developer or a writer? Especially a writer? (Opportunities to help do abound. And we can find them. That is a good topic for another time.) But, I’ve needed to reaffirm that it isn’t just okay, it is good to write.

Molly Wizenberg concludes her book Delancy: A Man, A Woman, ARestaurant, A Marriage by trying to work out their dilemma regarding the significance of opening a restaurant and her choice to write.
“…when I decided to quit graduate school, I was newly broken up with a boyfriend. He was a very kind, serious, thoughtful guy, someone who tutors kids with severe learning disabilities in his free time. I remember feeling so frivolous in comparison, so guilty, as I thought about giving up academia to try being a food writer. Food writing wasn’t important. It wouldn’t save a life. I did it anyway, because I wanted to, but I certainly couldn’t justify it on the grounds of world peace. That justification doesn’t work for opening a restaurant either. But there is something about Delancey that, to me, matters just as much: We get to make people happy. We get to give people a good night. We get to spend our days doing work that we can be proud of, and when we’re done, there’s all the pizza you can eat.”  P 225.

What I do everyday does matter. It may not be worthy of a Ten Best Books list, but I know this is what God has for me to do right now. If I listened too much to my doubts or to that person who sits on my shoulder sifting my words, paralysis would set in. Wizenberg may not be able to say “God has made me for this purpose” and understand that because they are making the best pizzas they can and she is being a good food writer honors God, but I can say it. He has created humans to live and work before him and it pleases him to bless us however big or small, significant or insignificant our work.  

Friday, November 21, 2014

"One only lives to make blunders"

Today I came across a piece of correspondence written by Charles Darwin in 1861.  Many of us enjoy making a devil out of him. But, he was, after all, human. A man made in God's image whether or not we ever acknowledge it. This letter makes me think we could have been friends. I realize that may reveal a streak of depression and a fondness for bombast in myself, even so ....
                   ...But I am Very Poorly today and very stupid & Hate Everybody and 
                   Everything. One Lives Only to Make Blunders. - 
                   I am going to write a Little Book for Murray on Orchids 
                   & today I HATE them worse than EVERYthing.
                  So Farewell & in a Sweet FRAME of mind
                  I am
                         Ever yours
                                   C. Darwin

HOWEVER, my orchid after refusing to bloom despite being babied for several years, has at last glutted itself with flowers. That is something to love about life. Or at least note.
Creamy Orchid

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Fort Lauderdale here and there

Taking a short break from my ordinary. Yesterday, I finished writing the next issue of Letters from the House Between. (Although it will be another three weeks before it gets mailed out.) Wrapping always gives equal waves of relief, regrets for what I wrote – never good enough –  and the urge to leave. Perhaps it’s a common feeling when something is completed, something you pour yourself into, that you have a sense of emptiness? To persuade myself not to pay much attention to that, I go to a coffee shop. Lingering, then moving on to the next thing. Today it was Patisserie 46. Denis dropped Anita and I off while he went on to Bethel University to visit their library and book store, doing some research for a project. I see why 46 gets raves – I had an almond croissant – never one this flaky, melty-good – and a creamy almond latte. Feeling better.
Almond latte at Patisserie 46
 We leave for Fort Lauderdale next week. Not vacation, but work. We welcome this trip, though. It’s a chance to connect with people who love the arts, are interested in creativity and how popular culture reflects human longing for meaning. So if you are a friend who lives in the area, or would like to BE our friend,  join us in discussion. I will be reflecting on the ordinary: how it carries traces of the sacred (are you shocked? No?) and reading from God in the Sink. Denis will be giving lectures on film and how they can give windows of insight into our culture. (His lectures are always prime. Truly, I am his severest critic, trust me):

Here is where we’ll be:
Monday, November 10, St. Mark’s Episcopal, Fort Lauderdale. Evening session.
Tuesday Noon, November 11,  I will be at Kenny Lunsford’s Book Club in Boca Raton.
Tuesday Evening, November 11, we will be at Coral Ridge Church, Fort Lauderdale sharing an evening session.
Wednesday Morning, November 12, Dianne Garvin’s Book Club.
Wednesday Evening, November 12, New Covenant Church, Pompano Beach, for their evening supper and service.

Please forgive my bumbling efforts to get a workable button on the sidebar. It looks anything but professional. I can’t get the entire book cover to show, just “the sink” part. You can still help launch this little book into the world if you pre-order God in the Sink now. It’s on sale for $9:95 until its release in mid-November. At that rate, everyone you know could receive a copy for Christmas.  Or for any reason, any time. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

"...a reminder of who I'm supposed to be..."

 "...which I forget from time to time, as we all do."
          -  Bill Henderson, founder of Pushcart Press.

A friend sent me this link, saying something about it made her happy. Me, too. I think it's partly the image of determination. Him hefting, hauling rock after rock to build a cathedral. 

It's easy to forget who we are and what we are to be about. A few days away this last week helped
Away Place
 reestablish some of those things I know I should be doing. Or being. Picking up, starting again, back to square one; we say it over and over: Get up. Get up. Do it again. It can be tiresome and discouraging. We imagined the decision was made a long time ago to not forget, to not slip into old patterns. To not be human? Really? Why am I always so surprised?

