When Life Is Aflame With Hard Things — Ashes

It’s enough to make a woman give up traveling.

A month ago, during a much-anticipated trip to Nashville, TN, to spend the weekend with our four sons, I wound up languishing for 24 hours in a hospital with cardiac issues.

Fast-forward to last week’s long-awaited trip to Chicago for the Moody Bible College Founders Week –– where I gracefully tripped down the steps of the shuttle bus and landed in an ambulance headed to a local hospital. The arm that got tangled in a railing during my descent was fortunately not broken or dislocated, though it dangled weakly at my side for the next 24 hours.

In between those two trips, my husband and I journeyed five hours one-way to gather up some furniture our oldest son won’t be needing for a couple of months so that we can store it at our farm. On the way home, full with emotion over our son’s circumstances and my recent brush with mortality (“You only have one heart” were words the doctor used to convince me to be admitted and monitored under protest), I had a meltdown.

A pity party in the cab of a pick-up truck is not a pretty site.

Like I said, maybe this woman shouldn’t travel.

On the back side of those three incidents, I prayed for a way to make sense of it all. Then I heard these words from author and blogger Ann Voskamp at Moody Bible College, the morning after I fell out of the bus:

“Ashes are the best soil for life. Do not be afraid of ashes.”

The hospital visits, the son who’s picking up the pieces from a failed marriage, the dear friend who’s living with a debilitating disease, my own perceived failures as a wife and mother.

Ashes. All of it.

When life is aflame with hard things, when hopes and dreams and plans crumble before our eyes, we find ourselves sifting through ashes. Voskamp pointed out in her talk at Moody, ashes add nutrients to soil, promoting growth.

I’ve got some growing to do. Don’t we all?  What if my handful of ashes can actually help me grow stronger and wiser? What if, in the ash heap, I send down deeper roots and pull myself up to dig deeper into God’s word for sense and sustenance.

Life is going to bring hard things. It just is. We’ll probably always find we are “less than” when our circumstances call for “more than.”

God’s economy means the hard things in our lives aren’t wasted. They are redeemed by Him, the Master Redeemer, the One who gives ashes the power to bring new life.

We can’t stop living just because we take a tumble, or because of a new diagnosis or a loved one’s heartache.  Fear shouldn’t cause us to quit loving and caring and opening our arms. Or traveling to places where maybe hard stuff waits. Because there are no guarantees that it will all be easy, or that things will go the way we want.

The only guarantee is that God will be with us in the hard stuff. And, He makes beauty from ashes.



The Magic of Tidying Up and Making Plans

Winter has settled in the valley and, like many of you, I’m focusing on indoor projects while waiting for warm weather to return.

IMG_0665I spent a recent productive Saturday morning cleaning kitchen cupboards, particularly the baking  and spice cupboard. Old spices and other ingredients were discarded, shelves were cleaned, containers labeled and everything was rearranged.

When my husband came indoors at lunch time, he couldn’t readily see how I’d spent the morning, so I proudly showed him the cupboard. He wasn’t impressed, but I can barely describe the satisfaction I derived from that one task.

My kitchen cleaning project is a start in what I hope will become a major effort at “tidying up.” I’ve been inspired in this mission by theThe-Life-Changing-Magic-of-Tidying-Up-718x1024 New York Times #1 Best Seller “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”. A friend brought it to my attention recently and I immediately dropped it into my Amazon cart. When I mentioned the book to my brood of Millenial Men, a couple of them knew exactly what I was talking about. It seems the book has developed a bit of a cult following. The author, Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo, has been referred to as a “guru of tidiness, a warrior princess in the war on clutter.” (The London Times)

Her method is to tidy by category, rather than room-by-room or little-by-little. My category for this recent cleaning binge was “food”. The fridge also got purged and other cupboards are now nearly bare (we do have food, just not old, unhealthy or unwanted food).

This endeavor is just the beginning because I seek a radical change in our home environment, and perhaps in our lives. From the chapter titled “The Magic of Tidying Dramatically Transforms Your Life”:

“…through this process, people come to know contentment. After tidying, many clients tell me that their worldly desires have decreased…..they felt that they had everything they needed.”

My next tidying up categories are “books” and “clothes”. Considering those are two prime obsessions, we’ll see how that goes.


“The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

This anglicized quote from the Robert Burns poem “To a Mouse” came to mind this week as I sat with a dear friend making plans for a February trip.

