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Reader Stories
Reader Stories: The Heavens Declare
August 25, 2016 0

Welcome back to Reader Stories! It’s been awhile. Be sure to scoot on over here to see the newest prompt for the Fall. Writers, readers, friends: I’d love to host your story! I’m looking for a handful of good stories.

Share Your Reader Story at aahales.com

Today’s comes from Anna Christenson. I can’t wait to introduce her to you:

Anna Christenson: Reader Stories at aahales.com

Anna spends her days seeking well-chosen words. By day, she teaches English to middle school students. By night, she reads good books and writes everywhere – in journals, on her blog, and across calendar pages. She loves summer days, rocks a lot of polka dots, and is learning to see Jesus in ordinary moments. You can find her on her blogFacebook , Twitter, and Instagram.

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It happened the way the best love stories do. It was sudden. It was unlikely. It was life-changing. It happened on an ordinary drive home, on an average evening. I fell in love with the sky.

I am not talking about just any sky. My sky hangs over a gravel road, seven miles from the nearest town and sixty miles from the nearest Target. It is almost in Canada, on the prairies of far northwest Minnesota. That is where I grew up. When I describe it, people raise their eyebrows. They wonder why anyone would choose to live in the boondocks, where soybean fields, long winters, and flatness are our strongest assets. We seem far removed from anything of interest, much less beauty. I used to agree with them. That was before I learned to see. That was before I began to love the sky.

The sky was background noise for years. I noticed it sometimes, tuned it out often. In fifth grade, inspired by Harriet the Spy, I started carrying a journal in my backpack. One entry detailed the sunrise on a winter morning. (The next analyzed my crush’s antics on the playground.) High school geography class passed as I stared out classroom windows, guessing by the clouds if blizzards, and snow days, would come. Spring, and the end of basketball season, was approaching when I left the gym after practice and still saw the sun, seared orange. Summertime walks with my parents raced the sunset, after which the mosquitos were strong enough to carry grown humans away. Our broad, open sky was constant. Occasionally impressive. Mostly just there.

The dark sky surprised me, on the first trip back from college in the city. I had grown accustomed to streetlights striving to be stars and blinds shut against the ever-present suburban glow. The black was unsettling, until I saw the stars. They blinked, a wide sea over tiny floating yard lights. I’d forgotten their presence. They slowed my car, and I gaped out the windows. They lit the way home.

stars

The sky still wins my attention now, when I leave the city behind and turn onto I-29. It stretches, expanding as the land flattens. The highway snakes under it. I drive north distractedly, catching glimpses of clouds and sunsets and constellations. They are like my front porch light and the yellow lab wriggling from his dog house as the car door opens. You have arrived, they say.

During college, I spent my summers lifeguarding. When I worked the late shift, my commute aligned with the sunset. My rearview mirror blazed the whole way home. I got out at stop signs, sometimes, to stare back into it. Cell phone pictures could never frame that panorama of peach and swirling blue, deepening as I drove further into the country, wrapping around the fields. It was wild, beyond me and my ability to capture.

I once drove into the ditch on a night when temperatures dipped below zero. Snow had crusted over the gravel road, and I had been bested by it. My grandpa fired up the tractor to dig me out. The stars flashed while I shivered in my boots. They were diamonds, sharpened by cold, and I was just a dot on a gravel road. A dot among my grandpa and my dad and my brother, who grabbed shovels and hitched chains. A dot whose only role in this rescue was to hold the flashlight. A dot among millions of others. A dot who was known and seen among all the jewel-like stars. That kind of smallness is cliché and striking. No wonder it features in our songs and salvation stories. To think that you are one among millions of stars and humans is startling. To think that you are loved and known among millions of stars and humans is more startling still.

The stars, the sunsets, the sky, they show me the grace of the world. God offers his love to us in his creation. The beauty around us, its ordinary majesty, is his gift to us. Here he shows us himself, and ourselves. We accept his mercies when we choose to see them. We must choose to get out of the car at stop signs, to pause, to pay attention to his glittering presence surrounding us, to fall in love. That is the daily miracle of all grace: it knows we may ignore it, and it offers itself anyway.

