After our glorious and somewhat rigorous morning at Point Lobos, we were ready to rest and refuel. I had bookmarked a lot of dining options on Yelp before the trip, but I changed course completely the previous night when it suddenly occurred to me to search for ramen, one of my husband's favorite meals. The nearest noodle house turned out to be Carmel Coffee & Cocoa Bar which happens to be in the same plaza as The Cheese Shop, our next destination! I knew that must be our lunch spot, and what unfolded over the next couple hours totally confirmed that...
After we enjoyed our kimchee and won ton ramen bowls, we waddled...er, walked over to The Cheese Shop, where we met Brooke, who became one of my favorite people over the next half hour, as she let us sample a gazillion different cheeses. To me, Brooke was an angel because cheese is right up there with books, so tasting so many kinds of it was pure heaven. It brought me back to the best job (with boss) that I ever had - I was in eleventh grade and Trader Joe's opened its first Northern California store, right across the street from my high school. I was hired as a "cheese girl" - I cut, wrapped, priced, and gave out samples of cheese, and did unglamorous tasks like mopping and hauling cheese in an out of the freezing refrigerator, but the perks outweighed the drudgery...and so did I...just kidding - that was back when I had the word's fastest metabolism - it was the perfect season in my life to be surrounded by cheese from 3-10pm several nights a week and on Saturdays.
We left paradise, I mean The Cheese Shop, with an assortment of slivers (all we could afford) of our favorites - cotswold (chive & onion double gloucester), double cream gouda, triple cream brie, havarti, and Jeff's Select, as well as a tub of castelvetrano olives. We were planning to leave and go to a thrift store I had staked out in Pacific Grove, but first we needed to go to the bathroom, so we rode the elevator up to the third floor of the plaza. After we did our business, I was curious to see what stores were on this level, which felt like a bit of a ghost town compared with all the activity below.
While my husband was messing around on his phone (probably checking fishing conditions or texting his angler friends about their latest catch), I wandered down the lane, nothing catching my eye until I saw an art gallery with brightly colored paintings that looked interesting. I am pretty picky about art, so I pass up a lot of galleries, but my husband walked up and I told him I wanted to go in and check it out. He's an artistic soul, too, so he was game. We were taken in by the first set of paintings, a series on cosmology - a unique blending of art and science - and I was even more intrigued when I noticed a title on one of them - The Grand Design. I was beginning to have an inkling that there might be more to this impromptu visit than looking at pretty pictures.
As we continued along, I was impressed with the variety of subjects, colors, and techniques (not that I know much about art other than what my tastes are), which appeared to all be the work on one artist. Then my husband found a small picture toward the back which had Christian symbols and Aramaic words. He's an extravert, so he had no problem walking right up to the gallery owner (he had been on the phone when we first came in) and asking him if he was a Christian. He answered in the affirmative enthusiastically. His name was William Eatmon and he was both a scientist and artist, a modern day Davinci. Now that he had retired from his engineering job at Boeing, he could devote more time to his painting. We talked about our faith, about the world, about our families, encouraging each other not to lose heart, nor to become weary in doing good. My husband asked if we could pray for him, so we all held hands and closed with that. We practically bounced all the way back to the car after that, so filled with hope and joy!
That wasn't to be the last of our divine appointments on this whirlwind adventure. After we went thrift shopping and found a few treasures (I'll just mention here that it was the Second Chance Thrift Store and they were playing Christian music), we returned to our hotel with just enough time to change clothes, grab some cookies for later, and head out to dinner.
We had a reservation at Yafa in downtown Carmel. When we arrived, the people next to us were engaged in conversation with people at the table on the other side of them, so we kept to ourselves and focused on the menu...and the beautiful painting on the wall next to us, which transported me back to the Mediterranean, but to the Greek part, which I never made it to on my stay in southern France (another story for another time). I loved how God was continuing the art theme.
We ordered their most popular starter - grilled octopus in a "special sauce" (it really was) of olive oil, garlic, lemon, and oregano. It truly hit the spot. After we mopped up the sauce with bread, they whisked it away, and two lively middle-aged couples were seated next to us. We overheard that it was one of the wives' birthday and that they were in the area for Car Week - the kick off being the classic car concourse in Carmel (say that ten times fast!) the next day, at which point we would be leaving town, just in time to avoid the crowds.
