January 30, 2014

borrowed thoughts ... on hardship

[from Ruth Bell Graham's book, Legacy of a Pack Rat, a collection of quotes, anecdotes, original poetry & musings]

".... we who strangely went astray
Lost in a bright
meridian night
A darkness made of too much day."
~ Richard Crashaw (1613-49)

"There is a story of the fishermen working in the North Sea off England bringing in their catch to the Billingsgate Wharf in the city of London.  The fish, many of which had been caught days previously, were flabby.  But one fisherman always had firm, fresh fish.  However, he would not divulge his secret.  After his death, his daughter passed it along.  He always kept catfish in the well of the ship where the fish were stored.  The catfish kept the other fish in such a constant state of irritation they did not have the opportunity to grow flabby."

"Many seem patient when they are not pricked."
~ Richard Rolle, 13th century

"Men strive for peace, but it is their enemies that give them strength, and I think if man no longer had enemies, he would have to invent them, for his strength only grows from struggle." 
~ Zachary Verne, The Lonesome Gods, by Louis L'Amour

"Hearty through hardship."
~ George MacDonald

                        back the tears,
                        I'm thinking,
                        may just clear
                        the heart for sight;
                        as windshield wipers
                        help us on
                        a stormy, windswept

"And when the storm is passed, the brightness for which He is preparing us will shine out unclouded, and it will be Himself." 
~ Mother Graham, to her companion, Rose Adams, on the death of Rose's husband

"As the years passed she was disturbed, almost alarmed, by the growing peace and serenity of her days.  Surely it was wrong to be so happy.  Then abruptly she knew it was not wrong.  This was the ending of her days on earth, the dawn of her heavenly days, and it had been given to her to feel the sun on her face." 
~ Miss Montague in The Dean's Watch, by Elizabeth A. Goudge

January 28, 2014

Jesus, Lover of my soul

Jesus, lover of my soul,
Let me to Thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll,
While the tempest still is high;
Hide me, O my Savior, hide,
Till the storm of life is past;
Safe into the haven guide, 
O receive my soul at last.

Other refuge have I none;
Hangs my helpless soul on Thee;
Leave, ah leave me not alone,
Still support and comfort me.
All my trust on Thee is stayed,
All my help from Thee I bring;
Cover my defenceless head
With the shadow of Thy wing.

Thou, O Christ, art all I want,
More than all in Thee I find;
Raise the fallen, cheer the faint,
Heal the sick, and lead the blind.
Just and holy is Thy name,
I am all unrighteousness;
False and full of sin I am,
Thou art full of truth and grace.

Plenteous grace with Thee is found,
Grace to cover all my sin;
Let the healing streams abound,
Make and keep me pure within.
Thou of life the fountain art,
Freely let me take of Thee;
Spring Thou up within my heart,
Rise to all eternity.

Charles Wesley, 1740

January 26, 2014


This past week some of us were sick, and around here we treat sickness with (among other things) rest.  By Saturday we were feeling a lot better, but more rest seemed to be in order.

As much as we love our church family, going to church is not always restful, so last night my Farmer and I decided that our family would hold services at home today.  (And although we don't operate by democratic vote, we did ask the girls, individually, for their opinions.  Sugar, Spice, and Nice each said, hopefully, that they thought they'd like having church at home).

So after the breakfast dishes were cleared away this morning, the cats and chickens fed, we gathered by the piano to sing "Joy to the World" to Sugar's accompaniment, with Spice playing along on the lap harp.  That's the extent of their accompaniment abilities at present, so we moved to the kitchen table with our hymnals and sang "Blessed Be The Tie That Binds" and "The Servant Song" and "How Great Thou Art" and a few more, till our voices ran dry.

Lil' Snip was provided with Legos and a couple of Golden Books, and the rest of us pulled out our Bibles.  Spice volunteered to take notes.  Since we were "being church", we wanted to see what the Bible had to say about it.

Sugar remembered reading Hebrews 10:24 & 25 the other day, so we started there:

"And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching."

We added to that Hebrews 3:13, which reminds us that we are to encourage each other daily to keep ourselves from being hardened by sin's deceitfulness.  From this, we decided that "meeting together" must mean something other than only Sunday morning church meetings, if we're to be encouraging one another every day.  Might it mean simply that we keep company with other believers on a daily basis?

We talked about how spending time with people regularly helps you to know them better, and then your encouragement can be more specific, and probably more beneficial.  That "spurring one another on toward love and good deeds" might take the form of giving vision to each other of what could be, something to move toward, like a mule moving toward the carrot dangling in front of him, getting the hard work of plowing done because his eyes are on the prize.

