tumbledweeds

growing a family o' weeds

growth rings and the grand canyon

This story starts, as most of mine do, out in the woods; more precisely on a hike.  We simply can not get enough of this glorious spring weather, and I freely accept this gift for what it is after the winter that almost swallowed us alive.  We’ve spent nearly every waking sunshiney moment since outside.  This hike was a short one, a chance to be together as a family without having to pack lunches or get out maps.  No, this was something smaller, less adventurous.

I forgot, though, why it is we don’t often hike at this particular preserve.  The trails can be a bit frustrating, short pieces that have to be added together to gather any kind of momentum, and eventually we looped our way back down to the creek to play.  There was a nice flat bank of green grass to run on, and we tried not to disturb the fisherman too much as we let the dog splash about in the water.  Two trees had fallen and lay across the green grass, balance beams mirroring each other, perfect for races.  We tried meandering down the side of the creek, but the trail became thick with bramble and more felled trees, evidence of our harsh winter, here even.  We turned around, content just to be in the sunshine, and played some more on the balance-beam trees.

Next to those trees there were three round stumps.  Not proper stumps left from a tree that had grown there, but more like three chunks of tree that had recently been cut apart and left as seats.  Freshly cut, their color hadn’t yet dulled with the weather.  We gathered around these stumps, these chunks the tree, and we looked at the rings.  We showed the kids how to count them, and we noticed together the variation in color and thickness.  Here, in this one slice of wood, is captured the history of this tree, of its making and growing and eventually dying.  The stripes spin around the core, and for a moment I feel as though I’m looking at a piece of abstract art.  I sat on a stump in the sun watching the three kids climb up and over and around those other long trees rotting here by the side of this creek.  The two older kids quickly found their balance and were racing each other from one end of the trees to the other.  Griffin, though strong and agile as he is, eager to do everything his big brother and sister do, climbed his way up but needed my hand to run down the length after Grant and Renee. I obliged, I did, and then we were lost in the bugs crawling along the grooves of the bark like it was a highway.

This game ran its course, as all do, and it was time to move on.

Later that day, at home while I’m making dinner, bathing kids and tucking them into bed, I think about those tree stumps.  I remember the sensual lines radiating from the center.  I wonder about the years of feast, of famine, and I imagine this tree and its small story as a piece of that noble forest.  I think about my growth rings, too, and wonder what will be left for all to see at the end of my journey.

There is a difference between being marked, scarred, and the striation that simply colors a life.  I can look at my physical body, for instance, and see the dimple on my belly, a chicken pox scar from when I was little.  It alludes to the story of being bathed in cornstarch, of being gathered with my sister and encouraged to share these germs, hoping to get all the crazy of chicken pox done with for our small family.  There is a faint line I have that runs from my nose to my upper lip, an unfortunate reminder of my clumsiness when I bumped my face on the baby stroller, bleeding copious amounts as face wounds do, and adding up to utter embarrassment among new-mom friends, finding new-mom legs.

But what I’m thinking about is different.  Scars are punctuations, stories of course, but accents to a greater narration. What I’m thinking about now is how that tree, with its growth rings, is like the Grand Canyon, a pie slice of geology, our world in the making.  The stratification, layer built upon layer, each with a different tone, not telling the story of any particular incident, but the story of an era.  Each stratum bears the impact of the environment.  Seen as a whole, the stratification is a beautiful rainbow of contrasts, telling the story for as long and as wide and as deep as it is.

I wonder what it will be like to finger my way through my growth rings, count out my age.  There will be evidence of thin years, lean and long, telling of hardships and eventually resiliency.  There will be fat years, bursting forth with fecundity and growth, adding mass to this life.  I am both that tree, and the Grand Canyon, specific in my own life, and contributing to a much greater one of which I will never know the end.  It will be beautiful, like a piece of abstract art.