I bet you can guess what happened between our starter and our main course. That's right we heard them speaking our language. Again, we waited a while, so as not to be intrusive or to assume anything, but as in previous times, there came an opening, which was when they were discussing what to order, pondering the octopus, so we had to butt in and rave about that delicious dish. Well, one thing lead to another, and soon we were engaged in deep conversation about following Jesus, marriage (each of them had been married over 30 years), parenting, etc...and when I wondered initially whether the husbands were Christians (we had just been talking to the wives because they were right next to us), it was funny because one of the men, looked over at my husband and said, "are you a believer, too?" It sounded more like a command (lovingly) than a question!
Once again we related our concerns over the state of the world in this post-Christian era of moral relativism, while encouraging one another to trust God. We were also able to share with them all of the divine appointments we had had in the last 24 hours, and so to build up their faith, and possibly send some more Christians over to William's gallery. When their food came, just as we were waiting on dessert, we held hands and prayed together, rejoicing in our fellowship.
When the Eggplant Delight, Filet Mignon with Gorgonzola, the Pistachio Rosewater Pudding, and Moroccan Tea were but a memory, despite the load in our stomachs, it was like we were floating on air as we walked back to the car. On the drive to the inn, we marveled at how God had orchestrated our every step of this trip. It was funny, too, because I'm such a planner, and yet I had barely planned anything this time - just a rough, last minute sketch of what we might do.
The night was young, so my husband gathered up his fishing gear and we walked down to the beach. Carmel beach allows bonfires except on weekends, so I had been looking forward to seeing that. As the sun went down, my husband cast his line into the sea (he caught one!), while I traversed the sand, listening to the water lapping peacefully just inches from my feet and gazing at the the glow of the flames dotting the beach. The beauty and peace overwhelmed my soul with praise to my Creator who had revealed himself to me, and to us, in such personal ways through people, art, and the natural wonders all around us. I could not imagine the morning holding more, but I was about to be surprised once again...
We rolled out of bed and into the breakfast room (well, not really, but at the rate I'm telling this story, I figured I better speed things up) where we enjoyed two kinds of quiche - ham & cheese and vegetarian - also, fresh berries, which my husband had mixed with granola and yogurt. I normally don't eat until lunch, but I can't resist free food (well, included with our stay) and I needed to fuel up for our hike at Point Lobos, "the crown jewel" of the California State Parks, "the greatest meeting of land and sea in the world", just south of Carmel and north of Big Sur.
As we were driving along the coast, my husband (eagle eye), from behind the wheel, spotted a whale! He pulled over and we raced out on the rocks to see it. Sure enough, there was a sightseeing boat (definitely getting an eyeful) not far from where we could see the spouting blowhole and then a quick glimpse of it breaching. In all our years of coming to this area, we had never seen a whale, so this was quite a treat, even though (as usual) we had forgotten to bring binoculars.
A little farther on (keep in mind, the total distance from the hotel to our destination was only a few miles), he spotted the whale again! So once again, we pulled over, and ran to the beach (sandy this time, thankfully). It was Carmel River Beach and there were others there, but farther south, and none seemed to notice, despite us jumping up and down and pointing...so it felt like a special whale showing just for us. Thinking back on it, I am reminded of how it's like following Jesus. He shows up unexpectedly, but the more we seek him, the more He reveals himself to us. Meanwhile, we're beside ourselves trying to get others to discover and enjoy this wonderful treasure with us, but they are caught up in the cares of this world, and our enthusiasm comes across as lunacy to them.
A few minutes later, we entered Point Lobos (I almost said the wardrobe), parked at the farthest lot, and began our adventure on foot. As if the crystal blue water at China Cove wasn't enough beauty, we were treated the sight of harbor seals mothers and pups sunbathing and frolicking. We lingered there, gazing over the cliffs into the sheltered cove and out into the endless ocean. Continuing our hike, we found a set of stairs and climbed down to a gorgeous white beach, watching the waves and admiring the seascape.