Monday, October 6, 2014

Put a little lime and salt on that

Last summer when our family arrived from Tennessee after a long and tiring journey, it was supper-time, their first evening with us in our new home. Everyone crowded into the kitchen as I put the final touches on a feast; hungry eyes watched as I cut a ripe watermelon into chunks. Then I mounded it in a large bowl and squeezed wedges of lime juice and sprinkled salt over it. Honest, this little trick makes it tastes like heaven. In my opinion. But my grandchildren watched in horror. Mason, whose tastes are very discerning left the kitchen and wept in the next room. None of the grandchildren ate watermelon that night. From then on they had a joke: “Grandma, did you sprinkle lime juice and salt on this?”
Mason's capacity to enjoy fine food is large.

Lately we’ve been trying to plan a little vacation time. We have a place to go – a sweet little cabin in Wisconsin. It is a way-away place with lines of ducks swimming past the dock, loons calling, and, yes, possibly wolves howling. This year there has been a lot happening with moving and family and visitors, and finding my way to Costco, and a little remodeling going on – that is, one bathroom being torn out and redone. Much as I love our contractor there has been lots of interruptions and noise – some of it due to loud, passionate sports-talk radio, so we haven’t been able to think about much more than the Vikings Running Back/Quarterback Woes much less than where or even if we might get away.

Plus, I’ve needed to convince Denis to come away. He loves his new office space and our home so much that the thought and inconvenience of packing up and leaving just isn’t appealing. But I’m promising that something good happens when people leave their workplace and home – which for us is the same, no matter how we configure it. To be away renews vision and, for me, restores creativity. I take time to reflect more and better, and that makes my soul prosper.

Denis has agreed to come but will consider it a Work Retreat. Okay. But I’m concerned that something will interrupt or ruin this time away. Possibly me. Or some unforeseen disaster. We can, or at least I can, find ways of getting us into trouble. Being crabby, making arguments, getting sick. Or. Or. Or.  Putting lime juice on the watermelon. I’m not gonna do that. 
Soul restoration, Pike Lake, WI

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Serious Gray

My office is gradually becoming this color ...  Serious Gray by Sherwin Williams. I think it should be called something else. Perhaps just for today. Quietly Happy. Or Unexpected Grey.

"Serious Gray"
 My day began with a random surprise. After I dropped my sister-in-law off at the airport it was 5:50 A.M. and I pulled through Starbucks drive-up for a latte. When I reached the window the barista told me the person ahead of me had paid for my coffee and said I should have a good day. A random act of kindness. All day long I've tasted that sweet moment - it has made me feel like I sit under a rainbow or something.

Random kindness
Today I'm doing a final proof of the manuscript God in the Sink. I could spend hours hunched over the pages and the computer. So to keep myself from getting permanently crooked I decided to set the timer. 45 minutes at the computer and 45 minutes painting my office.  I'm almost done with the manuscript, about 1/4 of the office is painted and there are still some hours left in the day. It's been a good plan for this day.

So far the funniest mistake I found was a sentence that mentioned how Minnesotans often end sentences with a preposition, like "Do you wanna go with?" Instead of preposition I had written proposition. Can't remember the last time I was propositioned. Oh, well.

During the last painting slot I listened to an interview with John Stott. I think the best quote out of it was:
"I've learnt very early on that Christianity is not a religion and it is not an institution, it is a person. It was enormously helpful for me to discover that Christianity is Christ and and that what matters is a personal relationship to Christ..... It's all Christ, Christ, Christ, Christ. Knowing Him, loving Him, serving Him, trusting Him, gaining Him. 'To me to live is Christ', Paul said, and I think, I hope without boasting I can say the same, it is a Person."

I almost chose "Gibralter" a shade of darkened stone. But maybe that would've been appropriate, too. Christ, our Rock.
Thanks for stopping by. I hope some time, some day a stranger gives you a coffee, too.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Naming a book

 I have a pretty hard time with titles. I know not everyone cares about this. So it won’t offend me if you go  away. But I suspect everyone faces a time when they need to name something or other whether it is a pet or a weekend seminar. Getting something that people identify with, that draws them in, doesn’t embarrass you and is still artistic? Good luck, Margie.

My work today is deciding a title for a new book, a collection of Notes From Toad Hall a publication I’ve been writing for almost forever. A few days ago, I began with some suggestions from my editor and a working title Real Life at Toad Hall. But decided the book doesn’t represent “Real” life at Toad Hall. It’s only a few snapshots of life picked out of a myriad.

Next I tried Stumbling Toward Grace: A Collection of Notes From Toad Hall. A friend asked, really? Do we stumble toward grace or is it that God pursues us with grace. Well, yes. That’s true. Plus it seemed long and cumbersome.

Trying to generalize a collection could even bore the author’s mother. As in  Notes From Toad Hall: A Collection. Another problem that friend pointed out is that with a collection if you try too hard to enfold or capture all the content into one title it becomes artificial and you end up with something formal and stiff. Or boring. Brilliant. I’d never thought of it that way.

So how do you capture a theme with so many different storylines and events? Basically you don’t. Better to concentrate on something more specific. We know most people respond in concrete ways to concrete images. So as we looked through the chapters we hoped that something would emerge, something that would evoke, not only an interesting image, but could, in a multi-layered way, represent more than just that chapter.

The introduction then popped because of an image used there. But the next temptation was getting too clever. Clever in your own mind anyway. I came up with Bobblehead Jesus is Watching You: A Collection of Notes From Toad Hall. First of all it seemed way too long, then it seemed too quirky, like I was trying too hard to be funny. It is also one-layered and obscure.

So I went back to an image that stood out from the introduction, thanks to that same genius friend – that of God being in the sink with us. It had potential. If we think of life as a sink – it really is true that God is in there with us whether the sink is full of sudsy warm water or a pile of greasy, dirty dishes. We’ve all lived on both sides of that equation. Sorry, if that was insultingly obvious.