The sky was waiting for us to see and wonder since God formed it with a breath. It was waiting when I was small, staring out school bus windows. It waited while I drove gravel roads twice a day, morning and evening. When I stop and see, it shows me myself, and worlds beyond my comprehension. It speaks love. I stand in awe.

 

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I love this one from Anna. It makes me want to take a big breath of sky.

For comment: What allows you to experience the peace of wild things? 

 

Scurry on over and submit your Reader Story, or just subscribe below so you don’t miss one!


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Faith + Vulnerability, Motherhood + Marriage, We create
Have years of making PB+J meant I’ve lost the woman I was?
August 23, 2016 1

Have so many years of making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches made me number to mystery, to beauty? Ashley Hales: Motherhood and Mystery aahales.com

I had a few hours completely alone the other day. I felt torn between working out, sleeping, cleaning and writing. I settled on writing — the others I can take children along for the ride while doing them. It felt blissful, quiet, with a cup of coffee I didn’t need to reheat 20 times in the course of the day.

I turned on my favorite Spotify writing playlist and let the notes sink in in ways they hadn’t done in awhile. Suddenly I wondered if I was still the woman that could be moved by notes struck on the piano. In college I’d had a CD of Beethoven that accompanied me (along with a Starbucks baroque playlist) on my studying sessions. I’d procrastinate from philosophy and English essays by writing poetry, about musical notes and meaning and depth. All those things that as a mother, I find harder to come by.

I wonder if that woman is still in me somewhere.

I spoke with my husband the other day about this whole mothering business. That it feels impossible some days to even keep the house in any semblance of order. That my days are spent in the space between children, monitoring homework, breaking up sibling fights and bickering sessions, returning the stolen toy from an offended sibling, and sitting in my daughter’s tight embrace while she sits on the potty (apparently, I’ve turned into her lovey). That it all doesn’t play to my strengths.

Sometimes I wonder if I exist amidst all the chaos. Or if I’m simply the frayed rope holding it (often hopelessly) together.

I tend to explode in a pile of mess (my own and theirs). The emotions become too much, too loud, too rich, too chaotic. I dream about coffee, or the glass of wine, or the quiet home when they’re all old enough to be in school at the same time and my days aren’t spent in an endless loop of drop-off to pick-up, circling in my minivan.

I’m the frayed rope and they all have a hand on me.

But in those rare moments of quiet, can I get to that part of me whose soul soars with music, with a well-turned phrase, with the quickness of the Spirit of God?

Or has she become numb to mystery after too many years of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, diaper changes, and children’s extracurricular activities?

Some say those things can usher us into the presence of God. I hope beyond all hope that they’re right — that doing the dishes will help me become more contemplative, that cooking and cleaning will increase my gratitude, that wiping bums will help me to take myself less seriously and learn empathy.

I hope. I pray. But I doubt, too.

Because I’m just a bit tired of taking on the emotions of my familial world and running alongside them like a parent running next to her child on a two-wheeler for the first time. There’s elation, fear, and relief as we carry the sorrows, cares, and anger of those we care about. It numbs sensitive souls, but perhaps it’s more useful. Less self-referential.

How do I crack open those deep, seeing parts of my being when I’m swirling in chaos?

How do I soften myself from the hustle so I can hear those notes again?

Beauty is a painful muse and I wonder if I want her enough to have all my self cracked open to her touch. Or, if it’s just convenient and comfortable to use my circumstantial chaos to push her away. Maybe I — maybe you — are scared to really feel and know what goodness and truth looks like. Maybe.

When we crack ourselves open, who knows what can happen? Who knows what can get in.

 

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At other places, Motherhood + Marriage, Review
Bad Moms and Neighborhood Parties
August 19, 2016 0

Are you a bad mom? aahales.com

I don’t know about you, but for me, I like to analyze things. Like a lot. Like to death. And sometimes I totally make my husband listen to all my brilliance. Sometimes that’s entirely too much for any one man to handle. I’ve been turning over motherhood and culture after seeing the movie Bad Moms. I’ve been thinking about neighborhood dynamics and how being a Christian means we should be good neighbors after reading, Next Door as it is in Heaven. Thankfully, too, I have a few wonderful editors who see fit to publish my ramblings  brilliance.