Up at the top and out on the trail again, a man and his wife pointed out a sea otter to us and let us use their binoculars for a closer view. That brought back memories to an earlier anniversary, our first time at Point Lobos, when I had been pining to see a sea otter (my favorite ocean animal), and sure enough, God brought us several to enjoy (and again, my husband was the one to spot them first). As we walked on, we encountered a family from the Bay Area - it turned out that the man had just got a job in our county (in San Rafael, where I grew up, one town south of our town) and was about to start work. We encouraged them about the possibility of moving to Marin (from the east Bay) and all that it could offer their family.
We made our way back to the car (saying goodbye to the seals one last time) and tried to drive out to Cypress point, but there was no room in the lot, so we drove to Whaler's Cove (where we had seen the sea otters that other time), and hiked out there. We found seals again, but the dads this time - we could tell because each of the big lugs was on his own rock...except when one would go for a swim and another would steal his "recliner."
I had told my husband about reading 1 Peter, so we had decided to read it aloud to each other, which we did in a private little spot we found overlooking a secluded cove. We only got through the first chapter, but it was just right. Then my husband convinced me to steal away under the roped off area and climb down to look into the beautiful water in the cove, which we did for a few minutes, but I couldn't full enjoy it since I felt like an outlaw!
As we hiked back, we saw a group of Japanese tourists pointing out to sea - a whale sighting! We kept vigil, me with my camera/phone ready, but of course it didn't resurface, so we walked on, and then there it was again, with no one else to see it but us. This was the clearest view yet and I even got some semi-decent pictures, albeit from a distance. My husband was convinced it was the same whale all three times. I wasn't so sure, but either way, it was an amazing blessing for the first full morning of our trip to be graced with glimpses of such a magnificent creature, and that just we two would be privy to that unique beauty of God's creation.
That was our second divine appointment and in less than 12 hours. There would be two more to come that afternoon and evening, and another the following morning, which I hope I can relate in the fifth and (Lord willing) final post...but it might take sixth or seventh installment...
Continuing on with our 48 hour 14th anniversary adventure...we left off in dreamland on Sunday night, but let me back up a little bit. I wanted to read God's Word before going to sleep, so because we were on vacation, it felt right to play "Bible Roulette," you know where you randomly open the good book and see what you find. That can be pretty hit or miss, but with the way things were going, I wasn't surprised when I hit the jackpot. I turned to 1 Peter and read the whole book, because it's short (a mere five chapters) and amazing and I had already underlined a bunch of stuff in my little travel Bible, such as:
Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense for anyone who asks you for the reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if it should be God's will, than for doing evil. ~1 Pe 3:13-17
That passage was especially reassuring because the week leading up to our trip, I had (and still have) a Christian hating atheist trolling my Facebook page. He hasn't liked my page or commented, and he uses his page rather than his profile, so banning him is not an option. What he does is to "like" all of my posts (many of which he disagrees with) using his vile, blasphemous profanity-laden Facebook page name. From his page, I know that he was part of the Mormon church and that his son is homosexual and just got "married." Reading those verses reminded me that instead of being angry with this man for bullying me, I need to pray for him (which, in fact, I had asked my readers to do) and receive his insults as confirmation that I am doing good, and so to continue to fight the good fight by speaking the truth in love.
The book of first Peter also says two times to be "sober minded." That seemed appropriate also, what with this being our first alcohol- free anniversary getaway.
That night I actually heard a verse in my dream and I woke up with it in my head (the only good thing about having to pee in the wee hours): "Be at peace with everyone as far as it depends on you." (Romans 12:18) That seemed to apply to all things - the troll, friends (and strangers) whose values are postmodern rather than Biblical, and more importantly, my family, especially my husband. After the dark night of the soul, I had researched marriage books (despite the fact that we have a whole shelf of them, mostly unread) and ordered one called The Couple's Survival Workbook. I chose it because it's not a book that you use with your spouse. It's something you do on your own to help bring change in your own character and communication, the theory being that if you approach your marriage differently, it will change, even if your spouse doesn't. I have been crawling through the book, but it's really good stuff, and if I had to encapsulate what I've been learning into one sentence, it would be that verse from my dream.