So this is where we’ve landed God in the Sink: Essays From Toad Hall.  In the meantime, while I dwaddled with this post, the editor decided for sure. This will be the title of my next book which will be out in November if all goes well. I’m excited about this.

Thanks for stopping by.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Robin Williams & William Cowper - happy endings not for sale

 Most emphatically happy endings are not guaranteed in this life. Robin Williams has been haunting the shadows since I heard of his death. It seems so wrong wrong wrong.

Our grieving responses for him are so strange in a way. We did not know him, we only think we did because his life was public. But it wasn't really his life we knew - his private life,  we only knew his work with its staggering gift for making us laugh and yet the sadness in his eyes showed through. His gift was so enormous, it must have been been a burden to him and even to those who loved him. I wonder if he could he carry on a normal conversation or relationship without making it a stage for performing? It might have been difficult to be with him if he could never turn it off.

A friend, Steve Froehlich, sent this last week and I am passing the whole thing on because Robin Williams' death has made me think again about those who suffer from depression, and those who take their lives in desperation and silence and the few who note their passing because their lives were largely unknown. As Christians we take comfort. For God knows his children. He carries them Home. Perhaps for them we can see it as a beginning. A good beginning. One of healing and renewed energies and unexpected joy. Yes, I do believe.

Steve writes the following:

This is an excerpt from a blogger whom I read occasionally -- he's Anglican, like Cowper.  His remarks were prompted by the confluence of having sung Cowper's poetry last Sunday and Robin Williams' death.  I've made one addition to the closing paragraph, a change the author approves.

Steve F.
William Cowper. Did the artist pick up the sadness in his eyes?
"Sometimes a Light Surprises" by William Cowper

    Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he sings;
    It is the Lord, who rises with healing in His wings:
    When comforts are declining,He grants the soul again
    A season of clear shining, to cheer it after rain.

    In holy contemplation we sweetly then pursue
    The theme of God’s salvation, and find it ever new.
    Set free from present sorrow,we cheerfully can say,
    Let the unknown tomorrow bring with it what it may.

William Cowper was converted (in the crisis experience sense) while in an asylum after a suicide attempt. After that he was an evangelical. Not only an evangelical but a Calvinist. Not just a Calvinist but an experimentalist. He lived for awhile with John Newton. They wrote poetry together (though some think Newton was a drag on Cowper's poetry and that Cowper wrote best when separated from Newton). Though their friendship became somewhat strained, they remained friends.

[the blogger points to evidence of the oppression of legalism in Cowper's "A Living and a Dead Faith"]

    Easy indeed it were to reach
    A mansion in the courts above,
    If swelling words and fluent speech
    Might serve instead of faith and love.

    But none shall gain the blissful place,
    Or God's unclouded glory see,
    Who talks of free and sovereign grace,
    Unless that grace has made him free!

But there's more to Cowper's life...and death....  His last, and, some think, his best poem was written in 1799 (he died in 1800). It is based on an account he had read of a sailor who was swept overboard in a storm. According to a witness the man swam and stayed afloat for awhile, could not be rescued, watched as the ship moved further away, and finally drowned. Cowper describes the feelings the poor sailor may have had, but in the last two stanzas turns to his own situation, first identifying with and then separating himself from the sailor:

    I therefore purpose not, or dream,
    Descanting on his fate,
    To give the melancholy theme
    A more enduring date:
    But misery still delights to trace
    Its semblance in another's case.

    No voice divine the storm allay'd,
    No light propitious shone;
    When, snatch'd from all effectual aid,
    We perish'd, each alone:
    But I beneath a rougher sea,
    And whelm'd in deeper gulfs than he.

The last two lines reflect a statement Cowper had made in 1793: "My sin and judgment are alike peculiar.  I am a castaway, deserted and condemned."

Cowper's pre-evangelical-conversion suicide attempt was the first of several. There came a point at which the despair finally descended not to lift the rest of his life. So far as we know, Cowper died believing himself doomed. That's not the way Christian biography is supposed to end.

Though Cowper died thinking himself damned Newton did not think so.  He believed Cowper woke, no doubt to his own surprise, in glory.

One of Cowper's poems, addressed to Newton the former seafarer, describes the difference between himself and Newton. It also describes two poles of Christian experience:

        That ocean you of late survey'd,
        Those rocks I too have seen,
        But I, afflicted and dismay'd,
        You, tranquil and serene.

        You from the flood-controlling steep
        Saw stretch'd before your view,
        With conscious joy, the threat'ning deep,
        No longer such to you.

        To me, the waves that ceaseless broke
        Upon the dang'rous coast
        Hoarsely and ominously spoke
        Of all my treasure lost.

        Your sea of troubles you have past,
        And found the peaceful shore;
        I, tempest-toss'd, and wreck'd at last,
        Come home to port no more.


I don't know the how or the why of Cowper's life and despair. Nor do you. Here is a comment that makes sense from the perspective of Christian faith and points to the real difference between the depression of Robin Williams and William Cowper is to be found essentially in Christ now and experientially only in eternity:

"All men are tragic figures. Artists have a deeper sense of their own failings and helped us to sense our own. Robin Williams was funny because we saw the conflict in him - funny, joyful, silly, simple conflicted with a dour drug user, with a broken family whose wrinkly eyes made you either want to melt with mirth or explode with sorrow. He was a tragic figure, and we sensed it, because he showed us the tragedy of who we are. In Christ we have already been freed from this tragedy, just not yet."

