Lowercase Life: first regular old wednesday of advent

[Note: Part 1 of a 4-part series.]

I just realized this past Sunday was the first Sunday of Advent. I didn’t grow up with Advent. Didn’t even know what it meant until college. I’d seen Advent calendars at the grocery store but thought they were all about chocolate, not church.

The Online Etymology Dictionary tells me advent means “important arrival,” . . . “an extended sense of Advent ‘season preceding Christmas’ (in reference to the ‘coming’ of Christ), late Old English, from Latin adventus ‘a coming, approach, arrival’ . . .

So, while big-A Advent is meaningful to some people, with wreaths and candles and such, I tend to feel more at home with the lowercase advent. I need something to look forward to, and I want to know what’s next.

“How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote. These regular old Tuesdays and Thursdays and even Saturdays are the lowercase days of Advent. I’ve decided to celebrate them by looking back—in order to look forward.


Birds lay eggs in spring. That’s what I always thought anyway, but when we were at my parents’ house on the last day of November, my mom noticed something moving in the nest built on the side of their shed. I thought she was seeing things—because what kind of cuckoo lays eggs in Illinois in late November? I watched the nest intently but saw nothing. My dad grabbed a five-gallon bucket to stand on and peered into the nest.

“Well, I’ll be,” he said. “There’s a baby bird in there.”


My grandma lived down the street in a house of wonders. She was a bit of a hoarder—the neat and tidy kind, who kept her treasures tucked away in nooks and closets. Her upstairs cubbyholes were stuffed with fabrics, fat bolts of material you could upholster a couch with and smaller remnants with the receipt still pinned on, fabric store finds just too good to pass up. I remember loving to look through her jewelry box, handling rhinestone brooches and bright gold chunky necklaces and sparkly clip-on earrings as if they were treasures of the sea. I didn’t want to just see these treasures, I wanted her to tell me about each one—narrate them for me.


The Christmas story I know pretty well starts in Luke 2. The part I know almost by heart is from Charlie Brown: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. . . .” But there’s a whole chapter before that, a prologue that tells about a couple named Zechariah and Elizabeth who were getting up in years and had no children. Like other Jewish people of their time, they had not given up hope for the Messiah. The other Zechariah, centuries before, had spoken of the coming Messiah and encouraged people never to give up: “Return to your fortress, you prisoners of hope; / even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you” (Zech. 9:12). I think of Elizabeth and her husband as prisoners of hope, hoping against hope for the Messiah and a child of their own. They might not have imagined they would see both in their lifetime. But they did.

To be continued . . .

hope front porch

Hope is right on my front porch. (And yours.)

Yay for Compulsory Thankfulness

‘Tis the season for Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday. I love that there’s not much hype around Thanksgiving. Minimal pressure or obligation. Family, food, and giving thanks, all good stuff.

Giving thanks is pretty easy. I can rattle off the things I’m thankful for without strain: Phil, Caroline, family, friends, house, clothing, food, Charlie the cat, trees, teachers, church, Jesus. Easy-peasy. Let’s eat.

This year, however, I challenged myself to give thanks every day in the 100 days leading up to Thanksgiving—on Facebook—and include a photo. Sometimes, finding a photo was the toughest part of the challenge, because it forced me away from abstractions and intangibles (love, peace, happiness). Instead, I learned to be thankful for the things around me: dark-red leaves, a blue feather on the ground, a striking wallpaper pattern, Popeye’s mashed potatoes and gravy. These might seem mundane or trivial – because they are – and I truly am thankful for them.

And the challenge became easier the more I exercised my thanks.

At the start, I was trying so hard to find the very special thing, the highlight of the day, the memorable and beautiful this or that. I was just learning to exercise gratefulness, like a kid with training wheels riding so deliberately.

After nearly 100 days, my thankfulness expanded recklessly to include oxygen, blackberry jam (seedless), clean water, cell phone, daughter’s artwork, Dr. Seuss, and the friendly mail man. Whereas I used to say thanks for the same things day after day—this meal, my people, easy left turns—now nothing is safe from my appreciation.

(Beware, friend: I appreciate you.)

This broadening gratefulness reminds me of the tendency to think about your “spiritual life” in limited ways. Your spiritual life might involve going to church, reading the Bible, praying, or maybe some other spiritual discipline. But I’m reminded that this life—all of it—is our “spiritual life.” Kent Dobson puts it this way: “The car ride on the way to church, when we’re yelling at our kids to shut up, is just as much our spiritual life as the music we pretend to like when we get there.”