I was really hoping I'd get this story wrapped up in three parts, but as I write, more things are coming to me, so at this rate, it may be a five parter...or more (eek!)...but I'd prefer that God lead my pen (so to speak) in His good time than to tell it my way and miss something He wants me to say. Continue to part four...
Yesterday my husband and I celebrated 14 years of marriage. We actually started the party two days before that. Every year we get one or two nights away to be by ourselves, something very foreign to us, what with children ages 13, 10, and 8. Usually I start planning about four or five months before 8/11. This year, though, was different. We had come through the dark night of the soul, culminating in the worst Mother's Day on record (if I kept records, that is). We were bruised and battered, our marriage tattered, but not shattered. We were still totally capable of rhyming, though. That goes back to our first date, when he took me to the children's section of a bookstore and read me "Oh, the Places You'll Go." I really had no chance after that. A man who fed me Chinese food and serenaded me with Dr. Seuss was clearly a keeper.
There was another hitch with this romantic getaway I had to plan. No alcohol. We had not had a drop since that no good terrible very bad night, and the plan (at least in my mind) was to never have it again. Or at least not for years and years. It wasn't that either of us was an alcoholic - it was just that it had become a problem (his tendency to overindulge and my hypersensitivity toward that because of an alcoholic stepdad). It complicated and escalated arguments. It brought our marriage to a state of crisis. And it had become a crutch for our relaxing "couch dates," which meant both that we weren't fully relying on God and that it was masking trouble between us. In other words, alcohol had become a wedge and an idol. It was very subtle, and we had gone through periods of no drinking (sort of recalibration), but always with the intention to return to moderation (i.e. sticking to the rules we had agreed on in terms of quantity, frequency, and type of beverages). And yet, I could look back at all our most memorable fights and point to one thing - alcohol. It was either the cause of conflict or it had turned a disagreement into something much more ugly.
We had spent the last four anniversaries in the wine country. Clearly that was not meant to be for this first ever sober celebration. My initial thinking was to isolate. As an introvert, that thought comes pretty naturally to me. My husband, on the other hand, is an extravert, so I did have him to consider. But really, he would be happy anywhere there were two things - me and fish ("have rod, will cast anywhere"). I very nearly booked us a cabin on the lost coast where I figured I could hole up reading and writing while he fished, with walks and meals together in between. My motherly self vetoed that, because there was no cell service and wifi was spotty. I cannot relax, let alone retreat, if I am not assured of communication with my kids - not just for emergencies but for their good night check-in and chat. Perhaps when they are all teenagers, I'll get over that.
I thought back to our earlier anniversaries when we had enjoyed going to the Monterey peninsula. We had stayed in Pacific Grove, but in recent times, we had gone to that area with the children (homeschool days at the Monterey Bay Aquarium), so now it was hard for me to think of going there without them. There was one place that I didn't associate with our kids, but it had always seemed too ritzy: Carmel-by-the-Sea. Also known as Carmel. But not caramel, though that's good, too. If there is one thing I enjoy as much as (and sometimes more) than a vacation, it's researching a vacation. So I got to work and found a bed and breakfast right by the beach, in our price range, without a wine and cheese hour (cookies & tea instead) - am I good or what? No, I can't take credit. God led us to The Sandpiper. The proof of that will be in the next post...
I wrote this several weeks ago, thinking I would finish it the next day (ha!), but I've decided it stands on its own, though it only covers the first part of what I called it...
The alternate title was Failed Resolutions, Lenten Abandonment, and The Demise of the Prayer Closet, but at least one (facebook page) reader, who also happens to be a good friend, encouraged a more positive sounding outlook, so I took out some of the angst. It also turns out I've already blogged about giving up (for) Lent, so there's no need to repeat myself.
It's been an interesting week. Last Sunday evening our community group, hosted by the aforementioned good friend (hereafter referred to as AGF) and her husband, discussed whether there is such a thing as following or not following God's will when it comes to making decisions about our life (not about right and wrong). It came up because we're doing Storyline, Donald Miller's new project, and in it, he posits that when it comes to our vocation, we are free to choose what to do, same for marriage, and other life altering choices, that there is no one right path. Naturally, this brought up a discussion of Calvinism and God's sovereignty. Our church is Reformed (PCA), but not everyone in it is (welcome to Marin County). One person said that only applied to salvation. Others agreed that God doesn't expect us to consult him about what color socks we wear.