Sugar read 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 for us.  We decided that Paul's point was for us to wait for each other, share with each other, don't be greedy, and don't be divided.  We turned to 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 to see again that we should be orderly and take turns, that everyone has a part (see also 1 Corinthians 12:12-31), and all are needed.  Singing would be part of a meeting, Paul assumed, and teaching, prophesying, and speaking in tongues (but only as long as there was an interpretation).  We confronted those troublesome verses about women and their role in church services, reading the study notes in the Bible and talking about our own experiences.

Time was flying by, so we only looked at one more passage:  Colossians 3:12-17, which doesn't tell us what to do at meetings, but how to live with each other.  We should be peaceful, thankful, forgiving, teaching & admonishing one another.

Another hymn, a break for tea and graham crackers, and the children began to disperse.  It had been an hour and a half.  (I should blush to say it, maybe, but I don't remember our family ever sitting down together for that length of time before for anything, let alone to study the Bible together.  Our evening "family time" which does include singing and Bible reading is usually only 20 minutes, max.)

"That was nice!  The time went fast!!"  Spice said happily.  "It felt more like church, somehow."

"It was more restful," agreed Nice.  "We didn't have to hurry and get ready in the morning, and then hurry to make lunch when we got home."

Staying home, in fact, gave me ample time to make a simple - but hot! - lunch of rice and chicken, a nice improvement over our usual PB&J.  We ate early, comfortably instead of ravenously.  Going to church somehow always works up in us a terrific appetite.

After lunch, Sugar, Spice, Nice & Lil' Snip changed into playclothes, put on their snowsuits and headed out to play in the snow, a motley crew of colorfully padded roly-polies.  They're out there now, scooping up the fluffy stuff and kicking it, making piles and messages and occasionally flinging it at each other, while my Farmer and I relax a bit before calling them in for afternoon Quiet Time.

I don't know when I've enjoyed a Sunday more.

                  - - - - -   < * >   - - - - -

Do you know of other passages about Christians meeting together?  I'd like to hear them ...

January 22, 2014

in defense of quietness, part 2

One more postscript, if I may, on what I wrote last week.

It occurs to me that it was unfair to use "hymn-singers" as synonymous with "introverts."  Introverts may enjoy any type of music, and although it's not so common, there are occasionally foot-stompers among the hymn-singers.

Perhaps I got lost in my many thoughts on the matter - here now is my attempt at condensation:  introverts, when listening to any type of music, will more often use quiet body language.  They'll be the ones with bowed heads.  Extroverts, when listening to any type of music, will more often use louder body language.  They'll be the ones clapping during the hymns.  Both "verts" can experience God through either type of music ... although the "innies" will likely be more tuned in to it during quieter music, and the "outies" will likely be more tuned in to it during rowdier music.

And to every rule there will be, of course, exceptions.

If we can just remember to respect each other as God made us, and give each other space to experience God in the ways he made us to, we can, in turns, be quieted or enlivened by those unlike us, and thereby see more of God.

[and there - look!  I've got my better labels!!]

January 19, 2014

un-movie night

It's happening again, right now.

A week ago I found an old VHS of Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang in a thrift store, remembered enjoying it as a child, and brought it home to show to my children.

They still haven't seen it.  Each afternoon or evening that would have been just right for a movie night - it was cold and grey, or we'd been home for "x" days in a row - I've thought of hauling out the TV (which we keep on a high shelf) and VCR (which we keep in a closet) and lining up the children on the sofa to watch a slice of my childhood ... but I don't do it.

I hate to disturb them.

It's dark outside; we've eaten our supper and are planted in the living room where the fire burns hottest.  Spice is curled up on the sofa reading a Dr. Seuss biography from the library.  Sugar plays Colorku, a beautiful wooden version of Sudoku using colored balls.  Lil' Snip is building Lego tractors under the direction of Nice (who is living up to her name instead of plaguing her brother for the pleasure of hearing him squeal).

And I just can't make myself break up all the coziness, an almost palpable sense of "we are us; we are family; we belong here together."

So the videos I bring home gather dust on the shelf, and the children ask from time to time when we're going to watch them, but they never seem to remember to ask when we could watch them .... so we don't.

And no one seems to mind.

And Sugar learns new songs on the piano,
and Lil' Snip builds a million Lego towers,
and Spice makes music on her recorder,
and Nice sings songs she made up in her head,
and Sugar teaches herself new crochet stitches from a library book,
and Nice reads the Little House series,
and Spice teaches "school" to her siblings,
and Lil' Snip drives his trucks
and the girls dress up in ballet leotards and dance "The Waking of the Spring Flowers"
and it's all too lovely to interrupt for a mere movie ...

[for more thoughts on the TV-less life, check out this blog]

January 18, 2014

movie review: "Frozen"

First of all, you should know that the real star of the show is neither Anna nor Elsa, nor Hans the dastardly and possibly false prince of the South Isles, nor even Cristof the gallant backwoodsy iceman, but Olaf the gentle and guileless snowman.

