perspectives from a kitchen floor

My grandmother worked with diligence. My brother and I had been at my grandparents’ house for a least that whole day and maybe the night and day before. Granny never stopped, except to read her Bible and to go to the bathroom–or both at the same time. She was up before anyone else, and she kept busy at unpaid work at all times. This night, after the cooking and cleaning and laundry and keeping grandkids from any damaging troubles, she stayed in the kitchen to finish waxing and polishing the floor. I knew I wasn’t to bother her.

My grandfather sat at the end of the green couch, the end by the pedestal ashtray and the side table covered with Granny’s papers and Bible notes. He smoked a cigarette and watched something on the television. I stood with my hands on either side of the doorway between the family room and the kitchen, and I watched Granny work. From time to time, I put my foot over the line, not touching the shined floor but pushing the boundary, swinging my leg back and forth. I couldn’t go in there, but I could watch and wait for her to be finished, and I could ask her how much longer and if she could hurry and when it would be that she could get me a snack or a piece of juicy fruit gum.

My grandfather kept an eye and listened. After a time, he said to me, “Shannon, leave Granny alone. Come in here and sit down.” I ignored him. My brother, taking in everything from the oversize armchair opposite Daddy Hob, offered a low-voiced warning.

Keeping my post, hands holding up the door frame and body facing Granny, I disregarded my brother’s quiet plea. I turned my head in Daddy Hob’s general direction. “You’re not the boss of me,” I said over my shoulder.

In one swift movement, Daddy Hob’s belt was off and my backside was barely tanned. My pride, however, knew a solid mark, an indelible impression. My grandfather wasn’t prone to physical discipline with any of us grandkids. He wasn’t to be trifled with, but we weren’t scared of him. I wasn’t scare of him after that, but my stubbornness wouldn’t let me make up with him for some time.

Last night, I mopped my own kitchen hardwood. I watched it glisten for just the few moments after I rubbed the cleaner on it. The glow disappeared, and I sighed. If not shiny, at least it was clean. I remembered my small-girl self, four or five years old at the most, pressing my grandmother while she worked and sassing my grandfather like I had the right.

The commotion between me and my grandfather didn’t interrupt my grandmother. She pressed on until it she completed the task in front of her. One of a million occupations of her hands in her lifetime, one of a half million things for which she never heard a thank-you. I never thanked my grandfather for sitting me down when I was too big for my britches. I don’t think I really thanked either of them for any of the things that really mattered. The lack of gratitude didn’t stop either of them from doing what came natural to do, what came as necessity–tend the fires, mop and shine the floors, work the soil, milk the cows, direct the young’uns and correct them when they strayed.

I finished the floor in my kitchen, hundreds of miles and 40 years away from Granny and Daddy Hob’s house. I turned off the lights to hide the scratches and marks that can’t be wiped away with my spray cleaner and old cloth diaper rag. I thought about how early pride settles in on a human, how we learn to feed it. I thought about the grit to set one’s hands to hard and often undervalued work. I thought about Granny and Daddy Hob, about how their own kind of softness looked more like rough edges and shelled hearts to a small girl. I said thank you. I hope they heard me say thank you.


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A holy cup

I had somehow managed to avoid an affinity for the dark nectar all of my life, in spite of growing up with coffee drinkers and then marrying a coffee addict connoisseur who then produced two more such types in our home. My childhood and adult life is rife with memories of coffee people and what comes with them–percolators, Mr. Coffee, the coffee shop, after dinner table talks, breakfast coffee, drive-through large coffee with two creams, pots of coffee when company came calling. One evening, three or four years ago, I started drinking coffee. I had witnessed it, but now I was a full participant in a certain rite, a liturgy of sorts.

Uncle Phil offered me a cup of coffee, like he offered it to my cousins and second cousins who were visiting from Virginia and southern California. We knew each other to varying degrees, and aside from our family blood line, we brought a fair amount of diversity to that impromptu reunion. I accepted the offer of the traditional family beverage, and I joined the ranks of the veteran drinkers who rested their elbows on the table and hugged their mugs with both hands. We sat around the kitchen table for two hours, nursing our coffees and telling old tales and new tales.

The coffee tasted like an amalgam of a hundred separate snapshots roasted together. It had undertones of the old-fashioned kind of cigarette smoke and my grandmother’s house on holidays, with James’ Java Shoppe notes of mens’ cologne and hamburgers on the griddle and chocolate milkshakes. The aroma was church potlucks and Christmas breakfast, with hints of Cracker Barrel and Mom’s green thermos just opened. It was celebration and grieving, pleasure and survival, routine and special occasion, all steaming into my face as I sipped it.

My uncle poured for each of us a cup of regular ol’ joe. He and my aunt and my cousins and me, we laughed a lot. We didn’t solve any of the world’s problems. We didn’t talk about all of the ideologies that made us different, maybe even opposed, on religion or politics or education or what people call progress. We didn’t discuss whether or not the coffee we drank came from a sustainable source. It was a time to remember and relish in the things that did make sense to us right then, while we sat in the same zip code, because it likely wouldn’t happen again. I watched my uncle’s eyes well up as he reared back in a hearty laugh, some of those tears bearing salts of old sorrows. Time stood still, marked sacred and protected and untarnished. Our mugs brimmed with the same liquid, poured from the one larger, common glass cup.

