The Coldest Days

This week in lovely New England, we are having what the weathermen are calling the coldest days of the winter.  Given that we are only one month into the three of the season, the quadrant of my mind where the skeptic lives smirks at that the sentence. When it feels like spring is far from our grasp, are we sure that this is the coldest we will feel before the blight of winter lifts its curse?  Regardless of the skeptic’s questions, the air is cold. I’ve been inside most of the week, with no desire to do anything outdoorsy besides look out the window. I layer shirts, sweaters, scarves, coats, hats, and run from house to car to office and back again, slamming the doors behind me and shuddering as I begin to thaw upon each entrance.  At home,  we sit inside under blankets and stay away from windows and doors that send in blasts of drafty air.   These are days when much feels the same. Get up, shiver, dress, work, drink hot beverages, sit under blankets at night, and then sleep. Repeat. With regular intervals of checking the weather to see when the cold is predicted to end it’s reign of terror.

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I read an essay on the mundanity at the beginning of the week. About the sacredness of mundanity. How we shun the mundane in search of the sacred, the extraordinary. How both the mundane and the extraordinary are part of our lives and cannot be separated. One cannot be banished and the other kept.

Then while hovering under blankets with my child, watching Curious George for the three hundred and ninety-eighth time, I finished reading Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life.  I love reading about creative philosophy; the analysis that describes the creation of writing, music, and visual art. She writes,

 

“Writing every book, the writer must solve two problems: Can it be done? And, Can I do it?  Every book has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer discovers as soon as his first excitement dwindles. The problem is structural; it is insoluble; it is why no one can ever write this book.  Complex stories, essays, and poems have this problem, too – the prohibitive structural defect the writer wishes he had never noticed. He writes it in spite of that. He finds ways to minimize the difficulty; he strengthens other virtues; he cantilevers the whole narrative out into thin air, and it holds. And if it can be done, then he can do it, and only he. For there is nothing in the material for this book that suggests to anyone but him alone its possibilities for meaning and feeling.” (pp. 45-6)

 She continues on, addressing the recipients’ expectations,

“Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? Can the writer  isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts? Can the writer renew our hope for literary forms? Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds, the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power?”  (p. 46)

 

The words I read reminded me of the snowflake picture I shared recently. Sometimes in my mind, repetition means lack of originality. The mundane becomes the structural deficiency.  Again, this week, thanks to the winter’s cold air that sends white blankets, there are more pictures of whiteness, tree branches looking like fondant decked wedding cakes.

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“Who but an artist fierce to know – not fierce to seem to know  – would suppose that a live image possessed a secret? The artist is willing to give all his or her strength and life to probing with blunt instruments those same secrets no one can describe in any way but with those instruments’ faint tracks.” (p. 50)

Perhaps repetition is not mundane all of the time. Perhaps there are new secrets to be found within the mundane that are actually sacred. What makes us notice beauty in the routine of our days?  What makes snow laden trees stand out, winter after winter, seeing the same branches colored white and coated in the same texture. While I personally hold that there are objectives in beauty, and have my own preferences, I think the real strength of artistry is being able to look beyond the mundane in our minds’ lens and to share that which our individual senses bring into being.

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The experience of the extraordinary within the mundane is the sense of being brought up short, catching our breath, taking one more look, seeing something that we never noticed before. One day a the lighting, an angle, a phrase of music, a tone, a clause, a grouping of words in a poem, a piercing of light in a painting, a sentence on a page, may not strike the hammer of our mind’s keyboard.  Another day, weeks later, it may startle us into a new realm of being like a secret, gilded entrance to a new, sacred existence. So whether we write, paint, play, compose, observe, think, photograph, build, design, heal, organize, categorize, or teach,  we must never let repetition kill our joy. We work away through the mundane, carefully avoiding its miry swamps, keeping our senses alive, and we strike the mine that holds the sacred, the extraordinary, the beautiful.