There. That's my spoiler. Keep your eyes on Olaf and you'll enjoy the movie.

Second, the best part is the gorgeous ice graphics. That castle on the North Mountain? Pure art. I know, I know, that's where Elsa goes to escape/rebel (the movie seems to get its plot lines a bit tangled up here), but in the face of all that beauty, who cares whyshe's there?  From the staircase across the chasm to the chandelier that almost does her in, the ice castle is the stuff of dreams, whispering "crystals" and "diamonds" from every clear and glittering point.

Third, and what is meant to be the primary draw of the movie, is the lesson that while fear and anger destroy, love alone creates life. It was a brave and novel touch for Disney to use sister-love instead of romantic love. (Or was it? Maybe novel isn't actually all that courageous for the media.)

However, amongst all the eye candy and warm fuzzies, there were some problems.

First, I was apparently mistaken in my impression that a “G” rating meant small children had nothing to fear from a movie. Forget the slapstick comedic violence of early cartoons, all pitchforks and dynamite and falling boulders – today's animations have realistic faces (well, “realistic” if you can past the grotesquely gigantic eyes of the young female characters) that can show convincingly realistic fear and evil on their too-expressively drawn faces (Elsa seems to try for seductive, too, which in animation is not just ineffective; it's sick). The tiny tot in front of me, feet barely reaching the end of his seat, rocked back and forth against my knees rather violently during the scary snow-monster and angry-Elsa scenes.

Soooo … while I might watch it again when it's available on dvd (the better to memorize Olaf), I won't be showing it to my children.

Second, having no children along to monitor, I was more bothered by the lack of aesthetic integrity than the violence. While it appeared to be set in long-ago Russia (everyone knows that all fairy tales happened long ago & far away), the dialog was disturbingly modern, both in grammar (“I gotta...”) and idea (Elsa's rebellion against having to conceal her negative emotions turned her into a heartsick ice seductress - yeah, confusing). The music ranged from Russian chant (nicely done, I thought) to a rocky tune (during Hans' & Anna's romance scene). Not likely to bother the under-10 crowd, but not also not likely to educate them much about Russian culture.

Oh wait, entertainment is just supposed to use up our excess time, not inform …..

The long and the short of it: I had a blast. My friend and I saw Frozenin the nicest cinema I've been in since the Grand Canyon IMAX over a decade ago (it was the Penn Cinema on Airport Road, for you locals) … but that might not be saying much, since I go to movies maybeonce a year (far be it from me to let that prevent me from writing a review!). There were warm fuzzies and eye candy and a decent theme; it was the finale of a grand day spent with a delightful friend, who also bought the popcorn. 

 And, there was Olaf.

Memorable lines:

“Oh look, I'm impaled!” (Olaf, unconcerned, with trademark goofy smile)
“Some people are worth melting for.” (Olaf, stoking a fire for a dying Anna)

fruit in season

The little crabapple tree
winter-stripped of all
but the barest of its crabappleness,
in the sunshine today
bears bright plump pairs
of rusty-breasted bluebirds
fluttering at peanut-buttered pinecones.

January 16, 2014

in defense of quietness

or, thoughts on singing, a.k.a. "worship"

{For the sake of simplicity, I will be referring in this essay to the extroverted believers as "foot-stompers" and the introverted believers as "contemplatives". You'd think with the entire Internet at my disposal I could have come up with something wittier, but alas! it was not to be. Feel free to make suggestions. And of course there is a spectrum, and of course I mean no disrespect to any part of it.}

So that you know where I'm coming from, our church uses a worship band, but no smoke machine.

The church I grew up in had a more humble music ministry: We had a piano and two songleaders (one of whom occasionally, to my excited anticipation, used the platform to air his political opinions as well as directing us in song. In my youth, I liked the possibility of conflict. Needless to say, life has since handed me enough of that to cure my taste for it.)

My husband grew up at the church we currently attend, and when we first started going there as a couple, some fifteen years ago, we chose it for the preaching, not the music, which even then seemed loud to us after two and a half years teaching English in the quiet backwaters of Japan.

Recently, the music's gotten louder. Sunday mornings are probably no louder than many churches, although my children occasionally complain of headaches after the service. It's the new Saturday night service that is known for its volume. When they were gearing up to start the new service, our church's regular-issue speakers were deemed insufficient; special speakers had to be procured so that the sound could reach volumes high enough to attract the under-40 crowd. (Up until a few days ago, I was under forty myself. I attended once, with earplugs. It was still uncomfortably loud).

Although I prefer classical music and cathedrals to praise bands and church gyms, I am well aware that this is a mere preference. It's hard for me to understand why someone would want to incur hearing loss in the name of worshiping God, but it's okay with me that they do. I don't try to tell them that they're less spiritual for it.

