faith, life together, marriage, photography

So hard, so sweet

Hypocrisy is like saccharin: no real sweetness, but mixed into something good, it might fool your tongue into relishing the taste you crave. In my communication with friends, my status updates or Instagram posts, I’ve been veering between hypocrisy and silence lately. I don’t mean to say that what I’ve posted is untrue; merely that, for the first time in many years, the most cheerful updates have been the exception, not the rule, to my general mood.

My intellect keeps insisting that I need to snap out of my sadness, but my spirit knows better than to obey. My spirit knows that change is hard, and that is entirely possible to be full of joy and hope, full of gratitude and awe, but dreadfully homesick at the same time. I know how to share the joy, the hope, the gratitude, but I don’t know how to share the sadness. I don’t want maudlin status updates that sound like pleas for pity. I don’t want anyone to misunderstand my sadness, blame my husband (who is, next to Jesus, the greatest bulwark to my joy right now), and come riding in on a white charger with sword drawn. I simply want to tell the stories of these days: truly and in full color, but tempered and measured according to the truth.

Thus, my September experiment and challenge. Each day I will share a picture of one thing about life right now that feels hard, and one thing that is beautiful and sweet. Some of these glimpses may be profound, others will certainly be silly. Some days I will explain the pictures, other days I won’t. My purpose is not to provoke pity or solicit solutions, but rather to train my own eyes to the truth.

Today’s picture has to do with the world right outside my door. I grew up in a green place, a city of tall trees and green canopies. In Alabama, I owned a house in an old neighborhood, and three enormous live oaks shaded roof. Given my love for green ground and tall trees, it’s been really hard living on the edge of a parking lot, on ground that has been upturned for so much building. I know that once the Village has all its buildings in place, landscaping will begin again, restoring the green. But still, the concrete and the bare dirt are hard for me to love. And the sweet? Just outside, there are a thousand promises of growth and green. Last week my husband brought home a parched soapberry tree. It’s leaves were all scorched from neglect, and we worried it might not flourish. But after a week of watering, its branches have sent forth so many hopeful shoots. Even sweeter? The tree was a gift, serendipitious generosity from the man at the nursery. We were not looking for a tree, but it came to us without striving or seeking. Our tree is, in more ways than one, full of grace, and that grace is very sweet indeed.

What has been hard and sweet for you lately?  Would you your pictures or juxtapositions? You can do so leaving a comment, or by posting photos to Twitter (@bethanyjoy) or Instagram (@bethanyjoyful). Tag your posts #sohardsosweet

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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.

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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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faith, homelessness, logic, marriage

The first day

By late August, summer exhaustion has settled in: all the vacation reading has been devoured, and it’s much too hot to enjoy being outside. Even in Indiana, where I grew up, late summer feels parched and sluggish, bug-ridden and overripe. I feel it now as strongly as I did as a child: it’s time for a new season, a change, time to rouse from the sluggish summer haze. For twenty-six of my thirty-one years, this new season began on the first day of school.

It might even be more accurate to say that every summer of my life has eventually given way to the autumn joy of returning to school. My parents have been parachurch ministers to college students for more than thirty years, and so the rhythms of an academic calendar oriented our entire household. Even as I toddler I began “playing school” with my dolls. I would pull all the thickest books from my parents’ shelves, arrange my classroom, assign impossible amounts of reading, and then end the lesson with a tea party. When I actually began kindergarten, in 1989, I cried at the end of the first week because mama had to tell me that I didn’t get to go back on Saturdays.

For a naturally shy child, the structure of a school day felt secure. There were rules about where to sit and how to play, there were instructions about when to talk to the other children. I loved the order of it all: having a special hook for my backpack, knowing that today was the day for playing with the blocks but not the play-dough. And I was good–really good, I later realized– at the schoolwork itself. Anything related to words and stories came naturally to me, and I had enough curiosity and respect for my teachers to work hard at the other subjects. Little introvert that I was, I even loved the quiet, workmanlike intensity of standardized test days, the feeling of being surrounded by a roomful of friends, hard at work even as I was.

There were, of course, hard days, even years. Graduate school tested my love of school in deep ways, but no matter how stressful or disheartening one semester might be, sometime of my child’s faith in that first day of school lingered. A fresh start. new habits, new goals and hopes. When I finished my PhD and began teaching full-time, the delights of the first day only increased. Now I was able to welcome the hope of a new year not only for myself, but for others. I could bring students into the world I loved, sharing with them the knowledge and practices that I knew had value.

But this year, for the first time since I was five years old, there’s no first day of school. There could have been: I have said no to three part-time teaching positions in the three months since I moved here. According to professional logic or our household budget, this choice makes no sense. It feels risky, even foolish. And yet, I made this choice out of hope. Hopes for a marriage in which my husband and I are deeply involved in one another’s work, rather than supporting one another as spectators. Hopes that I can answer the call to write, both as a scholar and a storyteller, with unprecedented intensity and purpose. Hopes that my skills as a teacher and writer could become a part of what the Community First! Village is doing to revolutionize the church’s response to homelessness. Hopes that I might live the sort of stories I’ve always loved to teach.

