Tag Archives: beauty

how interesting it all is

There is comfort to be found in the mountains, in the open air, in the away.

There’s something to it; maybe it’s the stillness. Maybe the fresh air alters our chemistry. Maybe there’s a spiritual component, whatever that means.

Years ago, before I knew how frayed the edges of my religion were, I noticed this comfort. Sometimes on Sunday mornings the thought of church was enough to make me cry, and the mountains provided a specific kind of escape, one that called to me. I didn’t know why I was so upset–even if you couldn’t name thirst you would drink water when you came to it–now I think my brain and body were rebelling against situational anxiety that I couldn’t identify as such, and wouldn’t be able to for years to come. That particular stage and script, for which I was so ill-suited, was making me sick. These things will out, somehow.

I confess I cried recently while watching Pete’s Dragon in the theater with my kids. I’ve written about wildness here before–how it’s a gift I was granted in childhood. I have a deep gratitude for it, and often wonder if I’m giving it to my own children, and how exactly to do it. Parents know this matrix of examination all too well, this thing where I think we’re okay on this front, but what about xyz thoughts make you stare at the ceiling at night. The movie, with all its beauty and wildness, abandonment and new starts, its understanding of home and companionship, has stayed in my thoughts since.

In German, I understand, there is a word for the feeling you get when you’re alone in a forest. I’m spending a lot of words to try to name the feeling of being comforted and filled by wild things. This is not nearly so elegant, and yet I learned to name the thirst over time. I’m learning to name the water.

This summer we spent two weeks in national parks, which is a curious experience because you’re right there in the wildness, with hundreds of other people. This was no backcountry camping trip. It can be pretty comical, really, but you know what was beautiful? The shared, earnest, childlike excitement over the sight of a bear, or an eagle, or the first of many bison. Adults, standing in clusters, huddled around specialized lenses that they set up before dawn, just waiting for a glimpse of the wildness. And when you catch it, it’s spectacular. You exclaim and sigh and point and smile and ask your neighbor if they see it.

You ask them if they see it, and they say yes, and you share that moment of communion.

So we followed the paved roads, hungry for sight. We walked along dirt trails; we respected and preserved. We didn’t pick the flowers, but we took three pictures of the same flower, or four. We gaped at boiling hot thermal pools–deadly, agate-like marvels. We took in the beauty of a red-rocked desert that is more harsh than the desert we live in.

And when we left, we were beauty-saturated. I scribbled memories in a moose-adorned journal: we saw a marmot frantically eating on the tundra. I read Island of the Blue Dolphins to the kids each night, in the tent. We sipped wine by the fire, or whiskey, after they went to sleep, listening to the night sounds. Silas drew the solar system in the dirt with a stick. There are purple lupines everywhere. Ricky braved the mosquitoes to take a bath in the river.

Life is now schedules and routines, and fresh back to school energy. What does it mean to commune with wildness? Is that even the thing I’m trying to name here? I only know this: when my children stop to examine the snails that emerge after a summer monsoon, or when we spent a Saturday gleefully wading in a shallow river and they caught their first tadpole, when I notice them examining the growing pecans in the backyard, or finding mama toad and papa toad in the leaves, and in all of these things see their complete engagement, I feel a type of hope that I’m seeking. I think that this is how I pray, now, if prayer can be simply slowing down enough to notice how interesting everything really is, and to feed yourself with that.

There is so much to see, to learn, to appreciate. It truly is the work of a lifetime.

I need to teach them all kinds of things, but this learning, theirs and mine, is particularly sweet.

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The Journey Back, and Forward: My August Confession

And the starlings, they were flying earlier today

Doing their maneuvers, clouds of feathers on display

Makes me want to kneel in prayer, but I’ve forgotten what to say

I’ll just name all the birds in Ohio.

-Over the Rhine, All Over Ohio

August is a month of perseverance. People wait for drawn-out change: for school to start back up, for the heat to break, for one season to wind down and another to begin. In many ways September feels like the start of a new year, more than January.

