Wide Open Spaces

WideSpacesWhen we moved back to the midwest eight months ago we’d hardly dragged our stuff in the door before the whole world disappeared into a blanket of snow, and the temperatures plummeted to double-digits below zero. Friends from our former home in California began texting and calling with questions like: Are you okay? Are you snowed in? Is -30° actually survivable?

No question, it has been an adjustment, but the midwest has been good for my soul. That’s a hard thing to express. When I try and talk about it I find that most people, even the ones who live here (maybe even especially them), stare at me with one of those stares people give when they suddenly realize the person they’re speaking with is dangerously unhinged—that overly-calm, expressionless expression, the one that’s supposed to give the appearance of being unruffled even as they slowly reach into their bag for their pepper spray. No sudden movements.

But I really do love it here.

In the winter the streets go quiet in the heaviest storms. Suddenly, everything is whitewashed, and there’s only the sound of snow lightly settling on everything. The next morning the snow covers every meadow and tree limb, and it sparkles like someone scattered piles of diamonds over everything. Spring is something you experience with anticipation unmatched by anything save Christmas morning as a child. Today, as summer begins a long farewell there are wildflowers in bloom everywhere you look. The cicadas buzz lazily all afternoon. The country roads are littered with four-way stops because the corn is so high you can’t see the car coming from the right or left until they’ve almost t-boned you. There are mornings when you wake to the rumble of thunder and evenings when the fireflies bob in the moonlight.  Fall is on it’s way with the smell of wet leaves and colorful canopies bending over every street. And there are average, ordinary days when you go for a walk and the sky is so big that it takes your breath away.

But there aren’t any mountains. No ocean. There are bugs and humidity, biting cold, and stifling heat.

I still love it. One of the things I’ve learned about myself recently is just how important place is to me. The environment in which I work and play has a profound effect on how I do… everything. And I’m not just talking about a little sunshine lifting my mood. No, it’s far deeper. My best work comes out of me when the gloom is thick and the rain is falling. The smell of clover makes me want to write stories of my childhood. The crispness of an afternoon that isn’t cold but has a bit of a bite to it gives me chills of a different kind, making me want to go to parties, light bonfires, and throw leaves in the air.

Place becomes a part of me. Or to use a tired phrase, it gets under my skin.

So returning to this place, the place that first got under my skin, the environment that had a part in making me who I am, has been surprisingly powerful.

The other day we went to a wedding. The venue was nestled in the middle of acres and acres of gently rolling hills, and white wooden fencing. A little river threaded through it all, and the smell of the wildflowers along its banks hung heavy in the humid air.

Between the ceremony and reception we had a little time to simply socialize and sip at cold cocktails. Our little ones took to exploring since neither of these activities held much promise for them. I watched them as they ran back and forth, forwards and backwards, through a wide open space of emerald green grass. In their wedding-best they ran away from us until they were tiny dots like the little wildflowers that speckled the grass under the distant trees. And then they’d run back, laughing and tumbling and squealing.

As I watched them I took a deep breath and murmured a quiet thank you prayer. This is what I’d missed. Moments like this were soul-shaping for me as a child, and I see the potential for them to be soul-shaping for my children. They didn’t have that opportunity where we were before. They didn’t have these wide open spaces. I didn’t have them. I missed them.

When I am down, when I am stressed, when I am afraid, unsure, insecure, and all the other depths into which my mind and heart sometimes step, the best thing I can do is to go outside and find some wide open space. Just look and breathe.

Wide open spaces are my reset button. And we all need those from time to time.

I’m also an introvert and a homebody, so I often have to drag myself there. I have to work to get there. I could stay inside all day seeing no one and easily convince myself that’s what’s best. But I drag myself into wide open spaces. I roll myself out of bed, stretch my sore muscles, and run in them. I take an evening walk in them. I drive through them. Sometimes I stop the car, get out, and simply stand at the edge of them.

And now they’re all around me, ready for the long-look-taking and scent-filled breathing of them.

I’ve learned to stop taking them for granted.

What about you? What’s the thing that you know is good for you that you still have to make yourself do?  What’s your reset button?

Go do it.

Vacation

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The end of August is upon us. I’m looking forward to welcoming our first midwestern fall in a very long time—chilly days, colored leaves, cider, and all the other wonderful things that make up the 3% of the time when it won’t be miserable and rainy.

And I’m thinking back on our family vacation this summer. I’m just so thankful for that time on the shore of Lake Michigan in a borrowed RV doing… well… nothing.