Those rings are beautiful, yes, but they are not the full story either.  Looking only at those rings you miss the story of the green veiny leaves that were the tree’s crown of glory.  I can only imagine the birds and squirrels, the animals that called that lovely tree home. Those rings don’t bear witness to the picnics that were had in her shade, or the kids who may have climbed her branches.  Those things were beautiful in the present, and I find relief in that, too.  Though I want my life to be glorious in retrospect, I want it to be beautiful in the present, too.  It’s good to take the long view, knowing that struggles add depth and beauty, but it’s tiring to hold that perspective all the time.  This very moment is something to behold, too.  The full story is found in both the growth rings, and the branches; the Grand Canyon and the dust and the rain.

So while it is that I’m hustling our family out the door to Easter services, packing sleepover bags, and forgetting Griffin’s treasured “nanky,” I hold in my heart the truth of both those things: this very second, this one here in which I’m sweating and short of breath, panicked and full of guilt. But also this one: it’s a blink of an eye in the forest, time that I do not understand.  And it is all glorious.

 

just breathe

 

I’ll be back soon.  Thanks for your patience.  Until then, I leave you with Pearl Jam:

“Just Breathe”
Yes, I understand that every life must end, uh-huh
As we sit alone, I know someday we must go, uh-huh
Oh I’m a lucky man, to count on both hands the ones I love
Some folks just have one, yeah, others, they’ve got none
Stay with me…
Let’s just breathe…
Practiced all my sins, never gonna let me win, uh-huh
Under everything, just another human being, uh-huh
I don’t wanna hurt, there’s so much in this world to make me bleed
Stay with me
You’re all I see…
Did I say that I need you?
Did I say that I want you?
Oh, if I didn’t I’m a fool you see
No one knows this more than me
As I come clean…
I wonder everyday, as I look upon your face, uh-huh
Everything you gave
And nothing you would save, oh no
Nothing you would take
Everything you gave…
Did I say that I need you?
Oh, did I say that I want you?
Oh, if I didn’t I’m a fool you see
No one knows this more than me
And I come clean, ah…
Nothing you would take
Everything you gave
Hold me til I die
Meet you on the other side…

 

the work of freedom

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Galatians 4:1

We all pulled on our snow boots, too warm for this March thaw, but the only appropriate footwear for the inches upon inches of snow still matted down in our backyard.  I handed the kids their snow shovels – this has been the year where everyone pitches in – and we marched around back to survey the place, sized up our load.

While there may be other areas around here that look as the snow was just a memory, a dim shadow of this winter, our yard is the perpetual winter wonderland.  Though our grass and flowers may wilt under the strong sun of summer, most other times of the year we see the light more refracted through the trees, reflected off the hill than experienced directly.  Because of this, the daffodils fight to sprout their green blades up through the gritted gray of old snow.  Across the street, on the hill that turns its face up to the sun, the snow is merely an accent, a piece of cloth thrown out onto the table.  But on our side it is not an exaggeration to say that we still have a good six or eight inches of snow in some, or most, parts of our yard.

In-like-a-lion-out-like-a-lamb March is here, and true to her word, the beginning was fierce and cold bringing a final crust to the snow-cake.  The relief I have felt with the warming temperatures and the sun’s full presence is felt collectively.  We’ve all endured this tough winter, and like many I began to think we’d been forgotten about, that this winter would be eternal.  But I know after feeling the warmth of that sun on my skin: the promise of spring is here.

Mark began, again, the trail running series that he competed in last year.  A race each month, February through June, through some unbelievable terrain.  Remarkably, the February one and this past weekend’s March race were delightful days in which the kids continued to exclaim: “It’s Summer!” because of course 50* and sunny feels like summer by comparison.  Mark ran hard through all sorts of snow, ice and mud and we all came home happy, and ready to get back outside.  One look out the book door though, and we were reminded of our plight: snow still knee deep with nowhere to play, nowhere to run or climb, the swing-set still hedged in by winter.