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Some people say that our pursuit and desire for beauty is because we are cursed to live apart from it, cursed to live in the mundane.  Other people say that our pursuit and desire for beauty is because we crave the image and likeness of our Creator, who is perfect beauty, who gave us innate abilities to recognize Him through beauty.  I think it’s sort of a glass half empty or glass half full conundrum.  We are cursed by the mundane, the need to work, to shiver in the cold, to sweat in the heat, to repeat our days over and over.  Simultaneously, we are beings who crave beauty, the original, the extraordinary, because we are made in the image of perfection and exact beauty. We are not defined by the mundane. We are rescued from the mundane by the Beautiful and the extraordinary. We are defined by the beauty we happen upon and in turn share.  We are being drawn constantly, quietly, toward that Beauty, even as we wake, rise, work, shiver in winter’s chill, sleep and repeat.

 

(This post is a repost from my writing a few years ago. The weather this week has been slightly tolerable, although recently the -0 temperatures were not so fun!)

 

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What I Read 2017

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I read 100 books this year. That number sounded insurmountable at the beginning of the year. It sounds like a ridiculous amount now. But I feel like I barely read many of the titles I want to read, so there’s always a new year ahead. I thought I had a fantastic goal in the middle of the year until I listened to a podcast and the guest said they regularly read 200 books a year. I felt somewhat deflated then, but what I accomplish is good for me, not for a comparison with someone else.

I focused on reading this year and it took up most of my time. I survived, managed to keep my children alive, taught my students, and read. And I really enjoyed it. I hope to write more this coming year, and read many books again, so I’m always up for a title suggestion or two.

I realized a few things about my reading habits.

-I love biographies. I have always loved the stories of peoples’ lives. I love pouring over photos and hearing stories of interesting people. I suppose I’m just nosey. Or I could call it my inner trapped journalist.

-I read more productively when I have several books going at a time- and bookmarks. I would start books in years past and get distracted and not mark my spot and then forget where I was and never finish the book. I would also get bored or not be in the mood for a current read, put it down and walk away never to revive the appropriate mood for that book.

-I love to analyze writing styles. Make me interested, don’t bore me, engage my senses, and I’ll be your fan forever. Go all numbers and dry facts on me and you better hope I have a bookmark ready so we don’t lose each other forever. Be creative and you can probably sell me an otherwise mundane story.

-Audiobooks are a great way to get thru the books. I listened to some exclusively as audiobooks. Some I read in print. Some I listened to in the car or when running, but would alternate with the print version when I was snuggled in bed at night – if they were particularly engaging or I was trying to get thru the book at a reasonable pace during a busy time.

So my favorites. People ask me what my top five favorites were. I see book lists online with the top ten titles of the year. So I picked my top five favorites across the titles and then I listed my favorites by categories – fiction, non-fiction, history, memoir/biography, religion. Here they are!

My Top Five

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Fiction

Novels

Rules of Civility, Amor Towles

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Think F. Scott Fitzgerald.  This book was my first attempt to “read” a book during pointless hours spent driving in the car.  I loved it and couldn’t wait to finish it, but hated to end it. It evokes the gorgeous scenes of New York City in an era long gone, relationship struggles, and a raw humanity disguised by vaporous glamour.

Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee

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I saved Harper Lee for my adult reading consumption.  I read To Kill a Mockingbird last summer and Go Set a Watchman this year. I listened to Reese Witherspoon read this book and no one can ever have Scout’s voice besides Reese.  She will forever embody Scout for me.

Home, Marilynne Robinson

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I read all three of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead books this year.  Home won as my favorite.  I loved Jack Boughton’s character and the redemption themes that run through the book.  A masterful and beautiful piece of writing that shows without telling.

Runners Up

A City Baker’s Guide to Country Living

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A really fun book, fantastic character development. This is not the next great American novel, but I really liked it. I think it was because the characters seemed like people I knew, the setting was cozy and realistic, and there was a neat little plot with a happy ending.  A feel good read that wasn’t mind numbing.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

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I sadly didn’t precisely know where Guernsey was until I read this book.  Now I do.  Set during WW2, the story and it’s narration is unique and engaging.  There are parts that drag slightly in the middle and then it picks up and the ending is wonderful and delightful .