My favorite Cowper hymn is "God Moves in a Mysterious Way." I will continue to sing these verses:

    Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
    The clouds ye so much dread
    Are big with mercy and shall break
    In blessings on your head.

    Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
    But trust Him for His grace;
    Behind a frowning providence
    He hides a smiling face.

    His purposes will ripen fast
    Unfolding every hour;
    The bud may have a bitter taste,
    But sweet will be the flower.

[For some a light will surprise "the Christian while he sings." For some the rain does fall with refreshment and relief.  But,] for some those big clouds of mercy will break in the age to come. Some will behold that smiling face in heaven. For some the bitter bud will yield to the sweet flower in the world to come. Not till then.  [The blogger would have done well to end where he started by affirming that for some, "Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he sings"]

So I hope.


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Coffee for Toadies

It's been a long time since I posted anything about coffee, even though I think about coffee and drink it every day. My newer readers may wonder what's with the name of this blog. Toads Drink Coffee. A few coffee spammers must wonder too, because I never accept their invites to try coffee. Their very special, very damned special coffee from all over the world. If they offered it free, maybe.

 First of all the name. I know. It is obscure and not as funny as I once imagined. We lived in a house called "Toad Hall" for many years. So would toads live in Toad Hall? Well, yes, I'm pretty sure, but when I mentioned to my husband that we were getting kind of old, wrinkly and warty and to be nice, I said I could fit that description, not mentioning him, he still didn't like the association. But the truth is, we are sort of toady and we both happen to love coffee. Good coffee. Hence, this name. Now that we no longer live at Toad Hall the name is a little problem. We lately moved to a new spot called "The House Between." But the same people who love coffee live there.

The summer hasn't been excruciatingly hot so far - heat always makes iced coffee that much better, but even on cool days, Denis makes iced latte from the coffee concentrate we make. It is ultra, ultra, I mean ultra smooth. Not a hint of bitterness or acid and many of the unwanted oils are removed in the process of making it when we use the Toddy Coffee Maker.

It's easy.

1. You do need the Toddy Coffee Maker which consists of a plastic container with a felt filter and a stoppered hole in the bottom. And a nice glass carafe.

2. Take a pound of ground coffee - almost any kind will do. (It doesn't have to be made from the fresh-roasted Ethiopian Yirgacheffe Beans I order from Zanzibars Coffee Adventure in Des Moines, IA. I'm ashamed to admit to this sorry burden. As if confession lessons my guilt?) Place it in the plastic container with the felt and stopper in place.

3.  Fill water to the line and let it sit for 24 hours.

4. Pull out the stopper and let it drain into the glass carafe and you are done.

It keeps in the refrigerator for a long time. Weeks, I think. It is very concentrated so use it sparingly. Add hot or cold water to make Americanos or just a cup of coffee. Add milk to make a latte. I need to use soy or almond milk. Experiment to get the right proportions.

Here is Denis making his daily drink.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

2014 Blog Tour - Writing in the Cracks

Nancy Nordenson, a writer friend, invited me to join a blog tour - called The Magical Mystery Tour - about the process of writing, not the Beatles. Not sure the exact meaning, except that writing often feels like someone needs to sprinkle magic on my words or they won't be readable.

Nancy is a respected Medical Writer and essayist, the author of JustThink, Nourish Your Mind to Feed Your Soul, and of the forthcoming Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work andLeisure. Her blog is called Just Thinking where she does her creative writing. To read her answers click on her blog.

I am honored to be asked by Nancy and in a sort of pass-it-on style I'm to tag two more writers who can join the tour and spread the magic. However, I've been so out of touch with other bloggers, they've finally all left me. However, I do know one person who will do a terrific job on this tour and has graciously agreed to join. (Please see more on Jenni below.)
New office in "The House Between." No excuses now.
I often write in the cracks of life - about something as ordinary as weeds, the weeds you try to pull from the sidewalk in your front yard. This is how I answered the questions:

1-What am I working on?
2-How does my work differ from others in its genre?
3-Why do I write what I do?
4-How does my writing process work?

1. What am I working on?
Perhaps answering these questions will inspire me to finish working toward my current deadline.
Right now, this very minute I should be rewriting an essay to be included in a collection coming out later this year called Real Life at Toad Hall. Yesterday, I thought we would need to leave this one out because I began at point A and switched directions so many times without logic or warning it would confuse a gyroscope. I wondered how I could have published it in the first place. It made me feel desperate. I don’t think of killing myself, but I would like to kill something, maybe an earwig. I am three days past my editor’s deadline and it looks like it  will take longer, with at least three more to wrangle.  A break to join this blog tour may be just the thing that helps.

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?
I write memoir and personal essay with an emphasis on narrative. But I have trouble clarifying how it differs from other like writing. Perhaps it’s a self-image issue. My step-dad used to say, “Girl, you’re not half so smart as you think you are.” In a way, I grew up believing some of that and fighting with it. Foundational to all my writing is the issue of faith and spirituality – how it shapes and informs all parts of life. When my memoir The Exact Place was published, I learned there are many who dislike memoir with good reason. They find many of them self-absorbed or insufferably bitter. Somehow, I avoided that while writing about difficult things at the same time. In both memoir and in my personal essays, which for many years have appeared as “Notes From Toad Hall,” I strive for honesty. I especially think that many of us who claim Christianity struggle with letting others see us – flawed and intemperate as we are. So it is important to me that we challenge that image and yet find hope that helps us continue our journey. I don’t think this desire is unique to me. Each writer has a distinct voice that is important to find. Mine doesn’t sound that memorable to me, but at least I recognize it, and will keep practicing the scales and singing the songs, trying to get it right. That’s not a bad thing.

