Monday, December 26, 2011

Merry Christmas

“Are our sensibilities / too blunt to be assaulted / with spatial power-plays and far-out / proclamations of peace? Sterile, / skeptic, yet we may be broken / to his slow silent birth / (new-torn, new- / born ourselves at his / beginning new in us.) His bigness may still burst / our self-containment / to tell us—without angels’ mouths— / fear not.” — Luci Shaw

Dear Family and Friends,

We hope this letter finds you and yours enjoying this season of Christmas. As is often the case, we’ve traveled much of the past month away. We were able to join Brett’s family in Chicago for Thanksgiving, and now we’re enjoying time with my family in Nashville. The break from our daily routine certainly brings it’s challenges, but more so, I believe it tends to offer clarity as we’re able to step outside of our everyday ways and look at them with a fresh perspective.

Olivia, now six, has really grown into her role as the older sister. She, more than any of us, is ready to jump into Mae’s imaginary world of play. For Olivia, I sense this world is often more familiar and comfortable than the 1st grade world she maneuvers so gracefully each school day. We continue to marvel at her desire and ability to learn new things. This year she’s successfully tackled the scooter, the written word, the Lego manual, the bike (she calls it the two-wheeler), the piano, and just this past week, the knitting needles.

I recently learned that our neighbors like to refer to Mae as “the little woodland creature.” This is an apt description as I watch her spritely form sing and dance around me with her crazy hair and make-shift costumes. I sense this is exactly what a three-year-old girl should be doing. For our family, she is the great communicator. She lets us know, in her gentle way, when our family dynamic isn’t quite right and when more is right than we recognize.

Brett continues to appreciate the significance of the opportunities made available to him through his work at MVNU. This past spring he was given the President‘s Award for Excellence in Teaching; he is grateful for his employment at a university that appreciates his contributions. He continues to write and present in his areas of interest.

I still teach a course or two at MVNU and write when the schedule allows. My work with the art program at our church continues to be a substantial combination of challenge and blessing. I’m constantly enriched by the witness of both the volunteers and the children as, each week, we engage in the humbling opportunity to create together. I’ve also enjoyed more time to delve into the rituals of home, discovering the value of slowing down and fully engaging in everyday domestic tasks.

And of course, mixed within warm moments like these have been the rushed episodes where we allow our supposed needs—to be on time or to get out the door—to excuse our shortness with each other. We let our consideration for each other fall to the floor so we can hold up our expectations of perfection to one another. Or we let temporary ownership of a particular possession (insert name of toy here) take precedence over sharing freely. Add to this an unusual season of sickness for our family--colds, fevers, and beyond-- and we become keenly aware of the fragility of our broken, mortal form.

This is where I take great comfort in the angels’ proclamation, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, and good will toward men.” Of all the phrases to utter, of all the “threads of speech” to snap so that we could understand, these are the words they chose. No doubt a host of angels filling the sky would be a fantastic sight to behold, but I believe the display was only to give further weight to the words chosen to accompany Christ’s arrival. Through his birth, peace and good will come to men. As self-contained as we’d like to be, it’s not possible, thank the Lord. And so we pray for the proclamation of his birth to burst into our days, to make its way through our blunt sensibilities, that we may receive the message and in turn, offer peace and good will to each other.

Glory to God in the highest,
Brett, Elizabeth, Olivia, and Mae Wiley

Saturday, December 17, 2011

We Moved Christmas, and the Weather Obliged

As we're travelling to be with family far away for Christmas Day, we opted to have our own Christmas here at home this morning, December 17th. It's been lovely. We're even enjoying our first real snow of the year. Mary Oliver's poem is apropos. Here you go:

First Snow

The snow
began here
this morning and all day
continued, its white
rhetoric everywhere
calling us back to why, how,
whence such beauty and what
the meaning; such
an oracular fever! flowing
past windows, an energy it seemed
would never ebb, never settle
less than lovely! and only now,
deep into night,
it has finally ended.
The silence
is immense,
and the heavens still hold
a million candles, nowhere
the familiar things:
stars, the moon,
the darkness we expect
and nightly turn from. Trees
glitter like castles
of ribbons, the broad fields
smolder with light, a passing
creekbed lies
heaped with shining hills;
and though the questions
that have assailed us all day
remain — not a single
answer has been found –
walking out now
into the silence and the light
under the trees,
and through the fields,
feels like one.

~Mary Oliver~

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Over lunch

Mom: "So Mae, what would you like for Christmas?"

Mae: "A present."

Mom: "What kind of present?"

Mae: "A present I can give to Olivia."

Mom: "And what kind of present would you like to receive?"

Mae: "Maybe a cheeto to eat. And a pirate toy."

Mom: "Why do you want a pirate toy?"

Mae: "So I can be a pirate."

Saturday, October 15, 2011

When All You Have Left Is the Dark Night Sky...

A wise young woman once said,

"When all you have left is the dark night sky... begin separating the men from the monsters...