Constant Favorite Author

Alexander McCall Smith – 44 Scotland Street & Isabel Dalhousie series

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Anything Alexander McCall Smith writes is fun to read.  He has a charming way of taking ethical questions, philosophical problems, and vague current events and intertwining them into masterfully told stories of people and places.  Each book transports the reader to another place, makes them think, and makes them smile all at the same time.

Poetry

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Gorgeous – just beautiful, genius use of words and images.  Perfection in phrases.

Non Fiction

Memoir/Biography

Sisters First, Barbara Bush and Jenna Bush Hager

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“All the feels” is the expression I use for this book.  I laughed out loud, I cried, I reminisced, I ached, and basically I laughed a lot more.  I listened to the audio version, where Jenna and Barbara alternate reading the chapters they each wrote.  I wanted to be best friends with them by the time the book was over.  They brought stories to life, entertained, and totally brought common human experience to life in this book.

No Higher Honor, Condoleezza Rice

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This is a long one, but definitely an interesting read.  This book is the memoir of Condoleezza Rice’s work in the Bush Administration.  I felt like I had a semester of civics, history, and political science while reading this book.  This was definitely a hybrid read of print and audio book.

Vacationland John Hodgman

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Ok, this one is a little different.  I never really watched the Daily Show so I wasn’t familiar with John Hodgman.  There was some “questionable” content depending on your filter and a few words here and there that not everyone would like, but I loved the writing.  It was sarcastic and ironic and humorous and I found it really funny.

Coolidge, Amity Shlaes

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I didn’t know much about Calvin Coolidge, but he was interesting and I enjoyed reading about his life.  This book is well written and detailed.  The budget chapters dragged for me (shocker) but most of the book was interesting.

Condoleezza Rice, a Memoir of my Extraordinary, Ordinary Family and Me, Condoleezza Rice

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Condoleezza Rice’s autobiography of growing up. An excellent, inspiring read.

Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy

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Fascinating writing style makes this book captivating.  This is the story of a Cuban family, obviously.  The way the author tells the story of his life, of Fidel’s takeover in Havana, his immigration to the USA is intertwined with a narrative style that is unique and brilliantly engaging.

History/Current Affairs

Democracy, Condoleezza Rice

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I loved the positivity in this book.  Dr. Rice details the progress of democracy throughout the world, country by country.  She discusses the important role that America has played in the rising tide of freedom.  I read this book in a weekend and was impressed with her clear writing style and engaging narrative ability.

Religion

The King’s Cross Tim Keller

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An excellent book.  This book deals with the life of Jesus and the meaning that His life has had on the world.

Ordinary Michael Horton

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This book deals with the fact that our lives are typically ordinary, not extraordinary.  It is an important work that brings reality and living as a Christian together.  This was a book that I kept bombarding  friends with quotes from because there were so many pithy statements and truths in it.

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, Nabeel Qureshi

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Excellent book on apologetics, culture, and conversion.  I really appreciated the insights the author shared about the Muslim culture as well as his story of struggle with leaving his faith and converting to Christianity.

Books about Reading

How Fiction Works, James Wood

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This is a geek-out book for people who like to analyze literature.  So I loved it.  I would have enjoyed reading this in a writing class.  I would use it if I ever taught a writing class.   So if you like to analyze literature and fiction and love literary criticism, here’s your book!

Endings, Or What You Learn That Can’t Be Measured. 

It’s the end of school year. That anticipation builds, the excitement hardly contained, the noise levels rise, and then, suddenly it is over. Everyone is gone and the ghosts of laughter and happy shrieks and frustrations are silent. There’s an odd sensation after school ends when everyone scatters. The emptiness and the noise that recently existed float against the walls, and trail out the doorways. The surging energy calms to an abrupt cessation. 
The sudden ending always seem strange to me. I’ve been a student, a teacher, and now a parent of a student and the endings still have that same feeling, mixed with excitement so strong its hard to stand, relief and long breaths, and then the odd empty feel when the action halts. This is my first year as a kindergarten parent. The end of kindergarten was different than I expected, but I shouldn’t have been surprised by it. 