In early August, we drove across the country. We took a new route, and went slow, stopping at most of the places we wanted to along the way. A freshly vacuumed, wiped and organized van gave way to chaos and crumbs and stickiness. Energetic parents slowly lost their steam. Kids came up with more energy. This is how August goes.

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We crossed Ohio and sang along loud with Over the Rhine, in honor of their home state, with the added goodness of rain on the windshield.

We slipped down into Missouri and spent a few days in St. Louis, gazed at the view from the top of the Gateway Arch, splashed in the fountains at City Park, ate gooey butter cakes from Park Avenue Coffee and chugged gallons of water to keep up with the humidity.

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We played the audio version of Little House in the Big Woods in preparation for a trip to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s house in Mansfield, Missouri. I stepped through her house, which we learned was built over seventeen years, beginning as a one-room cabin with no windows, and enjoyed all the expressions of beauty throughout. How did people come to know that if you embroider a red bird on your pillowcase, it will add value to your life? Or that a well-placed window can change the course of your day?

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The kids would not have any of my slowness as we toured the property, so I took it all in quickly and tucked it away, and ode to some of the magic of my childhood. The tour guide mentioned that Laura, at least in part, probably had such skill in describing things because she had to be her blind sister’s “eyes and ears” from the time she was a young child onward. I think she also probably learned the value of beauty, which requires paying attention, from her parents. Visiting her home felt like a sweet pilgrimage, and I remembered listening to the words of all of her books in my mother’s voice, all of us propped up on pillows at bedtime. Some books are more than stories; some books shape how you see the world.

After Missouri came the drive across Kansas. I expected it to be long and tedious but it really wasn’t. The rolling grass and repetitive cornfields were comforting and even, beautiful. The sky took up more space than before.

Then, down into Colorado, for a visit with my brother who’s stateside now and starting a new chapter of his life. It is a joy to watch him be an uncle to my children. They have fun, and I just stand back and watch, and it’s good. I can’t imagine a more perfect place than Colorado for him. He introduces me to good beer and talks about his many outdoor adventures, and I am happy to see him this way.

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After our visit, it’s down down down into New Mexico. The forests get scrubby and the terrain gets rough, and we need shoes on our feet now because the weeds fight to protect themselves. Grass is pokey, but it finds a way to survive on very little water. We meet friends for lunch in a park in Albuquerque and talk about all the new things that are happening.  We crawl into the driveway of Ricky’s mother’s house late that night, met with hugs, kisses, beds and cold water. The kids are thrilled about having a pool in the backyard and use it almost every day.

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In the days to come, we have to find a place to live, make final arrangements for schools, and try to adjust to the sun’s brightness (this still hasn’t happened, completely). Nicky begins fourth grade; Silas and Aimee both begin preschool. We wake up early, drive an hour and a half to drop everyone at his and her school, Ricky finds a place with WiFi to work (homes of generous friends, mostly). This is a whole new world, and it includes mornings to myself. It occurs to me that I haven’t had any consistent, predictable time to myself in over eight years. It feels odd but I have no complaints.

Even with errands and the usual moving headaches, I have more time to be still. I start coloring and sketching out mandalas, inspired by a friend’s beautiful work. My freehand mandalas are for my eyes only (mostly they’re bad) but I enjoy seeing how they take form. I buy an instructional drawing book, and start making my way through the lessons. Nicky and I do this together a lot; it becomes a ritual I look forward to. We surprise ourselves with good drawings and with really bad ones, too. I learn about proportion; I am just beginning.

There are a lot of “I’ve always wanted to” ideas floating around right now. There is the fleeting newness and sense of possibility that fades and so must be used while it is there. We find a charming adobe house for rent downtown, walking distance to many things. I go to the gym and stop by friends’ houses for lunch. Ricky signs us up at the food co-op and talks about hiking. I see him riding his bike one day, coffee cup in one hand, and he doesn’t see me. This sight makes me happy, makes this feel right.