My friend is living with ALS and each day presents a new challenge for her. She is a doer and a planner by nature, so it’s hard for her to admit that she’s not sure what, if anything, she can realistically plan to do in the coming year. But we agreed, planning to go with a few other friends to Founders Week at Moody Bible College in February is important. It’s been a long-standing tradition and a life-changing experience and one we don’t intend to miss.

The Moody choir performing at Founders' Week 2015
The Moody choir performing at Founders’ Week 2015

Our conversation turned to the reality that none of us holds a guarantee that we will see our plans come to fruition. At any moment, all our earthly plans can be halted by illness, circumstance, even the Farmer’s plough (poor mouse).

So, we plan because (so says Benjamin Franklin) “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail”. And because, just as in tidying up, planning begets its own life-changing magic. Making plans is choosing hope over despair, possibility over fear.

Making plans is choosing hope over despair, possibility over fear. Click To Tweet

My friend is a gardener, and she’s decided to make plans for the next growing season. When we return from Chicago, she’s going to plant some seeds, under lights in her house and in the little greenhouse she’s built near her gardens. In the spring, she’ll put her seedlings in the ground. I can already taste the harvest of heirloom peppers, tomatoes and beans that we’ll be enjoying come summer.



Words: On Fear, Contentment and Life

I’ve yet to meet anyone who is totally confident in their abilities as a “creative”. Whether it’s painting, making music, designing living spaces, creating a great meal or writing, every creative individual I know faces a moment of fear (perhaps many of them) when they think that maybe they don’t have what it takes.

I’ve offered a guest post on the blog at Breathe Christian Writers website about a time I nearly let the darkness of doubt overwhelm me.

Even in the stark cold of winter, we find little gifts of color. Harvested on my Christmas Day walk in the valley.
Even in the stark cold of winter, we find little gifts of color. Harvested on my Christmas Day walk in the valley.

During the Christmas season, I came across a short essay by a writing friend that gave me a focus for the coming year. I wasn’t searching for one and had even sworn off the “My One Word” tradition, but her simple yet profound piece gave me encouragement and pause. She spoke words that I purpose to live out in 2016, and beyond:

“allow it”

My friend shares that she was struck by the simplicity of this submissive statement and the attitude it implies: “a consent of both heart and mind. ‘Allow it’ and relax. No bracing, straining, plotting to change or avoid.” (I’ll send you to Nancy Nordenson’s lovely blog to read the rest of her words here. )

For me, those words are a passageway to contentment. How often do I strain against what I cannot change or plot to influence situations or people it’s not my business to change?

The Merriam Webster definition of contentment is “the state of being happy and satisfied”. When things do not go my way or when people in my life cause discouragement, choosing to simply allow it in both my heart and my mind can only be healthy for me — in body and spirit.

And ultimately, I think this one choice will save time as I refrain from the unproductive habit of fretting and stewing.

It will take practice, but I’m claiming “allow it” as my resolution, my intention, my mantra and my one word (okay, two) for 2016.


Finally, because I love sharing good things, I want to direct you to one more website and blog. A writer I met in October has shared an important season in her life in the beautiful book “So Many Africas: Six Years in a Zambian Village”. Jill Kandel’s award-winning memoir takes you to a country and on a journey most will never experience, but which may shed light on periods of struggle and growth in your own life.

Jill’s beautifully written account of her life in Zambia lingers in my mind long after I’ve passed her book on for others to read. I’m expecting to read it again.

Jill’s work has been featured in numerous periodicals and anthologies (both print and online). You can get a taste of her multi-cultural life in and around Fargo, North Dakota, by visiting her website www.jillkandel.com.


Exercising My Creativity with a Bullet Journal (and Getting Organized in the Process)

When a girl with a lifelong passion for pen and paper collides with a fun and practical way to use said pen and paper, a new hobby is born.

A week into it, and I can see that keeping a Bullet Journal (BuJo to the growing number of enthusiasts) will become more than a hobby. If I use it right, it could be a major tool in my quest to live more intentionally.

The Bullet Journal concept has been around for a few years. Developed and promoted by entrepreneur Ryder Carroll, the standard BuJo is simply a small notebook, such as a Moleskine, with dotted graph pages rather than lines. The pages are set up with monthly and daily plans and logs, along with lists. The idea is to contain all our many notes, lists and planners in one convenient location.

Ryder’s BuJo looks like something a guy would design and use.  Practical, but a little boring.