I struggled with the simplistic way that Miller offhandedly threw this out there, with absolutely no theological basis even mentioned. But as the discussion went on (including a disagreement over whether our church was really Reformed, despite my saying that our pastor told me from our first meeting that he was a "winsome Calvinist"), a light went on. If God really is sovereign, then sure, we can "choose" whatever path we want, because he's actually writing our story anyway - we just think we're choosing. Maybe this was what Miller was implying, since the book does, after all, purport to be a tool that helps us find our individual stories and how they fit in with God's greater story. My AGF pointed out the distinction between being puppets (which is often how Calvinism is misinterpreted, including by me for many years) and being characters in God's story.
Still, this doesn't mean we don't seek God in our decision making. I mentioned that way back when I did Henry Blackaby's Experiencing God study (which I didn't finish, because my husband and I were in the midst of our whirlwind courtship - same reason I dropped War and Peace, though I did recently read Anna Karenina, and we never got past the opening chapters of Boundaries in Dating...), I brought up how we are to seek to hear from God through prayer, the Bible, other people, circumstances, and his creation (I can't remember if there were more ways it said he reveals himself). I also asked everyone if, despite their "choices," things ever turn out the way they plan/envision. Everyone agreed that no, they do not. So we think we're controlling our futures, but we're not.
The very next day...I'm driving to the grocery store and having a dilemma - do I go to Trader Joe's, like I had planned, or do I go to Costco, because I need a bunch of stuff which is more economical there. As I argued both sides (I frequently identify with the lead character in Fiddler on the Roof, who always says "...on the other hand..."), I prayed that God would lead me. Approaching the exit lanes, I saw that they were quite congested, and it would be a bit challenging to get over. It felt like a wall had gone up. I decided this meant I should go to Trader Joe's.
Of course this reminded me of the previous night's discussion and the giggling about how silly it would be to invite God into those kind of petty details. Well, folks, this is how I live my life. Not all the time, but when I do, things actually turn out better. God really does care about every decision, and though he doesn't always make it clear which way to go, he does often enough, if we just ask him. And what can it hurt? Unless we don't leave the house until he audibly tells us which color socks to put on...then, it could be a problem.
...Back to Trader Joe's, and some evidence for what I've just put forth...within a few minutes of being in the store, I looked up and saw a friend from church (who is in our community group, but hadn't been able to attend the previous night because her son was sick). She was interested in what we had discussed, so I ended up debriefing her, and we had a really encouraging conversation and exchanged hugs (always good!). A little while later, I bumped into my mom, who knew I was going to be there, but wasn't sure exactly when, and she and I had a nice chat. Then, when I was in the check-out line, I saw an old friend I hadn't been in touch with for years, but lately had been thinking about more often, and wondering how she was.
Here, I should mention that this woman and I had originally met in the religion section of a bookstore, where I had engaged her in conversation, learned she was a Christian who had been hurt by the church, and so had not been in fellowship in several years. I invited her to the young adults group a bunch of friends and I had started to bring the singles from different churches together. She ended becoming part of our group and marrying a guy in it, shortly after I met and married my husband through that same group (it was called "Catalyst"). When I talked with her briefly at TJs, she told me where she and her husband were going to church - it was such a relief to know she was doing well and still following Jesus.
...If I had gone to Costco, like my logical brain was telling me to, instead of praying and being steered (literally) away from it to Trader Joe's, I would have missed those divine appointments. Yes, I may have run into people I know at Costco, but because this topic was so on my mind, I really believe this was God's way of affirming my seeking him, even in seemingly trivial decisions.
I'll talk about the re-repurposing of our bedroom closet and the war between the two places that share one location (homeschool) in my next installment, Lord willing...
When I was a freshman at Westmont College (the only year I would spend there), second semester I found myself in the little white chapel next to the pond almost every night (even though it was quite a hike from my dorm), and at other times as well. I was homesick (okay, lovesick, too - pining for a good friend that I hoped would become more - he didn't), lonely, and grieving the absence of my roommate (and kindred spirit) who had left after our first semester (to be with the boyfriend she thought she would marry - she didn't).