Unfortunately, they don't always return the favor.

I've kept my opinions about this to myself for a long time (well, not entirely to myself - my longsuffering Farmer has had an earful from time to time), but a few things have happened here of late to make me decide to share them.

First was the memorial service for a dear uncle. The church was packed, and when it came time to sing, the very roof must have lifted to make room for the music from all those voices. If anything could make angels jealous, this would be it. Four part harmony, strong and heartfelt, unmarred by instrumentation of any kind, swelled and soared and with it all our spirits.

I had forgotten the power of voices raised in unified glory to God, how it soothed spirit, soul and body, sweeping clean, energizing all for love, for action.

I was instantly ravenous for more.

Months later, on Sunday, an impassioned Christian brother of mine encouraged folks to come out to support the Saturday night service. The organizers have pulled in people from two other churches, who now work together to produce the evening. Since churches haven't always been known for their ability to work together, I think this is great, and I want to publicly commend them.

But we won't be attending. The time of the service is not family-friendly, at least not for our family, and honestly, it's just too loud.

My brother in Christ, anticipating this problem, offered to turn the music down suggested that we wear earplugs if we don't like the noise levels. He reminded us that worship isn't about the style of the music being played.

The music that morning was unusually loud and my head hurt, so I took Lil' Snip and me out to the foyer to sit it out till the preaching started. While we were out there, a friend stopped to chat and it turned out that she, too, suffered from the sound levels Sunday mornings. She knew someone who used to help with the sound booth, and he'd tried to keep the volumes down, but was instructed to turn them back up. Not very thoughtful, I mused to myself. And hmmm, so I'm not the only one....

Still, it might have ended there, if I hadn't happened – the very next day - upon a friend's link to an articleabout men not singing in church, written by a man, for men, but as a woman, I can testify that the issue is not limited to gender. This article and several others like it, sparked a discussion on facebook which in turn begat my desire to put my thoughts down in a single location, in order to offer fresh perspective to the foot-stompers, consolation to the contemplatives, and ultimately, I hope, a solution for us all.
The most frequent arguments I've heard offered by the foot-stompers in favor of louder, more emotional music are that "It's relevant" and "It's not about the style, it's about the heart." (For what it's worth, I don't hear any arguments from the contemplatives on why their style should be preferred by anyone but themselves.)

"It's relevant" seems to mean that people like it, and we want people to come hear about Jesus, and so we need to use what they like in order to get them to come. This is faulty logic on several levels. First, not all people do like it - in fact, many don't - so you're limiting yourself to drawing people who do. You might be surprised at how many people come in spite of the music rather than because of the music.

Second, and more importantly, it is God who is relevant, and the love of his people (for each other, not just for "the lost") is what attracts, not the music.

"It's not about the style; it's about the heart" has just enough truth in it to sound true. Worship is about the heart, yes. But music - one expression of worship - definitely isabout the style. If it weren't, the foot-stompers would never have rejected the hymns in favor of rowdier or more emotional fare. If it were just about the heart, worshipful hearts would still be happily singing the music of our forefathers instead of forming separate services with extra-loud music.

Having said that, I don't see anything inherently wrong with rowdy, emotional, extra-loud music, or with having a separate service to showcase it. It just isn't everyone's cup of tea. If it's yours, enjoy it, but it doesn't make you any more or less spiritual than those who prefer their music orchestral, or choral, or quiet, any more than carrying a fat Bible makes you more like Jesus than carrying a digital one.

Christianity is about the heart, but music is most assuredly about the style.

Although there are a surprising number of young exceptions, the hymn-singers in the church traditionally are older folks, and seem mostly quiet and tolerant about their preferences, allowing the young folk to have their way with the musical part of the church service. Maybe I'm projecting optimistically, but they seem to graciously and generously assume that young folks can't be expected to appreciate what older folks like ... or graciously give way to the young in order to allow them to find their own way toward God. Maybe it hasn't always been this way, but I haven't heard or read about contemplatives insisting that the foot-stompers should make the effort to learn the old songs, or that "true" worship is dignified and doesn't involve all that emotional gesturing.

[Side note: I want to raise my children to be respectful of the older generation. They've lived longer than we have, and they have a lot to teach us - tolerance being the virtue obvious to this discussion. I would love for my children to be part of a generation that chooses to defer to the older members and their preferences rather than pushing them into being something that they're not.]

In Quiet Faith, Judson Edwards writes, “For all of the fine qualities we introverts bring to the table, the truth remains that we are typically viewed as people in need of a personality upgrade. Those of us who are active in the church find that to be especially true in the community of faith. We are consistently, though subtly and indirectly, reminded that we need to be bolder, louder, and more certain in our faith. If we ever really got filled with the Spirit, the church seems to suggest, we would become extroverts.”