Moving back was a hard decision, one I’ve second-guessed many times in the month of August. The desert is so much brighter than I remember. I borrow very dark sunglasses from my mother in law, and that helps my headaches. We are tired on many levels, but we lie down under fans in darkened rooms, and that helps. Ricky and I sneak out for ice cream after the kids are asleep, and the night air helps too. The daily beauty of mountain and sky and greened-up desert helps, and the feeling that we’re all in this together helps, and dreaming about what we will do here helps.

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And, naming helps. All the trees in my backyard, all the people that I love, all the mountain ranges I see, all the shades of blue in the sky.

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The Contrast Of It All: My June Confession

June was a month of oddness and simple wonderful ordinary: mulling over a big decision while counting down the last days of the school year, walks to the pool, firefly catching success and long conversations about the future. Heavy, light, heavy, light. Summer eased in while a deadline loomed. Knowing, not knowing, feeling sure, feeling no particular sense of direction.

This new place has been about growing up in some ways, which sounds funny when I’ve been an adult for some time. The thing about fundamentalism is this: it tries to keep you a child your whole life. Putting space between my physical body and all those memories turned out to be quite helpful. I did some growing up, out, in.

We decided to move back home. I hope it will be home.

I am glad to return to dear friends with whom I share deep roots, glad to have grandparents merely hours away than days away. I am glad to return to the big wide-open sky and spaces, to the feeling of getting into a sun-baked car, to the smell after a desert rain, to the mountains, to the contrast of it all. Blue and brown and subtle color everywhere.

I will miss this place with its walls of trees and abundance of water. I will miss the ease of growing things. The effortless flowers. The heavy, loud air in the summer, thick with cicada and bee and humidity. The smell of honeysuckle. Our little neighborhood with a circle that the kids ride around and the trails to the lake. Canada snow geese. A flash of cardinal against snow.

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I’m achy inside about it. But I ache, in a different way, thinking about the possibilities that await us in the desert, with its wide open spaces and availability. Mountains that help a person know where she is, standing blue at twilight. Watercolor skies. I wish I could have both, but this is the way of adulthood, I suppose.

One thing we discuss, over and over, is the history of the place. For me, religion (I mean this broadly) was in the sky, the mountains, the rain-smell. It was in the East that I learned to whisper my thanks to the trees and the water and the very air that wrapped around me, as I used to whisper my thanks to God. Maybe I was talking to God in both cases, but I cannot seem to know this now. In the East, I found a way to live in the in-between space and honor it somehow. I rid my chest of the heaviness and searing pangs of religious angst, and was left with an ache for beauty. Beauty, I seek out. Beauty, I worship. Many of the writers I adore would say that this beauty is God, there is no difference. And I hear them, and consider their words, and simply go back to not knowing.

I may know someday, or I may never know.

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Loyalty and Longing: My March Confession

Every Easter morning I can remember, my father would be singing up from the grave He aroooooossssse! purposefully, mischeviously even, as he poured pancake batter over the griddle and we scrambled to get ready for church. It was a family joke of sorts, sung sometimes on other mornings, tying the resurrection to the daily difficulty of getting out of bed. But I knew he sang the words with a deep reverence too. I knew that being made new was central to his theology.

Easter is almost here again. The bulbs we planted last fall are shooting up out of the ground, the temperature outside is slowly creeping upward, and I’m optimistically packing away the heavier coats and scarves. There is warm rain falling outside, and it smells earthy when I step out of the front door. With these changes come a fresh energy, an ease of work. I’m cleaning, brightening, sorting. This is how things are supposed to be.

It’s been a year of quiet, of going inward, of letting go. The years that led up to this year were louder, angrier, heavier with emotion. But this year–from one Easter Sunday to another– has been mostly, mercifully, quiet. Perhaps, after all this anger and frustration (which is to say, anger) and impatience and sadness and whatever else it has been, comes a longing.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes this of belief and faith:

Religion, faith and belief are not the same thing, he [James Fowler] says, though often we speak of them as if they were. In the sixteenth century, “to believe” meant “to set the heart upon” or “to give the heart to” as in, “I believe in love.” But in the centuries following the Enlightenment, secular use of the words “belief’ and “believe” began to change until they said less about the disposition of one’s heart than the furniture in one’s mind. By the nineteenth century, when knowledge about almost anything consisted chiefly of empirical facts, belief became the opposite of knowledge. A person’s belief in God was reduced to his or her belief system–the unprovable statements of faith that person judged to be true. The great pity of this conflation, Fowler says, is that when faith is reduced to creeds and doctrines, plenty of thoughful people are going to decide they no longer have faith. They might hang on if they heard the word used to describe trust or loyalty in something beyond the self, but when they hear “faith” used to signify belief in a set formula of theological truths, the light in their eyes goes out. When I listen to college students talk about faith, beliefs are what interest them most: Do you believe in the virgin birth? Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins? Do you believe that only Christians go to heaven? No one asks, “On what is your heart set?” No one asks, “What powers do you most rely on? What is the hope that gives meaning to your life?” Those are questions of faith, not belief. The answers to them are not written down in any book, and they have a way of shifting in the dark.

Learning to Walk in the Dark, p. 143-144, emphasis mine

I knew as a child that my parents’ actions–my father’s prayers, my mother’s devotion to reading and reciting scripture, and their focus on passing these things down to us– stemmed from a faith that was larger than they could fully express, though they tried. It truly was something they had “set their hearts upon”. I want to honor their reverence, while making a more open space for my own.

Last Easter I sang Christ the Lord is Risen Today with so much gladness in my heart, after eating breakfast with a kind community of people and sharing in the fun of watching children hunt eggs in their pastel frocks and button ups. I had the glorious luxury of singing the words without dwelling on whether I believed them–I simply sang, loud and happy, because the song is beautiful and because it is familiar. I felt a loyalty to it. I still do. It’s of those homesickness things, Easter.

Right after that beautiful Sunday it all just fell apart. I let it. I didn’t return to any sort of church until late November, using Sunday mornings to try to heal myself instead. It wasn’t because of that welcoming and anciently forward-thinking congregation at all, and it wasn’t because of the genuine outpouring of faith my parents gifted me as a child, or the many beautiful people of faith I’ve known over the years. It was because of other elements of American Christianity I’d observed as I paid more attention–the anti-intellectual attitude, the refusal to see other points of view, the rigid insistence that one interpretation of Scripture is the only one possible, the demand to be served, to maintain rights and status and privilege–all behavior that makes no sense for people who claim to follow the ultimate servant. This was not something I wanted to align myself or my children with, and so I started picking it apart. I think I understand now why people can be so resistant to questioning–once you start it’s nearly impossible to stop.

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My religion of birth, Christianity, was given to me as absolute truth. I do not see it this way. I see it as a useful and beautiful story, one of many that the people of this Earth have assembled over long periods of time. The question inevitably, eventually, must follow: if this is merely a story, useful and beautiful yes, but just a story, is it worthwhile? I say, and choose to believe, that any beautiful story is worthwhile. The beauty I find, in Christianity or elsewhere, informs my daily actions and in turn what my children will find important. This is the hope that gives meaning to my life. It is enough.

My parents, in their own way, taught me to pay attention, and that’s the same thing I am doing, just in my own way. I believe in ritual and beauty and metaphor. I am trying to be brave enough to let my children believe in some things in a literal sense so that later they can know it was a foundation for something else. I will always protect. I cannot control. They will draw their own conclusions, when they are ready.

Perhaps it is a gift that can’t quite be understood before its right time comes: to lose one thing in order to find another.

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I come from women

I come from women who have found themselves with child

and carried on, surprised and terrified,

waiting for the feeling of delight.

I come from women who dig into the dirt

for comfort and make things grow

perennially.

I come from women who know a darkness

who speak of it in shadowed ways,

or not at all.

I come from them, I am them.

We who walk away from crowds and conversations,

we who talk about sunsets with charisma, we who return from

time spent on big warm rocks, skygazing,

with a new strength.

We who must learn, again and again

just how much we need other people.

I come from a religion of planting flowers.

Always, there were tangled vines with purple-blue

buds opening into a burst, climbing up the

criss-cross of wire fence,

beautifying, complicating, every spring and summer.