I have been delivered from this long winter.  We made it through, and we came out the other side.  The sun is shining, the earth is warming, the air is thick with the smell of mud, of the promise of new life.  But I am not yet living in the freedom I’ve been promised.  I need to pick up my shovel, do the hard work of cleaning up this yard, clearing a place for us to play, for the new growth of spring to emerge.

I recently heard Christine Caine preach on the book of Joshua, chapters 5 and 6.  The thing that sticks with me the most is this: God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The journey to the Promised Land could be expected to take 11 days.  And yet.  A whole generation died in the wilderness, and it took them 40 years to make it to freedom.  The people of God had been delivered out of slavery and captivity.  They had been set free, but they weren’t yet living freely.  They had not walked into the promised land, but instead were lost in the wilderness.  The Israelites were getting in their own way, letting their fear and doubt, their grumbling and complaining, lead them in circles instead of following God into life abundant.

And just like the Isrealites needed to lay aside their weights and sins, the things that were holding them back from the freedom and joy that was waiting for them, so too, do I need to do the hard work of walking into freedom.

Which brings me to the snow shovels.

Out in our backyard, we slowly chipped away at the snow.  The layers of ice were thick and jagged, and the grit scratched the shovel loudly with every jab.  The heat of the sun and the work of the muscles quickly added up and one by one we each shook our arms out of our jacket sleeves, laying them baking and crusting on the picnic table. I stopped to sip my coffee for a moment, and chuckled to myself at the absurdity of this: shoveling out our backyard.  But the kids, who had quickly abandoned their work once a path was cleared to the swings, were now set off on rocket ships, and fending off crocodiles, and whatever else they could discover out there.  And it’s watching them play, in fresh air, in spring’s promise, with such palpable joy, that I know that this is the absurd work of coming out of this long, hard winter.  Of making our way through the wilderness and entering into our promised land.  Mark and I continued shoveling, clearing a landing at the bottom of the slide, scraping down to the layer of ice that encrusts it all, making room for the sun to melt the rest.  We coordinated our movements, shoveling patterns around each other, discerning a landscape that has been hidden from sight.

The promise is there: of Spring joy, this life abundant.

As we shoveled, the wreckage from this winter becomes more clear.  The debris laid buried under this snow, but slowly with the thaw the outlines of downed branches and broken limbs became more clear.  As we continued to clear paths and made a way through the snow it became apparent that our job this spring brings with it the work of cleaning up, of repair and restoring.  The ice storms in February brought down more trees than I realized.  Mark and I hefted our weight onto a piece of tree caught in the vines and branches of others, pulling and twisting to set it free, and then dragged it away, into the woods.  There were twigs to gather, branches to cut clean.  The work of pruning will take time.  There are whole bushes, even, that need to be sacrificed to this long winter.

This spring will bring mud. The snow will melt, and when it does there will more water than our yard can absorb, especially for a ground that is itself still thawing.  It will be a dirty spring, with mud caking our boots, clinging to our hands and feet, marking our clothes.  There will be muddy footprints tracked into the kitchen, and there will be the daily, sometimes hourly, work of wiping it clean again.

Hungry, then, from all that hard work of shoveling and playing, we came inside.  Leaning my shovel against the side of the house, I noticed a swath of ground already exposed to the sun.  Sticking straight as an arrow up through that dirt, there was a burst of green blades.  The daffodils are on the rise. I sloughed off my boots, and washed my hands to make lunch.  The house that was cozy and warm earlier seems stale and static, so we threw open windows wide, airing out the winter’s ills, and felt the fresh crisp air sweep our cheeks.  I heard birds bustling around, finding their voice again, singing it back to each other to remember.

I am walking through the wilderness and straight into that promised land.

what’s the story?

Griffin is hard for me, right now.  I mean, hard.  As I’ve heard happens with thirds, he has done everything earlier, faster and fiercer than the two before him.  Walking, running, climbing, troublemaking. Yep.  And including giving up his naps.  Please, child, can I just tell you the beauty of a nap?  Since months before his second birthday the dude has not napped, and I don’t see this changing in the future.  Are you kidding?!  I can still count on Renee to conk out at least once every few weeks.  Sigh. Our evenings are hard.