So if you’ve seen Bad Moms, tell me what you think. Here’s a bit about what I thought:

I guffawed. I cried tears of laughter. I sent my girlfriends knowing side glances when we had a girls night at the movies to watch, Bad Moms. I made everyone feel okay with laughing out loud because I did so much of it. But after all the laughter, I had to reflect on and think about what the movie was espousing.

It hits a certain soft spot for women these days — women who love their children, sacrifice their time, energy, sanity and money for them, and yet still feel like a failure. I kept turning it over in my head — particularly thinking about the dynamic between men and women in the movie — and instead of (entirely) boring my husband to death, I wrote about it for ThinkChristian.

The “bad mom” mantra becomes Amy’s campaign slogan when she runs for PTA president. Her openness encourages other women to stand up to confess their own “bad mom” moments. In the school’s gym, they enact a secular ritual of confession—calling out the ways they haven’t met up to some idealized standard of motherhood and finding solidarity in their failures.

It’s interesting, and perhaps humorous, that this solidarity is not found in being called to something higher, but by setting the bar lower. Yet confession and vulnerability without the Gospel isn’t good news. It’s just our dirty laundry.

Read more about what I thought about Bad Moms at ThinkChristian.

 


 

What has your summer looked like? Has it meant more or less neighborly time? I thought a lot about how we all ache for community and shun it at the same time. Here’s a bit from my review of Next Door as it is in Heaven:

We all care deeply about where we are placed, and we all long for home to feel like a firm foundational place of belonging. The problem is that we elevate the nuclear family and our physical houses instead of concomitantly seeking the good of our neighborhoods, cities, and world. Authors Ford and Brisco are desperate to recover a sense of the neighborhood as the space of connection, where the gospel takes on flesh.

The premise for Next Door As It Is in Heaven is simple: we are disconnected in our modern age of so-called connectivity, yet being a good neighbor is at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus. It is a book that challenges the reader to do what David Brooks wrote about in an op-ed for the New York Times: “We need to be more communal in an age that’s overly individualistic; we need to be more morally minded in an age that’s overly utilitarian; we need to be more spiritually literate in an age that’s overly materialistic; and we need to be more emotionally intelligent in an age that is overly cognitive.” We tend to think of emotional, spiritual, moral, and communal development as happening in classrooms or churches. But each of these areas Brooks highlights can be found by faithfully and intentionally practicing presence in your own neighborhood. Neighborliness matters. It is, after all, the basis for Jesus’s most famous parable of the Good Samaritan.

Living out the Kingdom of God then is not something professionals do with fancy words; it is, instead, patterned in our small moments of noticing others.

Read the entire review at The Englewood Review of Books.

 

Buy Next Door as it is in Heaven and tell me what you think:


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At other places, Books + Stories
Cue the superhero music: Reading CAN change the world
August 16, 2016 0
Reading can change the world -- aahales.com

My towering bedside reading

I read a lot. Sometimes I even get to write about what I read. And since I think that reading has become both more commonplace (we always have our phones out when we have 2.5 seconds of free mental space), it’s also become harder to read slowly, well, and with intention.

Never fear! There’s a book about that! C. Chris Smith, the editor for Englewood Review of Books, wrote a book called Reading for the Common Good. Do you wonder how reading really can change the world? Does it feel inconsequential or escapist to pick up a book these days? How might reading affect our neighborhoods and churches?

This isn’t about a cheesy Christian book club. This is a book that is about reorienting ourselves as a community, towards the flourishing of our neighborhoods and we can do it in small, daily, routines — like reading. Take a look at my review over at The Well. It’s geared for Christian women academics — so as a #MamaPhD, I have a lot in common with that audience — and yet, it’s a great book to pick up no matter your vocation.

Here’s a snippet:

Books were always my first love. As an only child, I spent my childhood wrapped in novels with the sounds of Disney’s Electric Parade on the background. It seemed only natural that my love for reading catapulted me into studying English as an undergraduate and then on to a master’s and Ph.D in literature. In all the focus on theory and dissecting novels like biology experiments, it became easy to think that reading would always (and only) serve a particular end. Pleasure and learning were subsumed into how a book was useful, how it perpetuated ideological categories. I wish I had had C. Christopher Smith’s new book, Reading for the Common Good, in those heady graduate school years as a gentle guide to reading for others.