Enter the female version of BuJo (this one by blogger Boho Berry).


I discovered the BuJo through my online friend Plaid Fuzz, a blogger from South Dakota who is a fellow planner fanatic. She pointed me to BoHo Berry. I caught their excitement and was inspired by their journals. After a little research, I decided it might be the tool for me.

It turns out I’m not alone. There are online communities and Facebook walls where thousands of BuJo fans share ideas, prompts and new products.

I love color, so my BuJo will have colorful accents throughout. I’m also adding inspirational quotes, scripture and art. The best aspects of planning and journaling by this method are that it is flexible and personal. In the pages where I’m planning and journaling for January, I’m inserting lists and goals that can be referenced or repeated throughout the year — whatever I decide I need as the year unfolds. The format of my planner/journal pages also can change if what I’ve designed at the beginning isn’t working for me in, say, June.

Of course, to get the greatest benefit from my BuJo, I’ll have to actually USE it — to record plans and thoughts, as well as to track progress on things like reading, writing, and developing healthy lifestyle habits.

I’ve purposed to live more intentionally in the past, but never had a tool to hold me accountable and to visualize my progress. I think the BuJo just might work for me.

Besides, it’s fun!

Here’s a tour of my very first BuJo.

This is a Leuchtturm1917 (ordered on Amazon) in lovely orange! I’m still settling on which pens work best, but I love the vivid color of the Pilot G2. I’m also using colored pencils.
Highlighting my “life verse” seemed to be the perfect way to begin the year. The picture on the right is covering a major “flub”, but I really love it. Snatched from an old day journal I couldn’t bear to discard and secured with decorative tape.
Goals for the year and an annual calendar. “Allow It” are my words for the year (more on that in a future blog).
A couple of lists (also called collections) will replace the many lists I make and lose almost every week! Again, part of my quest to become more intentional.
I’ve created a 3-month planning calendar, followed by this daily journal. I think next month I’ll insert a monthly calendar between the two. We’ll see. The “dailies” will also evolve, I think.
Because I follow and appreciate the blogger/author Ann Voskamp, I’m inserting a couple of her downloadable graphics for inspiration and beauty. I’ll keep my “gratitude log” in my BuJo and I’m working on things I “purpose” to do in 2016. You can find her lovely free illustrations @aholyexperience.com

So, there you have it. I’m also tracking some healthy habits, giving myself a space to “brain dump” and at the end of the month I expect to journal the highlights of the month, as well as plans for February. I realize that as I’m posting photos from my BuJo, I’m also letting you into my personal world a little bit. I know you’ll treat me with kindness and respect.

What If Christians Got It Right When They Got It Wrong?

Nothing’s as it should be in my world today. It’s raining when it should be snowing. The house is quiet and the day is dark; there should be laughter and light. It’s almost Christmas, after all!

Everything’s wrong. Yet, somehow it’s right.

The darkest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere comes days before Christians (and even those who don’t believe) pause to celebrate the human birth of the One who sheds light on everything.

We celebrate, but the truth is, maybe we’ve got it all wrong.

What if second century historians were right and Jesus wasn’t born in mid-winter, in a stable?  What if, as their writings show, Christ’s birth came in early spring and it would be months, maybe years before shepherds and magi found their way to the King of the Jews?

What if, by stringing lights and decorations on evergreen, we’re following in the footsteps of a long line of Egyptian and Roman pagans who worshipped trees in celebration of prosperity and eternal life? Or we’re carrying on the European tradition of marking the winter solstice with rituals designed to keep away evil spirits and to show hope for the coming Spring?

What if Christian reformist Martin Luther had never taken that Christmas Eve walk 500 years ago and been struck by the beauty of snow sparkling on evergreen in the moonlight — so much so that he cut one down and set it up in his home to share the beauty with his children?

What if?

While I wait in this darkest of days for the celebration of Light, there is a “rightness” in the timing and the tradition of Christmas. Not in all the shopping or in the banning of live Nativities or the political correctness of “Happy Holidays”, but in the reality that as Americans living in a nation founded on Biblical principals, we begin the long journey toward Spring and the Resurrection by settling into the legend of a quiet birth on a shepherd’s hill following the longest night of the year.

Two thousand years of waiting to decode the mystery of Christ’s birth bring us to the simple truth that we need this tradition, this story as much as ever. Because, what if we got it right?

C. W. E. Dietrich (1712–1774)

The House of Christmas

By G.K. Chesterton

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost – how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky’s dome.