3. Why do I write what I do?
I think it is very connected to what I mentioned already about being honest. Honesty is stronger when it is united with a desire to love others, not just bash them with the truth. Honesty is not just telling every detail about the troubles you have, either. But I guess we know that, don’t we? So, what motivates me is… well, let me go back for an example. When I was newly married, we attended a church and saw mature couples all nicely dressed sitting beside one another in the pew, the husband’s arm around his wife. No one ever, EVER breathed a word about the troubles a couple might face in getting along with one another. I know that was way back in the day and some things are a lot more healthy and open now. I knew the inside of some of these homes, they were not as pretty as they presented. When my young husband and I faced bumps, there was nowhere to go for mentors or models. Sometimes in desperation I yelled at my husband; “I wish I were a guy and I would so beat you up.” Yes, yes, I know. Abuse. I want to write to give people hope that we are not alone, that there are potentially other ways of looking at things. I want people to know there may not be answers, but there is Someone who is not surprised by any of our scheisse and loves us still.

Weeds in the cracks
4. How does my writing process work?
I am pathetic. Writing is the hardest work I do. I often avoid it at all costs, I will be out pulling weeds from the cracks in the sidewalk when I should be writing. I write at the computer, but revise and edit on paper. The internet has infinite ways of destroying my concentration. I shut off email when the burden to write grows heavier than I can bear. It can’t be dinging at me when I’m trying to compose. I stare out the window. Wipe the crumbs off my keyboard. Chew the eraser heads off pencils. Because I live with some physical issues, I need to set the timer to make myself get up and walk around every so often or my muscles freeze. When I face a blockage, I know that to get past it I HAVE to live with it. So I sit and fidget with the piece and tell myself I am not allowed out of my chair for one whole hour. I may do nothing more than shift a comma, but I don’t let myself leave until the time is up. Then I reward myself with a piece of chocolate and a cup of coffee. It is a mystery to me how this can work, but it actually, usually, often, gets me past the wall.

Jenni Simmons, who wears many hats as an editor and writer, is up next. She is editor of Arthouse America Blog, and just recently became general editor for Kalos Press. Jenni is also a seasoned tweeter and instagramer with an eye for beauty found in everyday places.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

You aren't the first to get there

Listening is not always something I do well. This past year I've been forced to learn about what I do that prevents me from listening. In some ways I have welcomed these revelations and have hoped they would help deepen some important relationships. In other ways I really didn't want to know the disturbing truth about myself. It left a bad taste in my mouth.

Perhaps everyone else is aware of the symbolism embedded in the Chinese character that is translated "to listen." Not me. I only recently learned about "ting."  It is very interesting. Okay, more than that. It is fascinating and attractive.

On the left, the ears are prominent. The eyes are on the right looking out at you. The straight line beneath them signifies intense focus. And beneath that is the heart with the tear-like drops. Together, they express an action that requires more senses than just the ears, and becomes more powerful and more meaningful than just "listen" as we would say in English.

Often I listen more with my mouth than any other body part. When I happen on a person in need - it could be a friend, a relative or even a stranger - my first impulse is to give words. To let them know I understand their difficulties and to offer hand-me-down thoughts from wherever I have gathered them. It is partly a lunge to let them know I "get them." The motivation for this flows from a polluted spring - I feel a guilty responsibility to fix what I see. If I don't or can't, it may indicate my own deep failure to be someone who heals and helps. This is not exactly empathetic.

I've been learning a good deal about listing from Zack Eswine, author of Sensing Jesus.  He writes:

"In Jesus we learn that we are never the first to arrive on the scene. We enter the moment quieted to learn what has transpired there before we arrived. What has God been doing prior to our arrival? Once there, what is his intention for our presence? Our nervousness, our desire to do well, our past wisdoms and successes, our longing to have nice things said of us, or our leftover feelings from how we just handled our spouses or were handled by our deacons - these ought not guide our words and actions once we are on the scene." p. 201.

Never the first to arrive on the scene. Not quite how I pictured it. There's something very freeing about that.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Cast Iron forever

In the week before our daughter and her family arrived from Tennessee, I wanted to recondition some of my cast iron skillets because she and one of our grandsons has celiac disease. If cast iron has been used for cooking food that has wheat, like pancakes, French toast, or grilled sandwiches, just minute traces of gluten can make them sick.

I've found a way to recondition pans that works very well and is so easy. I place the pans in the oven and send it through a cleaning cycle. The temperature is high enough to burn the impurities off the iron and leave behind a kind of rusty residue. In the end I have a clean oven and cast iron that is ready to be wiped out and seasoned. 

I chose three of my favorites to re-condition before Sember arrived. (Really, I love them all! They are wonderful to cook with when they are properly conditioned and seasoned.) A very small 6 inch skillet, a medium 9 inch pan and a large 12 inch skillet that is great when you are cooking for a crowd and doing a lot of sauteing or stir fry. It is also makes a great oven-baking dish.

This is what the skillets looked like after the oven was done cleaning. Very nasty, but that's exactly how they should look at this stage.

End of oven cleaning cycle.

I laid out newspapers on the counter and got to work on the next step.

The small 6 inch on right needed reconditioning the most.