Smith’s book, Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish, is the practical outworking of the Editor of The Englewood Review of Books’ previous co-authored book, Slow Church. Where Slow Church left off — advocating a return to incarnational living in church community rather than the McDonaldization of attractional churches — Reading for the Common Good continues. In it, Smith centers the local church; he writes: “For disciples of Jesus, our first and primary vocation is to follow in the way of Jesus as part of a church community.” How do individuals living their vocation within the context of their churches and communities begin to flourish? How do we slow down, invite conversation, and practice ethical, intentional discipleship? How do we learn to love the places where God has put us? Smith argues that reading buttresses the common good.

In many ways it seems ludicrous that the idea of reading is a revolutionary and transformative act. Isn’t it too basic for that? For most women in the academy, reading has been part and parcel of a way of life, simply the water we swim in.

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Read more at The Well!

While you’re at it, make sure you’ve signed up for my email newsletter. You get a free guide to telling your story and more goodness coming soon! –AH

 

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At other places, Simplify
When I want to Throw it All Out the Window
August 10, 2016 2

Simplifying doesn't buy peace. Ashley Hales (AAHales.com)

If you’re anything like me you pendulum swing between extremes. One day, I’m browsing Pottery Barn and CB2 catalogs and am determined to save my pennies for all the sparkly things in the West Elm store or for *the* best pair of leather boots on sale at Nordstrom (because, people, when you snag a sale, then you can justify the crazy prices because, I mean: SALE! Right?). The next day I decide that the best plan of action is to just throw out all of our things (including all the plastic junky toys that my children are suddenly enamored with) and pare down to a capsule wardrobe. Burn ALL THE THINGS! Finally get a chore chart that we can stick with! Get a meal plan and a new calendar and a white board and a family motto! Donate all the clothes that we don’t wear! (Or even just really, put your own dishes in the dishwasher. That would be a good start.) I keep reaching for outward systems to fix my internal chaos.

I read books and blogs about minimalism. And then I see the pretty house, the new throw pillows, the cute belt, and my eyes get wide-eyed for something I think I’m missing.

I know that stuff won’t fix my own holes of neediness. I know that a new outfit, or pair of shoes, or decorating scheme, or bigger house only digs my own sense of unbelonging deeper. There is always never enough when we operate out of scarcity.

Likewise, I know (somewhere theoretically) that defining myself by lack — by how much I save, or how much I don’t buy, or how wise and resourceful I am — does not satisfy either. One time I tried to do that Marie Kondo method. (The idea is that if something doesn’t spark joy when you hold it in your hands you toss it.) I donated 8 trash bags full of clothes, accessories, and shoes. And then I was left with a few things, not all of which sparked joy — because, I needed to actually wear clothes, man.

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I’m over at The Mudroom writing about the elusive search for the simple life. Do you have a hard time letting go of stuff? Please tell me I’m not alone in my crazy swing from one extreme to the other. I’d love for you to go to The Mudroom to read the whole thing.

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Books + Stories
If I was in a relationship with “work” on Facebook, I’d say it was “complicated”
August 1, 2016 0

Review of A Woman's Place -- aahales.com

I don’t know about you but I imagined my working life would be pretty straightforward. I’d go to school, grad school, land the perfect tenure track job and settle down as a professor. I’d inspire, hone students’ writing, and teach them how literature engages us in empathy. Sure, I’d have children, I reasoned, but the who/what/where/why/how of that and ensuing child care didn’t bother me. We’d figure it out.

But after my first baby was born, I found myself leaving my academic job after just two years. My college had clustered my classes in such a family-friendly way that I only had to go in two days a week to teach. I could prep for classes, grade, and take care of my newborn at home the other days. It was ideal. But then God loves detours, doesn’t he? (It’s why I’m hanging my PhD above the changing table.)

