Contemplating Crosses

Wooden cross

Awhile back, a family member started a discussion on her Facebook page where people posted in-the-moment photos of their living rooms. Her goal was primarily to make hard working mothers realize they weren’t alone, that not everyone’s home looks like a Best of Pinterest spread. I really liked the concept.

But one young woman walked into the conversation and essentially said there was no excuse for anyone to have a messy home, no matter how busy they were or how many kids they had. “It’s not that hard,” she said. “You just pick up as you go along.”

On the one hand, I think she was coming from a place of naivete: she didn’t yet have uncontrolled Others in her life, like a spouse or children, and (bless her heart) her views are likely to undergo some adjustment someday. On the other hand, I got the impression order was really and truly not a mystery or a hard thing to her. She honestly and simply couldn’t understand those who felt differently.

In an intellectual sort of way, I know “you just pick up as you go along.” But that requires a) that you have figured out where to put things away or what it means to pick up and, and b) that you actually manage to do it consistently. And I don’t. Yes, I resolve repeatedly to do so. Sometimes I manage a week or two of working toward it.

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Thoughts on Becoming

Divine light (5660391477)

A single example of past life: once upon a time, I lived in a little attic apartment just outside of downtown Lyndonville, VT. When I wasn’t at work or asleep, I was playing guitar. I remember evenings when I’d get off work, pop dinner in the microwave, pick up the guitar to play for a few minutes while my food heated, and then “wake up” hours later with the house dark and dinner long cold.

Once a week on Thursday evenings, I lugged my guitar down to an open mic at Avery’s, a funky little restaurant at the end of the block. It was a crowded little place with wonderfully mismatched furniture and walls crammed with the work of local artists. Once a week, I played there: me, solo, singing and playing guitar in public! I wasn’t very good, and on more than one occasion I started shaking so badly I couldn’t play the guitar and had to bow out. But I had the guts to get up there and fall on my face. Looking back, it’s hard to recognize myself.

My path and interests have wandered so many places since then. I picked up the mandolin, and started playing music with siblings. The restaurant that hosted the open mic closed down. I bought a house. Mom died. I started writing stories in my spare time. I lost one job, started another. I moved across country twice.

At varying times, I’ve been obsessed with music, writing, crocheting, gardening, calligraphy, bicycling, researching one topic or another. It frustrates me greatly that I can’t manage all at once. I want to be a poet and a musician and a novelist and a chef and an artist and a scholar. I want to know and do so much, and hold onto all advances I make. And I can’t.

It seems as though I have been so many people in my life, but I can’t fit them all into me at a given moment. Once I was a young musician in Lyndonville, VT. Once I was an airman in the United States Air Force, who ran up and down the stairs of Sembach, AB in Germany with a black memo book tucked into my back pocket and poems bursting in my head. Once I rode over a thousand miles on my bike in a season. Once I spent a year learning nearly a tune a week on mandolin and tenor banjo.

I should strive for more balance. But I think the honest truth is that I simply can’t pursue all interests with the same intensity on an on-going basis. And I got to thinking….it sounds kooky, but maybe this is, in part, what eternity is all about. Maybe we can’t fit all of our potential self into this finite life. Maybe we can’t truly become in this limited life. It’s an intriguing thought, in any case: an indication that, even humanly speaking, we aren’t meant for this world.

When I was a kid trying to mature past seeing heaven as all cotton candy and ice cream all the time, I couldn’t help imagining the beatific vision as a giant auditorium with God down there in the middle for everyone to gaze upon. I figured the holier you were in life, the better your seat in the afterlife. I imagined myself in the nosebleed section, lucky to have squeaked in at all.

It didn’t sound like all that much fun. But I figured by the time I got there, I’d appreciate it. Even if I got a lousy seat.

But writers a great deal more theologically astute than I am have (in fictional stories, at least) portrayed heaven as a glorified earth: not a misty place beyond a veil, but more real than our current life, more vibrant and complete than anything we can possibly imagine.