Most people, whether familiar with the term "extrovert" or not, are familiar with extroversion: it looks like the stereotypical popular kid in high school - chatty, cheerful, surrounded by followers, eternally bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

Introversion is, quite literally, not as familiar. Introverts enjoy a slower pace to life, fewer and deeper friendships, greater powers of observation and time alone to process their thoughts; a sort of inside-out version of the extrovert, who can enjoy solitude, but prefers the company of others.

American culture, including church culture, is heavily biased in favor of extroversion. Judson Edwards states "If a person happens to be either introverted or intellectual, that person is destined to find church an especially inhospitable place."

The local county library system currently has two dozencopies of Susan Cain's ground-breaking book on introverts, Quiet, and they are all checked out. In fact, there is a waiting list. (Another great book on the subject is Introverts in the Churchby Adam S. McHugh). If you are interested in learning more about these quieter people with whom you fellowship, and why they act differently than you do, these two books are a fine place to start.

Why bring up introversion and extroversion in a discussion about musical preferences in church?  I think these two ways of being play a role in how we show our love for God in public. (And also because I'm an incurable personality analyst.)

We are brothers and sisters in Christ, many making up a single Body. Some express themselves extravagantly and emotionally; others express themselves quietly and with deep thought. Some are more private; others have never heard of inhibitions.   Some are more like Peter; some are more like John - they both hung out with Jesus, and he used them both, dramatically, but differently.

We've got to love each other and allow each other to function in the different ways in which God designed us. I want to affirm my hand-clappin' foot-stompin' Hallelujah-yellin' brother, and I want to be affirmed in my desire for classical beauty and contemplation.

Believers who feel particularly comfortable with exuberant expression may be a blessing and an inspiration to those who are naturally more reserved, but not if they neglect gentleness. Either style can be a sincere expression of worship (and either can also be insincere). We can't read hearts, and we don't have to change each other into ourselves.

To quote an Irish saying I found in Edwards' book: "To live above with saints we love, O that will be the glory! To live below with saints we know, well, that's another story...." No one pretends it's easy; we also cannot pretend that its implausibility excuses us from trying.

I am certain that in heaven there will be all the boisterous praising going on that a soul could want. And since Jesus himself valued quiet time, alone with the Father, I am equally confident that there will be quiet spaces in heaven as well, where the quiet-lovers can contemplate the exquisite beauty of the Father and commune with him as was never fully possible in the clamor of earth's distractions.

Yes, David sang and danced before the Lord, but "Be still, and know that I am God" is also in the Bible.

So how do we live this out, these two different ways of honoring God?

"I have never liked crowds," says Judson Edwards, and I agree. "I seem to have trouble hearing the still, small voice of God when the crowd numbers more than one."

I've beaten myself up for a long time over "having the fear of man rather than God" when all it is, mostly, is that I am acutely observant. I see and hear everything. Solitude is where I hear God best. Yes, now that Lil' Snip knows how to whisper, I could sit in the front pews, but I am a back-row girl at heart.

Worship is a private thing for me, and in the front I feel painfully on display.

With all the different styles of music – the loud contemporary music, the endless dreamy songs, ancient hymns, and 70's-style choruses - it's a legitimate and practical difficulty to meld disparate genres into a single service, so each church often ends up specializing in one type of music.

This might sound like a fair compromise, except that it can feel like a judgment: Ourmusic is the “right” one. If a church sings mostly hymns, there can be a sense that contemporary music is carnal. And if a church sings mostly emotional songs, they can give off vibes of spiritual superiority because of their freedom of expression.

To further complicate matters, many contemporary songs are created with a soloist and a band in mind, not a group of worshipers. The timing is irregular, the repetition is unpredictable, and the song leader feels free to ad lib changes according to the mood of the morning. This is difficult to participate in, and for some of us, the group expression is a powerful part of the experience. Most hymns, besides having the virtue of sound theological and literary value, were easy to sing along with, and fostered a sense of belonging together.

Can we manage it, somehow – to united bring an offering of praise to God? Maybe it will be impossible until heaven; I don't know. Could the contemplative sometimes be blessed by emotional display? Absolutely, as could the foot-stompin' Christian sometimes be blessed by classical beauty. But maybe it doesn't have to be either/or.

I'm only a song leader in the privacy of my own living room, to my own family, and I won't claim that organizing a service for six qualifies me to suggest an order of service for hundreds. All the same, I have an idea (no surprise there, my Farmer might say) that might work for some church, somewhere:

What if the service started with the concert-type experience (a band onstage, drums and bass guitars, lead singer and harmony) while people entered the sanctuary (hmmm ... maybe we should call it an auditorium here, and save "sanctuary" for later ...). The early arrivals could praise as loudly and energetically as desired, while the quieter folk linger in the lobby, far from the speakers, or sit at the back and gather their wits, or perhaps join the front lines if they feel daring.

