Resurrection Plant

There are forty-five minutes of perfect sunlight in my new apartment. That’s not a lot to go on, I know, and so does my plant, who sits beneath the southwest window, waiting for her shining opportunity, her daily shot at photosynthesized glory. We keep each other company, my plant and I. She spends the afternoon hours converting carbon dioxide into carbohydrates, her chloroplasts soaking up the sunlight and ejecting oxygen which is life for the alveoli in my lungs. The little lavender buds stretch toward the window along with the deep purple leaves that open and close like bat wings—anxiously awaiting the 5 o’clock glow.

I wait too, but instead of determined productivity mine is a restless occupation. My deadline looms like the promise of a storm, but instead of writing, I wait for the sun. For my feet to get warm. For creative inspiration. For my husband to come home.

Living is a serious business.

——

I didn’t call her the night before the stroke. I meant to, but I was too full of good intentions to remember, and then well, it’s not so easy to communicate with someone when their left side mouth muscles are frozen. They said there was too much blood in her heart. She was being transferred to hospice.

She kept asking me to visit her back then, before the stroke, before I met my husband, before the new apartment. I was in that nomadic expanse between jobs, strung out on wanderlust and desensitized to real world stuff like working and eating and breathing and staying alive. A three-week European expedition in my sights, no amount of cold-water reality could reduce my adventure high.

“I’ll come when I get back,” I promised. “I might even bring a British boyfriend.”

I could hear traces of skepticism in between the gliding southern vowels and the rasping asthma breaths—directed at the promised visit or the accented lover I never found out.

“All right then,” she said. “That’ll be just fine.”

I was single at the time, and she was always hassling me about boyfriends. Like a fine Southern lady, she considered it her personal duty to guarantee I encouraged members of the opposite sex. If Grandma had it her way, she’d have me married off tomorrow with a full array of silver and a completed china set.

“You’re too picky,” she’d chide. “They ain’t gonna wait for you and I won’t either”—her polite way of saying she’d be dead and gone before I found someone. I’d mumble something about there being plenty of cookies in the jar and she’d whittle it down to my obvious lack of cooking prowess.

——

The new apartment is a chilly existence today. I tug a second set of socks over the first pair—woolen guardians slipping seamlessly over the useless cotton. My husband bought them for me, knowing how cold my feet get. There’s a picture of us on my desk where I sit; it’s one of those rare candids capturing the integrity of our laughter, and the warmth in our faces sends warmth through my fingers as I type. I sneak a sideways glance at the plant, who seems a little deflated today. The cold must be getting to her too. But she’s stubborn; even now the shoots twist around each other and grow to the window, leaves spread wide for maximum light. Except this afternoon it’s cold and dreary outside and little chance of our forty-five minute miracle.

——

I’ve almost killed my plant. Twice. Her first death occurred while I was gallivanting across the continent. Somewhere between Versailles and the rolling German countryside, the plant fell from her perch on the back porch. I came home to the lone bud a roommate had salvaged from the wreckage. I repotted and put her in direct sun. That was right before I didn’t call and the oxygen couldn’t get to Grandma’s brain and they put her in hospice to die.

She wasn’t a particularly happy woman, my grandmother. I think she was disappointed, I think life, and in some ways my grandfather, had failed to meet her expectations and she felt short-changed. But she had her moments. She could tell a story about my Granddady and become so tickled that by the end she’d be wheezing with laughter.

Like the time he scared the bejesus out of the neighbor boys down the road. On Sunday evenings they’d ride their bikes over to watch TV and turn around and ride on home in the dark, despite my grandfather’s offers for a lift in his pickup. One night he’d had enough, and after they left he slipped out the back door, racing through the pines to cut them off. A specter flying across the sweaty South Georgia night, my Granddaddy rose out of the shadows in front of them with enough ghostly moans to drown out the deep-throated bellows of the bullfrogs. Catching sight of the phantom, the boys dug their heels into the dirt with an urgency only fear can ignite, and in pure prepubescent terror drove their bikes straight into the ditch with the bullfrogs.

“And if they didn’t ride home in the pickup with Daddy every Sunday after that, I’m not worth two cents,” she’d cackle and wipe her eyes, sides shaking. Then she’d sip her Co-Cola to clear her throat, throw her mobility scooter into reverse, and whip around the house searching for something that needed doing.

She spent most of her days like that, I think. Whirling around in her scooter, investigating the proficiency of her world and inevitably finding it less than satisfactory. The dishes had been stacked wrong, the beans were overcooked, her grandchildren didn’t call, and always it was cold.

It’s a lonely occupation, living.