Notice all the gunk has turned to a rusty ash. That's good.

I take paper towels and either vegetable oil or shortening and begin to wipe them out. You can see how much comes off with the oil. This continues to clean and condition the surface. You will already feel how much smoother the surface has become now that all the gunk has been burned off.

It doesn't take a lot of effort to see it begin to shine up.

Almost done wiping. 

A little discoloration on the paper towel after the majority of the residue is wiped off is okay. The next step is going to begin the re-seasoning process. This will continue to seal and smooth out the surface as the oil is baked on. Apply oil or shortening to the sides and bottom as you see below. Make sure it is completely coated and rubbed in. Then return the pan to the oven for two hours at 350 degrees. 

I used canola oil.
When you take the skillet out of the oven. Let it cool down and wipe it out again. It should look beautiful and ready to be used.

I have learned that the more you use your cast iron the better it gets, until it finally has a silky non-stick surface that rivals any teflon. You can see that the large one above needs to be used more in order to get it in even better shape. The other two are perfect. In fact, they are so well seasoned now, I can even risk the big No-No and scrub it with a little water and soap if I've made a messy batch of scrambled eggs with cheese, for example. After I've washed it, I simply dry it out and rub in a little olive oil and it will be fine for the next time I use it. 

The most common way I clean them is by merely wiping them out with a paper towel. If it needs more than that, I often dump in a tablespoon of coarse salt, rub it around with a paper towel and that will clean and smooth the surface. You may wonder if this is sanitary enough because you aren't scrubbing it with hot soapy water, but remember this: every time you use a skillet or Dutch oven you will be heating the pan up to a temperature that is way beyond the life of any bacteria, so you'll be just fine. I know that some people are also concerned that no matter how much you wipe the surface with oil when cleaning up - it may still comes away discolored. That is normal with cast iron. It's just the nature of it. Insignificant amounts of iron may be picked up by food, but it becomes a source of an important mineral in our diet and that is good, too.

Another wonderful thing about cast iron is its durability. Whatever you own now has every chance of being around a hundred years from now and can be passed from generation to generation and that is pretty cool sustainability, don't you think?

Friday, June 20, 2014

We are Home

My new office
Overseeing the sink
God made it to the new house. As if I didn’t think he would come. Bobble-head Jesus has a new sink to oversee. I am reminded that God blesses this place and these people (us) who dwell here. It is June 20th almost a month since my last post. 

Today I am sitting in my new office looking out this window. I’m watching a little fly-catcher hop down a limb looking for insects. The sun is sending rays down through the canopy to the ravine below us. It lights leafy corridors with many hues of green. 
Looking at the canopy
We are 85 % moved in. Denis says it is 85%. I don’t know why 85. But I do know there are many fewer boxes. The ones that remain will be okay taking their time finding new spaces to hide or to show.
Unpacking the kitchen
This house will be called “The House Between.” Our new home. I’ll explain why the name some day soon.

One of the first projects we did was paint the basement “Bonfire.” Although it's a walkout, it is a little dim and that color warms it up. Then we spent the next two days prepping and painting the floor. It is now a lovely clean slate to work with. It is going to be Honeysuckle’s new home (too many local predators to be outside) and Anita’s Studio. Very exciting.
Last night I had a new experience. One I’ve never had or owned in life. I walked into our roomy, walk-in closet, (which is still unpacked because the shelves need to be painted and lined) turned on the light and changed into my pajamas. Totally pleasant experience. Do you think it is weird to thank God for a walk-in closet? I suppose.

In this quiet neighborhood we have already seen wild turkeys, fox, coyote and raccoons though technically we haven’t seen the latter, just experienced the damage they wrecked on our bird feeders. In the morning the cacophony of bird song wakens me. I do not object.

One final note. Our area has received so much rain the rivers and lakes are flooding in many places. A friend once told us, if you live in Minnesota and have a basement, it will flood at some point. Count on it. You would think we would have reached that point. It is a shocking wonder that ours remains dry as a bone. We are sure the previous owner who built the house had some engineer/architect smart person design the location of the foundation, the tiles and the drains because I have heard that even if you build on a slope you can do it in such a way that water flows through it rather than under or around. I lay in bed and think, God, how wonderful you are. I am allergic to molds. How good to give us a dry basement.

We are home.

Monday, May 26, 2014

God in the sink

"What is God doing in the sink?"

Bobble Head Jesus
 My granddaughter, Ava Lou, was standing on a stool washing dishes with a sink full of cold water and soap suds as only a four-year-old can "wash" dishes. She was looking at the bobble head Jesus who was over-seeing the process.
Ava Lou
 I wondered how to explain irony to her. How to say it had some obscure, but special meaning to me. I've often thought, I should put it away because people must look at it all the time and wonder if I am a heretic of some kind, worshiping saints or idols or something equally suspicious. So here is my explanation. He was a gift from a friend, Jeremy Huggins. Together we appreciate humor and irony in Christian paraphernalia that is marketed in certain stores that purport to be "Christian." Things like Frisbees that say "Flying for Jesus." Or night lights with the inscription: "Jesus is the light of the world." So there Jesus sits on the edge of my sink as a reminder to laugh at ourselves for the stupid ways in which Christianity is marketed and to try not to participate in the trivialization of such great things as the gospel. I mean no disrespect to a God I love. I think he knows that.

When it took too long to think of a simple answer to this dear child, she moved on to the next question.

"Can I give God a bath? He wants a bath."