This world is wild as an old wives’ tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.






When What You Need is a Facelift

I caught sight of my reflection in the mirror as I passed by recently and I did a double-take. Who is that woman, the one with the glum expression, the drooping face, the sad eyes?

Taking stock of the image most people see when I’m not “on”, when I’m lost in myself, I was struck by how much of my inner condition is reflected in the expression I bear — and how little joy.

I am normally a happy person. In fact, some have accused me of being a Pollyanna (an excessively cheerful or optimistic person according to Oxford Dictionaries).

So why so glum?

There have been trials, disappointments, heartaches and pain throughout the past year. Just like many of you, I’ve soldiered on, making the best of bad situations, looking on the sunny side. But I’ve carried them in my heart, and they’re showing in my countenance.

Have there not also been joy and happiness in the past year? Yes! Why do they not show up in my “resting” face.

I realize that more often than not, I’ve let happiness roll off my back because it’s burdened with sorrow. I’ve taken my eyes off joy because I’ve been focused on the path I’m walking.

An old English proverb says the eyes are a window to the soul. Yet another contemplative says the soul is the window.

I believe both are true. It’s there in my eyes. And, if you looked into my soul, you would be looking into my life, into all the events that have brought me to this day, this place, this season.

What Matthew and Luke say in their gospels might come closer to the truth:

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light.”

Where we put our focus will illuminate the whole of our being. If I continually draw darkness into my sight, it will show in my countenance.

Advent is as good a time as any to ponder the many ways God has shown me and those I love favor, not just in the past year but throughout time — and, yes, even through the difficulties that are just part of life.

I need a facelift. The truest, most inexpensive way I can think of to accomplish that is to shed some light on this admonition from the Apostle Paul, written 2,000 years ago to the residents of Philippi (and to you and me):

“….whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

And smile.


Speaking of smiles, I participated in customer service training at Great Lake Chocolate and Coffee last week. It was fun learning more about the company I work for, about chocolate and coffee, and about people.

What's Brewing- Blog badge. (2)Here’s my latest “Observation from the Coffee Shop” — our customers want a smile with their coffee. Our GLCC trainer Strawberry (yes, that IS her name) helped us learn there are four things customers should receive along with their Peppermint Mocha:

Smiles, Acknowledgement, Genuine Care, Knowledge

And don’t we all want this, not just when we get coffee, but every day we put ourselves out there in this big, cold world. Serve me up a smile and a hearty “hello”, ask me how my day is going and send me on my way with confidence that you know what you’re doing, and I’ll be back for more.




Giving Thanks for Family Stories

There’s still turkey in the fridge, but Thanksgiving has officially given way to Christmas. I’ve done some cyber-shopping and boxes of ornaments and lights will be opened so the halls can be decked some time this week.

But until then, I’m lingering over memories of Thanksgiving.

For as long as I can remember, we’ve piled our turkey, sweet potatoes and stuffing on creamy gold-rimmed, rose-covered china. This year was no different. The beautiful dishes decorated with pink and yellow petals came into my safe-keeping several years ago, along with the cherry china cabinet that has always held the china and the box of silver. When Mom was finished hosting Thanksgiving dinners, the tradition and the china became my responsibility.

dishes sink


As I hand-washed the china and stemware last Friday, placing it carefully back on the shelves, I thought about the great affection Mom has for these priceless family heirlooms. For her, and now for all of us, the plates and cups represent more than a home-cooked meal. They speak of the love of an older brother.

Mom’s brother, my Uncle Bill, served with the United States Army and was stationed in Germany during World War II. Always fond of nice things, he used his military paycheck to purchase a full set of Wild Rose Limoges China, replete with 22-karat gold edging, at some point during his service to our country. He also bought new furniture for his parents and younger sister and surprised them with the gifts when he returned to his home in Chicago.

Asked about the china again this year, Mom willingly shared that it came from Uncle Bill. And then, she surprised us with a new nugget of information — Uncle Bill served under the famous General George Patton. My sons, her grandsons, know the name Patton from their history books and they were duly impressed. Their great-uncle was a WWII veteran and he served under Patton.

Uncle Bill passed away almost two years ago. The summer after he died, I took my parents to Bill’s house in a Chicago suburb so they could spend the day with his widow. Mom stood in her brother’s tiny office, surrounded by all the little pieces of art he collected and enjoyed. Pieces of a beloved brother who appreciated beauty.

