April 30, 2012

Fingerprints of God

This is my Grammy. She will be 90 in three months. She has cancer. After she was released from the hospital with this diagnosis, she moved in with my family in early December.

It was 5 years ago when she sat for this photo, the summer of 2007. She was also living with us then, but things were different. Then, she was in transition to a nearby retirement community.  She laughed often, had a Rodgers and Hammerstein song for everything we said, and took fastidious care of her makeup. Always an artist, she clipped pictures of interesting faces from the newspaper and used glitter pens to make and sell handmade cards. For my birthdays, I could count on gold ink on the inside of the card as well as the outside, bold loops in her confident calligraphy: Much love and luck. Grammy M. After she moved into her own place, I couldn’t stop by without being metaphorically lassoed and force-fed: I remember a day when she asked me at least 15 times if I wanted a sandwich. Her easel always in the corner, her walls were practically papered with photographs of her family: four children, their spouses, nine grandchildren, two great-grandchildren. It was easier to talk then. We talked about reading: biographies, mysteries, classics, the latest article in Time or Newsweek, interviews with the actresses of The Help. We swapped cooking tips and recipes, and I accompanied her to dinner in her retirement community a few times, enjoying conversation with some lively ladies who had experienced much of life.

A lot has changed in the last 5 years—really, in the last 5 months we've been caring for her. Now she spends her days in her recliner or in the backyard, watching squirrels or observing that all the trees are on the other side of the fence. Her routine is limited, but strict: eat Cream of Wheat and drink coffee, bathe with the help of a Hospice health aide, sit in the sun, nap, read, watch Jeopardy and Dancing with the Stars. Actions like climbing four stairs or pushing a chair into place sap her energy. Her physical limitations are growing but understandable; it’s harder for me to cope with the sunset of her mind. She asks to eat whatever she sees me eating and becomes fixated on issues that appear in commercials. A fog seems to be moving over her, limiting the scope of her vision, shrinking our range of conversation topics until often it’s just silence or us reading side by side at lunchtime.

It’s hard to love the helpless. It’s hard when the relationship becomes one-way. Much of the time now, Grammy can only absorb, not give back. I get tired and frustrated, and sometimes I catch myself writing her off, treating her as a burden rather than a person with dignity and value.

But when I find myself there, I'm basically saying that personhood is dependent on utility. Isn’t that often how we view people? We prefer the young, the beautiful, the intelligent, the rich, the witty, to those who don't “contribute” as much to society. We’d rather discard them than care for them. It makes me think me of the young adult book The Giver, in which the helpless are simply disposed of—the elderly, the weak, the sick, the deformed, the disabled. Their worth is measured based on their abilities.

But even as I scrape another morning's gloppy Cream of Wheat leftovers into the garbage can or have another conversation about squirrels, I have to realize that personhood is not dependent on abilities. It’s a stamp on all human beings: intrinsic, irreducible, universal. It was there from the beginning, when God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness" (Gen. 1:26). Every person bears the image of God. Whether they can get up from a recliner or dress themselves or hold a lucid conversation is irrelevant to that. And thank God! Because one day, if I’m given the chance to grow old, even if I can’t walk, can’t hear, and can’t remember their names, I want my grandchildren to treat me with the respect and love that belongs to a fellow image-bearer.

My Grammy was young once; she drove a car and did Tai Chi; she was an artist who moved to Mexico and learned Spanish from scratch; she went through 8 pregnancies, lived in 4 states and 2 countries, and loved to dance. But even if she hadn’t done all those things, she would still be a person of infinite worth because she is fashioned and designed uniquely by God. So is every person: the homeless, children, the uneducated, the unborn, the comatose, the disabled. All are valuable and worth loving, covered with the fingerprints of God. And how we treat them, regardless of their utility, is the litmus test of our faith.  

And so I pray for love and for patience with my Grammy. I don’t always show her the kindness I want to. But even when she can’t do the things she used to be able to do, even when we just read side by side or settle in for another night of Jeopardy, she is a one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable child of God, never before seen and never to be seen again. And that makes her more than worthy of my love and respect.

How do you love the helpless? What image-bearers in your life deserve your love and respect? 