I come from places I cannot name well,

but I know them well.

I will plant my seeds too, and revere

the beauty

at the end of the tangles.

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On Sacred Spaces: My February Confession

 I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

-Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

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We, just the two of us, went to Italy. It was a feast for the senses–the language was music and the food was earthy and elegant. Interesting details were everywhere, from moss on stone in the Colosseum to Jesus’ face in a painting by Michelangelo being the exact same face on a Roman sculpture, to train station cafes that served sandwiches and wine, and boasted more elaborate espresso machines than you’d find in any Starbucks. People in Venice, leaning out of their windows, hanging sheets out to dry. Hopes for resurrection etched into the stone walls of winding catacombs. Empty wineglasses on windowsills outside canteens. A small piece of the arrow that is said to have pierced St. Sebastian. Plain whipped cream (the real stuff) lopped on top of melone gelato, cutting the sweetness perfectly. Tiny spoons for stirring sugar.

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We ate what we wanted and walked almost everywhere. We bought things to bring home: bottles of wine, limoncello, a stovetop espresso maker, a pair of babysoft gray suede shoes, biscotti, magnets depicting pieces of the Sistine Chapel. It’s not really possible to bring the spirit of a place home with you, but we all try.

After a few days, the churches and the exquisite art within started to seem almost common. They’re simply everywhere. Armed with a guidebook, we took in as much as we could without rushing and defeating the purpose of vacation.

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In Rome, we spent plenty of time admiring the scope of things as well as feeling uncomfortable with the scope of things. Both in the secular and religious realms, it all seems to be about excess and power, but my sensitivity is to the religious. (My Protestant is about to start showing, but no variation of religion is free from the love of power.) While the art is precious and the craftsmanship well-worthy of admiration, the places that house them hold the silent echoes of stolen riches and trampled innocents. Hollow, not hallowed. “Think of what they could do with all that money,” I vent to Ricky over coffee and pastries after touring St. Peter’s Basilica. “I bet Peter would be completely uncomfortable in there, embarrassed even.”

I imagine Peter grilling fish on the beach with his Savior, wrestling with the call of do you love me? then feed my sheep and wanting Him to stay forever. Alone, hanging upside down, dying in love for the Person who changed it all for him. How does a simple message of love turn into a power structure? Maybe his bones lie down under the enormous altar, but it’s that moment on the beach that matters. How do you contain that in a building? Even on vacation, I cannot escape this constant dialogue with religion and spirituality. It fascinates or wearies, depending on how much space I have for it.

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Last month, I wrote this:

It’s my default right now to view religion in general through a lens of harm caused and ignorance applauded. Christianity–this behemoth of goodness and evil, source of bread and poison, great beauty and so much ugliness–I’ve been so mad at it for so long.

I wish I could find a way back to that beach, too.

Surely there must be a space in this world, in our lives, for art and beauty and sacred spaces. And our various tribes understand those things differently. Give me a cathedral of pine trees and birdsong over marble and organ anyday, but I must understand if you would rather have the marble and the organ. I must try to imagine, if that is your beauty, what you would feel in a basilica such as St. Peter’s.

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As we were moving to leave, a Mass began, with hauntingly beautiful voices singing in Latin. It didn’t matter what they were singing; all could understand. They were singing devotion and longing. They were singing human things in a human place that speaks of all the humanly complicated intersections with divinity. The singing made it beautiful–not the gold or the carvings, the relics or the prestige. The singing–filling that huge empty space.

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Is feeling and seeing beauty what makes feel “the rapture of being alive”? Details of beauty were everywhere in Italy; they are everywhere here too. Aimee’s unbelievably long eyelashes, Nicky’s tight hugs, Silas’ warmth and humor, Ricky’s steadiness, and my own sensitive mind, looking for clues. The people we share our lives with, that fill the empty spaces. I’ve rejected a lot of things that were once precious to me, but I remain in wonder of things old and new. This is my baseline: wonder. Perhaps I can build upon it, but I can always burrow my way down to it.