...and the pogo sticks from the puppy dogs."

Friday, August 26, 2011

Quiet Giants

I was just thinking of Alan Jacobs yesterday. Today, Image Journal brought this to my facebook feed. Allow me to suggest finding a quiet half hour, preparing your beverage of choice, and slowly flipping through the Gospel of the Trees. I think you'll come away refreshed.

Here's a peak at what you'll find:

Photo (yes, photo) by Franz Lanting


To be a giant and keep quiet about it,

To stay in one’s own place;

To stand for the constant presence of process

And always to seem the same;

To be steady as a rock and always trembling,

Having the hard appearance of death

With the soft, fluent nature of growth,

One’s Being deceptively armored,

One’s Becoming deceptively vulnerable,

To be so tough, and take the light so well,

Freely providing forbidden knowledge

Of so many things about heaven and earth

For which we should otherwise have no word—

Poems or people are rarely so lovely,

And even when they have great qualities

They tend to tell you rather then exemplify

What they believe themselves to be about,

While from the moving silence of trees,

Whether in storm or calm, in leaf and naked,

Night or day, we draw conclusions of our own,

Sustaining and unnoticed as our breath,

And perilous also—though there has never been

A critical tree—about the nature of things.
— Howard Nemerov

Thursday, August 25, 2011

There's A Place

I've been drawn to this song these past few days as I consider the tremendous energy my daughter Olivia musters to work through all that is encompassed in what we call "1st grade." But beyond that, it seems it might offer a timely word for so many-- right now. Ladies and gentlemen, Peter Gabriel.

(I debated whether to post this live version with Paula Cole or the video with Kate Bush. As you see, the live version won, as I just can't seem to receive the message while watching an awkward 6 minute hug).

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Do NOT eat at the Upstairs Cafe

Brett was already seated when I came in, but even as I approached our table, I read his nonverbal cues that I should run out while I still could. Unfortunately, my curiosity made me sit down. Where to begin...
-- the music was way too loud
-- all the food was hard, like plastic, even Brett's spaghetti-- how do you mess up spaghetti?
-- when Brett asked for a fresher order, they brought him sliced pickles covered in cheese-- without a plate
-- I did receive the corn I ordered, but it was in an unopened can, plopped down in front of me
-- when I ordered a doughnut, the chef told me to get my own doughnut
-- the waitress took our order sitting on our table while the chef crawled under our table to retrieve some dropped food
-- the chef squirted mustard all over our utensils, and then when we asked for new ones, the chef and waitress proceeded to lick them clean and then give them back to us

BUT, they do offer free flu shots and storytime at the end of each meal, so I suppose that counts for something. Actually, we'll probably go back again, and again, and again.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


I grew up in a beautiful, suburban neighborhood of ranch houses just south of downtown Nashville. Before it had been such a neighborhood, it had been rolling fields, pastures, and farmland. The area's past still tells its story through the tree lines that once served as property lines. I just missed this landscape by a few decades.

As a child I experienced echoes of the farm life when I'd go to my grandparents' house in west Tennessee. I played in barn lofts and gathered a few eggs, I named a farm cat or two, but I was too young to pick up on all the intricacies of the farming schedule, and most of my grandparents' farming days were in the past. My education to this "way" of life was done through the retelling of stories more than it was through actually witnessing the day to day routine of a farm.

Unknowingly, I grew up assuming working farms were pretty much a thing of the past and were only still happening in tiny pockets of our country. I wrongly assumed most of America was urban or suburban, even though I'm sure I correctly answered a question or two from a map on a standardized test telling me otherwise.

Now we live in a small Ohio town, and I'm never more than a mile or two from a contemporary, working farm. I can buy all our meat and chicken and dairy from any number of these farms (though, financially, I'm still trying to figure out how to swing this), and from May to October I'm less than a 5-block walk to a farmer's market any given Saturday morning. To get to the nearest urban center, I spend 30 minutes on highways surrounded by working farms. My education continues.

In our little backyard, I'm trying to reclaim some of the practices of my grandparents, and frequently, as I'm thinning out the vegetables or wondering what's wrong with my squash, I regret that this wasn't a regular part of my own upbringing, that so much skill and knowledge was lost in the span of just one generation. I hope my girls grow up with an internal awareness of the seasons in a way I didn't. I hope they recognize that their outdoor chores are determined by the patterns of nature, that the changing of seasons doesn't just affect their clothing options. I want them to recognize this cycle as valuable and worth their notice, not oppressive and backwards.

When I first saw the cover of Elisha Cooper's Farm, I was pretty sure this would be a good text to supplement our family's everyday experiences. I'm always happy to find books to enrich our family's story with the stories of others, and this one looked like it might give a bigger picture to the one we're trying to create in our home. Farm follows a year in the life of a family farm, from sowing to harvesting. It goes beyond naming the animals and their sounds to explaining the everyday workings of a farm in a very poetic and intriguing manner.

