There is a spider in the kitchen window, and Cody has named him Peter. Primarily, I think he has done it to create some kind of sympathy in me for him (if that were possible) because the ol’ boy has a hearty appetite and a skilled web for the catching. (I can’t deny this, and I don’t – he’s a good spider if ever there could be, though I still maintain they came after the Fall.) He has long, spindly legs and a very round, darkly marbled body, which gives me shivers just to write. But here we are. I call him by his name and discuss him with the baby over breakfast, so I guess Cody has won. The name has given him something of a sweetness, when I think of him - named after Spiderman and assuming that heroic characteristic, killing the flies and the beetles. Until I see him – and he makes me shiver again. But I will say, it’s only that thin pane of glass that protects him. If the fellow gets a wandering eye for the kitchen, he’ll just have to go.

There’s no deeper discourse in this than a begrudged kinship. And there’s no reason for telling you, other than to let you know my husband has cheeky devices for swaying me, and we’ve a new friend, like it or not.

There is something really special about hearing stories in the teller’s voice. My Grandma’s, for instance; she has a subtle Appalachian drawl, which I never noticed growing up, too close to her to hear it. It’s in everything she says, though, and sometimes it’s what she says more than how she says it. She chuckled when she recalled how her car broke down once, when she was in her twenties. She had to relay to the mechanics how she’d “pooshed” the car, and they kept asking her “what? You did what?” - making all kinds of opportunity to hear her accent more and get in a little laugh.

It wasn’t until I was grown and married to my own West Virginian that I realized she was from that part of the country. (Often, it’s not until we’re grown that we realize adults have stories too, and are not just spending their lives storying us.) Two years ago, she and Grandpa sat down with me and a voice recorder and told me about their lives. I treasure that recording – a 45-minute soundbite of my people telling their stories.

Grandma was a nurse. She worked in and around the land she was raised, some of which meant traveling, sometimes a hundred miles a day. Think if I’d have broken down, she wondered while telling me. All that back-country road. And then, at the end of a day, she’d have to sterilize and sharpen her needles by hand, when they were giving immunizations.

She talks of deep and quiet hill country, where some things took a while to trickle back to, which were flowing rivers for some, and a creeping creek for them. She remembers people getting sick. Tuberculosis was spreading through families fast, and it was hard, sometimes impossible work getting them to receive treatment. One woman received a court order to be committed after she spread the sickness to her little girl and still declined treatment – an elder nurse’s desperate hope of saving the rest of the family. Grandma said it was like beating her head against the wall.

She remembers being called in to a school once. The girls had been taking one of the students into the bathroom and forcibly running her under the shower. Grandma wouldn’t say, but the girl must have just started to be a woman, and didn’t know how. “It should have been handled different,” she said. Her job was to call on the girl’s family and help things out if she could. She said, as she was going into the hollow to visit, there was the girl’s dad, having seen her at a distance, waiting with a shotgun. “What those girls did was wrong,” he said. “I know,” she said. And that was it. She wanted to talk, he didn’t, and she had to walk away. “Wasn’t nothing I could do.”

I wonder about her. Not knowing and unable to know, suffering the ill attempts of school girls to cleanse her into a knowledge that no one but a nurse would talk about. About him. A protective father barricading his daughter from the wrong person. So many complicated intentions in this world, so many layers to stories - and all affecting someone else.

Saving people is a messy work. Not that we can, but that we try. Not that we should or shouldn’t, but that we do. A friend and I were talking, and we were bemoaning this a little. Love will say some offensive things, now and again. And what is it to do when the beloved responds – no thanks, I’m good – right to love’s face?

Everyone has drawn their line in the sand, marking just how far they’ll push their point on another. There are very many lines, I’m learning. One pulls his stick through the shore at the first declination he receives, staving off any more attempts after that. Another will attempt again and again, long after anyone believes she should. It is easy to understand that the fool cannot be swayed, but harder to pick out the fool. We watch a friend or neighbor spinning their web for nothing. We feel compelled to their salvation, without the mighty right arm to save or the burden of perfect justice. We do not want them to fail, or else feel compelled to speak because of the weight their fault bears on us.

God told Samuel, they’re not rejecting you, but Me. And thus it happens so often. Not against our personal opinions – though we muddy this boundary – but against God’s truth.

He says to live with others as peaceably as possible. I always find that as possible a great comfort. Because sometimes it’s just not up to you, and you had to speak your piece, and now you have to let go - or else keep forging a little against the fire. Peace be with you in that, my friends. And go gently. I am not a confronter, but I appreciate you vocal folk as having hold of the harder love, to both receive and to give.