I gently said no. He will get all rusty inside and not bob anymore, and I moved to pack him up in a box, ready for my next kitchen.

She and her mother had visited us for a few days to help me clean out the attic. Micah's presence and and help was so stabilizing. Much was accomplished in a short time. Everything down from the attic and out. Throw away, give to family, give to charity, sell some if possible. Label what to keep and where it should go in the next place. All done.

It really does feel like God in the sink with us. God with us in the midst of real life helping us to a new stage.

Thank you for stopping by. This time I will truly have a good excuse for not posting for awhile because this Friday we move and we will be living in the wreckage of boxes and plastic bubble wrap for quite awhile. But it will be a happy wreck.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Witness to life

     The cowbirds in our neighborhood have been busy. They are like cuckoos and practice a kind of bird abuse that ought to be punished, in my opinion. I would like to punish them and can’t think why this is part of creation, unless to remind us that life is not always the lovely, sweet place we wish it to be.
Bronze-headed Cowbird

     Last spring I found two cowbird eggs in the nest the purple finches built on our front porch. This year when I checked on the progress of mother finch’s nursery I found three finch eggs and one rouge. You can’t miss the difference. Notice the larger egg is a spotted buff color =  cowbird. The finch eggs are turquoise. The cowbird lays her eggs in another bird’s nest, leaving the responsibility of parenthood to someone else. The problem is, birds being what they are, the parents don’t recognize this egg is not their own and the female hatches and feeds the little criminal as if it were native. This hatchling is always larger than the real offspring and aggressively, starves the other babies and is soon able to push them out of the nest where they die on the ground. That’s why I removed the egg.

Purple Finch nest

Cowbird Egg

   I noticed the fine architecture of the nest - it is so pleasingly and carefully woven with grass, wool, and even flowers are incorporated if they are in bloom. And see how they surrounded the nest with little snippets of cedar? I heard that long ago the remedy for bedbugs was placing cedar boughs under the bed. Bugs and pests don’t like cedar - hence cedar chests that safely store wool blankets and clothing. So I wonder if this helps repel the mites that birds are prone to host. A natural wonder. So interesting to find both wisdom and villainy right on our front porch.
This may be one of the last acts of charity I perform while living at Toad Hall. Our days here are numbered as we pack the house and get ready to move in a week. Saying good-bye to many friends and leaving our home of thirty-three (!) years will be hard. But we look forward to our new place where there may be many more birds who will benefit from my moral compass.  We found a house in a quiet neighborhood in Savage, Minnesota, and the back yard abuts a wooded ravine that drops down to a little stream and a forty-six acre park called “Hidden Valley.”
All I can say right now is everyone was right - that we would find something. This is a gift. A mercy. Grace upon grace. Something my wizened heart does not always expect in this life. I’m more accustomed to expecting difficulties and impostors. I am so thankful.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Ice Jam

It’s been more than a month since I’ve posted and I’m sorry about that. I'm going to try to ease back in here. I’ve been dammed up like the Zumbro river I mentioned in the last issue of Notes From Toad Hall. We captured a little video of the muddy waters and chunks of ice moving under the bridge. The gradual building of pressure finally broke an ice jam and we happened to be there at the moment it happened. Something I’d never seen before. It was both frightening and fascinating at the same time.

Ice jam on the Zumbro River
Everything has had to come together from prepping, selling, looking for and purchasing another house and it has, in amazing ways. But I am excruciatingly aware that people do this all the time, and some do it over and over again, and I am that anemic American that thinks moving is tough. During the first six years of our marriage we moved thirteen times; somehow I’ve either forgotten what it took or just don’t have the stamina anymore. Plus, it has been thirty-three years since we last moved; that's a lot of time to forget how to pack boxes. You’d think I’d be more mature about the unknowns and the stress, but no, it seems not.
It’s not just the upheaval of moving or entering a new stage of life, it’s a combination of other things that add to being somewhat depressed and emotionally jerked around. Like earlier this week I learned that my recent up-tic in hearing loss qualifies me for hearing aids and that this isn’t going to go away, like I hoped it would. And I may need to wait awhile before we can afford them. (So I might be saying WHAaaa? a lot.)  One moment I’m so thankful we sold Toad Hall in three days and the next I’m quite certain we will never find another house that works for us and we’ll end up living in a yurt in my mother’s back yard. This has made it hard to think or write in a fundamentally coherent way. On lots of days going to bed with Almond Joy bars and People magazine seems like a good option, but honestly, I only succumbed yesterday when I couldn’t resist George Clooney on the cover. But even more shameful, is being tempted to buy the nasty National Enquirer. Fortunately I said, Satan, get behind me, and really? I mean, really? People, I don’t think dressing in a kilt qualifies as cross-dressing.
Camilla's World Falls Apart
 I have a friend whose family has been with the State Department and they have relocated across the world many times. She says that each time they moved she wished she were a nun and only needed to pack an extra habit, prayer beads and a cot, but the feeling passed once they got to their new home. I count on that feeling to return. The good news is that we haven’t needed to down-size as much as we initially thought, and in the new house we get to look out the back to a wooded ravine and park full of birds, predators, wild ginger and ramps. A bedroom and laundry on the main floor, and a wonderful and convoluted journey through the wilderness of real estate negotiations brought us to this house. I didn’t think we would make it, but my husband did. In all, we have much to thank God for.
Thank you for stopping by and, again, I apologize for being so spotty with postings, but don’t know how much better I will do in the next few weeks as we continue to pack and plan to move at the end of the month.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Another reason not to write