We moved from LA to San Diego for a church planting internship for my husband’s career. There we were surprisingly blessed with another baby. Trying to work on my PhD with a toddler and a newborn was nearly impossible. Then after a year, when church planting didn’t pan out at that time, we moved to Salt Lake City to start a  campus ministry.

Each  move we weighed together, prayed, and sought council. Each move and each baby meant that a traditional tenure track job was less likely — not because my husband didn’t believe in me, but because of our circumstances. You see, every time you commit to someone (whether that’s a spouse, child, or church) you are necessarily limiting your options.

Committing to another person means that my needs for self-actualization in a vocation don’t come automatically. It means that as the babies have come, as God has lead our family from one place to another, that “work” looks complicated. It’s simply not “his turn” and then “my turn.” It’s meant a malleable back-and-forth, where we each must ask how we can help the other come fully alive, serve each other and our children, and ultimately, heed God’s call.

If “work” and your womanhood are also a bit more complicated, if you grew up with woman being told they must stay at home to be a good mother, if you find your desires met (or unfulfilled) by your vocation, there’s great food for thought right here in the form of a review I wrote.

I had the immense pleasure of reviewing Katelyn Beaty’s book, A Woman’s Place, for The Englewood Review of Books. Here’s a snippet:

What I found in Katelyn Beaty was a woman who understood the pull of work, womanhood, and Christian faithfulness. Beaty is the youngest (and only female) managing print editor for Christianity Today — a job she accepted the same day her engagement ended. This back story provides the impetus for Beaty’s book as she traces a cultural view of women in the workplace and then shows scripturally how bearing the imago dei means that both men and women were created to work — in the home, in the marketplace, and in the world.

 

In a recent article in The Atlantic Monthly, Beaty stated that a stay-at-home mother lacks the cultural influence of a corporate worker. It’s a statement with which I patently disagree, and yet one which I held before a baby, my husband’s job changes, and a failed economy meant I stopped teaching. And yet, in another way, I didn’t stop teaching or writing. That work just took other forms. I may not make a salary right now, but my early morning hours writing make me a better mother.

I hope you’ll go and have a look at the review!

(contains affiliate link)
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Don’t forget: I’d love your feedback on living in the suburbs. It’s just 4 questions and will help me immensely as I write my book and fashion my book proposal this month. Click here for the survey!

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Announcements
Suburbanites, I need YOU!
July 28, 2016 1

Survey at aahales.com

Just kidding, I don’t have prizes. (Unless, of course, you count helping out your friendly neighborhood writer as a big, fat carnival prize!!) But you do get to weigh in.

In case you didn’t notice, I’m writing a book. Why, you might ask? Because I like to write to figure out myself and solve all the world’s problems. Okay, maybe not. Scratch that. (I’m in a silly mood today.) But I do write to find out what I think and how to live better and more intentionally in the present.

Here’s where you come in: I need my readers who live in a suburb to weigh in on JUST 4 QUESTIONS!

Only 4?, you say. Gosh darn, I’ve got time for that in-between my scrolling through Facebook and Instagram, while I pretend to be productive. Yes, reader, just FOUR questions.

Click HERE to access this short little survey. I promise it’ll be shorter than it takes to grab that nonfat latte in the Starbucks drive-thru.

And you’ll have my undying gratitude, too, for helping me hone the message of my book. Pass this cute little link on to ALL YOUR FRIENDS. Because today is a day for lattes and ALL CAPS.

xo,

Ashley

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Finding Love in the Present Tense (for The Mudroom)
At other places
Finding Love in the Present Tense (for The Mudroom)
July 12, 2016 0

The theme for July at The Mudroom is Relationships, True Intimacy, and Lasting Connection. I asked the other writers what they were writing about — motherhood, marriage, friendship, something else? — so we would hit different themes. In the end, I wrote about ALL THE THINGS because sometimes the flood gates open. This is a love letter to love and an apology — that I have most often used relationships to write a story about me. Maybe you have too. I’d love to share a few words with you here, but head on over to The Mudroom to read the whole thing. –AH

Finding love in the present tense -- Ashley Hales -- aahales.com

On the cusp of womanhood, we dreamt of boys who would sweep us off our feet, play the guitar, and in the sun-drenched summer days of southern California, carry a surfboard under muscular tanned arms. We wrote bad poetry and were waterlogged from long days at the pool. We ate cookies, drank Coke, and didn’t worry about waistlines while we spilled slumber party secrets. We traded best friend necklaces and dreamt of friendship that would always return like the rhythm of ocean waves.