The upside to this, though, is an early bedtime.  I mean early.  The boy gets manic when he’s tired, as the other two do, too, a study in perpetual motion.  Last night, it was hard enough to control his Tasmanian devil craze until 6pm, and there was nary a sound as I closed the door behind me.  Boy is TIRED.  And an early bedtime for Griffin means some time with Grant and Renee that can be more focused, less chaotic.  We can play Candy Land without threat of the pieces being tossed on the floor.  We can play Go Fish and not have to play 52 Pick Up at the same time.

Their favorite, (and mine, too) these days is to break out the Story Cubes.  If you don’t know Story Cubes, let me just tell you that it is a set of nine dice that are illustrated with a different picture on each side.  There are many, many ways to play, but the most basic, and therefore the easiest and most gratifying for the four- and six-year old is to just shake them up, roll them out, and tell a story using the pictures as a spring board.

To no one’s surprise, Grant and Renee each have their own way of doing this.  Grant is very methodical.  He looks at the pictures that he has, thinks it through, and orders them out the way he wants.  When he’s good and ready, he’ll make sure that his audience is, too, and dive in with precision.  It’s all about the plot.

Renee, on the other hand, just dives right in.  There is no forethought; no concern about the order of the pictures.  Her stories may circle around a bit more, touch on one picture a couple of times, before landing back at the end.  She reacts to the plot twists, as do her characters.  And there is dialog!  “The door to the castle was locked.  The boy says, ‘Oh no!’ He wanders into the woods, then climbs a tree. ‘Why is the castle door locked?’ he asks his mom.”

They take turns sharing the spot light, each basking in their own creative autonomy, and the undivided attention of the audience.  Both methods of storytelling are a brilliant display of imagination, of personality, of problem solving and critical thinking.

***

It may seem a little late to reflect on my word from last year, but here I am.  Last year, the word “story” floated above my head like a thought bubble in a cartoon.  I worked out each misstep, each adventure, each heart swell, each struggle as a tale to be told. I told the stories of family folklore, histories written into the character of who I am.  I looked for the bigger narrative in my life – the story that was made up of the building blocks of my everyday, that was greater than the sum of it’s parts.  I sought a story written into the mundane, the ordinary life of raising a family.

The pieces of my life were like those Story Cubes.  They would tumble out, helter-skelter on the kitchen table, and I tried to make sense of them, to order them out to tell some kind of story.

Having spent a year like this, I see a few things differently now.  I can tell you that in choosing one narrative I was not choosing another.  When the dice tumble out, only one surface is facing up.  But there are other pictures on those cubes still, pieces that are part of my life, still part of my story.  But I overlooked these pieces.  It was not the story that I was telling.  It’s easy to get seduced by something dramatic that looks like the main plot, only to realize it was merely a subplot and I’ve missed the whole point of it all.  Sometimes a story actually isn’t bigger than the sum of its parts.  I have forced a morality tale when there wasn’t any there.  I have pushed the corners of a story, rounding them out to make them fit into something that it wasn’t.  Sometimes there are faulty narratives, things written out long ago in history, that need to be rewritten, a new narrative set in place.

