Early March Thoughts

Hey everyone,

Here’s a little window into the random things I’ve been thinking about lately, accompanied by pieces of art from our local gallery that rocks my world whenever I need a place to drink tea and get lost in art.

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First, I thought I’d start off by mentioning that my lovely and thoughtful husband has joined the WordPress world! Stephen’s new blog is Not With Haste, and I’d definitely recommend checking it out.

His first post was about his word for the year, remember. Both Stephen and I have a deep-rooted desire to live life intentionally; to pursue a full, truthful living far beyond merely existing. I’ve been encouraged a lot this week by the joint work of our words, see and remember, and how together they grow the kind of deep living we ache for. If we don’t remember the gifts and beauty of the past they can’t leave a lasting mark on our present. And if we don’t look closely and see the richness of the present, we will be left with nothing to remember. But if we both see what’s around us and remember what’s gone before, we awaken to fathoms of life, love, and grace waiting to be harvested.

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March has had an unstable start. The weather jumps from inviting to biting every other day, while life indoors has been just as variable. We’ve had surprise visits, friends’ happy news, and long-awaited answers to prayer right alongside learning and chewing on some hard and sad things. Life moves along with its many colors, sometimes blending together in confusing, interesting, yet nonetheless beautiful patterns. It all comes rolled together, and part of living is feeling it all.

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Working at a school has been at once challenging and refreshing. The views and take on life that kids have is so inspiring. Man, do they have insight! I don’t think kids can learn from adults half as much as adults can learn from kids sometimes. The students in my class express such hope and belief unmuddied by adult realism and social expectations. It’s a shame most of us lose that, but it’s incredibly hopeful to see it alive and thriving in these young lights.

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One of my friends expressed a strong desire to throw his phone in the lake. I can relate. Our ability to stay in touch with people far away can be nice, but the distraction from the near and present too greatly affects our thinking and engagement in the life right outside our door.

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Lent is underway, and I’m not really sure what that means to me yet except I’m looking forward to this time of reflection, reconciliation, and spiritual refreshment.

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“You know you are gigantic as the things that you adore.”

Peace,

Rae

What Do You See?

Dear Reader,

Amidst moving, starting a new job, and get settled into normal life, a writing break was bound to happen. If I resolved to write more this year, we’ll just ignore that small detail and move forward.

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The Northland is the most refreshing and tranquil refuge, and I can’t imagine a better place to refocus on what’s most important. Even up here, though, it’s sometimes hard to escape the endless barrage of indignation and negativity that’s clutching our world today. Whether as old as humanity or a quirk of our current times, it’s plain that controversy reigns as king of our world, and many (if not most) give him too much control over our daily lives. We can become nearly addicted to feelings of indignation, frustration, and anger, even when (or especially when) caused by issues completely out of our control. I think of all the cynical, mocking, and snarky articles that appear daily on social media—from all sides of the spectrum—and wonder at how much all of us are continually feeding ourselves a sickening diet of this tension and strife.

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What we choose to see affects our thoughts, behaviors, and reality. I’m not denouncing critical thinking, or suggesting that we turn a blind eye and give our silence to all injustice in the world. But I do think that life is ripe with a peace, contentedness, and grace we could be reaping that gets silenced under the never-ending noise of news, politics, and the Internet, even though we were created and redeemed for so much more than the squabblings of this world.

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For the last several years, my dad has had an idea or challenge to pick a word as the theme for your year. It can be anything, but usually reflects a value you want to live by for the coming year. There wasn’t a specific term that jumped to my mind this time as in years previously, but as I kept driving to work and noticing how the lake never looks the same each day, or how bright the stars shine above our house, or how the sunlight strikes the tops of the birch trees in the mornings, it came to my attention just how much there is in life to see.

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Growing up Orthodox, I learned to see all of life as a sacrament, or an interaction with the divine presence of God. Nothing happens apart from the presence of God, for he is everywhere, and in his creativity even the most mundane actions can be a means of relating to him. Watching the sunset is a chance to relate to God, for he created the light and clouds and beauty itself. Walking hand in hand with my husband is a chance to experience God and remember that he is the source of all love and relationship. Even breathing is relating to God, for it is in him that we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).

