A Month of Mornings

The plaster is peeling from our kitchen ceiling. The washroom fan is covered in dust. There’s an oil slick the size of Montana on the driveway. And for the last several months the bedroom walls have displayed a few two-foot swatches we painted so that we could pick a color, but we never got around to choosing.

These are things I almost never notice. I only bring them up because I just walked around my house and tried to notice them on purpose. Over the weekend I learned the term hemmablind, a Swedish word that means “blind to things at home.” It’s typically used in a negative way to refer to all the flaws we fail to notice once we’ve become accustomed to them—the dirt around a doorknob, the scratched paint on the banister, and the curtains that aren’t quite level along the floor. 

But we’re blind to all kinds of things that are part of home to us. We grow accustomed to our possessions, our neighborhoods, and even our people. Maybe one of the curses and blessings of friendships and even marriage is a healthy dose of hemmablind-ness, a familiarity that allows us to settle in with one another so deeply that we fail to see each other’s flaws. Sometimes we need something to shake us out of being hemmablind so that we can see what we need to work on… or even to remind us why what we have is so great. Hemmablindness ain’t all bad unless it means that we aren’t really present, aren’t really taking note of the things worth noting.

One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed being back in the midwest after so many years in southern California is because of seasons. If being hemmablind were a disease, the shift of seasons is the vaccination. How can one become overly familiar with the world when it is being drastically repainted every three months? The pastel spring ushers in the emerald summer, which gives way to the rust and ochre of autumn, all of it finally surrendering to the whitewashed winter. It’s new again and again and again and again.

For the last month, my early-morning run through the marshland near my home has perfectly aligned with the entrance of autumn. The procrastination of dawn has meant that my month has been full of sunrises. The cold air and warm earth have colluded to grant a mist that renders everything magical. And the crisp mornings have made me feel like I can run for hours. 

During this perfect month of mornings I’ve had so many moments when I’ve had to stop and look around and smile and snap a photo and take it all in with a deep and delicious I-am-here-and-fully-here kind of breath. 

Already, as the days grow shorter, I’m spending more of my run in the dark. My fingertips are going numb as cool surrenders to the cold. The mist has metamorphosized into frost. The change is sad in a way, but it’s making me look at everything from the beginning again, helping to banish my blindness, helping me see just how good home can be.

Here are a few photos from this month:

Dare To Care

On Monday night I wanted to do anything other than watch the debate. It was the end of a really good day off, one that happened to land on the first day that has felt like fall—crisp, breezy, and sun-soaked. We’d whiled away the day with long walks, bargain-hunting, a little cooking, and a long bedtime-story session. All I’d wanted to do to cap off such a good day was to curl up on the couch in the living room with a great book and a glass of wine. 

But there was this little nagging question in my head: Should I watch?

My first answer was an emphatic NO!

And not because I’m somehow disengaged from the democratic process. I stay “in it” through articles I read and radio reports and podcasts I listen to. But debates are not my thing. I don’t find them particularly informative or entertaining.

Mostly, I knew it would provoke me. I knew it would add fuel to the fire of my frustration. I knew I’d end up laughing, crying, or shouting. (I avoid that kind of confrontation… even if it’s with the television.) And after such a blessed day of rest I was loathe to get worked up about… well… everything.

But there was that question again: Should I watch? Was there a good reason to get worked up, to do something beyond my comfort zone?

The memory of a tiny little book popped into my head. Two days earlier I’d finished reading Out of Solitude by Henri Nouwen. (In truth, it’s little more than a pamphlet, but by calling it a book I feel a lot more accomplished for having read it.) Rarely has such a tiny book created such a tectonic shift in my thinking, sticking with me in soul-shaping ways. (I underlined at least a quarter of it.) The second chapter talks about caring. Care and caring are such dissipated words. They’ve come to mean less well-meaning things, having been neutered by overuse and misuse. But the way Nouwen talks about care is bold and brave and really, really hard. 

The word care finds its roots in the Gothic Kara, which means lament. The basic meaning of care is “to grieve, to experience sorrow, to cry out with.”

Nouwen says that to truly do the selfless and humanizing work of caring we must slow down enough that we hold off our impulses to fix, manipulate, and control our pain and the pain of others. Even the best-intentioned do-gooders among us can sometimes steamroll through the heartache of those we intend to help as we barrel forth on our way to fixing everything. Nouwen would argue that by doing this we are robbing them of some of what makes them (and us) human. 

He’s talking full-on, heartbreaking empathy. I don’t want to do that. It sounds awkward and painful.