Unlike my husband and my girls, I don’t drink coffee every day. I have, however, developed an appreciation for a fresh pour over to accompany a few squares of dark chocolate. When we travel, a super dark (maybe a little over-roasted) tall Americano is warming and comforting, like long stretches of Kansas pulling us toward deciduous trees and humidity, or drawing us back again toward high desert and mountains growing on the horizon. After supper with a piece of homemade pie, or with a big breakfast and fresh biscuits to welcome travelers who come to our Rivendell, when relatives or friends sit in the same room after a long separation, or to celebrate this occasion or that–we all pick a mug for our coffee. Then we share in the communion.







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From the roots up

Tell me how you are, my friend wrote. I tapped out a response on my phone, sharing about various things. I tossed in that I’m growing my hair out, that it’s a metaphor for something. I don’t know what the metaphor is, I said.

This morning, while I walked the silver doggy around the trail, I practiced what I would say to my hair person next week. I will tell her that I’ve lost the vision for what we are doing with my hair. Cut it off or shape it, I will say, because I can’t see what the point is right now. Also a metaphor. It gurgles under the surface.

I know. It’s hair, for crying out loud.

This time last year, I did cry out loud about my hair. I accidentally yelled at John once (maybe twice), though he was kind to forgive, and we grew in what it means to be honest and let someone else be honest in return. What started as a dime-size bald spot on the back of my head in May, grew to a big ol’ silver dollar-size area by November. I didn’t know when the expansion would stop, and I began imagining myself with a shaved head. If I took the liberty to beat the fall-out by removing all of my hair, then at least I would be out from behind the curtains, no more hiding. During those long months, I tried to listen and learn and grow in the hard grace. I practiced gratitude. And I cried a fair amount.

It’s all back, my hair. Thanks to some therapy and supplements and essential oils. I’m letting it grow. I think.

Today, maybe not. I can’t see what the goal is. All I see is non-humidity hair, because hair is different in Colorado. The mirror reflects strange visions of someone not the same. Older is okay. Gray is okay. Truthfully, I don’t see much past older and grayer. A lot of not the same. Not that that’s a terrible thing, to be different. The ambiguity does confound though.

Like the fuzzy sight of wondering how to imagine one of my kids living in another state. Or searching for the right key on a massive janitor-like ring to unlock the vault on parenting a kid who doesn’t need much parenting. Or trying to guess what my son’s voice will sound like when he turns a few more corners and looks down at me instead of up at me. Or what it means to stay in one house or in one ministry assignment for more than five years. Or whether I have the chops and/or the guts to write a whole book. Or how it could be that my sweet puppy who wouldn’t hurt a soul will conquer her fear of small children who don’t know she wouldn’t hurt a soul. Or where is the place I could step my foot and discover a people, a tribe in this season of misty eyes.

I know better than to let my hairdresser tell me who I am, or what the point is. It might be helpful to figure that out before I see her next week. Just the hair part mainly. The other things will come into focus when they are close enough, as is the custom. In the meantime, listening and learning and practicing gratitude–those remain reasonable goals. And growing in grace, short hair or long hair or no hair at all.

My friend asked me how I was. I’m reminded again and again, I told her, that anything which I seek to hold me up in the inner places will whither. Only attached to Christ will I know who I am.  


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a passage of time

A woman and her young grandson wove their way through the woods, her long skirts rustling through the unruly grasses on the path they forged in their hunt.  The boy–lanky and sturdy, sun-browned skin and coffee-colored eyes–followed closely and tuned his ear to listen to her instructions and her thoughts.  He fixed his concentration, studying the vegetation the way that she did.  She searched for herbs and roots and wild-growing plants, ingredients for the medicines she had learned to prepare.  Cough syrup, tonic for upset stomach, colic aids, sore throat soother, and others.  She knew where to look, what was meant for healing, what could cause more harm.  He didn’t always remember which of their collected items went together, but he noted that his sight for the right ones had improved since his first jaunt with her.

As the two companions made their way to a clearing, grasshoppers and midges, moths and butterflies skittered up and out.  Cicadas hummed.  Frogs trilled back and forth across the glade.  Mother Min visited the woods frequently, and every time he was allowed to go along, it was like a class at the schoolhouse for him, only better.  They worked, but it wasn’t like work.  It felt like parts of church, if he was allowed to say so.  And maybe time stood still even though everything moved all around them.

Out of necessity, Mother Min found her way into practical nursing after a stint teaching school, which also came by way of necessity.  Soon after she turned into her 28th year, her husband died of typhoid fever leaving her with four little boys under the age of five.  She refused to separate them, from each other or from her.  There would be no shipping them off to an orphanage.  She sold the family farm and moved to a house in a nearby town where she took up teaching.  With 12 aunts and uncles on her husband’s side and 10 on her own, she appealed for help with the boys when she needed to work.  

