contemplative life, domestic arts, everyday parables

a room in the kingdom

There’s a room in the kingdom where your sisters are weaving.

No one’s speaking now, not after days of late-night talks and early-morning laughter, of sermons and studies and gathered meals. Instead, some read, some write, and others tend their little looms, weaving bands with colors like a winter sky. Someone at the piano recalls the song we sang last night, when the lights went out under roaring wind and thunder.  This morning, as sunshine dyes the hour gold, they hum along, “…all I have needed, Thy hands have provided…” And their hands pray with thread and rag, drawing the weft like hours and days and years, ordinary moments given form and glory by the upright cords of the warp: covenants that neither bend nor break.

***

There’s a room in the kingdom where your friends are feasting.

The tables are heavy with brisket and chicken salad, fajitas and rice, lemonade and Dr. Pepper. The family could have circled close, hiding their grief in seemly privacy. But they know their father better: beloved host, he would open the doors, tell his children to bring their friends home, too. After all, who else will eat this food? And so they laugh even as they weep, telling stories, explaining the intricate display of cotton bolls, the feed-sack, the photograph, the family legend and dear history.

They eat well, affirming the resurrection with second helpings, until, as they house empties, they turn to you and say, “Tell us.” And even here, even in their grief, they listen to the hard choice. Offering no easy answers, betraying no awkward impatience, they listen deep and wide, wide with the love of those who grieved, deep with the hope of those who believe.

And so, having feasted at their father’s table, you find yourself outside, four friends holding one another against the cold. They pray for you beneath the blazing stars, upbank from the river that can bless and flood. Four friends against the cold, and then — a fifth draws near.

***

There’s a room in the kingdom where strangers are meeting.

You can hear the drums before you leave the house, and the firelight tells you where to find them. Circled already: neighbors, friends, and strangers linked by firelight and rhythm. They would burst the seams of your little house, but here around the fire there is room: room to beat a drum with jubilation or shy intensity, room to slip out for a cigarette or a dance, room to join or wait.

Bring your banjo and tambourine, your bucket or pot, your tingling bells or child’s drum. Bring your clapping hands and timid feet, surrender to something beyond your power, something beyond your right to start or end, manage or maintain.

***

“From that time Jesus began to preach, saying,

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

(Matthew 4:17 ESV)

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everyday parables, faith, imagination, scripture

we journey on

Dear Friends,

We’ve been following this star for ages, it seems. When we left you at the city’s western gate, the road was smooth and the sky clear, but I confess that this last year of travel has been difficult.  Many nights cloud or smoke obscures the sky, or some obstacle impedes us.  The camels are a sore trial, and even our elder magi have found it difficult to study or discourse from a saddle. To my shame, many nights I have pined for the silks and scrolls we left behind. And each member of our small company has been lonesome, for we expected so many more companions would join us on this road.

For all that, the journey has graceful, even in its roughness. The landscape is less strange now, and we have come to know some of the language, the names of the flowers and grains. On rare days when the clouds clear, the star seems to shine more brightly than when it first arose. And while the cities have often been uncouth or cold, we could also tell of great hospitality, even from the poorest of houses. Even now, bread and honey—gift of a kind goodwife– sweetens my heart as well as my tongue.

And what of this child-king we have come so far to hail? He was not born to our people—or was he? We left palace and hall because the heavens declared that a light of revelation was coming – a wisdom to baffle all our learning. When we began, I feared that mystery. Now, its promise draws us onward with joy.

We journey on, beloved. May you, too, press on beneath that holy starlight, until the day we meet again in a common house, at the cradle of our king.

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everyday parables, faith, life together, marriage

dreaming for the sake of others

My husband’s love language is dreaming. The eyes of his heart are roaming and keen, restless until the day they find peace in the sight of God’s kingdom. But so long as that new heaven and new earth remain hidden, his eyes wander, gathering hope in the most unlikely of places, including his wife’s timid and fretful spirit.

The broken ground of this new life means that my own ability to dream–once such an enormous part of my life–has been shaken out of sleep. This awakening has been both hard and sweet: hard because I have realized that most of my dreams over the past decade have been for myself. I have imagined any number of happy scenarios for my own future, but I have not dreamed much for the sake of others. This has been a failure of imagination, a failure of love, and I have repented of it. With that confession, though — such sweet relief. Dreams that once seemed too grand for “real life” suddenly glimmer with real possibility. And why? Because my private hopes no longer need to be enough. The little garment of my ambitions are not enough to keep anyone else warm, but just imagine how much more they can do if I see my dreams as one strand that I weave into something much larger. Alongside this man I’ve married, I am learning to dream not only for myself or our household, but for and with others.

This task–learning to dream for others–is one of the great and difficult works I’m undertaking in wisdom’s workshop. How can I dream with and for you in this season? If you will, use the “connect” tab and let me know on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or an old-fashioned letter.

Finally, if you’re in the Austin, Texas area and would like to continue this conversation face to face, I’m leading a seminar entitled “Crying for a Vision: Reclaiming Imagination for the Common Good.” It will be a four-week series, beginning Tuesday, September 15 at 7 PM. Sponsored by The Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture, we will meet at 1611 West Ave. Austin 78701. I would be honored and delighted to see some of you there.