We are prepared for the beginning of kindergarten, when our babies materialize into academic scholars, proficient in letter sounds and telling time; expert in the subjects of chick hatching and butterfly transformation. We work ahead to send them off to kindergarten. We’ve officially started them on this career that ends in thousands of dollars of debt and ownership of a black cap and gown in 16 or so years. We read all the articles to make sure they are ready for school. We’ve collected the tips on how to be the best kindergarten mom and how to stay strong when you wave goodbye on day one. We buy supplies, we get them excited, we make their lunch and write them the little note to put with the lunch. The first day comes, the tear gets brushed away, the pictures are proudly posted. Then we settle into our school year routines of drop offs and pick ups and lunches with notes. 
Then kindergarten ends. And I had failed to fully prepare for the end and the sadness, for the sudden anticlimacticness that seemed oddly similar to the day after I graduated from college. I distinctly remember thinking “now what do I do with my life?” Of course the answers (um, find a job) were there for me, lurking, and obviously she will go to first grade, not find a job. But the similar feeling lingers -everything we’ve been pouring our life into and looking forward to has ended.   

Kindergarten is pivotal. This is the time when small childhood ends. They walk into school alone. They have friends. They form bonds with people other than their parents – they have a teacher they will probably remember, at least vaguely. 

The night she graduated from kindergarten, in a mixture of emotion and exhaustion, she cried herself to sleep. She was heartbroken that she wouldn’t see her friends and teacher anymore. I realized in the days leading up to the end of school that small children have it harder than older children or adults when endings come. In kindergarten it’s harder to control your sense of loss. Kindergarten graduates, unlike high school and college graduates lack the ability to pick up a phone or send a text any time they wish. They (hopefully) do not have social media to connect with their friends. They are left dependent on their parents’ level of intro or extroversion. 
As she cried, I wanted to assure her that kindergarten is a drop in the bucket. I wanted to help her know that this is an easily surmountable sadness cured by a few good days at the beach. But instead, I told her about my own deep ache for the friends I’ve made and had to leave behind in various stages of my life. I told her about my wedding rehearsal dinner when I walked into a room with most of my dearest friends collected together and how I realized I would not see them after the following evening at my wedding. I realized I had chosen a new life that didn’t keep them in a ten minute radius. My heart crumpled as I entered the room. I fled the scene and sobbed in a bathroom for what seemed an eternity to my confused fiance. I told my sweet baby girl that we make amazing friends through our lives and then we say good bye to them too frequently,  but that they become a part of who we are forever. 


The part of kindergarten we can’t test and measure and quantify and see and understand is the truest and deepest part of us. Sure, we grow in academic and developmental understanding,  but we grow as people. We separate from our families and build relationships and learn independence. We have the joy of innocently blissful friendships, quick and easy forgiveness, and happy goodwill to our neighbors. We suffer thru good byes and changes. We live a microcosm of life in one fast year and suddenly we are ready for the rest of our lives. 
I haven’t seen many articles for parents about handling a sensitive child at the end of kindergarten. Most mothers I talk to tell me about their own tears at the end of kindergarten. But what about the child’s tears? What do we do to help them grapple with the quieted laughter and lack of “life purpose”?


We move into one day after another day as best we know how. We do well to remember our own pains and heartbreaks as well as our own joys and friendships. And we celebrate the tiny humans our children have become, knowing that there are many parts of growth that are unmeasurable. Learning to deal with the pendulum that swings between joy and pain is one of those unmeasurable growths. We won’t find a true grade of that sort on a report card, because that is a life long lesson that continues on year after year, making us deeper and stronger. 