I felt such an aching that I longed for God to soothe. I didn't want to be where I was, but I had to for a few more months, so I sought solace in that prayer chapel, a place free of distractions, quiet and peaceful, where I could be alone with my Creator and Savior. It had a prayer notebook where chapel comers could write to God, which is what I did. And I read what others wrote. In fact, I even made some friends that way, because we sometimes wrote encouraging responses, thus beginning a dialogue. But my main purpose for going to the prayer chapel was to seek God, to be consoled by his presence, and to hear him speak life to me through his Word.
I also liked the security in the ritual of "escaping" to this private place. I knew I could go there at any time and that I would be refreshed. That I had a secret space to pour out my heart and to come undone with no one but God watching, and holding me next to his heart, even if I couldn't always feel that with my emotions. I would come away with that peace that passes all understanding, which Jesus promised his followers. I might be romanticizing it a bit, but whatever happened during that season of my life, I always remember it as the time when I experienced the deepest intimacy with God.
When I left Westmont, I sorely missed that sacred place. The heartache of unrequited love (actually more of a crush but I still felt devastatingly disappointed), the confusion of navigating my educational and career path, and many more challenging circumstances made me pine this time not for a guy or even a friend, but for a special meeting place with God. Anytime I would go on a retreat, if there was a place of prayer - be it a chapel or garden - I would gravitate there. I even started a flickr group specifically for people to post pictures of such small sacred spaces. I made up my mind that one day when I was married and had my own home, my husband would build a prayer chapel in the backyard.
Fast forward twenty years from my twenty year-old self, and now this forty year-old has finally entered the promised land. It doesn't quite look the way I imagined. It's not even a building, but then again, I have no backyard to put one in. And no one built it for me - it started with a simple thought I had one day while freshening up in the bathroom (funny how my best ideas often originate there). Our closet is attached to the master bath, so I began thinking...wouldn't it be nice if instead of using this tiny room for clothing storage, I turned it into a little spa where I could give people facials? Then I remembered that I wasn't an aesthetician but a homeschooling mom who couldn't even wash her own face on a regular basis, let alone provide pampering to others.
Another idea emerged. It was true that if I moved the clothes out, the approximate four foot by (just under ) six foot closet could actually be converted to a room. And if not an actual spa, wouldn't it be nice to have a restful room, a sanctuary of sorts? Thus was began the project of repurposing our master bedroom closet into a prayer closet (alternate names: upper room, secret place, sabbath chamber, sacred space, rest spot, quiet nook, hidden sanctuary).
Once everything was cleared out (I moved our clothes into the kids' closets - we may eventually get a wardrobe, in which case this idea will have birthed two magical places!), it was just a question of what to put in it. When I thought about seating, I kept picturing a moon chair. That ended up being the one extravagance of our humble prayer closet, but it was totally worth the splurge, as it has turned out to be exactly the right chair - I feel hugged whenever I sit in it! After taking one child at a time into the prayer closet, I realized it was a space where two or less could gather, so I wanted comfy, inviting seating for a child as well. That turned out to be a makeshift "lounger" I created out of throw pillows and a comforter (our winter one right now). When I'm alone (which is most common), it serves as a foot rest.
I didn't want to clutter up the place with stuff, and it's tight quarters, so I decided on one small, narrow bookshelf we already had. The shelves are for the Bible, my journal, and books to aid in prayer and worship. I started with just the basics, so as not overcomplicate things, but gradually I will add others we have that are helpful for practicing liturgy, sabbath, and the contemplative life.
The top of the bookshelf is mainly for the oil lamp, which allows me to adjust the brightness, unlike the large overhead light. Its only drawbacks are a faint odor and that it gives off a fair amount of heat, especially with the door closed (I sometimes leave it ajar) and if I have it turned up, so I also bought an aromatherapy diffuser plug-in halogen nightlight that has a dimmer switch. I put a few drops of essential oil - usually lavender - in the glass dish and its fragrance fills the room. I also keep some strongly scented candles on the overhead shelf (where I store memorabilia - pictures, journals, etc.), so that the room always has a distinct, gently floral aroma. Sometimes when I come upstairs to go to the bathroom in the middle of our school day, I'll splash water on my face, a spritz of rosewater toner, and then open the prayer closet door, inhale the sweetness, reminding me that in a little while I'll be able to retreat here. Just a glimpse of the room and a breath of its scent is soothing and calming.