Then, after the lights are raised and a welcome offered, a single song-leader could come to lead the congregation to "lift their glad voices in triumph on high". Maybe a piano could play, or a guitar. We could hear each other, and be united by the sound of our voices raised toward God.

And maybe, after the sermon, we could have more of one, or the other.

Maybe, it would work.

And whatever happens up front on Sunday mornings, let's let all our lives be worship, not just the parts set to music.

January 15, 2014

borrowed thoughts on exercise

[excerpted from Endangered Pleasures by Barbara Holland]

Once, not needing to exercise in order to survive was a privilege and the hallmark of gentlefolk, who were identified by their soft white hands and merely vestigial muscles. Well rested, heartily fed, and flushed with excellent port, many of these sluggards lived to an overripe old age, annoying their heirs, while for those who exercised all day life was nasty, brutish, and mercifully short. We have failed to profit by their example. We have, as a nation, embraced voluntary, non-essential exercise.

For those of us left behind by the new wave, yawning, stretching,and reaching for the coffee cup are quite enough activity to liven up the muscles for the day. For the au courant, however, only violence will suffice. They rush out into the humid smog or the icy darkness and run as if demons were after them, coming back purplish, gasping, and awash in self-satisfaction and sweat. Sometimes, to set the gold seal on their virtue, they suffer from pulled hamstrings, tendinitis, shin-splints, and muggers. They support a while new branch of science called “sports medicine.”

Smugness is one of life's basic joys, and for the altruistic exerciser there's also the amusement he gives to onlookers and the rest of the family, who sit there dry and comfortable, reading the funnies, buttering their muffins, and rejoicing in sloth. The family cat, who stays fit as a fiddle on twenty-two hours of sleep a day, stretches luxuriously, smiles, and gets on with his nap.

As an extra delight, I'm told the fleet-footed sometimes experience what's called a “runner's high,” a fit of euphoria vouchsafed to those who have pushed it clear to the edge of cardiac arrest. God knows I'm in no position to report on this personally, but it sounds to me like the diver's problem, “rapture of the deep,” which involves nitrogen poisoning or oxygen starvation or something. Pleasure is where you find it.

The new, enlightened exercise is governed by a new, improved set of rules, mysterious to the outsider.  First, if you're having fun, as in dancing or skiing, no benefits accrue. No proper runner has ever been seen to smile; no proper lap-swimmer dangles at pool's edge sipping a cool drink and chatting with friends. Exercise, to qualify at all, must be lonely, painful, humorless, and boring.

Second, it must produce no useful effect on anything except your muscles, or some say, your cardiovascular condition. Mowing the lawn, sweeping the floor, and toiling up the basement steps with a basket of laundry are useless because of the irrelevant purpose involved; rowing a boat gets you, with luck and a favorable current, from point A to point B and is therefore not exercise. For exercise, there are machines (called “equipment”) that simulate mowing, rowing, sweeping, and stair-climbing, and these machines perform miracles for the body because they were designed to do nothing else; however long you labor at them, the laundry still languishes in the dryer and sassafras saplings sprout in the lawn. Perhaps you can hire someone to deal with them, thus doubling your outlay.

Third, exercise should cost money. Money proves that you're really serious about this body business, and the body, flattered, responds. There are dues to pay at the gyms and spas and pools, and the truly serious buy their own machinery. Friends of mine replaced their living-room couch with a rowing machine, most wondrously awkward to sit on. For years my brother stabled a sort of steel giraffe, called a NordicTrack, in the guest room. He was never seen to operate the thing, but it was useful for hanging up one's jacket or drying one's underwear, and effective in breaking the toes of guests trying to find the light switch in the dark. Presently it disappeared. I don't know how; it was much too heavy to steal or throw away. It had cost a fortune.

Even the runners, fleeing like purse-snatchers through the morning streets, have spent money. They carry patented weights in both hands, wear special running shorts or suits, dam the sweat from their eyes with special headbands, and buy shoes so expensive that simply contemplating them on the closet floor improves one's muscle tone.

Adhere to the rules and you too may find happiness. As I said, I'm not authority on the joy of exercising; for some of us it lies in more in the breach than in the observance. We can stroll to the window with our coffee cup, gaze down as the virtuous go laboring past, and enjoy a wholesome flush of pleasure at not being numbered among them.

[excerpted from Endangered Pleasures by Barbara Holland]

January 13, 2014

borrowed thoughts on joy

[excerpted from Endangered Pleasures by Barbara Holland]

"Subtly, in little ways, joy has been leaking out of our lives. Almost without a struggle, we have let the New Puritans take over, spreading a layer of foreboding across the land until even ignorant small children rarely laugh anymore. Pain has become nobler than pleasure; work, however foolish or futile, nobler than play; and denying ourselves even the most harmless delights marks the suitably somber outlook on life.