The other morning, with a friend’s babe tucked onto my lap, sleeping, I found a book she’d been reading on her end table and flipped it open. It was The Read-Aloud Family. It’s about the transformative beauty of cultivating a love of reading into our kids. How reading to them, even once they can read for themselves, creates something special, which is best curated with patience and a lap and our undivided attention. I didn’t read much of it, in that keyhole of time, but I can light a candle for the cause. My mother used to read to me, and I can testify to its magic. Under the oak in the park, she’d weave stories out of the grass around us. She’d read us Tolkien and Lewis at home, picture books in the gazebo by the library. Her voice became my own confidence for story-making. A swung-wide gate for active imagination. And, which is more important, the assurance of her time, which I can never remember questioning.

In the book, the author quotes N. D. Wilson, who writes:

“Watching one’s small humans age and grow up packs a serious punch. It’s like being stuck in a dream unable to speak, like being a ghost that can see but not touch, like standing on a huge grate while a storm rains oiled diamonds, like collecting feathers in a storm. Parents in love with their children are all amnesiacs, trying to remember, trying to cherish moments, ghosts trying to hold the world.”

I hated this, when first I read it - my own boy still young, our days tripping over their own feet as they run fast away from us. This Ecclesiastic futility. His book is called Death by Living, so I’m not sure that it grows upward toward optimism. But, nestled into the first chapter of Sarah Mackenzie’s book, I think the point is to try. To be there, be present. To, God willing, write as long and as faithfully as we can upon their blank pages, even as they begin filling despite us. To cherish. Which is to say, to love God and love others, the foundation for everything.

My husband speaks in metaphors like a second tongue. Not the idioms you heard growing up. Long, epic tales. More than once he has had me at the table begging the point, Cody, to which he knows he has me at ground zero again: wait, I’m getting there, and then proceeds to build brick by brick. It’s the preacher’s gift without the podium, only a wife asking him to take the road less winding. They are growing on me, though. I’m trying to remember one, even one, to tell you, and I can’t. I lean over on the bed and ask him for “one of those long crazy metaphors you say” and get “I dunno” in reply. But in the moment, he can catch the depth of a thing and turn it into something else, which I am growing wildly impressed over, if still impatient now and again.

Sometimes I look at him and think “look! There he is – my husband.” He married me four years and a baby ago, and my high school self would have loved to know.

Rewind your mind’s eye to your earliest dreams. The four-year-old ones, where your life purpose was perfectly two-dimensional and maybe cartoon. The awkward-years ones, where the dreams had a soundtrack and a car ride and were impressive and outlandish. The high school ones, on the brink of life, you thought, and maybe greatness. Certainly newness.

Isn’t it strange to watch the way things have unfolded? The way our dreams grow gangly legs and plod around. The way things we thought would happen, did, but differently. The way things we never could have conceived of, would. We all want to set our younger selves down and tell them our secrets. If you knew, we’d say. If you could just, we’d implore. Wounds will happen, little one, and grow into scars; and when it rains, they will ache – even before thirty. Peace will be the wild bird who makes friends with you.

In This Too Shall Last, K. J. Ramsey talks about visiting with an old college friend, who confessed she used to want Christ to wait – until the marriage and the kids and the “experience” of life – before coming back. We know what she means. And then life does come, and we cry, “come back.” You can’t tell this to the girl in pigtails. You can wait until she has a bob, and then she will already know.

It’s not all bad. So much is so good that you wish you could tell your young self that, too. Wait till you see your college roomie – you’ll ride around the city at night and scream Livin’ On a Prayer in the prime of your life; you’ll take Panda Express to-go and watch way too many episodes of Frasier. That girl will teach you to live a little more, and you will always love her for it. Wait till your closest friends circle you in prayer while you’re waiting to get married. See their tears of love and your bursting heart and the chain of sisterhood that is not ending but ready to grow a stronger root. Wait till you see that long-awaited baby – the one that surprised you one morning in two pink lines so that you sprung out tears of fear – but now, at the last, with tears of absolute unbelief that they are setting this boy on your lap, and he is yours to love forever.

There’s a place I love and a story I hate, and somehow they live very close to each other, even on the same plot of land. My Aunt said the farmers were sweeping the cloud of chemicals over the cornfields when her baby ran inside, covered with the stuff. He was having an asthma attack, and I’m not sure how they calmed him but they did. For many years after that, it was just a startling story and a mother’s skipped heartbeat.

They don’t know, but when a second boy from the same plot of country got the same rare cancer, they suspected it might have been that cloud, forbearing something down the line.

We can press our hands to these fault lines, which break beautiful plains from heartbreaking ones. Same plot of earth, different worlds and the same.