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This is a beautiful way to see life, really, but is hard to do when we choose not to look, or really don’t expect to see God everywhere. Even when his radiant, life-giving presence is right in front of our eyes, we spend so much time looking away from it and feeding the temptation to look to the issues and anger and frustration of this world. But the beauty of God and his kingdom isn’t something we have to wait to see once the dust settles; the presence of God is here and now.

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And so, born out of a desire to awaken to the nearness of God, my word for the year is see. See, because there is so much to be seen. See, because I want to remember where to direct my eyes. See, because seeing yields a rich, joy-filled gratitude I want my life to be full of (Luke 1:49). See, because in this stunning corner of the earth there is so much to drink in. See, because God wants to be seen.

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So begins the journey of this year. Perhaps you can pick out your own word for the year, or challenge yourself to a week of putting away social media and other sources of frustration and use the extra time to slow down and really notice and appreciate the gifts and presence of God around you.

What we choose to see is powerful. Choose well.

Love,

Rae

p.s. I’ve been getting folksy with Cloud Cult lately, one of my better decisions.

When Christmas Doesn’t Feel Like Christmas

Dear Reader,

It happened last week. I was sitting at home on an otherwise quiet day. Everything was mostly fine, and I, the unsuspecting person, wasn’t prepared for what was about to happen. A new and outlandish thought popped into my head: I hate Christmas.

Even writing that now seems weird. Was it really me who had that thought? Yes. As much as it pains me to admit it, I had the very real thought of hating Christmas this year. Multiple times.

Now I’m not saying I dislike what Christmas means, or am bothered by other people enjoying it to the full, as I hope people do. But I’m discovering that this season of celebration can be especially difficult when you’re feeling a whole lot less than merry and bright.

When we went to Nepal, I got quite sick. Not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. The parasite I had is known to cause anxiety and depression, and combining that with the stressful situation there and getting re-adjusted to life in America has not been pretty. And when life around you is filled with parties you just can’t find the energy to attend and festivity that you think should make you happy but doesn’t, Christmas becomes a foil to display your struggles more prominently.

Yesterday, one of my relatives shared a post encouraging those who had “life happen” this year. In her post, she shared a reminder that the first Christmas involved a few people far from home with nothing to show except their trust in God. For someone who’s felt disconnected to everything Christmas this year, that struck a chord with me. I went back to the story of the first Christmas, which I hadn’t really thought about in a long time, and began to ponder it some. And in doing so, I discovered the Christmas story for someone like me going through hard things.

The First Christmas Didn’t Feel Like Christmas

To be honest, it’s hard to relate to the story of Mary and Joseph’s travels when you’re sitting in a cozy living room stuffed with cookies and surrounded by a pile of presents. When hardship is miles away from you, the story of Christ’s birth becomes one of those traditions you listen to for a few minutes a year and then promptly forget about in the fog of busy December. But when you’re feeling down and or like everything is different, you begin to see some familiar themes that you can relate to.

Mary and Joseph weren’t the golden couple of Nazareth.

In fact, they were probably the center of the town’s gossip. In the time when Christ was born, to be pregnant outside of marriage was not only a scandal, but something worthy of capital punishment. Mary knew she was putting her life in danger and making herself an outcast by agreeing to have Jesus. When Joseph decided to not break off the relationship he knew he was signing up to be at the center of controversy.

If you’re someone like me who has ever felt like you’re living under a microscope and having every decision questioned, or feel shut out and not accepted, or have been at the center of gossip, take heart. Jesus’s parents weren’t perfect, well-loved people. They were outcasts dealing with drama and experiencing all those feelings too as they followed what they knew was right.

The first Christmas was tough.

Mary and Joseph were far from home. There were no trees or lights or presents (the wise men probably didn’t arrive until a year later). There were no family or friends to wish Mary and Joseph well (if they still had friends and family who wanted to speak to them). There was nobody to help them or give them encouragement as they faced such a major life change as having a child. Their journey together might have been awkward—dating and marrying your best friend wasn’t the norm back then, and Mary and Joseph may not have really known each other as they began their journey. Not to mention that after the birth they would have to run away to a foreign country because the king wanted to kill their new son.

I don’t think anyone would describe these circumstances as the ideal Christmas. We picture Christmas as this golden time where everything falls together in perfect joy and synchronization. We can see it through almost a fairy-tale lens of childhood memories and laughter. So when things change and “life happens” and Christmas is less than magical, it can hit hard.