Ready to show

We continue to clear surfaces, sort drawers, pitch expired canned goods like crazy people. We are almost ready for the 360 Video Tour. By Saturday Toad Hall will be listed. I’ve heard that when people look at a house for sale, they open drawers and cabinet doors. Would that be the case? I mean do you have to be interested  in buying before you open the dressers drawers? Or are we just a snoopy species and look anyway? I shuddered when I looked under the bathroom sink with snoopy eyes wondering what whoever might think when they saw ... well, when they saw what they saw? Like a gallon of periodontal mouth rinse, a dried up box of soft wet wipes, and much else. This stuff is going straight to the trash, no thinking about who might be able to use this.
The big triumph today is that my office is ready to show and it looks magnificent. Never better. Better than Denis’. His desk tops are always organized and clear. I admire this, but one just shouldn’t do that much clean living. It makes me slightly bitter. But right now? Clean. Clean. Clean. I WIN! You’d think anyone would be able to write a book and more here, it’s that inviting. For the time being But not one word will get out because as soon as I start, books and papers gather from nowhere and start breeding like rabbits and this in the digital age! When everything could be done online? But now, at least I’ll have the memory of this tidy place where I’ve brooded and wasted so many years staring out the window. Eventually when I look back at these pics, I may try to rewrite history to say it looked like this all the time. But now that you know, you can hold me accountable. I’m asking you.

(Yeah.  And speaking of the Happy Bunny "let's focus on me" could the video I took be any more out of  focus?)

Anita just came up to show a spring-time wreath she made for the front porch. It is so so so whimsical and sweet with that little crocheted hen sitting one her nest surrounded by pussy willows and baby’s breathe I could eat it! If I came to our front door, I’d want to buy this house just because of that. Wouldn’t you?
Spring is here. Maybe.

Saturday is it, then. The house goes up for sale. We are in the chute and I don’t know where or when we will come out.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Against Anxiety - "put it into practice"

Snow just a few days ago and now inches of rain on top
“The Lord is near.” I’ve known that phrase since I was a child. I think adults said it to make kids afraid to scratch and pick the dead skin off their heels or other socially unacceptable behavior because this very important and glorious person who has power to see you through walls is watching so you better behave. No, I think Jesus means to calm us, to love us by being near.
Do you ever waken from dreams that are not specific. They aren’t frightening, but they leave you with impressionistic confusion and foggy memories of busyness that makes you anxious?  I want to know, really know, the meaning of “Rejoice … the Lord is near.
I came away from home a few days to visit long-time friends who make people feel loved and at-home. I am experiencing the grace they offer. You can get up get a cup of coffee that is already perfectly made and go back to bed, even. This seems to be a good place to be before we dive into the unknowns of the coming days. But thoughts keep knocking at my door: will Toad Hall sell right away or will we endure weeks, perhaps months, of see-sawing on the market? Will we forever be grabbing wet towels and stuffing them in baskets? Wiping the crumbs? Recycling newspapers, tidying pillows, etc, etc? Right now it is a little exciting. I hope the next stranger who enters our door will become the owner and will love this place as we have. However, it’s possible this will all become so tiresome I’ll want to kill any agent who dares show the house and I will despair of EVER selling. I don’t know. And what if it sells immediately and we do not have a place to go?! What then?
Here, in such a beautiful place where the desert blooms and the light reaches the mountain peaks with friends I love, I should not be thinking about anything except where is my wine glass, but even my subconscious conspires to dream empty, busy, confusing dreams.

Thankful for outrageous Bougainvillea
“Do NOT be anxious about anything.” The Pauline prescription for anxiety follows this up with “but in everything let your prayers (more formal words …Our Father) and requests (a little like begging) AND thanksgiving be known to God.” These three things are part of the formula. Pray. Ask. Be grateful, you who could be living in a refugee tent somewhere.
The news that it is raining back home doesn’t help. All day rain has poured down on top of four feet of snow. A foot of ice.

Desert peaks lit by setting sun
Trying to shovel it away or dig a trench is quixotic. Some of it is sure to leak into our basement because it has nowhere else to go other than down through the walls and out onto the carpet. The past month I have already spent time worrying about this possibility and in case it should happen I may have mentioned it to Denis and Anita possibly ten or twenty times. Please help me watch for it, I say. (And they flinch.) And now? Rochester is a hellish mess. Water pooling every where on top of mountains of snow. So I have to ask. Is our basement leaking? I could tell Denis didn’t want answer that question. He wants me to not worry and to have a good time - to rest before we plunge farther into no-return. But I must ask. Is water leaking into the basement?
A long pause. (Not good.) Yes. It is. But we have the carpet rolled back, the heat is on and the fans are going. It’ll be okay.
I am silent. There is nothing you can do about such things after all, is there? So many things in life like that.
Stop your infernal worry. Before that statement about not being anxious comes that well-placed reminder “…the Lord is near.”  Yes, he is. It’s like the SWAT team, your Grandma, your bridegroom and the sheriff who is your brother - all rolled into one is watching out for you. Petition. Prayer. Thanksgiving.  Do it, Margie. Pester God. Say your formal prayers. Add a list of things your are thankful for.

There is more to this piece of advice that is worth thinking about. But I’ll skip to the end where Paul cryptically says: “…put it into practice. And the peace of God will be with you."
I hope you don’t find this territory completely foreign. We like to think we are not alone in our neurosis. I pray you find comfort for whatever you are facing this week. Peace.

Let it rain and snow. Thankful to be here awhile.