The tiller turns the soil, "and the fields change from the color of milk chocolate to the color of dark chocolate."

The combine harvester eats the corn: "It bites stalks, pulls them into its mouth, separates kernel from cob in the the thresher inside its belly, burps out husks."

The children return to school and a rooster goes missing: "Did a fox get it? September shows that some things are not forever."

And the pictures are spot on. I'm grateful that these scenes aren't as foreign to my girls as they would have been to me.

My grandparents' farm is still standing, but barely. The animals are long gone, as are most of the family members. There is very little about the farm that I would call "working," but when my 98 year old grandmother looks out the window of her house, the same house in which she was born, I imagine her mind sees moments like the ones Cooper captures in his book. Fortunately, these scenes and the realities they represent are more prevalent in America than my younger self had thought.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Happy Easter

I thank You God for most this amazing

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

e.e. cummings

Friday, January 21, 2011

Happy Epiphany

I am not concerned with gifts given in spite or fear, nor those gifts we accept out of servility or obligation; my concern is the gift we long for, the gift that, when it comes, speaks commandingly to the soul and irresistibly moves us."
- Lewis Hyde, “The Gift”

Dear Family and Friends,

This year’s letter is being written on the twelfth day of Christmas, The Feast of the Epiphany. Lots of wonderful busyness kept us from getting to it earlier, but, as we’re enjoying a heightened awareness of the church calendar, this seemed a perfect day for some reflection, a day to celebrate Christ’s divinity made manifest and acknowledged here on Earth. A number of these revelatory moments occurred in his early life, but the one I hear referenced most frequently is the visit of the magi, coming with gifts.

Beyond our recent Christmas morning, birthdays, and other celebratory occasions, the language of gifts, both tangible and intangible, has very much been a part of our home this year. We’ve received many, given some, discovered even more, and our hope is to be always moving through the day with an awareness of the gifts in motion around us, most often made manifest through each other in small, unforseen moments--epiphanies, if you will.

Brett’s work continues to be a gift for him. He’s engaging in rich conversations, creating new courses, and writing on topics of interest. This June, he’ll take a group of students to NYC for a summer course on the literature and culture of New York City. I enjoyed teaching two courses this past fall, one methods course and one writing. Watching my students discover their own gifts for writing was extremely rewarding, as was delving into the details of the craft with them. Now I’m directing a children’s after-school art program at our church, and I look forward to receiving the gift of art with the children of our community.

Olivia and Mae’s gifts are daily revelations for us. Olivia’s life-long fascination with books has now evolved into her reading them. Watching her crack that code has been sheer magic for us, and I’m humbled as I think about how she will use this gift of literacy. She’s also taken a great interest in the piano, regularly asking me to write out a particular song so she can add it to her repertoire.

Mae’s verbal development amazes us. Her ability to communicate has come so rapidly that it seems I’m regularly mistaking a comment from her as one from Olivia. And as has been the case since her beginnings two years ago, her general delight with life picks us all up several times a day. Her big sister has passed on to her the gift of song and dance, and now Mae can turn almost any item into a microphone and the slightest slip into a pirouette.

It’s been an exciting year. A lot has happened. Many opportunities have come our way. But at the end of this day, I recognize our most revelatory moments have happened not in the out of the ordinary, unusual moments, but in the most likely of occurances, when the common is transformed into something saturated with significance, and once again Christ is revealed.

Epiphany is a gift. It is the gift we long for, and when it’s received, really received, as Lewis Hyde explains, “it speaks commandingly to the soul and irresistably moves us.” We hope you will note your own epiphanies as well and treat them as James Joyce would have you treat them--“with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments."

Happy Epiphany and Happy New Year.

Brett, Elizabeth, Olivia, and Mae Wiley

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

an unseen reality

I’m listening to On Being this afternoon. Today I’ve chosen the show, "Quarks and Creation" and am really enjoying Krista’s conversation with physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne. I’m also happy to learn the scientific term “quark” was borrowed from a line in James’s Joyce’s Finnigan’s Wake. Here’s a comment from Polkinghorne I found especially encouraging as I looked at the semi-ordely chaos that is my dining room table:

“There's a very interesting scientific insight which says that regions where real novelty occurs, where really new things happen that you haven't seen before, are always regions which are at the edge of chaos. They are regions where cloudiness and clearness, order and disorder, interlace each other. If you're too much on the orderly side of that borderline, everything is so rigid that nothing really new happens. You just get rearrangements. If you're too far on the haphazard side, nothing persists, everything just falls apart. It's these ambiguous areas, where order and disorder interlace, where really new things happen, where the action is, if you like. And I think that reflects itself both in the development of life and in many, many human decisions.”

Monday, January 10, 2011

One such as this...

"This triviality made him think of collecting many such moments together in a book of epiphanies. By an epiphany he meant ' a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments."
James Joyce, Stephen Hero (Ch. 25)