As someone who’s going through some tough things and big changes this Christmas, it helps me to remember that the first Christmas—the most important one—was no rosy fairy tale. Rather, it was a grueling, rough time of change. But it was during that time that joy was found, not the joy of having the best presents or party, but the joy of finding a ray of hope in the darkness.

The first Christmas was hopeful.

It was in a smelly cave where two uncertain people were journeying that God appeared in the flesh. It was in the midst of darkness and loneliness that God first showed his face. It was on that first difficult Christmas that hope truly appeared.

Perhaps this Christmas doesn’t feel like Christmas to you. Maybe you’ve moved to a new place that doesn’t feel like home yet. Or you’re working in a police station or emergency room while your family is celebrating together. Maybe a family member passed away this year and this will be the first Christmas without them. Perhaps you will spend your Christmas in a hospital visiting a loved one, or you yourself are too sick to fully enjoy this time of year like you’d want to.

Whatever it is, you are not alone. If you’re facing challenging times, then Christmas is for you. It doesn’t have to look like it did before. You don’t have to scramble to get your act together by the 25th because life happened to you. Christmas isn’t so much about conjuring a certain mood or atmosphere or keeping alive a tradition as it is about embracing hope in our darkest times, and knowing that even in the wild turns of life, we might find a sliver of Light.

Merry Christmas.

Love,

Rae

Winter’s Hands

Mending the frost by building a fire

Hauling another storm’s snow

Wrapping the littles in bundles of coat

Keeping the bite from their toes

 

Hauling up boxes, unraveling lights

Wrestling a tree into place

Baking and buying the gift that’s just right

Extending new patience and grace

 

Ringing bells and giving well

Offering a shopper a hand

Tying a blanket for the kid who has none

And holding a door when you can

 

Stopping and pulling and making a call

For the stranger who’s gone off the road

Small town life, you give and you take

We’re all for sharing the load

 

Summers we drive and autumns we thrive

In colors and smells and in sounds

Springtime we bask and soak in the light

And dance in the new warmth we’ve found

 

But winter we give, and winter we show

The love that we often forget

It’s not the dark and it’s not the cold

But what we do in the face of it

Nature Helps

Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life. Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” -Rachel Carson

Dear Reader,

This last weekend was Grand Marais’s Wintering Festival, a time where the community gathers together to celebrate the longest season of the year. For those who, like me, have had lifelong overdoses of winter grumbling, seeing the people come together in excitement to celebrate the love of this snowy season was so refreshing. With impeccable timing the first winter storm of the year decided to arrive last weekend too, bringing a fresh new covering to the woods and hills. Walking at twilight through the silent forest paths and observing the snow’s ethereal glow in the dusky light brings a peace and wonder to eradicate all traces of the day’s troubles. Winter is a magical season in the northland.

The Rachel Carson quote I shared was one I heard on Saturday at a presentation by Dave and Amy Freeman, a couple who spent an entire year exploring the Boundary Waters to appreciate the wilderness and raise awareness about proposed sulfide-ore copper mines near the Boundary Waters, which would contaminate its lakes and rivers. Their stories and photos were remarkable, but what stood out most to me was the peace and reverence with which they spoke about their experiences. A short walk in the woods or a quarter hour spent on Superior’s shores brings such refreshment—how much would a year in the wilderness change the way one views and responds to things, the pace of life, or the focus on what’s important.

Though I don’t have a whole year to spend in the wilderness, I’m trying to gather little bits of nature’s healing during this month: a glimpse of sea, a flash of stars, a short jaunt among the trees. During this time of transitioning, getting our bearings, and planning our next steps, being surrounded by such beauty and silence as there is here has been most enriching and vitalizing. Even though life feels stuck in almosts right now—almost settled, almost home, almost at peace, almost happy—there is comfort in knowing that just as night will give way to morning, so this time of almosts will give way to a time of fullness. And just as the hills and lake and rocks stand strong and constant, so can a constant trust and serenity be found even when everything else seems to be changing.

If you want to find out more about the Freemans and their mission or learn about America’s most visited wilderness, I’d recommend checking out this link:

https://www.savetheboundarywaters.org/

All the best,

Rae

Remembering Paris, A Year Later

3 a.m., November 14, 2015. A suburb of Paris.