——

In Europe I was ravenous. I consumed the Notre Dame and the d’Orsay, ate through Oxford and Hamburg like a box of macarons, each new experience another entre on my adventure menu. Between Monets and Van Goghs, sea spray against Scottish cliffs and catching sight of the Siene at twilight, I didn’t have time to think about my grandmother. One evening I found myself at a concentration camp in northern Germany. It was October and the leaves fell from the tall trees, blanketing the ground’s horrors in golden reverence. It was quiet, terribly so, the place a silent witness to the atrocities of human nature.

While I waited at the bus stop to return to my hostel, the gray sky shifted slowly into brilliant hues of reds and pinks, illuminating the camp in a holy glow. It was so paradoxically beautiful, the sunlight and the leaves and the death, and suddenly all the cathedrals, and mountains, and life-changing works of art, all of my exhilarating European opportunities melted into a hollow ache inside my chest.

It wasn’t enough. My adventure high spiraling with the sun’s decline, I hopped onto a bus where no one spoke my language in a town where no one knew my name, and felt the weight of my isolation. Wanderlust in full withdrawal, I got off the bus and bought a postcard. I sent it to my grandmother.

——

It’s 4:30 now. The socks have warmed my feet but I’ve donned hat and jacket to heat the remaining appendages. Writing words is like pulling teeth these days, and I’m tired of pretending to be productive. My husband will be home soon anyway. Perhaps we’ll take the dog on a walk and reminisce about how we feel in love. How we fell in love because of the dog, because I wanted a shorthaired pointer and he wanted one too. I get up and give the plant a once-over. She’s looking less dejected, more hopeful. I feel the soil and it’s dry. She needs to be watered.

That’s how I killed her the second time. After the concentration camp and the porch catastrophe and my grandmother in hospice. I refused to water her.

——

I returned from Europe humbled. I started a new job, settling into the normal routine of working, eating, breathing, sleeping. I was just a few days in when my mother called and told me about the stroke. I left the mostly-dead, newly repotted plant in my roommate’s care and drove the four hours to Ogeechee Area Hospice in silence.

When I arrived the nurse directed me to a room in the back, where my mother sat swabbing her mother’s lips, which were cracked and dry. Grandma was asleep, looking frail and out of place. She should have been riding around on her motorized throne, not lying stationary in a big hospice bed. I moved to put more blankets on her, but my mother stopped me. “She’s hot,” she said. “That’s what happens to people when the body’s internal thermostat is breaking down. They get warm.”

I was stuck in a two-day vacuum, my heart hanging on to each update. She couldn’t eat anything. They weren’t putting in a feeding tube. She wasn’t conscious. More family arrived and we went back and forth from hospice to her home, from the bizarre bedside decline to the false reality of her living—the scooter parked idly in a corner.

My mother told me I needed to let her go. She told me I had to tell my grandmother it was okay for her to die. But I didn’t want to. Not until she knew how sorry I was. I was so sorry I hadn’t called. So sorry and I loved her so much and did she know that? I’d sent her a postcard and did she get it? Did she get my postcard?

I took her warm hand and cupped it between my cold ones. I looked at her face and she was just sleeping, just like she did at home in her red comfy chair with the news blaring in the background.

“I love you Grandma,” I said. “I’m so sorry I didn’t call you. I’m sorry I didn’t come visit. I know you love me. It’s okay to go.”

She died the next morning. They told us she was leaving and we sat by her bed and sang her favorite hymns, something about “in the garden” and “oh sinner come home,” all the while the rasps of her breath growing fainter and fainter until they stopped altogether.

And then my aunt was checking her pulse and my mother was lying across her chest, “Oh Mama, I didn’t want you to go.” And the morning sun was filtering in and the birds chirping outside and suddenly I wasn’t in the hospice room with the sun and the birds and the death. Instead I was back at the concentration camp bus stop with the horror and beauty and loneliness pounding inside my chest. It wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real.

I came home after the funeral to find my plant in full, resurrected flourish. The lone surviving shoot had multiplied, fresh sprouts popping out of the dirt in all their energy-absorbing, oxygen-producing aliveness. It was disgusting. Somehow, after irreconcilable trauma, this damn plant was alive but my grandmother was dead. No magical combination of elements would bring her back, no amount of CO2 or H2O could revive her long enough for me to know if she knew I loved her. I picked up the plant and put it outside. That’s when I stopped watering it.

A few weeks after my grandmother died, my mother called. I had gone on a date the night before and she wanted to know all the details. We talked for a few minutes—the guy was cute and even better, he liked shorthaired pointers. We didn’t mention Grandma.