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cooking, domestic arts, everyday parables, faith, marriage, recipes

Tasting hope

“This,” said my husband, putting down his spoon, “is really Tom Bombadilish! It’s the ideal that every jelly tries to be, and fails!” Of course I smiled. How could a lover of Plato and Tolkien–not to mention a new wife–fail to be pleased by such a comparison? Taking another bite myself, I knew he was right. The taste could only be called wild: richly flavored, baptized with sweetness, vivid with the memory of tree-high vines, spider webs, and early-morning sunlight.

Grape jelly is not a food I’ve spent much time or energy pondering. Lacking the symbolic heft of bread, for example, it seems, at best, a marker of childhood lunches, peanut-butter-and-jelly days of untroubled desire. As an adult, I’ve kept my love of peanut butter but tend to skip the cloying jellies in favor of honey, cinnamon, or apple butter.

Why, then, did this jelly mean so much? Why did my husband taste in it something of Middle Earth? And why did I come back to my six little jars of it five times yesterday, simply to look into its purple depths? Because when I savored its wild sweetness, its complex goodness, I knew I was tasting hope.

Hope can be complicated when everything is new. On the one hand, new doors open all around, inviting dreams and desires. But you also lose the settled expectations of the old order. The relationships you can rest in, the view out your window, the nature and value of your work — all these can become impossibly fragile. At least, that is how I have often felt during these first months of my new life. How can I hope towards a beautiful home, when my house is an RV, pretty enough on the inside, but nothing compared to the beautiful old house I owned in Alabama? And how can I hope into my vocation, when I am not teaching –the one expression of my calling which I was sure I did well?

When questions are too big to run away from, sometimes the wisest course is to run into them. When my narrow walls make me fretful, I rise early and go run. I watch the tiny homes go up, play with the kittens, say good morning to the chickens, bless the gardens, and remember that I am living in a beautiful place, so much larger than my private domestic aspirations. I run through the gap in the fence, into the neighboring subdivision. Passing house after house, I find an unexpected nature trail. The serendipity of this discovery makes me love the canopy of green, the steady sound of crushed granite beneath my feet.

Last week, Steven came with me to see the trail. As we walked, he noticed a vine of wild mustang grapes. “I can’t believe they’re still here so late in the season,” he said, plucking one. The skin was thick and sour, but the pulp inside was tantalizing and sweet. We continued our walk, dreaming together. The next morning, I returned. The vines tangled far deeper into the thicket than we had realized the day before. They climbed high into the trees, and with their purple fruit they hung like beaded curtains between the trail and the little clearing within.

The foraging was sticky, scratchy, spidery work, but after an hour I returned home with five pounds of fruit. Over the next two days I worked with the grapes, my hope growing with each step: soaking, washing, pureeing, cooking, preserving. When it finally came time to taste, I was wide-eyed, ready to eat spoonful after spoonful straight from the pot. Such goodness, waiting among forgotten trees. Such grace, bought without coin or credit. I remembered God’s call in Isaiah 55.1:

Come, everyone who thirsts,

come to the waters;

and he who has no money,

come, buy and eat!

Come, buy wine and milk

without money and without price

The greatest enemy to hope is the idea that the fulfillment of hope depends on my power. I should know better, really; my dissertation, if nothing else, taught me that hope empowers my work and self-sufficiency, not the other way round. We can and must work toward the objects of our hope, but in the end, God’s abundance supplies all the goodness we can bear.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,

and your labor for that which does not satisfy?

Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,

and delight yourselves in rich food

(Isaiah 55.2)

Last week, God’s grace came in the form of wild mustang grapes. Surprised delight made my hands wise, and they created something beautiful. This is the wildness of hope: it gives us so much more than we could ask or imagine.

***

Wild Mustang Jelly

Ingredients

(adapted from the PickYourOwn.org instructions, here)

5 pounds wild mustang grapes

4 cups sugar

3 Tbs + 1 tsp Low or No-Sugar Needed Pectin (this is important! Use regular pectin and you’ll end up drowning out the tang with too much sugar)

Instructions

Wash the grapes. I did this by placing them in a large dishpan of cool water, letting them soak for a few hours, then draining them. Sort out any grapes that are wrinkled or rotten.

Puree the grapes in a food processor. (You can do this by hand with a potato masher or food mill but a processor will do a better job of releasing the juice from the skins and fruit).

Put the puree (pulp, skins, and even seeds) in a large stock pot or Dutch oven, and add just enough water to cover the grapes. Heat with high heat, stirring often to prevent scorching, until the mixture begins to boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.

Strain the grapes. You can do this in a number of ways. Jelly purists use a very fine strainer, such as a jelly bag or even a muslin pillowcase, to obtain a clear juice. I actually prefer having some of the fruit pulp in my jelly, so I simply poured the puree through an ordinary kitchen sieve. (I also set aside the already-strained pulp in a bowl, and found that once it cooled, I could pour off even more juice). Altogether, your five pounds of fruit ought to yield 5 cups of juice. If you have less than this, you could always make up the difference with some organic grape juice.