But as I sat there and allowed myself to be a little convicted I started thinking about all the people who might watch the debate that night, people who are different than me. I imagined people who would have their eyes glued to the screen while their fingers clutched a paystub or a social security check that they were sure wouldn’t see them through next week. I thought of people who would be filling out immigration forms or asylum petitions. I thought of those who feel they have no voice who wondered if one of the candidates would speak for them or might hear them at the very least. I thought of military families and law-enforcement families. I thought of people worldwide who are caught up in conflicts or who are causing conflicts who have their eyes on who will be our next leader. All of these people would be anxiously watching the debate because our next leader will dramatically alter their lives and their livelihoods. These people are uninsulated by the ease I enjoy, one that affords me the luxury of choosing a good book over a debate that might get me a little fired up. 

And perhaps I’m overspiritualizing this whole thing, but I felt like God was asking me to push my caring beyond the boundaries of my usual categories, hammering home the words of Philippians 2: In humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. Well, if that perspective doesn’t influence the way I act, the questions I ask, the reasons I vote…

One of Nouwen’s lines that I underlined was this: Dare to care.

So Monday night I watched the debate. I watched it with eyes for all those who would watch with anxious, heavy, and wounded hearts. And as everyone continues to debate who won, who got the best burn, and who got the facts straight, I don’t think I’m any more educated or informed, entertained or convinced. 

But I have come away a little more caring. 

Sure To Save

On March 29, 1869 two soldiers, Sgt. Adams and Pvt. McLoughlin, stood upon the shore of Newport Harbor. They braced themselves against Rhode Island’s biting, late-winter wind by pulling their blue, army-issued wool coats tighter around their shoulders. The young private blew a few hot breaths into his cupped hands before raising his gaze toward Fort Adams in the distance, which stood resolute against the ominous clouds beyond. 

They’d spent their short leave in the bustle of Newport, but they needed to get back to their posts before nightfall. The day had been unremittingly colorless and cold, and the rumble in the distance warned them that a storm was brewing. The harbor, though somewhat protected from the wild waters of the Atlantic, was infamous for becoming treacherous quickly.

But the two soldiers had hired a boy, a young sailor who’d sworn he’d be able to guide them to the safety of the fort in even the roughest weather. And they did really need to get back to their posts.

As soon as they set off dark clouds descended on them. The late-evening light withered into darkness, the wind began to howl, and the waters around them begin to roil and spill over the sides of the boat. 

The men were soldiers, not sailors. They had little experience with the grey, icy waters that churned beneath them, and they were beginning to see that their 14-year-old guide was far less experienced than he’d led them to believe. The rain lashed against them, soaking them to the bone, their heavy coats growing even heavier. As the wind spun them round and the waves toss them side to side, the three men became disoriented, uncertain whether the safety of the fort lay ahead or behind. 

Then through the squall they saw the faintest glimmer of light. 

From the lamp room of the Lime Rock Lighthouse a light shone faithfully—as it had since the day the Lewis family had first been given the task of caring for it. 

But if the three beleaguered men felt any sense of relief, it was quickly dashed as a mighty wave overturned their boat and tossed them into the icy water.

Meanwhile, in the lighthouse sat Ida Lewis, the eldest daughter of the light keeper. She was sick with a cold and trying to keep warm by the stove as the wind howled outside, forcing the shutters to crash against the house in an irregular staccato. 

Then Ida heard something, panicked shouts mingled with the howling wind and rain.

In a flash, she was out of her chair, throwing open the door to the fury of the storm outside. From the lighthouse’s perch atop the craggy island, she could see men in the water, struggling to find handholds on the upturned keel of a boat. She knew that the billowing waves would soon take the men out into open water.

Without stopping to put on a coat or shoes, Ida ran out into the night. 

She clambered over the rocks, slick with rain, and into her rowboat. As she pushed off from shore the wind and freezing rain threatened to drive her back, but she rowed with all her might. 

Wave after wave crashed over the bow, nearly sinking her, but the men’s desperate pleas gave her the strength to press on, her progress painfully slow. 

By the time she reached them there were only two souls left to save. The young sailor had slipped under the water almost as soon as their boat had capsized. But to save Adams and McLoughlin, Ida summoned all the strength in her 103-pound frame and dragged the nearly-unconscious men into the boat with her, lifting them over the stern as her father had taught her in order to minimize the risk of capsizing herself. 

When Ida finally reached the safety of the lighthouse she was frostbitten, Adams could hardly walk, and McLoughlin was unconscious. Yet in the end, both men lived. 