“Oh I almost forgot,” she said before hanging up. “I found a postcard at Grandma’s next to her scooter. You must have sent it while you were in Europe.”

Anxious, I had her read it out loud over the phone. There was some nonsense about cathedrals and castles, and then there it was. “I hope you aren’t too cold,” it read. “I love you.” My mom hung up. I got up and watered the plant.

——

It’s 5 o’clock and my apartment is ablaze with fading light. The warm red glow fills up the entire room. I’ve watered my plant religiously for two years now, and she is radiant. I had given up on the dreary day, but she knew it was coming. The little lavender flowers are almost translucent as the rays pass through. The shoots are straight and strong and healthy. The dark purple leaves will close within the hour, but now they are wide open in welcome. As the last of the light fades, I hear the jostle of keys in the door.

Living can be a glorious business, too.

 

Why We Talk About Race

 

Mornings have never been my specialty. I didn’t get whatever gene that is—the one that lets you roll out of bed in the morning all fresh and excited about life. I’m already on my second cup of coffee, and my brain still hasn’t reached the point where it functions properly.

I pull into my friend’s driveway, push the lever into park, and slide out of the car with about as much grace as a baby giraffe discovering what it’s legs are meant for. I’m going to have to pretend to be more awake than I am, which will take a considerable amount of effort. I gulp down more coffee, questioning why I agreed to make plans this early.

The answer is Char. She’s one of the most convincing people I know. Her energy sucks you in and before you know it, you’re somewhere doing something you never thought you’d be doing and you’re loving every single minute of it. Today we are taking a spontaneous road trip to the mountains, and despite my sleepy-self, I’m excited.

I let myself in and find Char bustling around the house grabbing a few last minute essentials. Words fill up the background space—a voice is coming through her phone speakers, sounding tight and flat, like when you try to push something through a tiny space and it comes out all slow and squished on the other side. It’s a podcast, and I manage to catch a few words, causing the wheels in my groggy morning brain to churn a little bit. Race. Black. Stereotype.

I try to align my thoughts so I can focus on the words, but at that moment our friend Shannon walks through the door and I’m distracted. Shannon’s a few stages ahead of me in this whole awake process. She greets both of us with a hug and a wide smile.

By this time Char’s ready to go, the podcast is turned off, and the three of us hop into the car and hit the road. I’ve got the back seat to myself and you’d think I’d be tempted to stretch out and catch a quick nap except my brain is awake now, tumbling over those words. I want to talk about it, I even open my mouth to say something, but I hesitate.

Char and I have been friends for awhile, and we’re pretty comfortable with each other. We appreciate the other’s quirks and personality, but we don’t often talk about the fact that I’m white and she’s black. It’s not that we couldn’t, I just don’t want to be rude.

But I want to talk about it. Culturally our country is tense to bursting when it comes to race issues, and not only am I concerned, but I have questions. And they’re not questions a newscaster or a politician could answer. They’re personal questions about a race different than my own. Like—“how does this symbol make you feel, and why does it make you feel that way?” Char can answer those questions.

I decide to bite the bullet and just ask.  I go for the nonchalant approach.

“Hey Char, what were you listening to when I walked in this morning?”

Pause.

“It was a podcast about the Baltimore riots. But actually, I almost turned it off when y’all came in.”

There’s no hesitation now.

“Why would you do that?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t know if that was something we could talk about.”

This statement sits heavy on me. Deep inside my chest it feels wrong. This isn’t something you sweep under the rug. This is something we should be talking about.

Well…” I hesitate a bit. It’s a little awkward. “Can we talk about it?

I think that’s all Char needed. An opportunity. Because as soon as I ask she’s gone. Her voice moves up and down with passion, and I’m swept away by the beauty of her cadence, almost too swept away to listen. I quickly check back in.

Are we bringing some of this stereotype upon ourselves? Yes. But this is post Civil Rights movement racism. It’s undercover—uncover racism. It’s not overt. It’s a slow moving thing, but it’s still there.”

I think in this post Civil Rights race era we—as a nation and as individuals—are afraid. We’re afraid of being labeled racist. We’re afraid of being inflammatory and taking things too far. As a white female, I am hesitant to engage my black female friend in a conversation concerning race because I don’t want to be offensive. But if we don’t talk about it, if we ignore and don’t engage, than we’re missing a sizable part of who we are as people and who we are as a nation. I think this is part of our problem.

Char is black. It’s a piece of her identity—a big piece—and it helps construct the beautiful complexity of who she is. But Char is also a myriad of other wonderful things. And just as I appreciate her spontaneity, I want to appreciate this part of her as well.