Mom still misses her brother and continues to call his widow every Sunday night. This Thanksgiving, gathered around a table in our farmhouse, the feasting was made sweeter with the shared story of a soldier and his love for his family.

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” Philip Pullman, British author

Bless your family. Tell them stories.




New Neighbors and a Change in the Landscape

When I stand on my front porch, I can’t see a single house. Trees, soybeans and corn stubble populate the landscape. I like it that way.

But around the curve to the north, there’s lots of activity. I have new neighbors.

A small dairy farm up the road has been sold to an Amish family. Earlier in the week, with a light drizzle wetting my car windshield, I saw the lady of the house optimistically hanging laundry on the clothesline outside her back door. I’m used to seeing Amish dresses, trousers and solid-colored shirts waving in the breeze as I drive through my rural county, but I wondered at her choice to taunt the weatherman.

In the farm’s pasture, beautiful brown and tan Haflinger horses graze peacefully. On the other side of the barn and house, sheep gather around a feeder. Both are a welcomed new sight on my trips to town.

Further north, sows and their litters have moved into the neighborhood. An industrious livestock farmer recently purchased the empty pasture beyond the Amish farm. He is expanding his hog operation. Little metal Quonsets dot the field and wend their way into the woods. I know some of these pigs will show up on the menu at high-class Chicago restaurants, along with the organic, free-range poultry the farmer raises. For now, I count the hogs among my new neighbors.



Stay in one place long enough and there are bound to be changes. Most, like new neighbors, are pleasant and welcomed.

But sometimes, change comes unbidden, heralding a shift in the status quo that threatens to rock my world. How I respond to change that’s unsettling is actually more significant than the change itself.

Being unsettled isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s awfully easy to get comfortable — in a rut, so to speak. Doing the same thing the same way again and again doesn’t challenge my creativity or cause me to think outside the box. But throw me a curve ball, and I just might learn a new skill or gain a fresh perspective.

Being unsettled isn't necessarily a bad thing. Click To Tweet

I’ve been given some new responsibilities lately, asked to do a few things in a different way. Just when everything seemed to be running smoothly — in my job, in my church, among friends, with my kids — it appears there are changes afoot.

It’s been disconcerting. In some ways, a little painful. But mostly, its just been different.

So what do I do with that? I think I’ll roll with it, because if I accept the shift in my personal landscape, I might begin to see things with fresh eyes.

Besides, experience has taught me that to resist change means I might also slam the door on something really interesting or exciting, something with the potential to enrich my world and cause me to grow as a person.

Even when it comes to welcoming new neighbors. The reality is that as much as I’m enjoying the horses, sheep and hogs I pass in my travels, the aroma they contribute to our neighborhood reminds me that I live in the middle of farm country. You can’t have one without the other.

I guess every change has both pluses and minuses. I’d rather look for the opportunities than count the inconveniences.






What’s Brewing? On Hipsters, Conservatives and the Power of Coffee

What's Brewing- Blog badge. (2)Coffee’s just coffee — right? Maybe.

I spent the weekend in Nashville, Tennessee recently, visiting three of our four sons. Yes, all three left Indiana to live in that great little city to the south and I love going there. Nashville has a unique flavor that has very little to do with country music. There’s just this wonderful creative vibe that really does vibrate from the riverfront, down Broadway, through the Batman building (look it up) and out into east and west Nashville.

Every time we visit Nashville, I try to convince my sons to take me somewhere new. This time, however, I was there just to see them and our only trips outside their neighborhood were to Target, a book store, a couple of thrift stores, favorite restaurants, a dog park and a couple of coffee shops.

Coffee shops. I love them. I work in one. Let me catch a whiff of a new coffee house brew and my barista antennae go up.

Two of the guys aren’t coffee drinkers, but on Saturday afternoon, I convinced my youngest (a college student who sometimes resorts to coffee) to stop with me at Headquarters, a quaint shop I visit whenever I’m in the city. There, I got a stout, highly-caffeinated pour that lasted me well into the evening, and was even better later over ice. Nice.

On my second morning in the city, I headed down the road to the nearest spot for really good coffee — Star Bagel on Murphy Road. I was hopeful, but it was Sunday morning and the place was packed. Young couples with kids in tow, single professionals carrying laptops or books, neighborhood regulars in jogging clothes or with a dog on a leash — all of them had already queued up for their morning java and bagel.