Similarly, before the 100 Days of Thanks challenge, I had a “thankful life” that was limited to brief, contained spasms of thankfulness. Now I look around with a greater appreciation for all the good there is—not just the stuff I’m lucky to have but the stuff that used to seem like a given:

sunshine on a cold day,

being alive,

a stapler that works,

starlings doing drill routines in the sky,

piano music,

the magic power of spray paint,

the chance to walk my daughter home from school every single day.

(Sometimes she lets me hold her hand.)

The compulsory thankfulness challenge has bridged some of the distance between my small, earthbound gratefulness and Paul’s advice, “in every thing give thanks” (1 Thess. 5:18).

It’s also given me new eyes for the world. Elizabeth Barrett Browning said it first and best: “Earth’s crammed with heaven, / And every common bush afire with God . . .” Truly, there is happiness in giving thanks.

orange-fall-leaf.jpgHappy Thanksgiving!

-Em, as always, thankful for you taking the time to read and respond

Time is White, Mosquitoes Bite

Sometimes I wake up around 3 a.m., and for a moment, it feels like I’m swimming to the surface. In that second before reaching the surface, I’m struck by terror, and the waking words in my head are, “I’m so scared.”

This fear feels automatic and unconscious, and I can’t pinpoint the reason for it. I’m not scared of one particular thing. I’m just scared.

I’m so scared.

In those few seconds after waking, I move on, the sudden twinge of terror eclipsed by more pressing things, like heading to the bathroom or rolling over and falling back asleep. But that three-word sentence returns often, always at night: “I’m so scared.”

When I was a child, I sometimes woke up in fear. I feared the ghost in the attic and demons in my toys. I was scared of hell but maybe more afraid of heaven. The usual stuff would also scare me from sleep: imagining my parents dying, or grandparents dying, or my sister or dog dying.

Or snakes.

I never feared my own death back then—and maybe that’s the difference now, in my forties, a fear of dying at a low simmer.

A woman from Wisconsin writes about midnight fears. Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970) wrote a poem that starts with this little gem: “What horror to awake at night / and in the dimness see the light. / Time is white / mosquitoes bite / I’ve spent my life on nothing.”

Lorine might have had reason to worry. She spent her life writing compact lines of verse, the kind that tend to get lost amid today’s clutter of garbage-words. Misleading headlines about people doing unconscionable things threaten to crowd out the beauty. You gotta seek it out.

As a child afraid of the dark corners of her bedroom, I’d answer my fears with words — Bible verses. I’d either fall back asleep or ignite a whole new bonfire of fears.

Today my fears are different from back then, more along the lines of Niedecker’s horror: “I’ve spent my life on nothing.” In waking hours, I know that my life’s hodgepodge of mothering and teaching and writing and learning don’t add up to “nothing.” But I’m clear-eyed enough to know that my writing may never see many readers. The book I’ve written, the book I’m working on now, may not find a publisher. This, I realize, is ground zero of “I’m so scared.”

But the Holy Spirit turns my mind to Jacob, that old trickster who conned his father into blessing him. With his father’s blessing, Jacob set out alone and encountered some intriguing night fears of his own. One night he had a terrifying dream of a stairway to heaven; another night was spent wrestling with God.

This wrestling story captures my imagination so that I can almost picture it, his face shiny with sweat. And through gritted teeth he says to his opponent: “I won’t let you go until you bless me.” He got his blessing but walked away with a limp.

In writing this, maybe I’m saying: I’m not letting go until my work is blessed. And I may find myself, late at night, limping to the bathroom. Even in those moments of limpid fear, I’m not giving up just yet.

Time is white.

Mosquitoes do bite.

I’m spending my life on something.

view from bed

Fish-eye view from my bed. (The dresser is a mess, but that’s how we roll.)

Friday, I’m in Love

I have a friend who faithfully posts on Facebook: “It’s da weekend, baby!” When I see it, I “like” it, but it goes beyond that—it’s seeped into my subconscious. Often I wake up Friday morning, and, in the bleary-eyed process of trying to figure out what day it is, suddenly think to myself: “It’s da weekend, baby!”

For as long as I’ve known the days of the week, I’ve loved Friday the best. When I was a kid, Friday night often meant eating at Dandy’s Deli or Pizza Hut, maybe getting a quarter to play Ms. Pacman with my sister. Then, when I got old enough to be dropped off, Friday night meant roller skating the night away to “Mony Mony” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”

In junior high I had a pair of Guess jeans, which I wore to school every Friday—special occasion attire in my book. My sister and I shared a Guess logo sweatshirt, which I wore pretty much every other Friday. If my special jeans were in the dirty laundry, I would not know which way to turn. Because Friday was a weekly holiday.