 

The Essentials | Spring 2015

I’m becoming more and more amazed that we’re three months (almost four) into 2015. It freaks me out, actually, because I have an irrational terror of waking up old at forty-five and realizing I missed the past twenty years of living. This fear encourages an almost obsession within me to document my experiences and absorb as much interesting material as possible. And since my vanity believes I’m slowly developing good taste in all things, I’m graciously sharing with you my list of intellectual and artistic musts. 

MUSIC

Penny and Sparrow

I’ve been following these guys for a few years, determined to see them live because ONE their harmonies are killer and TWO their harmonies are killer. Hailing from Texas, they finally had a show on the east coast I could go to! I caught them at the Evening Muse in Charlotte and it was worth every second. 

I measure concerts on how aware I am of time during the performance. Sometimes the band gets 30 minutes in and I’m ready for it to be done. To their credit, P&S could have serenaded me for another hour and I STILL would’ve been completely enchanted. The set-up was pretty simple—one led with main vocals and bass and the other with acoustic and harmony, with a guy filling in with various effects in the background. Altogether intimate, honest, and beautiful—more than worth the stressful three-hour drive in a torrential downpour. Side note: John Paul White  is producing their next album.

Favorites: Thunder, Honest Wage, and Brother. 

BOOKS

Station Eleven

Confession time—I don’t like modern fiction. Perhaps I’m just not reading the right stuff, but I often find it too explicit or poorly written. Call me snobby or archaic, but I don’t want to read about detailed sex-scenes with poorly developed characters. 

Anyway—Station Eleven is perfect. I heard about it through an NPR interview with the author, and it sounded so fascinating I took a risk and ordered it. It’s somewhat post-apocalyptic, but unlike the chaos and violence of Hunger Games or Divergent, Station Eleven explores themes of loss, restoration, and remembrance in a society devastated by a flu epidemic. St. John Mandel has a winsome ability to weave truth and reason in a way that is endearing yet thought-provoking. I was so sad when it ended. 

ARTICLES

White America’s racial illiteracy: Why our national conversation is poisoned from the start

If you are a living, breathing human being, you need to read this article. Simply take a look at the current state of race relations in our country (Ferguson, Baltimore, etc.) It is foolish to pretend racism is no longer an issue, and we (including me) are obviously ignorant and naive when it comes to talking about these issues. 

Forever Winters and the Coming of Spring

Please forgive my writing hiatus. I’ve been swept away by the coming of spring and the rush of energy that follows. Every morning I wake up and something new is popping out of the ground or shooting off tree limbs—the world around me transforming so fast I can’t keep up. My counters and table tops are overwhelmed with the white and golden and pink things I’ve collected and haphazardly stuffed into whatever containers are available. 

The world is new, refreshingly so.

One aspect of spring I find particularly encouraging is its consistency. Winter is dreary, cold, and dark. It’s hard to imagine a warm day full of sunshine when I’m huddled inside staring in disbelief at the thermostat. But just when I’m about to believe that this year winter might actually last forever—spring shows up. It is consistent in coming every single year. It never fails.

My freshmen year of college I made some poor decisions that landed me in a desperate place. Overwhelmed by class expectations, failed relationships, even the general bleakness of February, my entire world felt dark and hopeless, like winter. I vividly remember walking back from class one Friday afternoon, the reality of my situation falling heavy on my shoulders. It was just too much.

I was walking on autopilot, not really comprehending my surroundings, when a spot of yellow interrupted my dreary contemplations. A clump of daffodils were just beginning to flower along the roadside. Surprised out of my dreary contemplations, I stopped and actually looked around me—seeing the world for the first time in what seemed like months.

It’s too early for daffodils.

No other flowers were blooming on campus, in fact nothing else was blooming anywhere. And yet here were three little daffodils, sprouting up in all their hope-filled glory, as if they’d been intentionally buried in that exact spot months before and had spent all winter germinating in secret glee, anticipating the happy moment when they’d pop out of the dirt and interrupt my trudge of misery.

As cliche as it sounds, those little yellow flowers gave me just enough hope to push through a desperate moment, a reflection of a greater hope that later I would learn to cling to. I needed to believe that something was bigger than what I was experiencing, that my current reality would not be my forever. 

I fight to avoid platitudes, so my hope is that these words don’t come off general and stale. I’m not about handing someone a bandaid when they’ve got some serious wounds. But humor me in the possibility that there really is something out there as persistent as spring. Someone out there who is bigger than our current struggles and circumstances, someone that is constant, consistent, and faithful—like daffodils—to show up in our winters. 

I believe in this faithfulness because I have seen it, experienced it, and I know it to be true. I hope this season, in whatever circumstances or struggles you are experiencing, that spring surprises you with hope for something greater. 