***

The dishes from dinner are loaded into the dishwasher, and the music is on quiet in the background.  The lights are low, the way that I like it in these winter months, reflecting the natural tendency towards hibernation.  A candle flickers, casting moving shadows on the kitchen counter.  The Story Cubes are rolled out onto the table, but this time we take turns, creating one big story.  We move around the table, each picking a cube, lining it up next to the one before it, adding layers to the story.  Renee, Grant, Mark and I – we each take a turn, adding our words carefully to the ones offered before.  The styles are obviously unique, each voice having a moment at center stage before passing the baton to the next person.  The story becomes delightfully absurd, unpredictable and beautiful.  It builds in ways that are impossible without the bolstering of the story before it.  This building and braiding of all of our voices and stories together into one – this is my story, too.   Delightfully absurd, unpredictable and beautiful.

olympic lessons

We are a winter family here – we dig the snow, and the cold, and are more easily put off by the sweltering humidity of summer than the bracing edge of winter.  That said, this winter has tried even our snowman attitudes.  For these reasons, our family has really been filling up on the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.  It’s been hard to peel Grant away from the TV this week and a half.  He’s as caught up in the charisma of it as much as I am, and every free moment he’s been asking to catch up on whatever he may have missed.  His watching habit shows no discrimination – he’s as happy to watch a biathlon event as he is to hold his breath over the dramatic acrobatics of the half pipe or the unpredictability of snowboard cross.  He earnestly chronicles the most recent developments if I happen to miss something while I’m making breakfast or folding laundry.  He eats up the stories of the athletes, and can tell me how many medals someone has won, not just this go ’round, but all previous ones, too.  He’s a details guy, and there are a lot of details here.

It is no surprise to me, though, that his favorite to watch is the same as mine: ski racing.  The heart pounding, edge-of-the-seat anxiety that happens when these athletes hurl themselves down this mountain is pure couch-potato adrenaline.  I grew up skiing, and can conjure up only a muted impression of what this must feel like at these speeds, and this level of difficulty.

Here’s the thing about skiing:  the place where the winning is done is the thin, almost nonexistent line between control and out-of-control.  Hold on too tight and you won’t be fast enough.  You’ll be playing catch up the whole way down.  In order to ski aggressively, in order to throw down a medal worthy run, you have to be willing to risk.  And not just risk losing, but risk it all. Give up too much control, though, and you’re careening into the snow fence, your body twisting unnaturally at unimaginable speeds. The athlete must strain against the free fall and yet give way to the free fall.  For the Olympic athlete, it’s about riding this line.  That’s the sweet spot.

Maybe I’m not so different from an Olympic athlete.  Oh, sure, I’ll never have the physique or muscle tone; I’ll never know the sacrifices.  I’m not anticipating the glory and pride that come from winning for my country, or the devastation and disappointment of losing.  But my search for the sweet spot seems just the same.  I wonder if my life could look more like a ski race.   What if I put off my fears, stopped riding the conservative line, and leaned into the gravity of the mountain?  What if I instead of rigid movements with tight muscles, I relaxed into the fall? What would that even look like?  What if I let go enough to feel that sweet spot?  And what am I willing to risk to find it?

This is the battle for all of those athletes out there competing.  Some of them find it.  Many do not.  A few of these Olympians know the glory of this triumph, the pride of standing on the podium, for their country, and yes, for themselves.  But all Olympians know the risk.  All Olympians know failure and disappointment.  Even the winners.  Because there is no way to become an Olympic athlete without having overcome loss.  These athletes know disappointment, they know injury, they know pressure within, and pressure without.  They know how their heart pumps blood differently through dreams unmet.

Last week, Shaun White took fourth place in the Snowboard Half Pipe event.  A crowd favorite, he may be the best snowboader out there.  But other guys performed better than he did that day and he did not medal.  Grant watched as this was unfolding, and at the end he said “Mom, I’m sad for Shaun White.”  And I think we all were.  But being an Olympian, even an Olympian with two gold medals from previous Olympics, didn’t make Shaun White immune to disappointment, to failure, to heartbreak.  I was glad for Grant to see this.  To see how even the people we look to as the best, the ones who are doing it well, aren’t perfect.  Nobody does it well all the time.  Life is not lived in the sweet spot.

The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia wraps up this weekend.  In the meantime, you’ll find us on our couch, Grant giving us the play-by-play.  And when it’s over, you’re invited to find your sweet spot on our backyard luge course.  And I’m not even kidding.

 

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