Walls. Not the emotional kind. I'm talking white space. I knew I wanted imagery to evoke beauty and serenity in this special space, so I finally put to good use those old calendar pages I had saved - of Greece, the Mediterranean, whimsical garden scenes, waterfalls, Scriptures - and put them up, but not too too many, mind you. It's kind of funny because we've lived in our house seven years and I've still not hung our pictures on the walls!
Another thing about the lighting and the windowless space that occurred to me is that it's similar to what it would have been like it the catacombs, those underground passageways in Rome where the early church met in secret to worship (we were just studying that in our homeschool history). Ironic that their light shone brighter in those dark caves than out in the sun where the worship of of Christ was forbidden.
For the past year, my husband and I have been reading books about Sabbath keeping, and we've been trying to practice that in our family. Keeping the sabbath is a tangible way of seeking the rest and peace of God. By setting aside one day each week to cease from labor, consumerism, social media, etc., and to actively pursue the things of the spirit - in body, mind, and heart - it trains and empowers us to live that way in the midst of whatever pressures might surround us during the week.
I had the epiphany that this prayer closet symbolizes, and actually is a vehicle for that sabbath rest. It's a tangible expression of stopping and breathing and focusing on what really matters, and giving all my cares over to Jesus, and receiving his love, grace, truth, and whatever "word" he might speak to me for encouragement and growth.
A place. A day. These are actual solid tools, props if you will, to take all our good intentions and actually apply them. Illuminating the candles to start the sabbath. Lighting the oil lamp to begin a "quiet time." Saying blessings over the bread and the wine to remind ourselves of why we're at the Lord's Table and what we're entering into. Opening the Word to feast on God's goodness as I come to him alone, hungry and thirsty. These spaces, these ceremonies, these objects - they are examples of how our senses can be a gateway into what we cannot physically touch or taste or smell or hear or see. Liturgy - patterns that are repeated - engage all parts of who God made us. Through repetition, we go deeper and deeper into the knowledge of our Lord, becoming more intimate with him, just as our routines and traditions build closeness and strengthen the bonds in families - between husband and wife, between parents and children.
I'm only just beginning to use the prayer closet, and not nearly as often or as consistently as I want to, but already it has affected me deeply, and not just me. I have had very special times in it with each of my children. Quiet cuddling. Heart to heart talks. Prayerful problem solving. And each of them feels special when they get their alone time in it with me. Even just a few minutes, because usually that's all it is. Our middle child (age 8) set up her own prayer space underneath her desk! I nearly cried when she showed me. It brought home the truth that we lead by example more than words.
One last thing - for now - about this special space. I find that spending private time with God enhances the my experience of him in community. When I come to church on Sunday morning, the worship is that much sweeter when I have prepared my heart for it...or rather, God has. It also helps fill me with his grace and love, so that I have more of that to give to others. I'm not just in church desperate to be ministered to, but instead, I can minister from a full heart. Admittedly, I'm not totally there yet, but just like having a place for church helps motivate us to gather with the Body of Christ, so does the presence of a prayer closet invite me to come and meet with my Lord.
Most people (well, only the lucky few who get them) take a sabbatical every seven years, but in my case, I've taken a sabbatical for seven years. Not from a job, though, but from what I'm doing right now: blogging.
Seven years ago (maybe even to the day), I signed off what was then known as the God blogosphere. I was part of that first wave of Christian bloggers who started talking aloud and then to each other. We created a larger dialogue that manifested itself in posts and comments and blog carnivals and even a convention - GODBLOGCON. Despite different denominations, backgrounds, ages, genders, and more, there was a kinship between us. That's not to say there wasn't also controversy and tension, but it didn't dominate our interactions.