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In the cathedrals of New York and Rome

There is a feeling that you should just go home

And spend a lifetime finding out just where that is

-Jump, Little Children

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The State of Things: My January Confession

“It’s hard to capture it in one word,” I say, chewing on my lip. This is an ongoing conversation with myself, with my husband, with a few friends who know this terrain well, and with her.

“Instead of one word, can you describe it with a group of words?” she presses, gently.

I try. Every other week, for almost a year now, I am in this room, paying attention to my state of being. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. We talk about a lot of things in this room–parenting, childhood, marriage, dreams and goals, grief, my evolution from fundamentalism to evangelicalism to progressive Christianity to whatever it is I’m doing now.

Humanist? Post-Christian? Atheist? Post-Evangelical? Progressive/Emergent? Naturalist? Person of Faith? Believer? Unbeliever? Spiritual? Agnostic? Recovering Fundamentalist?

I’d like to be on a path to greater clarity, if not certainty. To that end, here’s my confession for the month of January. I’ll be back in this space at the end of each month this year, doing my best to honestly evaluate where I am on this journey.

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I still believe that Sundays are for vulnerability and soul-searching. I still believe in sacred spaces, in a regular centering practice, in confession.

I find myself outside of the boundaries of Christianity, and I’m coming to terms with it. The ability to believe many things has simply left me, and this has been a source of both great relief and great pain.

It’s my default right now to view religion in general through a lens of harm caused and ignorance applauded. Christianity–this behemoth of goodness and evil, source of bread and poison, great beauty and so much ugliness–I’ve been so mad at it for so long. It’s been heavy for the better part of ten years. And yet, some of the most gorgeous people I’ve ever known (personally and historically) are/were devout Christians. This thing just isn’t simple. I feel steadier and healthier outside of it all, but it absolutely saves some people; it absolutely has made the world better in some cases.

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My faith was never bland or obligatory for me. It was the frame of reference for everything. I fell head over heels in love with Jesus somewhere around age three, and continued to do so for years and years. What was real? What is real now? I keep saying goodbye and then taking it back.

A Lutheran pastor I’ve spoken with here, who has encouraged me greatly in this journey, makes the point that there are two different Jesuses. There is the historical person, and there is the Christ figure, which is what people constructed (and what we continue to construct) from the historical person. I find some comfort in this idea–that I can continue to appreciate so many things about Jesus, even as my ideas about him have changed, and probably will continue to change. There is so much more to explore there. I can’t face it all at once, but there is this: all of the good things his life has represented to me remain. A lot of good remains. I choose to believe that the Jesus story matters in the greater human story. He remains beautiful to me.

It’s not lost on me that these words will cause pain. That makes me hesitant to share them, but then I think of the private messages I get sometimes, in response to what I post here. Me too. I feel the same way. I haven’t had to do this alone, and I don’t want anyone else to.

I’ve always felt refreshed on a spiritual level when I’ve spent some time alone in nature. Maybe it’s just that stillness is the goal, and nature encourages me to be still in a way that nothing else does. Before I had children, and there were Sundays I just couldn’t stand to go to church (I imagine my cognitive dissonance began many years before I was aware of it) I went out into nature by myself. That is an instinct I’m paying closer attention to now.

So what’s the plan? Now there’s a question. I have a husband with his own mind, on his own journey, and we have three amazing children to raise. Right now, what I want for them are lessons that are easily taught in church: generosity, kindness, humility, elevating The Other. Community, looking out for the needs of others. Love, honesty, self-control.

I want other things for them, too–values they may or may not get from church.  Reason, curiosity, critical thinking skills. The ability to go to their classes and simply listen without an agenda–to love learning for itself.  Open-ended questions, fresh perspectives. Wonder. Gentleness, understanding, joy. I don’t want them to ever think there’s only one source for good things. Good things abound if you don’t have to make everything line up a certain way.

I’ve thought of God in metaphorical terms for something close to a year, desperate to see universal connections. Now? I don’t know. The jury is out. I am still overcome with wonder and gratefulness on pretty much a daily basis. I still say my thank-yous out loud.

So this is the state of things. I’m thinking, more and more, that it’s all going to be okay.

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