"It's an easy trap to fall into. Somehow bad news is easier to believe, more important, than good. Joyful people singing of blue skies always sound slightly simple-minded; the prophets of doom sound so much better educated, so much more likely to be right, and when they threaten us with cancer, global warming, gridlock, AIDS, war, famine, and pestilence, we listen closely and believe. The small pleasures of the ordinary day come to seem almost contemptible, and glance off us lightly. By bedtime they've vanished, lost among the ominous headlines, rude taxi drivers, and tight shoes looming in memory.

"Part of this is genetic programming. Back in the dawn of things, those who dawdled on the path smelling the flowers and smiling at the sunshine didn't last long enough to hand down their genes. The genes that traveled farthest were those of the most pessimistic, the most resistant to pleasures, the most alert to flies in their soup, tigers on the trail. They invented the angriest gods and prepared for the most menacing neighbors. Gloomy and suspicious, they slept with one eye open.

"We are their heirs. Scientific tests are proving that we notice and remember dark words more sharply than bright ones. They weigh more in our minds, as tigers weighed more than flowers.

"We may be overdoing it. Certainly we suffer more from stress, high blood pressure, insomnia, indigestion, and dark premonitions than other animals whose lives are more perilous than ours. It may not even be a sign of high intelligence; the clever dolphin, in spite of tuna nets, seems to celebrate all day long.


"Now we're left to wring joy from the absence of joy, from denial, from counting grams of fat, jogging, drinking only bottled water and eating only broccoli. The rest of the time we work. A recent study informs us that Americans in 1994 worked 158 hours (roughly a month) longer than we did in 1974.

"Our only permissible enjoyments now are public, official, and commercially regulated, as in Disney World, casinos, shopping, television, organized sport, and rock concerts. As long as somebody somewhere is making money out of us, we're useful to the economy, even patriotic: we're allowed to pay admission and play in the theme park.

"To make sure we aren't having any casual, private fun, the contemporary wisdom has withdrawn a lot of our older pleasures – chicken gravy, long summer vacations, sleeping late – and has replaced them with fitness and gloom.

"Perhaps it's a good time to reconsider pleasure at its roots. Changing out of wet shoes and socks, for instance. Bathrobes. Yawning and stretching. Real tomatoes. The magic day in January when it's clearly, plainly, joyfully no longer quite dark at five in the afternoon. Waking up in the morning and then going back to sleep again. The cold and limey rattle of a vodka-tonic being walked across the lawn. Finishing our tax returns. The smells of the morning paper, cut grass, and old leather jackets. Finding a taxi in a downpour; clean sheets; singing to ourselves in the car. Sitting by the fire picking sticktights off the dog. All the available gentle nourishments of the ordinary day. Properly respected, maybe they can lighten our anxious load.

"Indeed, pleasure may be almost as good for our health as broccoli; chemists tell us that happy people produce endorphins and enkephalins, brain chemicals that improve T-cell production and thus enhance immunity to cancer, heart disease, and infections.

"Let us then strive to be merry. Gloom we always have with us, a rank and sturdy weed, but joy requires tending. Pleasure itself is endangered."

[excerpted from Endangered Pleasures by Barbara Holland]

January 7, 2014

well below freezing

Lately no one says "global warming."  Those who used to be enthusiasts of this theory have decided, completely at random, to call it "climate change" instead.  Weather forecasters, vying for their dramatic position among the soap operas perhaps, coin terms like "polar vortex" to make low temperatures sound like the ultimate adventure.

Basically, though, it's just cold.

So when the thermometer outside read 0 degrees this morning, naturally I mixed up some bubbles and went outside to blow.  I had seen some amazing photography of frozen bubbles, and wanted to see if I could do it, too.  {It was too windy; my bubbles floated across the road into the neighboring field.}  I had fun trying until my fingers got numb, then I took my bubble mix inside to where the children were watching me from the window, and we blew bubbles in the living room.

Spice dashed out a few times to bang the ice from the cats' water dish and re-fill it [note:  frozen plastic breaks when brought into strong contact with frozen concrete] and Sugar replaced the trash can after the garbage truck emptied it.  I took away our homemade "suet" and gave the birds the real store-bought deal, which they found within the hour.  [and friends - I'm seeing the "real" birds this winter:  titmice, juncos, red-bellied woodpeckers and downies, chickadees, even bluebirds!]

But mostly we enjoyed the sunshine from inside these old, old walls, home to crumbling insulation, mice, and ancient nutshells.  They keep out the wind, mostly, and we are grateful.