April 23, 2012

Poetry with Feet

With the weather back to spring temperatures here in California and more rain predicted for this week, I found a poem I wrote about a month ago. This was about the time I started taking walks every morning. I've found that a walk in the morning, even if it's only fifteen minutes, gives me a chance to take care of myself holistically, focus my thoughts for the day, and get ready to write.

Morning walks are especially fun on those days when rain is blustering on the horizon, like a little boy full of energy, but it hasn't quite come into itself yet. The air is full of wind and electricity, and in spring, all the flower scents blow everywhere and the green comes out to shine. On one of those days, I went for a long walk, wearing my rain jacket but only occasionally needing it. A poem started to form in my head (and of course I forgot my Moleskine at home) but I repeated it out loud to myself, tinkering with the sounds of the words until the neighbors probably thought I was crazy, to keep it fresh until I got home.

And now I'm going to get brave and share it with you: the first poem I've put up on this blog.


I walk shadowless under a sunless sky.

Sun’s brightness swallowed in
filmy grey envelopes,
 distant hills erased,
painted out in white.

I am rainchased,
a petal blown on a gust,
a wave whipped across a pond.

I drink in the smell of sweet freesias
and sharp spicy rosemary,
I caress fragile budding leaves,
I see silver shreds flapping in the wind.

I walk under rain, but I am not wet;
I wander abroad, but I am not lost.

What interesting thoughts have come to you while walking? 

April 21, 2012

The Great Potato Revolution

Well, you asked for it...another installment in my Britain story. This one's going to have to be abbreviated, as time is short this weekend, but today we're traveling to Dingle (An Daingean), in County Kerry, Ireland!

Two years ago yesterday, I was in a grocery store. My study abroad group of about twenty-five students was staying in a "self-catering" youth hostel--which means basically that beds, showers, and pots and pans are provided for you; the rest is do-it-yourself. Like a bed and breakfast, minus the breakfast. Hence, the grocery store.

By this time, we'd been in the British Isles for three weeks. One food group had grown very old: potatoes. Yes, the Brits think that potatoes are a food group (no offense to my British friends :)). I have nothing against potatoes, but seriously, everything included them. Everything. In a hostel in northern England, the menu one night consisted of shepherd's pie (mushy peas and beef topped with mashed potatoes), with a side of--what else? Jacket (baked) potatoes!  

At any rate, three weeks in, with a grocery store at our fingertips, we college students wanted some potato-free fare. We were going to split into groups and take turns making dinner for everyone. As a Spanish-speaking Californian, I suggested Mexican food. Nice break, right?

Except that the SuperValu store had still other ideas about types of food groups. Items plentifully stocked: brown soda bread, canned baked beans, granola bars called "Elevenses." Items not stocked: tortilla chips, black beans, sour cream, guacamole. Salsa existed, but was priced at an arm, a leg, and a sack of pirate gold. Hm.

Potatoes were not an option. Potatoes were never an option. So we compromised. Bought Irish soda bread and saved it for sandwiches (best bread ever). Skipped the chips and salsa/guacamole. Discovered that Irish beef tastes pretty Mexican when mixed with taco seasoning and stacked on tortillas under lots of cheese. But the best part was cooking together with friends, the spicy, familiar smells rising around us, in a sunny kitchen on the other side of the world.

And no potatoes.

April 16, 2012

Raindrops on Roses

Last week, it rained almost all week. 

When I was living in Seattle, the rain frustrated me. It was constant. All I could think about were wet socks, frizzy hair, cold fingers, dirty puddles, indoor mold. 

Now that I'm back in California, where showers are balanced with sunshine, it's easier for me to be thankful for the rain. Now I go out in my rain boots with my camera, enjoying the beauty that the rain brings, especially to the rose garden. I've always loved taking close-ups of dew-studded roses. I hope you enjoy the results!

They're little miracles, reminders of the beauty brought even by hardship, signs of joy even in the rain. They remind me of the song from The Sound of Music:

"Raindrops on roses, and whiskers on kittens...

 "bright copper kettles, and warm woolen mittens...

"brown paper packages, tied up with string...