Already it has been hard. I am like a child again, unsure of where to sit, timid in the face of the other kids and the games they play. And apparently there are no report cards or degrees, no confirmation that all the work has been worthwhile. And yet — I have brought my hopes to the workshop of this new life. The dreams are half-formed things, and the tools to refine them feel awkward in my hands. I have neither syllabus nor schoolbook to guide my days, but I am wide awake, and there’s work to be done. Today is the first day.

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faith, marriage

The body of the bride

“That can’t be me — she’s too beautiful.”

I caught my breath and looked again. The mirror wasn’t lying; the blue eyes and dark hair were mine, but the blue was deeper, the dark curls more smooth, than the tousled head I normally saw in the morning. I felt like Eve, bewildered at her own graceful, unfamiliar reflection in the waters of Eden. The lovely woman in the mirror smiled, then laughed, as I remembered: today was the wedding day, and I was the bride.

In the months leading up to my wedding, I thought a great deal about Paul’s claim in Ephesians 5 that human marriage reveals something of the “profound mystery” of Christ’s love for the Church. As my fiancé and I grew in knowledge, trust, and love for one another, I eagerly watched for signs that our relationship was enacting this mysterious covenant. Before the wedding, these signs were almost entirely invisible, even abstract: as Steven and I learned to forgive one another, or as we dreamed our future together, I thought I was enlarging my intellectual and emotional understanding of Christ’s love for his people.

This kind of mental analogy-hunting was a familiar pastime long before my engagement. Throughout my teens and twenties, some of my friends had a standing joke that I wasn’t real, in a “her feet never touch the ground,” sort of way. As an academic and a dreamer, I did live largely in my head, and only my hound-dog and good theology saved me from a kind of de facto Gnosticism. For much of my life I would rather study than eat, rather finish another page than fix my hair.

A wedding allows for none of that disembodied nonsense: it demands a flesh-and-blood bride, and says she should be beautiful. I began to learn this as I made my wedding dress. Sketching and planning through the fall, I bought my silk and lace as winter fell and began to sew in early spring. With each cut and stitch, I had to attend to my body: its contours, length, height, and breadth. For most of my engagement, sewing was the most concrete, material form our wedding preparations took. Sometimes I thought I might be spending too much time on the dress: surely it would be more prudent to think more about marriage? However, it was through this physical, mundane work that the words of Scripture began to come alive in unexpected ways. I began to catch glimpses of myself in the exultant words of Song of Songs, whose lover writes of his bride, “My dove, my perfect one, is the only one, the only one of her mother, pure to her who bore her (6:9 ESV). The dress was entirely my own, fit just to me, and yet it was also, without a doubt, a bride’s dress. No one from my culture would mistake the signs of white silk and a long veil as anything else. This process was the first of many signs that the deep mystery of Christ and the Church would be revealed in my body as much as my emotions, will, or intellect.

Making the dress was only a foretaste of the wedding itself. Days before, my aunt insisted that I have my nails done. I protested, but nevertheless found myself in a salon chair, with a grown man painting my fingernails and toes. I felt ridiculous, asking my aunt, “How in the world will I wash dishes with my nails so fancy?” “You won’t” she said, almost sternly. “You will let other people take care of you this week.”

And they did take care. When I gasped at my own reflection on the morning of the wedding, I wasn’t marveling at my own handiwork. My hair, eyes, skin, and lips — all had been carefully, tenderly adorned by my bridesmaids, women whose friendship I’ve cherished for years. For an hour they worked, leaning over me, their shoulders grazing my cheek as they tended an errant curl, applied oils, perfumes. It was a quiet hour, a sacred hour, but not without laughter.

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;

my soul shall exult in my God,

for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;

he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,

as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,

and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels

(Isaiah 61:10 ESV)

I had never felt so beautiful, never so free from pride. As I put pearls in my ears and felt my mother’s hands on the dress’s satin buttons, my beauty weighed on me as an unfathomable gift. Not my own creation, not the sign of my power or virtue, but my birthright as a beloved child. Inherited from my parents, revealed by the skilled hands of my friends — my body was teaching me what it means to be full of grace.

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Photo by Katie Crews

Seeing myself so beautiful was poignant, even painful, because I knew it would not last. Mediocrity is easier to bear than unprecedented excellence. Resignation and defeat make more sense than this grace that shines and spears and burns. As I was preparing for feasts and celebrations, friends I loved were reeling from cancer diagnoses, from lost pregnancies, broken bones and other signs of the body’s frailty. Even as I delighted in a bride’s strange beauty, I felt those tremors in my own flesh: the troubling spot the doctor found on the back of my eye, the ache of my monthly cycle, inevitable attrition by sickness and age. What do these harder lessons tell of grace?

I am still a very new bride, but just as I heard the joy of Song of Songs on my wedding day, so also do I hear the thundering hope of Revelation in brokenness of my own body. “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come,’” longing for the return of Christ and the fulfillment of his kingdom (22:17 ESV). As I met my groom at the altar, I wondered if he could feel it in his bones, as I did: the marvel that his love, more than anything else, made me beautiful that day. The mystery is profound.