She never looked back, only forward, one foot in front of the other.  By the time her grandchildren came along, her teaching days were over, and she earned a living in another helping profession.

The boy gained much from his grandmother, not only from the outings to the woods and fields but also from accompanying her on house calls.  He learned a great deal by simply paying close attention to the way she lived.  Mother Min spoke of God, of her faith.  She walked closely enough with Jesus and so reflected that love, often without particular words.  She possessed considerable grit and grace, resolve and resilience.  She was undaunted in the face of many obstacles.  Impressions the boy kept as reference, a compass of sorts, for years and years to come.

Mother Min died in August of 1957.  She was 82.

One day last week, I walked through the woods with her and my uncle while I visited with him on the phone.  I found a kinship with my great grandmother beyond blood, beyond years.  And my uncle, still considerably sturdy in his lanky frame, easily looked to that compass and found a comforting and teaching presence, across all that time.





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Hanging out with Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his short but terribly potent book on Christian Fellowship, Life Together.  One of those books that holds a special place on the middle bookcase, on the shelf where it keeps company with Nouwen and Winn Collier and Lewis, N.T. Wright and Eugene Peterson and Richard Foster.  The particular copy I own, published in 1954, has been in our home(s) since our Wesley Foundation days, since my two oldest kids were babes. I am finally finding some space, just today, to scribble through the thoughts about a passage I reference frequently, a passage that has been rumbling around in my head and heart for the past week or so.  Interesting that it is a day like today when I’m trying to figure out Life Together with my babes (who aren’t little anymore), with the rest of my family, with my own self.  Brother Bonhoeffer, I guess it will be today that you will instruct me, again, and push me hard into the Jesus that I love, again.

The image I gained some years ago, at the second or third read, was this very profound visual of Christ in between myself and those that I love or seek to love.  If I shared the visual with you in person, I would put my hand in the middle of us blocking your face from my face, obscuring our eye to eye connection; my hand the representation that I can only really see you if He is there.  His presence between us instructs me in always looking upon you accurately.

I think of this often.  I am aware of it often.  Of course, Bonhoeffer’s words place more flesh on the concept that does my own simple breakdown and my hand in front of my face.

“Jesus Christ stands between the lover and the others he loves.  I do not know in advance what love of others means on the basis of the general idea of love that grows out of my human desires–all this may rather be hatred and an insidious kind of selfishness in the eyes of Christ.  What love is, only Christ tells in his Word.  Contrary to all my own opinions and convictions, Jesus Christ will tell me what love toward the brethren really is.”  (p. 35)

And further, more visual,

“Because Christ stands between me and others, I dare not direct fellowship with them. … Because Christ has long since acted decisively for my brother, before I could begin to act, I must leave him his freedom to be Christ’s; I must meet him only as the person that he already is in Christ’s eyes.  This is the meaning of the proposition that we can meet others only through the mediation of Christ.  Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become.  It takes the life of the other person into his own hands.  Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he has received from Jesus Christ; the image that Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon all men.”  (pp. 35-36)

What stirred in me some weeks ago, and blended into a flurry in the past week, is this:  If I can not see someone properly without Christ in between myself and the one loved, what happens when I look in the mirror?  How can I possibly see, know, and love myself–my self–truly if Christ is not instructing me with His heart and by His love?  Contrary to all my own opinions and convictions and life experience and lists of failures (depending on the day) and boasts of glory (depending on the day), Jesus alone can tell me what the love of the brethren (or sistren) really is.

It is worthwhile experiment I am willing to put to the test.  I will never do Life Together well with my family, extended family, neighbors, church people, social media communities (that is a real thing, right?)–I can’t love anyone if I cannot do Life Together well with myself and the Lover of my soul.  If I do not and cannot let Christ stand in between me and whom I face in the mirror, forget grasping spiritual, Christ-directed love toward others.

Oh, but on this day, and easily others to come, I would rather avoid the mirror altogether, leave myself for lost, spin dust in the face of Jesus while I hightail it out of there.  I mean, it’s the truth, right?  Wouldn’t we rather just whine and carry on sometimes, argue with the Creator that the created thing is bunk, minus value, refuse in the pile of humanity?  Because if I do that, then I don’t have to be the true image that Christ himself embodies and did stamp upon me.  We are off the hook in this posture.  Well, depending on how you look at it.

In my fear and self-preservation, the smallness I have squished myself down to, I am prone to hide.  And that means I can’t possibly love my babes well.  Or you.  Or anyone.

“It will rather meet the other person with the clear Word of God and be ready to leave him alone with this Word for a long time, willing to release him again in order that Christ may deal with him.  It will respect the line that has been drawn between him and us by Christ, and it will find full fellowship with him in the Christ who alone binds us together.  Thus this spiritual love will speak to Christ about a brother more than to a brother about Christ.” (p.36)

I know I don’t what I’m asking, the shear wave of power that may come and undo me and all of us entirely, but will you speak to Christ about me in these days?  About others you love?  About those you don’t love?  About the self you can not see properly?


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