God is the source of all true good, all true joy, and all true beauty. We can encounter him in moments of music, in a mountain vista, in those dizzying breakthrough moments when we suddenly understand something we’ve struggled with for perhaps years. The joy we feel in learning, creating, interacting with others–all can be reflections of God. On the flip side, all of the desire we feel for those things is, in some sense, a desire for God, a longing for wholeness, for the one Reality, which we encounter only in reflections now.

Thinking about those moments–those glimpses–gives a whole different perspective on what the beatific vision might really be like, and what we might be like as we become what we are truly meant to be.

Three Good Things

3 Blue Flowers

I admit, I tend to skeptical of anything that has even the slightest scent of  feel-good pop psychology.

A few years back, I stumbled across a thread on a pen forum I occasionally frequent wherein people were sharing “three good things” from their days. Many stopped by every evening to share the good moments from their days. Mentally, I scoffed. Silliness, I thought. People just patting themselves on the back, or whistling in the dark. Meaningless.

But even amidst my scoffing, I filed it away. I supposed the idea might be worth saving for those days when I was desperate to write something, but had nothing. It’d give me something to scribble on paper. Something to think about.

During one of those dry spells, I started taking a few minutes before bed to think back over my day, good and bad, and write down my three good things. To my surprise, I found I could winkle out a few bright moments even in the days I’d felt most useless, most downtrodden, most sad. Maybe it was something as simple as an e-mail from a friend, or as God-sent as a rainbow. Maybe it was a particularly good chapter in a book.

Some days, the good things were mostly the bad things I survived: the near-accident on the way home that didn’t happen, the catastrophe at work that could have been worse, locking myself out on a day when the landlord was not three states away.

Maybe looking back at days this way is a little feel-goody. Maybe it’s as silly as I once thought it. But I’ve found it changes my whole mindset. I’m more likely to notice little moments of joy and beauty, more likely to shrug off the darker moments, or see the silver linings in my clouds.

In the old days, they might have called it “counting your blessings.”

I’m a believer.


These are the sorts of things I used to do to my notebooks over the course of many odd moments, back in the day before doodling was kind of a thing. I have notebooks from high school with the same sorts of squiggles: generally I’d draw a shape, and then whoever I had time, add layers to it, until a whole panel was filled and I had ballpoint smudges on my nose. I don’t quite know the scientific reason why I do such things, but I do.

They are hurried and often inelegant, but I still kind of like ’em.

doodlesNaNo Notebook

What do you doodle?

Wintergrass 2015 Reflections

2015-03-02 18.19.50
Been there, done that, got the T-shirt–and it’s a good’un!

Let me explain. No, there is too much–let me sum up.

The Wintergrass music festival in Bellevue is over for another year. I wish I could really convey the Wintergrass experience–days of hanging out in a big hotel with hundreds of your closest friends and favorite performers, listening and jamming and talking and learning–but you really have to be there to fully understand it. They do an incredible job.

A few highlights of the weekend, in no particular order:

1. For one thing, I strengthened my musical crush on Sarah Jarosz. I first encountered this phenomenal young woman at Wintergrass a few years back, and loved her instantly. She’s a great musician (on mandolin, guitar, clawhammer banjo, and octave mandolin), she selects and writes great songs, and her effortlessly beautiful voice just kills me. She has a knack for adapting her phrasing to fit each song (or the people she’s singing with–witness her final encore duet with Aoife O’Donovan). You can also understand every single word she sings, which may sound like an odd compliment, but…

Here’s a link to her singing “Ring Them Bells.” I highly recommend checking it out.

A funny moment: Saturday she performed a cover of The Decemberist’s “Shankill Butchers,” apologizing ahead of time for the song’s spookiness. A few verses in, just after a particularly dark line, a baby (too young to actually understand the lyrics) suddenly broke into noisy tears and had to be carried out. Without missing a beat, Sarah said, “Oh, I’m so sorry!” and then continued on with the song.