Flying North | Part Two | On Remembering

I visited my grandmother at her nursing home last week. It’s been almost three years since I saw her last, and I wasn’t prepared for how much she had deteriorated. I mean, I knew she had dementia, but as I sat by her bed holding her wrinkled hand I struggled to connect the rosy-cheeked, cheerful woman I remembered with the pale and skinny form lying next to me. 

She didn’t remember who I was and I didn’t expect her to. In fact, she slept almost the entire time I was there. To help pass the time a nurse mentioned a hymn-sing scheduled for 2, which pulled a bright memory to the front of my mind. 

I’m sitting on a piano bench next to Mom-Mom in the sunlit study, fumbling through “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” The chords feel too big for my hands, but she belts straight through my blunders with the determined gusto of a freight train. Yes, let’s go to the hymn-sing.

We wheel into a room that smells like mothballs and stale breath. There’s an old piano in the corner that Doris, the home’s chaplain, will play. She’s a tiny, elderly black lady with the energy and enthusiasm of a five-year-old. The piano is her throne, the room her kingdom, and she knows each resident by name. I’m enchanted. 

Doris starts off with “Oh When The Saints’” in an upbeat bluesy rasp that animates the room. The lady in front of us is particularly excited, waving her worn fingers back and forth. Her pale pink nails glimmer whenever they hit the afternoon sun, as if reaching out for something in front of her that only she can see. We sing a few more hymns, and I glance at my grandmother— even in the midst of the music she’s fast asleep. 

It’s an elderly gentleman’s 90th birthday, and after we sing to him, Doris asks if he has anything special to say to those gathered. Even though he relies heavily on a walker, there’s something graceful in the way he pulls himself erect. He adjusts his position so he’s facing the audience, and with the seriousness of a soldier, he begins quoting Churchill.

Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.

It seems a strange thing to say in this context, and the words drop in the silence. A slight, almost awkward pause, and then Doris is thanking him and plowing into the next song. My lips follow automatically with the lyrics, but I’m still chewing on those words, letting them fill up my skull. 

They stir up something that’s been in me for quite some time—an uncomfortable feeling, like I’ve eaten too much candy and it’s not sitting right on my stomach. Perhaps its the result of getting older or that death has started stealing my ties with this generation, but I feel this owing. And not in the specific sense he’s referring to, but in a wide and incomprehensible way, like a thousand tiny threads of previous lives and past sacrifices have woven together to compose all the intricacy that is me. It’s a debt of existence, of heritage, of livelihood, and I don’t know how to properly appreciate it. I feel like a child who can’t remember to say thank you. 

As the music crones on in the background, I look at my sleeping grandmother. I’m overwhelmed with a rush of gratitude, and I affectionately squeeze the hand of this woman who gave life to my father, who has given life to me. It’s not an owing to make you feel guilty, no, it’s an owing to make you remember. I think this is the best way I can respond, by remembering.

I want to hear every story, I want to chase down every thread connected to my existence. My grandmother may not be able to remember, but I can. And my children can. And so on and forever, a heritage of remembering. 

Flying North | Part One

So I’m en route to DC where I’ve got twenty minutes to catch a connecting flight to Philadelphia. I’m in a strangely wakeful state despite the early hour, a cocktail of adrenaline and caffeine pumping through my system. We’re descending. They’re going to turn the cabin lights on soon. 

I crack my window a sliver because most people are still sleeping and I don’t want to be that person. A ray of red peeps out, reflecting a squarish blotch on the back of this guy’s head in front of me. It’s very red. If I push my face against the cold pane I can see a small section of the sky and land.

I’m traveling to see my dad’s family in southeastern Pennsylvania. His mother is 93, and I haven’t seen her in a few years. She has dementia, and her mind has slowly declined. She will not know me when I see her. In fact there is much of her life she no longer remembers.

The cabin lights flip on and I slide the pane down with careless abandon. The sun is just coming up, the Potomac shiny gold as it curves and slips through the world beneath my feet. It’s very dead, the land that is. It reaches out against the pinkish-red light, like arms stretching in the morning, recalling routine. 

I feel like I’m holding the tension of my aliveness and my mortality somewhere in the pit of my stomach

I’m struck by its permanence. Soon the land will change from brown to green, the bare trees blooming full, the harsh cold fading to new warmth, obediently following a familiar pattern of flow and existence—years upon decades upon centuries of wakeful remembering.

Thoughts of my grandmother and this perpetual earth beneath me have similar effects. I feel like I’m holding the tension of my aliveness and my mortality somewhere in the pit of my stomach and I have this desperate urge to remember, to talk to everyone around me at once so I can hear as many stories as possible before it’s too late. 