The men she plucked out of the storm that day were counted among the total of 18 lives that Ida would save throughout her life in the lighthouse, first as the child of the light keeper and then as the light keeper herself.

Of her, a poet once wrote:

In this world there’s none beside her,
none more true and brave.
In the tempest, on the wave,
none more sure to save.

In our lives the tempest and the wave will surely come. Be they disappointments, tragedies, worries, or unanswerable questions, each of us will have moments where we’ll find ourselves overcome by the roar of the squall and the rush of the tide. We will lose our way. Our lives will be caught up and capsized. 

And in the midst of those storms we may even see a light burning steady and true, but we find ourselves hopeless to reach it. We feel too far, too weak, too lost. 

But the glorious truth is that the light keeper’s child has already come to our rescue. He’s left the safety of his home, rowed out upon the troubled sea of our world, and braved the worst storms of this life so that we who are shipwrecked can be saved.

In the tempest, on the wave,
none more sure to save.

To see a performance of this story visit willowcreek.tv

Behind the scenes photography by Tyler Hoff

Primary source:
Skomal, Lenore (2010-06-15). Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter: The Remarkable True Story Of American Heroine Ida Lewis. Globe Pequot Press. Kindle Edition. 

And Then He Rested


The first day of vacation was… unexpected. And I should have seen it coming. 

We've fallen into the the wonderful habit of taking the same vacation every year. We borrow my in-law’s RV and find a cozy campground along the shore of Lake Michigan for a good, long stretch. We keep things simple so that we can keep ourselves together, trying to avoid filling up the hours with endless entertainments, simply allowing the days to unwind as they will so that we can do the same. 

And the first day was just that. We woke up and had breakfast. I went on a bike ride. We spent hours on the beach. At the end of the day we stopped at Whippi Dip, our favorite little ice cream stand. Then, as the sun began to sink, it’s golden light held captive in the wafting smoke from all the evening fires being lit throughout the camp, I sunk into a hammock, exhausted. 

I thought to myself, This isn’t working.

You see, in the cracks of all the things I’ve already said, there’d been all the same guiding, herding, laughing, whining, crying, and correcting that everyday brings when you have three kids, and my response to all of it was pretty much the same too. I was still riddled with hurry and impatience, with frayed nerves and too-quick words. I still wasn’t resting. 

A few days before we’d left, I'd read these words:

Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)

I’d nearly cried. And then I’d kept reading, and I did cry.

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:29)

I can find rest for my soul? For me? My tears told me just how deeply I longed for that rest, deep down rest, all over rest, soul rest. And I gave myself a little pep talk. God’s giving you this word to get you through until vacation. He’s great like that. The rest you want is right around the corner. Just a few more days. Hang in there. 

So there I was—literally hanging in a hammock on day one of vacation—feeling all the feelings that feel nothing like rest. But I was trying to rest. I’d turned off my email. I’d emptied my calendar. I’d erased my to-do lists. I even had the beginnings of a sunburn to show just how hard I was working at this resting thing.

The cicadas were singing in the trees as dusk fell and the campground grew quieter. And I grew quieter too. In my mind the words of Matthew 11 came floating into view, like the writing on the wall but intended for some other lucky soul. I looked at the lines and quickly latched onto the two phrases that had so deeply spoken to my longings:

I will give you rest.
You will find rest for your soul. 

I was still pining for those things. And then the whole passage seemed to dissolve again. Only three words remained.

Come to me. 

Oh how quick I’d been to skim right past those words. There’s a difference between weariness and readiness. Just because I was weary didn't mean I was ready to rest. In fact, like I said, I’d been working hard at resting. I’d been busy patting myself on the back for how restful I was being, and all the while my head and heart were working as hard as ever. I’d tried all the things other than the one thing I’d been told to do. 

It’s like someone who’s been invited to dinner. But when they arrive they walk right by the welcome mat, going all around the house, banging on the windows, begging to be let in. I’d wanted in on the feast, but I’d ignored the front door. I’d looked for entry some other way. But the invitation read, plain as day: Come to me.

So I started trying that. Because nothing else was working. Because two weeks later, vacation was over. Because we can’t save up and stockpile a few weeks off and expect it to satisfy our bodies, our souls, our families, our workplaces, and all the rest. We have to find ways to rest in the midst of all of these things. No more of this just hang on a few more days… or weeks… or months stuff. I want to find rest now, in this moment, in the midst of the life I’m in, the work I’m given, the mission I’m on. That’s the kind of rest I want to taste. So I’m trying to regularly find the front door where the host stands, saying: Come to me.