My mom had different feelings toward Friday. No need to dress up, no need to do emergency laundry—Friday is for getting by, eking out the last day of the school week with minimal effort. Bad hair day? Wear a ponytail—it’s Friday. Can’t find your homework? Ask the teacher for an extension—it’s Friday. It’s like she misunderstood everything that was sacred about Friday.

Imagine my excitement as a kid when I learned there was a restaurant called TGI Fridays! My friend brought me a pair of giveaway sunglasses, red and white striped, with the TGI Fridays logo on each side. I wish I still had them.

Back then my family never ate at Fridays, despite its awesome name. Friday nights were all about Casa Gallardo, where I’d pretend we were eating al fresco on a quaint plaza in a Mexican resort town. To this day, I feel a pang of sadness when I hear mariachi music, knowing I will never again enjoy Casa Gallardo chips and salsa on a Friday night, or any night.

I feel a special kinship to my “It’s da weekend, baby!” friend because I, too, think Friday is a day for celebration. I used to feed our dog Sparky a special Friday evening meal of Cesar Savory Delights Filet Mignon dog food. He grew fat. And he grew to love Friday.

My daughter continues the Friday night festivities tradition. She calls it “Rookie Night,” which is fine, although I’m not sure what it means. A few Fridays ago as I picked her up from school, her teacher waved and said, “Have a great Rookie Night!” I wondered if I should tell her Rookie Night is just our name for dinner at Five Guys or Chick-Fil-A, then watching a movie together, usually Barbie-related. (I read Entertainment Weekly during the movie. Can’t tolerate Barbie animation.) Never mind—“Rookie Night” has more than enough charm.

Like the name “Rookie Night,” my attachment to Friday is not rational. It’s entirely emotional. Friday, to me, suggests a world of possibility.

Don’t get me wrong: Saturday’s great, and Sunday always comes too late. But Friday never hesitates . . . to holler, “It’s da weekend, baby!”


Rookie Night selfies at Dunkin Donuts. Phil, unaware.


Summer, Bird by Bird

Summer, Bird by Bird

Fleeting. That’s the best word for summer.

“Where’d it go?” I ask, staring at the calendar.

Summer was a migratory bird, fleeting.

Summer was thirteen birds, fleeting.

Bird #1: Browsing Savers, I search for a book I owned nine summers ago: Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America. My eyes catch the spine, and I can’t believe my book is here, a bird on a shelf.

Bird #2: At Bellevue Park. We laugh at the brazen geese, then squeal at their babies. The cuteness is too much: fuzzy goslings, four, five, trailed by one fierce mama.geese

Bird #3: Playing with my phone we stumble across the flight call of the American goldfinch, apparently a sound like “potato chip!” For days after, we surprise each other with random, high-pitched calls of “potato chip!”

chee cheeBird #4: I spin the card stand in the souvenir shop. A notecard catches my eye, three Canadian geese painted by Benjamin Chee Chee. Its title is “Friends,” but it looks like my family.

Bird #5: From the whale watching boat, high in the treetops: a huge bald eagle.

Bird #6: A cab ride to Granville Island. When the rain slowed, we met the biggest, baddest pigeon. His body was gray as the dull sky, but his neck was a striking iridescent lavender and pale green. He hoped for food.189.jpg

Bird #7: I searched the beach and found some chunks of coral, shells, and a sun-bleached bone. This bird—what was left of it—became my souvenir.

Bird #8: In Maui I came across a book about the early settlers of the Hawaiian Islands, led there by a bird, the Pacific golden plover.

Bird #9: Walking along the Kapalua Coastal Trail, we saw the nests of wedge-tailed shearwaters hidden in clumps of grass.

Bird #10: At home, my daughter saw a baby blue jay in the street in front of our house. I grabbed a dustpan to scoop it out of danger, but it hobbled to the neighbor’s yard on its own.

Bird #11: Caroline and I went to an animal show at the library and saw a fierce-looking Lanner Hawk perched atop a leather-gloved hand.

075Bird #12: Spotted: a duvet cover at Ikea with a trippy pattern of bees and flowers and honey and birds. I ripped open the seams and made it into curtains. When I turn toward the window thirty identical sparrows stare back.

Bird #13: In Chicago we stood on the platform waiting for the train. A pigeon sat on the wooden planks, oddly still. I snapped a pic and wondered why.pigeon

I still wonder why birds were the recurring motif of our summer. They seemed like messengers, but I’m not sure of their message.

Or maybe it’s this: birds are as at ease on earth as they are in heaven—there is no stark line of division between one realm and another.