The plane hits the runaway, and I look up. The red blotch is no longer on the man’s head in front of me. I wonder where he gets his hair cut. How long does it take? Does he go to a barbershop or a hair salon? What does he talk about while he waits? 

I sneak a down glance at my watch. Fifteen minutes before my next flight boards. I quickly slip my bag over my shoulders and maneuver myself into the aisle. I’d better hurry. 

Insta-Envy

It’s 2:33 in the afternoon and I’m sitting in the doctor’s office, waiting on an appointment. I automatically pull out my phone, enter my passcode, and open the Instagram app—the brown polaroid-looking one that I’ve purposely placed within one-touch access. No new followers. Darn. My thumb slides upward across the smooth screen. Images flash across my eyes, sinking somewhere inside my visual cortex where my brain processes an opinion before my thumb breaks contact with the phone.

I know people say it’s a long way between your head and your heart, but in this case my thoughts have sprinted there and back in less than an instant, and my brain is immediately inundated with cheap assessments and critical perspectives.

“Did he really just post another picture of his breakfast?”

or

“She didn’t ‘like’ my sunset photo last week so I am not ‘liking’ hers.”

or

“That picture is too perfect, they must have spent hours editing it. What a waste of time.”

These thoughts are actually occurring inside my head, reverberating against my skull while I sit placidly in the quiet waiting room. And though I’d never dream of vocalizing them, they’re still happening, aren’t they? So on some level my heart must think they’re true—that people like so-and-so better than me because they have more followers, or that I’m better than so-and-so because my artistic coffee cup picture with the creamy swirls has more “likes”. 

Seriously? Let’s take a moment to call out how trivial this is. This reckless comparing, this insta-envy, based solely on our own interpretations of how we want our lives to be perceived—because let’s be real, I’m not the only one who thinks like this. And what’s crazy is this is nothing new. Humanity has been doing the comparison deal for thousands of years, way before the first after-workout selfie ever graced the insta-world. 

I know I talk a lot about the Bible, but it’s because it has a lot of good things to say that I believe to be true. Anyway in it there’s an old proverb that says, “a tranquil heart gives life, but envy makes the bones rot.” Another version describes it as cancer spreading through our bodies.

This is how Instagram makes me feel, like there’s something rotten inside, envious thoughts multiplying through my body like cancer, poisoning my heart with quiet little lies about how I should be, about how others should be, about how life should be.

So I deleted my Instagram.

Now before you go all, “Well that’s a bit drastic”, hear me out. Ideally Instagram is a good thing. It’s a creative hub for people to express their personality and share their experiences, whether that be through cute puppy photos, throwback Thursdays, or pixilated sunrise shots. It’s a tool that’s meant to encourage laughter, beauty, and community—feelings of goodwill and happiness for our fellowman.

But I don’t think it does that for most people, for me anyway. I think it leads a lot of its users to discontent, gossip, and envy. So I’m choosing not to have it in my life for the time being. I’m not trying to guilt-trip the world into getting rid of Instagram, I would be naive in assuming that deleting an app could cure mankind of it’s comparison problems. But I do think this provides an opportunity for you to examine you’re own insta-intentions, because like a mirror these intentions reflect the state of our hearts. Are you okay with posting a less than perfect picture? Do you feel inferior when your photo has less “likes” than someone else’s? And let’s not limit envy to an Instagram only issue. Who in your life are you comparing yourself to, and are your expectations realistic?

We’re all just people. Imperfect people. But we have the capacity to love each other well, to believe in and encourage the best in each other. I don’t need an app on my phone to tell you that.

Recommendations

It being January, I know many of you are compiling your 2015 book lists. I’d like to add my two-cents into the pot with a few recommendations for books I read in 2014, because let’s face it—there are few things more frustrating than reading a bad book! It’s incredibly difficult for me to narrow this list down, as this past year was chock-full of compelling books and great authors. I also take recommendations seriously, so if you disagree with anything I’ve said or have something to add, please comment below!

Must Reads

Bonhoeffer and Amazing Grace, Eric Metaxes

This year I discovered Eric Metaxes, and I could gush on and on about his brilliance as an author. Biographies tend to bore me, sad I know, but I find fiction more compelling. But Metaxes blew my biography bias out of the water. I tore through Amazing Grace and Bonhoeffer, and although parts were information heavy, the level of intricacy he uses to bring to life the legacies of Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer reflects his brilliance, not just as an writer, but also as a historian and narrator. The amount of research he must have done is overwhelming to imagine, and yet because of this he’s able to leave the reader with the notion they not only know these men, but they’ve become good friends. I left each book inspired and encouraged by their stories.