We were 17 — babies in love. I wrapped telephone cords around my finger during those hours where we plumbed emotional depths. Conversations about the sunny future where our hopes and dreams always seemed to align perfectly. Soul mates. Destiny. Knight in Shining Armor. You name it — we trotted out each cliche, but they felt newly awoken in our mouths. There were novels written in kisses in those early days. But then there were budgets, moves, babies, and ministry that consumed all of our creative energy.

Then, years later, there was the fresh newborn head smell that I willed my senses to remember. Each babyhood became somehow more precious because I realized how fleeting time really was. When before, I’d smirk at the coos from gray-haired ladies, now I realized I was well on my way to becoming one. By my third baby (I’m a slow learner), I had become used to the lack of sleep, the mess, the way motherhood pours you out from reserves you didn’t know you had. And I fell in love anew with blonde curls, sparkling eyes, and how I could fully be someone’s entire world. That my body, my arms, my attention could meet every need.

Then there were the friendships forged over red coffee mugs, the ones where we owned our anger, our feeble steps of faith and doubt, how as pastor’s wives we felt broken, vulnerable, and confused about calling. How we just needed a date night to fall in love with our husbands again. How we vacillated between fiercely loving our children while also wishing they’d just leave us for a moment of peace. When we moved away and the miles separated us, I cried to you on the phone, shut up in my minivan: I didn’t know how to do life away from you. And now, you’ve lost your dad, I am miles away and I do not know how to hold up your grief that I cannot see.

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Read the rest here.

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When There are no Words and the Distance is Wide
Faith + Vulnerability
When There are no Words and the Distance is Wide
July 5, 2016 0

Sometimes grief is an itchy blanket, at other times it envelops with comforting salty waves, and right now, there is just a blankness.

How do you walk through grief when it is not yours to shoulder? When you are not the one on the knife-edge of grief? When you are not near to offer a hug that says all the words?

Dear close friends have lost a father and father-in-law. A fellow pastor has lost a child. A faraway friend has been told that her baby will not live on the outside of the womb. And the weight of all the world feels crushing. (This is, of course, before one even begins to account for genocide and nameless killings and tragedies we get on every news channel.)

But how do we grieve losses well when they are not ours to take on? When there are so many states separately you from someone, you can’t just bring a casserole, or a candle or offer to scrub their toilet so they can cry. There is instead so much space to traverse, and the miles between is not even the beginning. So I’m left open-handed not knowing how to be present when there is nothing but distance and yet — with the instantaneousness of the internet, there is that eradication of that same distance. It feels a bit like tourism in someone else’s life, watching signposts of someone else’s grief pop up periodically on Facebook. The distance of grief is a type of jet lag, where your body hasn’t caught up to the time change. And you’re stuck with a foggy head, sore limbs, and not being able to sleep through the night.

How do hearts and minds catch up to the distance that grief presents?

All I have today is a breeze through the window and prayers on the tip of my tongue — prayers that feel ephemeral and as inconsequential as wind. They do not feed like a casserole. They do not bring relief like a hug. They do not make one smile with a bit of cleanliness and a comfy spot to rest weary bones. It is hard to see the beauty and power in prayer, at times. But maybe, mysteriously, muttered prayers do feed in ways I just am not privy to see. But for today, I will not figure it all out. I will not discern out how distance and grief live well together as bedfellows. Today is not for the puzzling.

Today is for the praying, for groans that get translated. For feeble offerings that don’t feel like much. Sometimes grief, even grief at a distance, means sitting in the middle space. That too, is a posture of faith. That underneath all the prayers and waiting, there is a mystery that is bigger than the universe that makes sense of them. Part of seeing my humanity clearly is seeing myself as very small. It is trusting that prayers are offerings that multiply exponentially like loaves and fishes by hands that break and bless them. That, for today, is enough.