The Peony’s Soul

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Slowly, they bud, as the lilacs fade, as the days grow warm and long

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One by one, they pop open, bursting bright raspberry shades across the lawns

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They open wider, flinging ruffles and ripples across our paths

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They are generous benefactors, stacking pillows of pink and magenta in front of our eyes

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The slanting sun shimmers in the distance as the bowers of bright pink smile and bounce in the spring breeze

And if you look deeper, inside – as often happens in life – you find that more than the surface color and shine exists. Farther in, tucked away, only slightly hinted at, there lives a completely different color and texture, hidden from first view, but ever so beautiful and surprising as you peer beneath the garish surface of a peony.

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Hearing Voices in the Spring

Spring is the same year after year.  Flowers shoot up through the ground and bloom. Trees carry buds which flower and morph into yellow umbrellas and then into green canopies, lighting up against the gray, wet skies.  But the fabulous part of this whole Spring production is that while each Spring carries the same template, no two Springs are the same. No two daffodils are identical. Each year, the shining canopies of fresh leaves are unique.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about writing in my voice. By this I mean, whose voice I am really using as I write. Is it me, is it who I want to be, is it who I think someone else wants me to be? Or have I been avoiding who I really am, so that others can think I am someone that I really not.  Sometimes we work so hard to avoid being ourselves that we end up forgetting who and what really composes our true self. There’s a tight balance between the control required to produce quality work (in writing, in art, and in music,) and between being a voice or an expression that truly mirrors the soul within us.  Creativity is more control than it is wild expression. It takes time, maybe even years to stop writing or producing for someone else, to truly be oneself, but to meld the learning from others and the self awareness inside into a quality performance.

Take a child.  Children copy.  And then they make connections between what they copy here and what they learn there and what they think inside their own brains. And they often “think for themselves.”  At some point in life, what they (we) produce is a compendium of mirrored thought and original thought.  I used to think that every piece of productive, creative work had to be entirely original. Then slowly, I realized that artists everywhere form their identities, at some point,  by depending on others.  Some stay close to modeled templates, maybe improving or changing slightly. Some release themselves like birds from a cage and go off to build their own fantastic nests.

I’ve come to think there is nothing inherently right or wrong with either path, as everyone’s capacity for creativity is different. The important thing is to find, within one’s creative template, a voice so unique, so individual, that no one could be that voice but the owner, and then to keep that voice alive and heard.

Don’t stop your voice because it might sound like someone else’s voice.  Don’t chop off your tree branches because your neighbor has the same tree.  Don’t be afraid to produce and create and plant a new flower that no one has ever seen, in case they compare it to ones they have seen.  Just walk out into the fresh, flowery scented air, and breath and let your voice carry over the breezes.  Eventually it will find the perfect landing spot and erupt into a canopy that is the exact fit  for your universe.

A Little Spring in Your Step 

Leaves open and spread like umbrellas over the sidewalks to keep the showers from drenching. The sun rises early through the trees now, when the world is still and calm and fog can shift and dance down the fields and sunbeams can shimmer on flower blossoms.
The scent of lilacs floats across the mist. The fragrance follows me into the house sliding through the slightly opened window. I head across the lawn, to make the ritual spring sacrifice, the breaking of branches to gather in the lavender flowers with the magic, ethereal scent that defies a worded description. The purple bowers join me in the house in a white milk glass vase. The sun glints on stones in the early evening hours. We walk across roadways lined with the frivolity of dancing, discarded blossom. Leaves make designs with their sunny shadows across the paths beneath us. Pansies sit in watering cans, glowing, gleaming, glinting in the sunlight.

I open up again, to the outdoor world, to the growing world, to the spring. I fling open windows, throw back curtains, pull up blinds, cast off sweaters, pull on light shirts. We all start over. Again. Like each year before. Its Spring, you are alive, go out and live, the breeze taunts us and the sun teaches us. Mud and puddles and green leaves and strong branches and blowing blossoms and bubbles from bottles with wands, and Little League, and the smell of grills, and skids of bike tires, and squeals of children, and the scent of lilacs and the sight of pink peonies starting to bud are the Pied Pipers of the Spring world. According to my daughter, even Curious George says that Spring is the time for being outside. Throw off the mess, the struggle, the pain, the sad. Go outside, see redemption foreshadowed in the renewal of life.