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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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faith, homelessness, life together, marriage

The work of the gods

“To organize a space is to repeat the paradigmatic work of the gods.”

I first read this somewhat obscure line when I was a freshman in college. It was comforting to a clever girl who liked things just so, who wanted the books on her shelves and the essays she wrote to be as ordered as the stars in the heavens. I would quote it blithely to my roommate, who never seemed to catch my enthusiasm for straightening up our dorm room. And yet, this insight–from Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane–is not some cant about tidiness being next to godliness. Rather, it means that the way we create and inhabit physical spaces tells a story about how we see the world: who is welcome and who isn’t, what is valuable and what rubbish, what secure and what dangerous. Architecture provides some of the best examples: a house dominated by its enormous garage, for example, tells a very different story from a house with a wrap-around porch.

As my husband and I unpack our tiny new home, I’ve been struggling to articulate what story we are living into in this corner of space and time. Eliade’s line has been a motto of mine for years, and with every apartment, classroom, and office I’ve inhabited, I have tried to organize–even to consecrate–spaces that bear witness to the image of God. In these first days after the honeymoon, however, I have often felt found my efforts to “repeat the work of the gods” frustrated at every step: not enough cabinets in the RV kitchen, disagreements about where the skillets should live, no way to put up curtains. I could no longer rely on muscle memory or habit to tell me where the trashcan was, where to find a dishtowel, much less how to drive to the post office or grocery store. Having to switch to a new cell phone felt like the final insult. “I can’t find the exclamation point on this stupid keyboard!” I sobbed to my bewildered spouse. “It feels like everything is broken!”

These frustrations, though trivial in themselves, have been emblematic of a much larger disorientation. I still feel myself bewildered on this new ground. From our little window each morning, I watch parades of workers roll into the village: construction crews laying cement, volunteers building tiny homes, future residents coming to tend the gardens, even my own husband walking and dreaming about the best way to make this place home. I watch, and I envy them. I envy their purpose and certainty, their knowledge of what to do now, and next.

To organize a space is to repeat the work of the gods.

But we are not gods, none of us. Our ability to order the world, creating that gives our lives meaning, is painfully, blessedly fragile. The job falls through. The long-awaited pregnancy surprises everyone. The house burns. We fall in love. We walk through days, each looking much the same — routine hours, tasks, and dreams. We might proceed for ten, twenty, thirty years, secure in our own vision of the world, until — something breaks.

This summer, instead of simply quoting Eliade, I have gone back to read the rest of his argument. In his spare, calm prose, he asserts something I had forgotten: that before a cosmos can grow into life and order, the old order must break. This break might be terrible or beautiful, climax or tragedy. Regardless, it interrupts our path, interferes with our clocks, leaves the well-ordered room in shambles. No longer can we claim that time and space are all one thing, predictable and uniform. Eliade argues that this break is what allows us to really see the world, to enter into a story bigger than ourselves, a story that does not leave us broken, but re-orients us according to the true center of the world. By shattering the old certainties, the experience of rupture “reveals the fixed point, the central axis for all future orientation.”

Of course, like all deep truths, I actually learned all of this long ago in Sunday School. It was there I first heard the thrilling injunction, “Your life should make no sense without the Gospel.” Christ has come to establish God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, and this Gospel is both εὐαγγέλιον — “good news,” and σκάνδαλον — a stumbling block. In our first month of marriage, I have felt my heart tearing and growing in this tension. Our house is an RV–it trembles under heavy footsteps, and looks–to my fretful eyes–terribly transient. And yet, it is a space we have organized, consecrated, for the sake of a mission that makes my heart rise up: to repeat–in our trembling, tiny way–the work of the God we worship, who “settles the solitary in a home,” and who created earth as a beautiful garden for mankind to cultivate and keep. We are living here because I fell in love with a man who proposed by saying, “Let’s be ministers of homemaking,” and we have set up our household on the broken, hopeful ground of a place called the Community First! Village. Here, side by side, among the chronically homeless and the people of Austin, we hope to set a table, provoke conversations, plant gardens, make books and babies, find and share good work in ways we never could elsewhere. This space–our home– has high windows and sunflowers on the table. From our door, we step out to join the countless men and women who arrive daily, giving their hearts and hands to help build a true community for those who are alone. It is a place where my husband can walk home for lunch, where friends and future neighbors have already stopped to sit, laugh, and walk with us. It is a space where I can write, and it is perched on beautiful ground: home already to trees and breezes, hares and goats, chickens and children of God. To the extent that I notice and name these things, it is a place where every morning, my envy gives way to hope.

The homes I organize will never again embody my private vision of what is lovely or good. They will be far more complicated, in turns deeper and more demanding. In marriage and in community life, my work will take place in communal, vibrant, maddening, inspiring place, grounded on the fear of the Lord and centered around the love of his living Word. I am terrified and thrilled, grieving and in love, timid and hopeful all at once. I cannot do the work of the gods, but I know how to tell a story. Believe me, friends: this is going to be a good one.

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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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