Even if faith isn’t your thing, these books are excellent purely for the writing quality. I’d start with Wilberforce’s biography, it’s shorter and a little easier to manage, and then go tackle Bonhoeffer.  Push through if you get bogged down in the details, it’s absolutely worth it. Must reads for sure. 

A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken

I almost didn’t include this book, simply because the story is so intimate you almost want to keep it to yourself. It’s tear-worthy beautiful, and coupled with Vanauken’s lyrical prose, it makes this book one of the best I’ve ever read. 

Vanauken tells his love story in such raw and cherished tones it pierces your heart to levels you were unaware existed within you. I cried because of its beauty, its sorrow, and its ultimate truth. There just aren’t words to describe how it affects you. This recommendations comes with weight, like something very precious I’m entrusting into your keeping. Don’t read this book just to read it—that would be irreverent. Read it only if you are capable of cherishing and shouldering its contents and the depth therein. 

Could Reads

Serena, Ron Rash

Serena pulls you in quickly. Set in the mountains of rural North Carolina in the 1920s, the book follows the tyranny of timber barrens George and Serena Pemberton. Like a Macbeth or a Frankenstein, you become fascinated with the raw villainy of the characters—so fascinated that you can’t stop reading without uncovering what horrendous levels they’ll stoop to next.

Rash is eloquent and a good storyteller. He has an impressive store of historical knowledge surrounding North Carolina’s timber industry, its national parks, and the people involved in the parks’ establishment—encouraging me to go learn more. The only issue I had with the novel was some lack of context around character development—I wanted a little more information surrounding Serena’s behavior and choices. Still, Serena is definitely a good read if you’re into historical fiction and can handle a little violence and villainy.  

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith

I put this classic in the Could Read column only because I don’t think it appeals to all personalities across the board. However, I found it charmingly poetic and yet bluntly realistic, which is not an easy feat to accomplish. Smith carries themes of loss, poverty, and empowerment through the narrative of an immigrant family in the early 1920s, proving to be an accomplished storyteller. It now graces my favorite classics list, side-by-side with The Secret Garden and Sense and Sensibility. Dare I say I almost liked it better than Pride and Prejudice? (Heresy, I know). If you’ve ever lived in or been to Brooklyn, or you’re passionate about women’s education or immigration, this is a must read. 

Please Don’t Reads

Divergent Trilogy, Veronica Roth

I’m coming down hard on these books, so I’m apologizing in advance to fans who love this series. I’m of the opinion if you take the time to sit down with book, it needs to be worth the time it takes to read. And to be honest, these books weren’t. I know it must be grueling to be an author, throwing heart and soul into a series, so I have the utmost respect for Veronica Roth. But these books were just okay when they could have been phenomenal.

On a positive note, Roth started off well. Divergent drew me in quickly, the plot was solid, characters were engaging, and my curiosity peeked. But the second and third books spiraled down hill. Insurgent and Allegiant were not just anti-climatic, it felt like Roth was unnecessarily rushed in trying to finish them. Characters remained one-dimensional and under developed, multiple lose ends remained untied, and the ones she did manage to bring together were sloppy and confusing. 

I cheered for these books the whole time I was reading them, but they lost. In my opinion, save some time and watch the movies instead.

Moonrise, Cassandra King

This book was on my list of must-reads by authors from the Southeast. Cassandra King is from Alabama and the book’s setting was Highlands, North Carolina, which happens to be one of my favorite mountain towns. Unfortunately the book was not my favorite.. 

King is a good descriptive writer, but I found her plot development so-so and her characters frustratingly stereotypical. She attempted to bring Highlands to life in her writing, but to me it felt like she was describing a place she’d only been to a few times. The ending was unclear and I was a little put off by her description of local Highlanders as undereducated mountain people. 

The only reason I’d recommend reading it would be for the moon gardens. These are fascinating and she provides a page at the back for how to grow your own. If I were you, I’d just skip the book and read that instead.

New Year Angst

Call me cynical, but I’ve got a hard heart when it comes to New Years resolutions. Of course I’d never say that out loud, but I don’t think I can take another exercise check list or personal goal chart. I can’t help rolling my eyes—I’m so over it.

I realize I’ve got a bad attitude, but let’s be honest for a second. As much as I’d like to be, I’m not an achiever. Somehow I missed that self-discipline gene. But, being the dreamer that I am, I’m great at convincing myself that I actually am one.