"these are a few of my favorite things!"

Happy Monday! What's beautiful in your world today?

April 13, 2012

Iona Day

April 11, last Wednesday, was Iona Day.

Never heard of it, you say? That's because it's my own private holiday. It's the day that, two years ago, I visited the island of Iona, Scotland, and it became part of me.

Known as the Sacred Isle, this is the remote place where a community of Irish monks settled in 563 A.D. to fully devote themselves to the contemplation of God. Under the leadership of St. Colum Cille, they built a monastic community that drew saints and scholars from across Europe to worship and learn. (If you want to learn more, the delightful animated film The Secret of Kells gives a condensed glimpse at Iona's history.)

This tiny island just three miles by one, isn't on any of the lists of tourist destinations in Scotland: Edinburgh Castle, Isle of Skye, Loch Ness. And it requires an arduous journey, requiring six legs of travel just to get from the mainland to the island and back. Yet, of the two and a half months I spent studying abroad in the British Isles, that weekend side trip is the one that still nestles most closely to my heart.

On April 11, I was looking at the framed Iona postcard on my wall, at the Celtic cross hanging on my desk, and remembering. The day has become an anniversary for me. So I thought I'd invite you to share a vision of the place through an excerpt from the blog I kept while traveling. May it give you a glimpse of why I remember this place:

The water is unbelievably clear–it’s a stunning, Bahamas turquoise blue, with powdery white sand on the Iona shore. It made me feel like I was in a little Mediterranean, in the wrong hemisphere. Stepping off the boat, it was like entering a dream. The island has very limited cars, so the air is serene, and often silent, in a way you can’t get in a city, or even a regular town. This is a sacred city, an island wholly devoted to worship and prayer. It is like a cloud away from earth–a place of solace, a haven and sanctuary from the world. There was an ineffable grace about it that I can’t even describe. It made me want to weep and sing and stay forever. It is not just a city, but an island of God.

It was simply magical, and yet more than that–a stairway to heaven? My companions and I had only 2 1/2 precious hours to spend on shore, but they were beautiful. We had a picnic in the garden of the ruined nunnery, with butterflies on the hyacinths and daffodils in the sun. We walked through the ancient graveyard, where it is said Macbeth is buried (though I tried in vain to find his headstone), and I had the privilege of praying in a 900-year-old chapel. I just about died with delight. The abbey has ancient Celtic crosses in front of it, and peaked windows that let in shifting patterns of light. Sheep graze all about, and it makes sense that the Lord is our shepherd. Candles burn in the windows, and I saw prayers rising like incense. It is truly a place of peace, an island so practiced in worship that it is almost a scent you can breathe in on the air. And to see gardens blooming beside ancient stones–there’s something here that is out of my reach to express, but that touched me deeply. It’s not even worth asking if it was worth it to take six forms of public transportation to get here.

(you can read more about my Britain experiences here if you'd like.)

Iona Day is a time to remember this beautiful and healing place. Someday I'd love to go back.

What places have become a part of you? (home counts too!)

April 9, 2012

A Piece of Cake

This Monday takes the cake.


I planned to start this week out by meeting my friend Ashley at Starbucks. Little did I expect her and her parents to step out of the car and hand me a big white box with a beautiful leather-bound book inside.

An edible book.

Yes, folks, that is a Les Miserables CAKE. I devoured Victor Hugo's famous work my senior year of high school, and it's been one of my favorite books ever since, but I never expected to literally be able to EAT it. 

Ashley and her mom Angie are amazing cake artisans (you can check out some of their other jaw-dropping creations here). Look at the incredible details!

Doesn't the icing really look like leather? How cool is that? 

 And possibly my favorite detail: a big-eyed bookworm creeping around the corner :)

It even has my name on the spine! Thank you, Ashley and Angie, for kicking my week off to a great start. 

So, did anybody else find a surprise planted in their Monday? Or want to come over for some cake? 

April 6, 2012


Last Friday I tried something new: ballroom dancing!