Maybe their message is to bring that sense of easy trust into our daily lives, making earth more and more like heaven.

“His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.” –Civilla D. Martin


The Problem with Loving Thy Neighbors

Years back, a new friend and I made lunch plans. She’d told me to go ahead and order food if I got there first, so I ordered soup and salad, and she arrived soon after.  But instead of ordering lunch, she pulled out a snack bag and counted out six pistachios. While I chowed down on a big ol’ salad (with dressing!) and soup (with vegetables!), she made her nut ration last through my meal, and washed it down with some kind of fancy water.

She’s a super—and super-fit—woman, and although we had stuff in common, I sensed we would not become close friends. The austerity of her lifestyle was just so different from my “food is fun” mentality.

(If you ever see me having a lunch of six nuts and some fruit water, take it as a cry for help.)

I had been sure we’d become great pals, but then it’s never been love at first sight for me when it comes to friendship. The people to whom I grow the closest tend to be the ones I don’t expect. It still surprises me, but first impressions don’t mean that much when it comes to long-term friendships.

And so, when a family moved into the rental house across the street, I walked over to introduce myself with no expectations. It’s not that we’ve had bad neighbors—not at all—but I said hello expecting little beyond a friendly wave across the driveway now and then.

Suburban cordiality rests on firm boundaries, as Robert Frost said (sorta).

To my surprise these neighbors, a couple with two young daughters, became very dear to us, which makes it hard to see them move away. The Air Force is sending them to Hawaii, which is awesome for them but bad for us—and especially hard for my daughter who loves the girls like sisters.

Over the past four years, we’ve become more than wave-across-the-driveway neighbors. We’ve become good friends.

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus said. But my wave-across-the-driveway approach to neighbors hardly qualifies as love. Sad to say, I had no expectation of loving these neighbors as much as I do.

Their home now sits empty, window-blinds shut, with a “For Lease” sign standing crooked in the front yard. It will be hard to break the habit of glancing over there when I go the mailbox or water the plants. Every time I pull into the driveway, I look for them, but of course they’re not there.

Very soon they’ll be someone else’s neighbors. I hope their new home treats them well, with more than just the aloha-across-the-driveway kind of thing.

I hope they find a home where neighbors exchange magazines and pet-sitting favors and Key Lime cupcakes just as much as small talk about the weather.

I hope for surpassed expectations and happy surprises—as we all await new neighbors.

liney and viv

Toad at the Crossroads

A toad sat in the middle of the sidewalk, just a few steps from the store entrance. There was nothing remarkable about the little fella—brown and bumpy and a smidge smaller than my fist—except that he was casually hanging out in front of TJ Maxx.

My daughter and I squatted down to get a better look. Yep, he was breathing. But he didn’t move, even when I tapped him on the rear.

A woman walking into the store stopped to check him out. She was much braver than I, stretching out each of his legs to see if they were broken.

“See this front one,” she said. “It’s a little smashed. Somebody must have stepped on the little guy.” She advised me to carry him over to the pond about a hundred yards away. I wasn’t eager to pick up a partially squished toad.

TJ Maxx is in an old shopping center—Crossroads Centre—and has been there for as long as I can remember, the early to mid-‘80s. This probably wasn’t the first time a toad found his way there.

The longer I stood with the injured toad, the less I wanted to carry him across the parking lot to the retention pond. Still, I didn’t want the creature to get completely squished.

I sent my daughter to wait in the car with her dad and shivered as I picked up the poor toad. As I crossed the asphalt into the grass I felt his cold belly against my palm. Which of us was more nervous?

I peeked between my hands and met his hard stare. As he eyed me I said, “Don’t worry, Toad. I’m taking you to the pond where you’ll be safe.” His cold belly fluttered against my palm, but he didn’t argue.

Gently, I placed the toad in the grass a little ways from the water and watched him for a second or two. He sat there, just as still as he’d been in front of TJ Maxx. I wished him luck and told him to get well. Suddenly, I hated to leave him.

Phil and Caroline were waiting for me in the car. I hopped in, pleased at my good deed, when Phil joked, “What if the toad had been trying his whole life to get to TJ Maxx, and you just set him back to square one?” We laughed at this speculation, but I felt it in the pit of my stomach—the pang of futility.

What’s sadder than a toad with a crushed leg? A toad with a crushed dream. But here’s a lesson from the toad: when you find yourself in the wrong place with a cold belly and stepped-on toes, remember it’s not just a setback but a crossroads as well—a crossroads with heretofore unseen possibilities and opportunities to choose what is good.

At least that’s what I heard.

“So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up.”