 

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When Happily Ever After Isn’t Easy
Celebrate
When Happily Ever After Isn’t Easy
June 20, 2016 6

Happily Ever After Isn't Easy -- aahales.com

We celebrate being married fourteen years this week and really, I still want to just run away with you. This is not because we are perpetually in love. It is however, born from a happily ever after that hasn’t always been so.

We married on a summer morning, with peonies and roses in hand. We were children, really, though we felt like we had waited too long already. We wanted to get on with our life, we wanted to not have to say good bye each night. We wanted to fall exhausted to sleep in arms that were always meant for holding each other. I walked down the aisle and you teared up as we said vows, as we made a covenant that felt full of joy that day. Its champagne bubbles made us laugh and hiccup in delight. They bubbled over into wine, dancing, strapless wedding gowns. We said words like richer and poorer, sickness and health, and really, we didn’t know what those somber words meant. But our eyes were earnest. We said them as best we knew. And that was enough. Because if we knew it all then, would we have said “I do” then?

But we promised those abstract words. And they rose up real and true, loud and strong. And you gave me the platinum band that made it to my knuckle and I pushed it all the way down and it clinked with the engagement ring — the one that I somehow lost years later in Scotland while doing the dishes. But you never shamed me for losing what cost you years of teenage sweat and work. For losing the symbol of our love. For losing something that was so precious. Because, you see, even the diamonds were not the thing.

The covenant was. “Covenant” is a big, often clumsy word and it feels like stately pews and things that are perhaps, a bit out of date. We didn’t know then that “covenant” meant that it would encircle our kisses, our years of international travel and starry eyed wonder at the beauty and majesty of living life together as husband and wife. We didn’t know then that something like that word could stretch so large and wide to encompass 8 moves, 4 children and one unborn lost baby. We didn’t that covenant would grow to accommodate job and career changes, loving new cities, stretching in ways we didn’t know possible. We couldn’t know that a covenant could stretch and grow and fill in the cracks of silent anger where we turned our backs on each other. We didn’t know that covenant meant it would repair the hurt and angry words yelled across wood floors and bitterness felt through the reverberation of slammed doors.

I think because you’re the pastor and I’m the pastor’s wife, that we somehow got a pass on this marriage deal. That we were wired for more holy, more sacrifice, and because we’d looked starry eyed at each other so long, that surely the rings would make it all only easier. Surely by virtue of our roles, your vocation, that marriage would come easily. Surely God owed us that?  Surely marriage would be blissful, because love always had been. We didn’t know the beauty of a covenant that can get battered and beat up and somehow look more beautiful on the other end. I thought that the nicks just made it ugly, but never knew that when a marriage is tousled and comes out the other side, that it (like the Velveteen Rabbit) is more real.

But we coasted for awhile on champagne love and a friendship that looked like independence. There were years where we could each do our own thing, play the role of adult in our jobs, and spend $50 on a gourmet salad for a dinner party, because what else was there to do with money but spend it? In graduate school, we could find cheap flights and spend the weekend in London in a drab part of town, but it didn’t matter because we were young and adventure was always to be had. We drank in the world. We skipped like children on cobblestone streets and if we were not still drunk on love, we were happily content to walk side-by-side, pursuing our own individual dreams, working hard.

But then the babies came, and the one that never was to be born was the first one to make me swell with mama-pride. And I became a protective hen, circling my future brood, drawing all mama knowledge to myself. It was then I lost a bit of myself as your lover, as our covenant grew to accommodate more love enfleshed. We became parents, we divided and conquered. We fell exhausted to sleep but there was no encircling arms. We were too tired, too busy to reach out to the other.

In all those years of merely surviving, of roles changing, the anniversaries piled up, celebrated in dinners and cards. Our covenant felt cracked, it didn’t make our eyes light up and the giddiness of those first several years had long ago gone flat. I didn’t want something as boring as covenant then, I wanted the bubbling excitement of those early years with kisses that spoke volumes, with touches that sent electricity through my finger tips. I figured covenant meant disavowing all our early excitement. I was always leaking milk, or covered in sticky-fingered messes or spit-up from the next baby. Instead of pressing into the beauty of those early parenting years, of seeing myself as more real and loved, I floundered, my head barely above water. Where was I? Who had we become? I had turned into a mother. I morphed into a role that felt too big and never big enough. And maybe mother was a more comfortable role to grow into than wife and lover. Its path was clear. Our children are young, they’re covered in dirt, and their voices are too often too loud. And as they needed tending, I bowed to the tyranny of the urgent. I figured we were both self-sufficient adults. You didn’t need me. Not in the same way anyway. Just in the abstract. And abstract didn’t hold much water.