Every year when January rolls around, I come up with a fantastical improvement plan covering all areas of my life. Am I going to read my Bible more? Well yes of course, I’m going to read the whole thing twice. Exercise twice a week you say? Bump that—I’m going to run every single day. And do Crossfit. And eat three incredibly healthy meals per day. I’m caught up on this unrealistic achiever high for about week, until inevitably—as they do every year—my resolutions fail. I make excuses. I’ll do better tomorrow. I get discouraged. I feel guilty. And then I just give up. 

You see why I’m cynical? Why bother even starting the cycle, when I know I’m only going to be disappointed in myself.

When I react like this, I know it reveals something very important about where my heart is. I’ve thrown up a well-constructed self-protective wall to shield a real and nasty danger. Call it pride, self-reliance, works-based righteousness—however you choose to define it—a part of my heart desperately wants to be defined by what I do. 

Don’t get me wrong, I think were were meant to do things well. The alternative would be everyone being terrible at stuff, and well that would just lead to anarchy, chaos and one huge suck fest. We can and should take pride in our accomplishments. But ultimately I don’t think we are meant to find meaning in them.

So quick Bible moment, I think this is what’s going on in the book of Galatians. Paul, the author, is frustrated at the church at Galatia because they’ve been preaching that in order to be a true Christian, you have to be circumcised, essentially submitting themselves back under the law, saying salvation is contingent on what one does. Worth defined by works. 

Paul’s pretty adamant about how dangerous this belief is. Take a quick look at what he says:

“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision (works), Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” Galatians 5:1-4 (ESV)

Grace! So sweet in its acceptance and so easily rejected in a moment. And yet I think it’s the key to my resolution issue. I get it, my goals tend to be unrealistic, I know it’d help to trim them down to attainable levels. But really what I need is grace, because grace gives me the freedom and joy to keep going in a moment of failure. Instead of throwing in the towel when I’ve failed, when I’m tempted to tie my worth to what I’m doing—I can preach grace into my heart.

So back to that whole resolution thing. I’m going to try out a few, and this year I hope they work out. But more importantly I hope I remember my worth isn’t based on whether I accomplish them or not. I have been saved by faith. I have a Father who desperately loves me and who has infinitely answered for my shortcomings. And it really is true, his mercies are new every morning. 

O Sinner, Come Home

On Friday my grandmother died. It feels harsh to write it out like that, so blunt and factual, but I don’t really know how else to put it. 

The reality of death is a paradox to me. Death is natural. All things decay and die, second law of thermodynamics, the natural order of this world. And yet in my spirit, there is an uncommonly strong resistance to it. Death doesn’t feel natural. There is something in me that protests against it, that knows by instinct there is something more and that I was meant for whatever that something is. I don’t think we were meant to die. 

But we do, the reality of death is everywhere. At first it hits you hard in the face, like freezing water smashing against warm skin. And then it filters in slow, sinking deeper and deeper into you with every remembrance of the person gone until before you know it, it’s lodged itself so firmly inside it becomes a part of who you are. Grief is such a strange process. 

Grieving is necessary, but so is celebration. In fact I think the two go hand-in-hand. My grandmother was a strong woman. As many of her friends and relatives affirmed to me, she was a “real firecracker” and “Ms. Buie, well she’d shoot you straight.” Of all the people I’ve ever met, I don’t think I know anyone who worked as hard as she did. She taught me how to use a broom, how to clean a kitchen, how to shuck corn and snap peas. You’d have to fight her to get her to sit down, and if you turned around she’d be at it again, finding something else to do. If only I could be half has hardworking. 

My grandmother wasn’t soft, and she wasn’t easy to get along with all the time, but she was always thoughtful. She never missed my birthday. If I missed her call, she’d sing happy birthday to me in a voicemail. In the evenings, she’d drive her scooter to the porch so she could read her Bible while watching the sunlight fade across the farm. She was so lovely. 

I miss her. I miss her in a way I don’t think will ever fade away. Not completely.

The thing about death is that it makes us take a good hard look at life. It forces us to look at the people we love, it shines a flashlight on our every day doings, on what consumes our time and our thoughts. It begs a question of importance and necessity. What actually matters? 

As my grandmother was dying, we sang her favorites hymns to her. I don’t actually remember the name of one of the last songs we sang, but I know I’ll never forget the words. 

“Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me; see on the portals he’s waiting and watching, watching for you and for me. Come home, come home, you who are weary come home. Earnestly, tenderly Jesus is calling, calling O sinner, come home.” 

I don’t know what life after death is like. I don’t really understand heaven. But I like to think that when she finally let go, she opened her eyes and Jesus was right there in front of her in all his warmth and glory, arms spread wide for her to run into.