Sometime in the last few years Karen and I made a realization about how we wanted to vacation. There wasn’t an epiphany or anything, just a subtle shift in the values we held for that precious time.

We stopped planning vacations based solely on what we wanted to do.

We started planning vacations around who we wanted to be.

Entropy is the tendency of things to degrade over time. Webster defines it as a “trend to disorder.” I feel like my whole life is usually trending to disorder. I start each new season, each new year, each new project with high and lofty goals, rhythms, and iron-clad willpower, and bit by bit, as all the other demands crash in, they all wear down to madness, and disorganization, and exhaustion.

Vacation, for us, has become a chance to begin again. More than just a break or a quick recharge, vacation has become an opportunity for us to reinstate all the things that make us the best versions of ourselves.

If you took a look at the itinerary for the week and a half we took this summer you’d be bored to tears. Lots of sitting, reading, walking, Lego-building, writing, ice-cream eating, and on and on with the commonplace. (No, there was not an actual itinerary.) But in all of that we were able to be deeply connected to our kids, to one another, and even to the parts of ourselves we’d begun ignoring. We were able to cement some habits we’d been aching for. We were able just to be.

Our vacation wouldn’t work for everyone. Many of our friends would be batting their brains out or developing nervous ticks while scratching enigmatic symbols into the walls. Those are my friends who are most themselves on the cusp of a grand adventure or in the midst of an unsolvable problem. We all need different things. But for us, we hit the nail on the head this time. I am so grateful for this summer.

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Ferguson: Black and White and Everything In Between

Light AheadThe wail reaches me from the adjoining room as I stand at the sink washing up, and its pitch and intensity rises by the second. Before I can dry my hands and rehang the towel the situation has escalated into tears, five-year-old-boy tears and two-year-old-girl tears. I step into the room to find him on the ground clutching a torn book to his chest, and she is reaching toward him opening and closing her little fists repeatedly. Both of their faces are red-hot with crying and righteous anger, and their mouths let loose galloping screams.

“What just happened?” I shout above the shouting, to little effect.

I am the judge and the jury, a luxury afforded me because, well, I’m in charge, because this little skirmish isn’t my battle, and also because the issue in question is often decidedly black and white. But justice can’t prevail until the bellowing stops! I send them to their corners and wait out the streaming tears and the stuttered gasps of gearing up for the next good sob. There may have been a deep injustice here, but I do my best to reserve my outrage until the full story can be heard, until there is quiet.

For the last several days I’ve been treating the events in Ferguson, Missouri like I treat my children. Continue reading

Solidarity

SolidarityHave you ever watched pole vaulters? Terrifying. What are they thinking using a flexible and (by all appearances) flimsy stick to propel themselves into the air at ridiculous heights? I’m sure a pole vaulter would assure me it’s safe, detailing the technique, and the precautions, and the NASA-designed material the poles are made of, and I would smile and nod my head politely, internally dismissing all of it as nonsense. But it does look exhilarating, the thrill of being catapulted like that. For a few moments your feet leave the domain of mere mortals and you fly through the air, thrown into weightless euphoria.

Food is my pole. The right food can lift me right up and out of whatever funk I’m in.

Depressed? Ice cream.
Frustrated? M&M’s.
Stressed? Snickers.
Just funky? Nearly a whole bag of tortilla chips. No salsa. Salsa just impedes the rapid progress from the bag to my mouth. Continue reading

God Is Good: A Spoken Word

God Is GoodSometimes the only way we get things done is because we have to; not because we’re told we have to, we just have to.

We put it off—whatever the it may be—for as long as we can until we can no longer. The pressure is too much, and the dam bursts. Even then, though, I don’t always find that the water rushes. I have this vision of the dam crumbling and the water gushing into every bit of the low lying land. It doesn’t happen that way very often. Usually, the dam bursts as a little chunk here and a little crack there. The water spurts out in comical sprays, like when you put your thumb over the end of a garden hose.

And these are the hardest kinds of ideas to wrangle. Continue reading

Holy Work

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Like the minute hand on a clock, the movement of time is almost imperceptible. The everyday hums of overhead lights and overheard conversations melt into quiet. I stare. Then my lips turn up a bit at the ends and familiar creases form themselves at the corners of my eyes.

I stand there looking positively idiotic, I’m sure, oblivious to everything that’s not the something right in front of me.

This is what happens when I watch other artists work,  painters in their studios, dancers learning choreography, musicians in rehearsal, directors on set. If there were bleachers set up in the studios of artists I’d have season tickets. I love watching makers make. Continue reading