The pellet stove roars, and the younger two build complicated dwelling-places out of stools and pillows, and sisters use walkie-talkies from a room away.

And we're cozy, here, despite the drafts, extreme weather and all.

a new hope

A while back, I read a book by Elizabeth Berg, The Year Of Pleasures.  The reviews on Amazon were indifferent; she is accused of lacking cohesion and indulging in flights of fancy.  I dug in anyway.  The protagonist is a freshly-widowed 55-year-old woman, grieving her husband while simultaneously trying to make a new life for herself, per his instructions before he died of cancer.

Somehow, I could relate.

I still - thank God! - have my Farmer by my side, to love me, and provide a buffer from many of life's bumps.  And I am still far (it seems to me) from 55 years of age.

But lately I am grieving - the passage of time, the dreams I haven't yet realized that I thought I would have by this ripe old age of 39, the immaturity still resident in my personality and habits.  Maudlin, I know.  But what I loved about the book was that the widow's grieving gave her new eyes, to see beauty both in remembrance and in hope.

Her husband left her slips of paper, just a word or phrase on each, to remind her (or sometimes, befuddle her) with memories of things she'd let slip through her fingers, in essence to tell her over and over - say yes!  It's like the one thousand gifts in reverse - the gifts unseen, refused - enumerated not to incite guilt, but to spur the widow on to an acceptance of beauty, of abundant life.

This summer some girlfriends and I were browsing a vintage shop in town.  Upstairs, one of them called my name: "You have to look at this set of plates - they are you!!"  I looked, and they were.  The price was fair, too, but I reasoned the dinnerware away - I have a perfectly serviceable set of dishes [that I heartily dislike] and ... pretty things are not for me.

I'm not sure where that belief came from, but when it showed itself that day, I realized I had believed it many times, for many things.  I'm glad to say that I was able to see truth, that day, and bury the lie:  my household budget allowed easily for the purchase, and the beauty of the plates would cheer us daily for years.  In the end, I bought them, and every time I set them out, they whisper "pretty things are for you...."

A couple of years ago, a group of wives gathered in a different friend's house to talk about how to be good wives, good mothers.  A question was raised about the Bible's call to self-denial versus the world's call to self-care.  We puzzled over it, some in favor of one, some in favor of the other, no one quite sure if the two could be reconciled.

But then I found a paragraph from Lisa Bevere's book Out of Control & Loving It that caught my eye.  She contended that self-neglect is different from self-denial.  I had never before seen that I was confusing the two, that I could deny selfish desires while still caring for basic needs.

Much in The Year of Pleasures is unrealistic, yes.  But like a list of gifts yet undiscovered, it calls to me, like the ocean, like a Japanese maple aflame with autumnal glory, like the opening strains of the Moonlight Sonata - "there is hope .... life can be abundant .... accept the beauty offered."

I will be keeping my eyes open.

I turn 40 in a few days.  This decade will be a new hill to climb, and beauty, and gifts, will be my fuel.

January 2, 2014

a separate peace

The lights burn to brighten the rooms this January morning while the sun hides behind wintry clouds.

The pellet stove hums warmth into the room, and the humidifier fan hums its moisture up against the dry heat, and Spice sings merrily, making up cleaning songs from Christmas tunes as she and Nice wipe houseplant leaves.  Nice likes the job so much that she requests daily plant-cleaning privileges, and suggests that they sing to the plants, too.

Lil' Snip has abandoned his Legos for the joys of cushion fort building, busily wedging pillows against stools set against the sofa.  Sugar's task - dusting the miscellaneous glassware in the china cupboard - inspires her to converse with Spice and Nice in an imitation British accent.

The sky outside is dim; snow is in the forecast.  I hope it comes - it will bring the birds, first, and I want to see if they eat the berry and nut suet I made for them.

It might as well snow:  We have a borrowed dvd, plenty of light and music, and nowhere else we have to be.

if wishes were horses ....

This month marks the 40th year since I was born.

I will have completed four decades of living.  My Farmer asks me, this morning, to think about what I'd like, for my birthday.  Tears spring to my eyes.  I know what I'd like:


The ability to laugh at fear and the future because of the strength of my confidence in the One who holds it all secure in His hand.

Or even just an understanding of what I need to do to take care of myself and my most important relationships.  And the courage to do it.

{You'll notice "patience" is not on the list.  That was the first virtue I started praying for, when I was eighteen.  For over two decades God has been offering me opportunities to develop it, and I can't say that I've seen much improvement.}

But my Farmer can't give me those things for my birthday (much as I'm sure he'd love to see me receive them); no one can.  So instead I'll ask for trinkets - and I'll smile outside to unwrap them, while my insides ache at all I lack.

I used to think that by 40 I'd be grown up, mature by 50, and wise by 60.

But then, I used to think a lot of things ....

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

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