A small studio in town offers lessons during the day and an open dance floor at night. Teenagers in jeans, older men in spats, graceful Asian women in butterfly-twirling skirts toe-tapped and spun on the shiny wooden floor under the colorful shifting lights. The music alternated from Latin to pop as the quickstep, the two-step, the tango, the waltz were called. Far from the hormonal gyrating demonstrated on most dance floors, this was an art form--as structured as a fencing match, as regulated as a bicycle built for two, yet as flowing as the strains of music playing over the loudspeakers. 

 Graceful yet rigid, moving abruptly from fast-paced to legato, it was as fun to watch as to do. The best part was watching the couples who were equally matched in skill--not just executing the sequence of steps correctly, but playing it up with fun and flair. The experts ad-libbed their way through and made it look effortless. I myself have a long way to go before I attain that level of ease. For me, it was a victory to navigate a salsa spin without falling over.

File:Tango ballroom standard.png
Photo credit: Porfirio Landeros

 I discovered something interesting, though. Several experienced dancers invited me to try the cha-cha, the two-step, East Coast swing--dances I've never tried before. In spite of my protests, they insisted I could do it. And to my shock, they were right. 

Why? Because in the rigorous art form of pair dancing, there's the amazing experience of being led. I thought successful dancing was about remembering all the right steps and individually keeping perfect time with the music. Not so. If your partner knows the steps and knows how to lead, you hardly need to think at all--just respond to the the subtle pressure of hands and wrists, follow the gentle pull of feet and shoulders.  

For me, that was a total image of following God.  When you're a lone ballerina or hip-hop dancer, it's fully up to you to remember the routine, execute all the steps perfectly. But when you're with Someone who knows the dance better than you do, Someone strong yet filled with grace and control,  your job is just to listen to Him--to feel for His movements and just respond, just follow. It's perichoresis: a Greek word one of my theology professors defined as the divine dance. It makes life more than just a challenging routine, a performance: it makes it a beautiful, intricate dance for two. 

I can imagine God singing the words in this lovely clip from the 2006 film Miss Potter, starring Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor. In just 50 seconds, it's everything I wanted to say: 

What are your thoughts? How is life with God like dancing? Are there other parts of life where the same parallel shows up?  

April 2, 2012

Middle Earth, Dr. Seuss, and Shakespeare?

Hello, Monday! It's time for a book-themed interview game, courtesy of Angela Wallace and her tag party...
1. Post the rules.
2. Answer the questions.
3. Pass the questions on to eleven people by tagging and linking to them.
4. Let them know you’ve tagged them.
If you could live in a fictional world, where would that be?
Somebody else's fictional world? Middle Earth. But of course I'd love to visit my own if that were allowed :) 

Fiction or Nonfiction?
Definitely fiction (although nonfiction has its uses).

Do you read in noisy or quiet places?
Quiet places, with peppermint tea and scented candle preferred. But reading in noisy places is also something I've learned to do, thanks largely to my brother's early influence :)

Do reviews influence your choice of reads?
Probably only if they're by someone I know. Or if a large number of reviews are unanimous. The trouble with reviews is that people have all sorts of motives to say things, true or not. 

Audio books or Paperbacks?
Paperbacks. I have a horrible audio retention rate. Plus I like to write in my books :) 

What was the first book you ever read?
By myself? The first one I can remember is One Fish, Two Fish by Dr. Seuss. My preschool teacher informed my parents, "Um...did you know your daughter is reading?" 

Favorite author?
J.R.R. Tolkien...we fell in love when I was 8. Check out my Good Reads page for a list of my top 10. 

Classic or Modern Novels?Oh, definitely classics. Though there are a few moderns I like rather a lot. 

Have you ever met your favorite author?
I wish. The trouble with loving classics is that almost all of my favorite authors are dead (some for 200+ years)...

Book Groups or Solitary Reading?
Hm, both? I relax by reading alone, but after 4 years of college English classes, I find a good book discussion very stimulating. 
If you could only read one book for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Ack! What a horrible question! Definitely the Bible. But if we're talking other literature...probably the Collected Works of Shakespeare (that's not cheating, right?) 

Tag, You’re It! Have fun!
11. Carrie Daws 

Feel free to jump in: how would you answer these questions? What's your weirdest book factoid?