A piercing sound jolts me awake. It’s dark, and too early for an alarm. What is that sound? Groping around in the dark with 3 a.m. cognitive capacity, I finally find Stephen’s wailing phone. “What the…”

A device locator alarm has been activated. Turning it off, I find our phones flooded with notifications of every kind: voicemails, messages, emails. All of them ask if we are okay, if we are alive. This is unexpected. If we are okay? A knot begins to form in my stomach. I open the BBC news homepage, and there the horrible truth of what had happened comes hurtling at me. The darkness is overwhelming. “Can you turn on the light?”

A light comes on, and my eyes ache. I explain to Stephen that a terrorist attack had happened in Paris, the very city we were visiting. I send a hasty reassurance to everyone who had messaged me, mind whirring and heart pounding as I try and fail to make sense of it all. An attack? How could this happen? How did it happen? How bad was it? I read and re-read the early reports but they have little details. A message comes in from my brother, saying that he had used my Google account to set off my phone’s alarm. I set the phone down again.

My heart continues to sprint and the knot in my stomach tightens. I hear a faint sound downstairs and jump violently. The shadows of the tree branches outside give me goosebumps. We should turn the light off again to try to sleep, but I don’t want to. Maybe we’ll just sleep with it on.

4 a.m.

“Are you still awake?”

Sleeping is futile. How can one calm the mind enough to rest at such a time?

I keep thinking of the dissonance between the news we received and how ordinary life had been that day. How could a day so normal bring about a night so tragic? I had sat outside a sunny café in the very neighborhoods where the tragedy would later happen, drinking coffee without a care in the world. The Christmas market had been so bright, so lighthearted. I had bought a fuzzy scarf. I watched a young bride and groom get pictures by a fountain. The Eiffel tower sparkled in joy. How was it possible for all of that to happen so freely and then be shattered so suddenly only a few hours later? It doesn’t make sense, I can’t make it make sense.

I turn over, unable to wrestle with the complicated, repulsive feelings welling up inside of me. The light comes on. We read Narnia until the early hours of dawn. I fall asleep breathing thanks that we had been tired and took the early train back home.

12 p.m.

Heartbroken faces, dismayed thoughts, comforting gestures.

Our host family shares the sadness with us. The house fills as friends and family members come from Paris to stay in this safe, quiet suburb. A radio offers a constant stream of updates. At least 100 people have been killed, maybe more. The borders are closed, and we are not to go into the city. Our host makes brunch.

Upstairs, I watch the neighbors from our room’s window. An older gentleman works at taking a French flag out of a bag. A neighbor bikes by. They chat a little, and then together raise the flag by the side of the house.

4 p.m.

We get a message from the next host we are planning to stay with in Versailles. He writes that we are welcome at any time we need to come, and that he won’t let such acts of hate ruin his family’s love and hospitality. Later we will learn that one of his coworkers survived the Bataclan, despite being shot in the forearm.

Monday, November 16

We go back into the Paris city center. In the spirit of our future host, we won’t let the hateful actions of a few ruin our few days here with fear.

Guards are everywhere, and the sky is gray. We watch a group of police question a man sitting in a park. Slowly we meander to the Eiffel Tower. It is closed, but we stroll around the park area and have a picnic of bread, cheese, and cold clementines. It’s too quiet for such a world-famous landmark as this, but we eat our lunch in gratitude for the simple fact that we are able to do so.

We are finishing our snacks when a strange sight catches our eye. Across the green two men in suits and ties stand around a strange contraption. Part of it is certainly a bike. The other part looks like a trailer hitch connected to a beat-up grand piano and bench. What?

I watch as one of the men gets on the bike and starts pedaling. The piano and bench follow. We start laughing. “Let’s get a picture!” We get up and follow to document this bizarre sight. As we walk, the cyclist slows to a stop and the other man takes a seat on the bench. They begin to take off again. We follow, and the pianist commences the steady, thoughtful chords of John Lennon’s Imagine.

We’re no longer laughing. As the music begins to fill the park, people look up from their conversations and lunches. Smiles, but not of amusement, begin to grow on downcast faces. I don’t know whether to smile or cry. They continue to travel and play under the gray skies. Imagine all the people living life in peace…

The song ends, and we stand in reverence at their…hope? resilience? love? It doesn’t matter the term. Whatever it was it was moving, powerful. They had the healing gift of music and were sharing it in the city where it was most needed.

As they roll away they begin another song. I watch them as they leave the park, moving peacefully onward to share Let It Be with the next block.