We had years of repelling each other like magnets, where we retreated to our corners, licked our wounds and felt unloved. It was never something major, just the accumulation of thinking the covenant would take care of itself, that we were owed something by each other and by God. We forgot the basic truth: when we said “I do,” we vowed to always be on the same team. As the good news of a good God who runs after his children when we’re stubbornly clinging to our own record of rightness sunk deeper still, we thawed and turned toward each other. You walked in instead of walking away. I practiced saying “I’m sorry.” We laughed. We took long walks. We cooked together again. We retraced the liturgies of our early love-making.

Now, too, there is a bit of space now to run away again.  It is time to reimagine us, to put time back into this structure, to weave our stories together again. It is time to see the beauty in well-worn furniture. We’re not jetting off around the world, or even far from town, and yet, I can’t wait to run away to celebrate the 14 years that this covenant has held us up. I do not need the miles. I do not need the airplane, even as I feel the ache of all the lives we have not lived — because an airplane is not the only adventure. Moving place is not necessary to travel well. Adventure happens when your eyes are open to see what is always there.

If this marriage covenant is supposed to hold us up, ours is not particularly alluring anymore. It’s not the sexy, modern chair in the hotel lobby — the one that is never actually used. But ours is sturdy like those wooden pews, it is solid and has weathered rain and taken a beating. The nicks each tell a story. And perhaps those gauges, nicks, and weathering are what is going to make this structure far more beautiful. Perhaps becoming real looks vastly different than what I imagined when we danced on our marriage morning to the song that we heard on our first date.

Because looking back, I think I was hoping for a marriage that always felt new. I wanted to be picture perfect, to be adored, to be whisked across the sea on endless adventures with umbrella drinks and museum trips. I wanted everything that Facebook pictures and the magazines promised romance would be. Champagne, pearls, and witty repartees. But on the other end of 14 years, we can sit cross-legged on a beat-up wooden pew and know without a doubt that we will be held. You have seen me at my most vulnerable — bringing our four children into the light through swears, fear, and strength — and you have never left me. You have never used my weakness as shame, it has always been a crown of courage. We will always have a sturdy place to land, as we’ve worked to rebuild the broken places of our love. We have a safe place to rest our weary feet.

Because I’ve lost the diamond ring. The champagne goes flat. The money for the adventure runs out with four little birds in our nest. We are left then with either bitterness, envy, or the solid hope in a covenant that encircles, bends and stretches through loss, anger, grief and fear.

Because ultimately the strength of that covenant doesn’t rest on words we said when we were just babies. It rests on the great I AM who says he will never leave us or forsake us, who runs to welcome his wayward bride, who clothes us with the robes of family. He is the rock of ages and, on that foundation, we can keep placing our little wooden marital pew.

We can say I’m sorry, will you forgive me? We can crack our anger open and let the sadness pour like egg white until there is nothing left. On that rock we will have the courage to crumble and throw our bodies on solid ground when we feel we are melting with confusion, or upended when life looks nothing like it did when the air was thick with peonies and diamond hope.

But on the other side of 14 years (though I would never say no to a trip around the world) I’ll take the small adventure any day. I’ll take a beat-up wooden seat every single day of the year. It has stood out in the rain and proven itself as solid, sure, faithful, and true. And “covenant” is such a beautiful word — of shame met with faithfulness — that it’s the beginning of a story I want to fall deeper into. It is our story. And it’s far more beautiful than champagne promises.

So my love, let’s run away together. There are always adventures to be had. Even ones that look like ordinary and start with faltering words of vulnerability. We have room again for promises and dreams in abstract words that we’re unsure what those will  look like. We’ve stretched that far before. We can have the courage for those dreams, too. We do indeed have a soft and sturdy place to land.

 

 

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