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Return the strained juice to the pot and add the pectin. Bring to a full boil over medium or high heat.

Once the mixture has begun to boil, you can test the jell by dipping an ice-cold metal spoon in the jelly. If the jelly becomes really thick as it cools to room temperature, you’re ready to proceed. If not, try adding a bit more pectin.

Preserve the jelly. Pour your jelly into hot, sterilized jars and process in a water-bath canner according to the directions on the jars or the pectin. Once processed, remove the jars, let them cool, test the seal, and then find a friend with whom to share your treasure.

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domestic arts, everyday parables, fiber crafts

The tension and the tedium

“I’ve tossed everything together.”

“I’ve woven everything together.”

What’s the difference between these two sentences? The first suggests haste, casualness, even indifference. The second sentence, on the other hand, connotes order and care, whether “everything” means ideas or paperwork or relationships.

While tossing has its place (salad, anyone?), we tend to use the verb “to weave” when describing things of great value: we speak of “weaving dreams,” or of a new husband and wife being “woven” together through love. Hardly trendspeak, these phrases have shaped language and thought for centuries: the ancient poet Homer, for example, uses weaving as a metaphor for human cunning and wisdom. So while most modern people have never seen anyone create real cloth on a “definite loom” (to borrow John Updike’s phrase), weaving has, for thousands of years, represented wise planning, careful arrangement, skillful execution. Even more, the products of weaving–cloths and fabrics of all kinds–can be emblems of the good things human culture can produce. Both literally and symbolically, then, “to weave” suggests a patterned beauty, a structured strength. It reveals a longing for care, intention, and integration.

When our ancestors first used weaving as a metaphor, they did so with deep knowledge of the processes and products involved. Unfortunately, with inherited language we are always in danger of letting our symbols grow ignorant and vague. Thus, while I can deploy the metaphor “to weave” with great confidence, I am only beginning to learn the wisdom of the literal craft.

Even as a novice weaver, I have already found so much buried in its most basic skills. At first, I was impatient for the exciting part — the shuttle moving from side to side, over and under, each pass building an intricate and beautiful pattern.  I quickly learned, however, that a lot of work must precede that swift and satisfying work. This preliminary process has the ominous name of warping, and it means to stretch a number of vertical threads, under very high tension, from one end of the loom to the other. Even on the simplest of looms, the warping process can be incredibly tedious: some threads must be remain stationary during weaving, while others must be free to go up and down, and these different groups must be attached to the loom differently, thread by thread. At the same time, the weaver must attend to the colors of the threads, and how the vertical hues will interact with the weft (horizontal threads) to create the final pattern. The more complex the loom and pattern, the more demanding this warping process becomes. Finally, once the threads have been arranged in the proper patterns and colors, the weaver must tighten the threads with considerable pressure. If these vertical warp threads are not taut, they will tangle with the weft, creating a slack mess rather than a clear, structured design. If the threads cannot withstand the stress of tensioning before weaving, they will inevitably break during the friction and movement of the weaving itself.

Because I am in a season of so much newness–new marriage, new place, new forms giving shape to my calling–even these elementary lessons in weaving have challenged and comforted me. Do I resent the paperwork involved with moving, changing my name, switching insurance companies, and turning my Alabama home into rental property? Does the anxiety of networking temper my enthusiasm for new enterprises here at the Village? Does the long work of revision feel laborious compared to the thrill of a published piece? To each of these questions, the answer can be yes. Even the most satisfying work has its tedious hours, its stressful encounters and accountability. These tasks can feel like intrusions upon the “real” work, the satisfying heart of our labor. And yet, they form the bones of our crafts, whether that means creating a home, writing a book, starting a business, or weaving a strong piece of cloth. Hurrying through the humble or frightening work now, creates waste and confusion in the long run.

As I look with satisfaction at the first pattern to come from my loom, I resolve not to resent the paperwork or preparation. Rather, I’m learning to give thanks for the time, ability, and courage to do the work behind the cloth. We live in a world of tangled philosophies, careless habits, and shoddy work. Attending to what is difficult or mundane bears witness to another, better form of life, preparing the way for the patterns of God’s hidden kingdom.

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everyday parables, faith, glimpse, marriage, photography

After the rains

As the rains fall, don’t rush to name them, “blessing” or “curse.” Allow yourself to look on nourished fields and grace-green trees, but don’t forget the floods that have washed away homes and hopes.

It is good to cry when it rains, to feel at home with the sky’s weeping, to remember that you are not alone in whatever sorrows have filled your eyes.

But after it rains, dry your eyes. Sew for yourself a skirt the color of Texas wildflowers, and walk down a road you do not know. Ponder the names of the trees, and look out on new fields, wide-open spaces. Don’t be afraid.

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everyday parables

A Not-So-Lonely Road

The kingdom of heaven is like a girl who has heard rumors about a narrow road that leads you home. She packs her bags and prepares for a long, lonely journey, but before she can begin, she hears a mighty pounding on her door. Opening it cautiously, she finds three friends on the threshold. “Don’t be afraid,” they say. “We’re coming with you.”

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