Today is the birthday of a friend who passed away last fall. A good friend, more than an acquaintance. One of those few friends they tell you about that you can count on your available fingers, who will change your life, stay in your life, and whose memory will make you smile when they unfortunately leave life too soon. A friend worth remembering. A friend who would be living well during the Spring and would be showing others how to live as well.

There is the comfort of the ritual, the familiar, the repeated coming of Spring. But always, drifting along the edge of the lilac scented mist is hope – dancing, spinning, twirling, and promising that New can come too. Something better, something different, something dreamed of, something healing, all wrapped up with the ribbon of the familiar, doused with the scent of memories, like lilacs in a childhood yard, flooded with the evening sunlight over a familiar road. A grateful combining of old and new.

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When Aslan Shakes His Mane

Sometimes we don’t realize how dark it is until light begins to hesitantly slide across the sky. We don’t realize how cold it has been until the thermometer budges slightly upward. We don’t know how tired we have been until we feel a pillow underneath our head. We don’t know how lonely we have been until we talk with a true friend. We don’t know how silent it was until we hear heart wrenching music. We don’t know how gray and drab our lives have been until something beautiful walks onto our stage.

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This winter was long. It was cold. There were frequent snowy days, messy days, and icy temperatures. My galavanting ways were kaboshed by Winter. Mentally, my aggravation level rose as I tried to convince myself that I was building a studio, growing a business, and yet each week the cancellations and postponements occurred due to weather leaving me feeling like I was treading water. My husband was gone for long, grueling days, leaving me feeling lonely, isolated, overwhelmed during certain hours of each week, adjusting to new schedules, new responsibilities, and taking care of two children. My motivation lagged, my brain played tricks, my energy and ingenuity seemed as if it packed up and left for Florida. I tried to stay positive. I was grateful for each moment with my equally restless babies. But we had moments. Our days. My daughter picked up the saying, “I’m going to lose my mind.” And then we just lulled in our temporary normal. We watched too much PBSKids and probably ate too many snacks.

Then the light changed and the days were longer in March. The first day the sun stays up later might possibly be my favorite day of the year, trumping even Christmas. Life springs up from it’s dark wintery grave. The shroud of afternoon shadows sidles away with it’s head is hung in shame. The week we changed the time was my most productive week in months. I actually finished my projects and wandered around wondering what I was forgetting to do, realizing I was temporarily caught up.

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This past Saturday, I walked into our neglected, brown backyard with my daughter. To my astonishment there was purple life growing right underneath my windows. Crocus were blooming in small hoards. I got a little too giddy at the sight. We stayed outside for awhile. She ripped open her sandbox and pulled off her shoes and socks.

My baby girl has been going to the windows and waving at the trees. When I take her outside, she looks around at the airy world with a quizzical wonder. My older daughter was born on the reverse side of the calendar. By this age, she had experienced lots of spring and summer days rolling in grass and sand and blue waves. This little baby has barely breathed in fresh air for the last four months- because the air would have frozen her lungs, heart, head, and soul.

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I feel alive again. The darkness is broken. The cold is easing. The light has come. The warmth is gaining a foothold. I want to live again. I want to think and talk and laugh again. I want to read and write and dream and invent and scheme. I watch the investments of the pre-winter season coming to term now. I didn’t realize just how lonely and dark and restless my winter had been until spring broke through and overtook the deadness.

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Light and life join together. We need light for life. Literally and figuratively. The wonderful thing about realizing how dark, cold, lonely, or fill in the blank, a period of life has been is to realize it is behind us and to see the strength we have received during that time. It it realizing how much brighter the light is after the darkness, how much more welcome the flowering life after the deadness, how much more treasured the friendships after loneliness. The brilliance of light is that it shows our need and illuminates our lives.

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