You maybe had to be there, but we all just lost it.

2. The West Coast Fiddle Summit workshop was something else: Darol Anger, Brittany Haas, Tristan and Tashina Clarridge, all just doing what they do best. They’d start with a fiddle tune–or even just a concept: the last tune started as an ode to a hardboiled egg–and morph into total improvisational craziness, then back, over and over. It was glorious. At points it was, as a friend said, like listening to a Salvador Dali painting. There were familiar elements, but reassembled in ways that made you sit up and say “Huh?” in a good way. I loved it. Toward the end, Tristan Clarridge got out an octave fiddle, so you had three fiddles dancing above a throbbing, blossoming bass line. So cool, especially their take on Midnight on the Water in the middle of it.

3. Surprise new favorites: there’s always at least one at Wintergrass! For me, it was Cahalen Morrison and Eli West. I went to see them on Thursday because they sounded vaguely interesting, and I LIKE THEM SO MUCH. Love their voices, their harmonies, their instrumentation and musicianship, love the way they blend old timey sound with poetic lyrics.

On Saturday night, I went to their live broadcast show at the Cedar Stage, which is a much smaller venue than the bigger halls. I got there fairly early, but the room was packed, and I ended up being one of the people standing in the back. But! After about the first song, someone in the very second row right on the aisle got up and left. (Whoever you are, I don’t understand you, but I do thank you.) One of the ushers spotted this and asked me if I’d like to sit there. Yessss! So I saw the rest of their set from just a few feet away. So cool.

You can hear full tracks from their album here (I’d particularly recommend James is Out, Down in the Lonesome Draw, and Off the Chama):
I’ll Swing My Hammer With Both My Hands

4. I’m not sure if this counts as a highlight, but it’s a powerful memory. We stayed late enough to catch Dale Ann Bradley‘s Sunday performance. She was great, as always. Toward the end, she performed “The Piney Rose,” and it just caught me hard. Ended up sitting there bawling my eyes out in the darkened auditorium. Without any tissues, of course.

5. Little things: morning jams with friends, one particular jam at the Washington Acoustic Music Association (WAMA) suite where I mostly made a fool of myself but still had a good time, donuts from Top Pot, many trips to Tully’s, playing fine instruments from various vendors, watching hallway jams, so many more things I just can’t name them all.

Regrets (I have a few):
1. I apparently need to go into Wintergrass training several weeks beforehand, because I had a really hard time staying up late enough for a lot of the shows. A lot of the best concerts didn’t start until well after nine or even ten or eleven, and I just wasn’t even human by then.

2. This also meant missing the showcases in the WAMA suite, since those didn’t start until after the main shows.

Then again, I’m not sure I could have handled those anyway. The cool thing about having showcases in a hotel room suite is that it’s a small space, and you can see the performers up close and personal. The downside is that it’s a small space, and small spaces (especially when filled with people) make me want to claw up over the top of everyone’s heads and flee for the mountains.

The best local jam back home (in good old Monroe, NH) was held in a small barn/workshop with a wood stove in the middle and benches set around the back and sides. On a good night, it was standing room only, with more people standing around the door or looking through the windows from outside. But there, we’d always get there early and I had a particular spot right by one of the vises on the workbench, beside an open window, so it didn’t *feel* crowded . It’s possible I just need to try to find my vise, so to speak.

3. Sadly, I did not win the Deering Goodtime raffle. I’ve been bitten rather hard by the clawhammer bug (it’s an idea that’s been long a-growing, truth be told), and I kinda hoped…. But I guess I gotta get me one the slow, honest, old fashioned way.

To March, in Sympathy

Just one lion











It comes in like a lion, they say,
this third month of ours:
all teeth and claws,
roaring, snarling, raging.
Dragged into being two days premature,
is it any wonder?

There are those who pity February,
that cold post-shortened month–
but I beg you,
give some thought to March.