"Come back. Wait for no more life than You need to,” we cry now. We know, and the knowing is better than not; but it is hard. We belong to a better plot than this. We believe, and we are going.

Updated: Jul 10, 2020

The bee nestles into the Hosta’s lily, drinking up Noah’s newest word, “nectar.” He climbs the cream piston and momentarily disappears behind the gentlest purple petals before flying to the next. We look for him every day. Noah will ask for him as we walk to the backyard, into our friend’s “secret garden,” toiled and seeded by a landscape architect maybe forty years prior, and looking lovely and wild today. We walk to the koi pond, too, and look for the fishies (a delight, especially, when I pick him up for better vantage). We see the orange ones most, but sometimes the white and black ones slide just below the surface, lifting their open lips to kiss the surface quick before leveling back down like a submarine, and we revel in it as a special pleasure.

These are his simple joys. Every day he shows the same robust joy at the growing expectancy to see his creature friends. And the rocks and the seeds and the walnuts, too. I admit, it is hard to set my phone aside and enjoy it in the same way. I feel the press to check in on all the world, even though I always feel wearied with all it has to say. Why not choose two or three authors, I ask, and read them and say enough? That is a sound plan, I reply, and promptly open my phone to the same sea of voices. But I’m trying to go slower. Trying to put down the phone and see the world like Noah, new and the same every day.

I heard a quote from G. K. Chesterton on a podcast the other day, and I love it every time I hear it.

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

What a speculation. That the monotony is intentional and an undiluted strain of faithfulness, the Father never neglecting the daisies or the sun or the moon, and we never neglecting to drink in creation’s praise and pour it back out.

Lately I have been thinking, and maybe you have, too, about observation and being present. First, the most plaguing question, because we worry it over ourselves: what happens to a life that loses its wonder? And reader, I’m not wholly sure, but think there must be many answers to that, shaped in every way to the contours of its asker. A lot of us feel stuck here. We know exactly how we aren’t present, and the question isn’t as helpful as we want it to be. So then our second question, which we hold with hope: what happens to a life that retains it? Holds fast to this child-like attention to every day – the way my boy stretches his hand toward the ceiling each morning, in every room, and says, “fan!” so that I’ll turn it on and he can watch it spin to life?

Observation brings us to a reckoning. In innumerable, specific ways, it shows us the truth. It drops my head into my hands when a Montessori game goes awry and little man is dropping fists of dried noodles on the ground. Ah, so when the going gets tough, you breathe through your nose like a bull. The rub – that patience is the punchline of this quiet life. The observing is not meaning in itself, but a clearer view of where our meaning is found.

Poetry expresses these things better, though. We know the litany of a life (and we read it in paragraphs mostly). Give us some pizzazz; then we can drink it. So here’s our Emily Dickinson, with the words and drunk on nature, noticing and declaring that “When landlords turn the drunken bee / Out of the foxglove’s door, / When butterflies renounce their drams, / I shall but drink the more!” Keep on, my friends, the noticing is hard and worthy.

Our boy has lately been picking up on all kinds of phrases and meanings. The other week we had just finished watching his favorite show when I clicked the screen off. He stared mournfully from the tv to me. “Watch the news?” he asked, pointing.

The associations are delightful, too. Uncle Aaron is paired with lawnmower. Grandpa with piano. Daddy with the baby monitor – because he spoke over it late one night to calm our boy's cries, and it about scared the little life out of him. It is funny though (the associations, not the scaring-the-life-out-of). It’s like seeing your family as tv characters, where everyone has one thing they’re most known for, where usually we feel so complex. He makes all his observations and then crowns the beloved family member with the thing that stands out above the rest.

I don’t think I’ve ever written on writing, mainly because it feels pretentious and also because it might not serve my reader, so I shy away. But maybe you would be interested. Every vocation calls to the others in similar ways, the echo meeting rings of its own chorus. Writing is not unique unto itself.

Annie Dillard taught me that writing is not for nothing. She says to “aim at the chopping block, not at the wood” (The Writing Life), stressing the necessity of both meaning and writing, but the inherent danger of a misplaced eye – namely, on writing. It is hard to adhere to this. I have lost a few fingers by it, or at the very least, the portion of my brain where peace is stored. Write what is good. What is true. What makes a life something more than breath. It is easy to peddle hot air when the world loves a good hot air balloon. Isn’t this all of our lives, anywhere? Observe the truth and do not leave it.

I will not say there is much eternity in the Hosta’s resident bee or the fan that will last another decade or so, though my son will glee in them until we leave. But the noticing will draw our hearts into greater things, which I do believe will last.

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