It looked like a long wait, so I drove further down Murphy Road toward a coffee shop I’d spotted earlier.  Dose Coffee and Tea is in a corner strip mall right by the interstate. It was busy enough, but looked more promising than Star. My patience was rewarded with a fine vanilla latte (half the syrup) and a delicious gluten-free cinnamon scone (and a banana).

Early Monday morning, as I pointed myself north for the journey back to Indiana, I swung by Star Bagel again and this time, I came away with tall dark roast and a gluten-free lemon blueberry muffin. Perfect.

So, what did I learn on my coffee shop tour of Sylvan Heights in East Nashville? Location is everything and coffee-drinking folks of a certain stripe tend to congregate where they’ll find their tribe. You can learn a lot about human nature just hanging out in a coffee shop.

Headquarters is a quiet, hip joint, squeezed into what was once an alleyway with just a few tables, an exposed brick wall and outdoor seating off the back stoop. I get the feeling I’m invading someone else’s space when I walk in the front door and I stand out like the out-of-towner I am. It’s usually not very busy and the service is good. I just don’t hang around very long.

Dose is definitely a hipster watering hole and, if I’d taken a poll, I’m betting most of the clientele would like to see a certain 74-year-old gray-haired Socialist in the White House.

Star Bagel on a Monday morning was an entirely different shop than on the weekend. The young professionals and families were replaced by tables of graying regulars or plugged-in students. Standing in line to place my order, I heard this opening line in a conversation between a retired couple and a dark-suited businessman.

“Rick, Ben Carson needs your help.”

The older guy, who had been reading a newspaper, proceeded to tell his friend what the top conservative candidate for president needs to do to cinch the nomination.


Coffee is just coffee and we can certainly make our own at home. Maybe it’s the folks who share your favorite coffee-drinking spot that make going to a coffee shop worth the effort.

An astute American businessman about my age (Howard Schultz) said this:

“I was taken by the power that savoring a simple cup of coffee can have to connect people and create community.”

Me, too. Something to think about on a weekend trip to the city.

Nashville at Night. Photo by Jamison Shaffer
Nashville at Night. Photo by Jamison Shaffer





A Product of the Company We Keep

Waves tumble across the surface of Lake Michigan, creating a constant thrum that provides background music for an afternoon of writing. It’s taken me a few days to derive comfort from this intrusive sound in what is an otherwise a peaceful setting.

Water striking a sandy beach isn’t a common sight in my world of soybean fields and slow-moving rivers. Sitting here, at the intersection of three tall windows that afford a panoramic view of the lake, has caused me to consider whether my view of the world at large will be altered when I return to Indiana farmland.

We are a product of the company we keep, and I think that must also include our physical environment. I remember the thrilling and frightening freedom I felt standing at the edge of The Grand Canyon. The expanse of it made me brave as I stepped out for a robust hike on the canyon trails. In the same way, standing at the edge of a wooded path can carry me into quiet contemplation as I wind my way through trees.

I am drawn to water. It’s always been so. I feel more alive when there is moving water within view. One of the features that I love most about the little farm my husband and I bought months before our wedding is the spring-fed creek that runs year-around along our driveway. I can hear the creek bubbling and tumbling over rocks and roots whenever I walk out our front door. It’s a constant sight and sound that gives a specific character and essence to our rural life.

So here, yards from the narrow strip of beach that holds back the tumbling surf, there’s been an awakening of sorts. Not just to the sound of surf, wind and moving water, but also to the beauty of women from diverse backgrounds who carry in their hearts a love of language. The hours we’ve gathered in a circle before a roaring fire to break open the gift of words has opened a door into their worlds.

Our days at the lakeshore have been but a moment stolen from a busy life occupied with family, work, responsibilities and other equally worthwhile activity. But perhaps we’ll each carry a broader view of life back into our everyday worlds.

I have photographs of the lake that will remind me of this respite, though I know it won’t be the same as being here. Still, I hope the images might inspire me to look at life from a different angle, even when I’m sitting on my porch across from the bean field or catching a view of red barns through the window by my desk.

I’ll also carry home with me photos of the women I’ve come to know in our retreat from the world. They’ve inspired and expanded me during meals around the table, words shared amidst tears, songs lifted in harmony, laughter ringing in the rafters, hikes through dunes rising above the shore.

If we are indeed defined by the company we keep, the waves and the water, the smiles, tears and stories have left their mark and I’m driving home tomorrow a different woman.