My first blog was called Proverbial Wife. I started it in late 2003 or early 2004 (I had my first baby at that time, so it's a bit hazy, and I'm too lazy to go look it up). The name was a reference to the Proverbs 31 woman, whom I aspired to be, and it was quite catchy, but despite its popularity, I eventually changed it (felt like to much to live up to), and that - changing blog names - was to become a pattern with me. I can't even remember all the names, but the main ones were Marla Swoffer (as in dot com) and Marla's Musings and Always Thirsty. I also had multiple blogs at various times - notably, Olive Cheeses (food blog), GodBlogRoll (a directory of blogs categorized by bloggers' Myers-Briggs personality types), and Intellectuelle, a group blog of Christian women who won a writing contest I dreamed up - it was hosted by Joe Carter at The Evangelical Outpost.
I loved connecting with others who shared my faith and were deep thinkers, since it had rarely happened offline after I finished school. It was as close as I would get to being part of something like the Inklings - that group of Christian writers which included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, my literary (and in Lewis' case, spiritual as well) heroes. Speaking of the Inklings, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the way my blog got its wings was when it was noticed by Jared Wilson, ringleader of what was then The Thinklings, a group blog, which though all male, I considered kindred spirits. They were the first ones to spread "the conversation" to my fledgling blog. (mind you, when I use that phrase, it has nothing to do with anything "emergent")
After 2+ years of blogging daily (or more), I had a solid readership, but the nagging feeling (conviction) that I needed to change my priorities finally got through to me with the news that I was pregnant with my third (and last) child. I had sensed that I should quit blogging when I was about to have my second child, a year before, but when an amazing and generous couple who read my blog gifted me with my first apple computer (which totally converted me) - a macbook (after I joked that I would blog during my labor if I only had a laptop) - I felt that I couldn't throw in the towel just yet, that with this second baby perhaps I'd finally master time management.
That was not to be. And instead of writing from inspiration, it had become an obligation to perform fueled by my desire for acceptance/affirmation/admiration as well as a more pure motive of wanting to encourage and connect with others. But there I had trouble as well - I was too transparent and vulnerable. I didn't "overshare" by today's blogging standards, but it was too much for my personality type (we INFJs are extremely private) and there were other factors at the time (see I've learned to censor myself) that made keeping certain deep things offline even more important (hint: never work out stuff on the internet that you haven't worked out with people in real life first).
The other problem was that because of being a crusader for truth, I was attracted to controversy, or it to me, but whatever the case, it got ugly. The stuff I alluded to in the aforementioned paragraph got mingled in with the online drama, which caused me major distress...and did I mention I was also in my first trimester of pregnancy? That brings me back to the biggest reason I had to quit blogging: my family. I had three year-old and one year-old daughters, with a son on the way. I wanted my attention to be focused on them - after all, they were the reason I was staying home. I also wanted to guard their privacy. And of course there was my husband, too. My online life definitely detracted from my real life - I simply couldn't spread myself so thin, especially being the slow, methodical, non multi-tasking person that I am. I won't even mention how my daily hours online affected the housework...
So that is why I quietly exited my public writing life seven years ago, feeling both relief and grief, but believing I would one day return to my writing (since I have always known - well, since high school - that it's a calling/vocation) when the kids were all in school and I would have my mornings free. That was supposed to have happened this last fall, but three years after I quit blogging, we unexpectedly became a homeschooling family, and I knew things would never unfold the way I had planned, but I also didn't (and don't) regret being on this path...and adventure really...that God has marked out for us. I also know how much it will enrich my writing.
Somewhere in there, I started blogging again (what can I say, I couldn't stay away), but not with my real name and not with any consistency. Thus I had no readership until a couple of years ago when I adopted the Literary Mom pseudonym. I was already a regular Facebook customer (see, even quitting my day blog couldn't keep me offline...sigh...), so setting up a writerly page really couldn't be helped. Thus, instead of blogging, I was blurting out thoughts and curating information for others (i.e. amassing lots of interesting links that came into my massive news feed caused by an untold number of page likes). That continues to this day, though I have "unplugged" from Facebook for weeks and months at a time (fasting it from it for Advent or Lent usually) to sort of reset myself. The internet is paradoxically a perpetual source of angst and delight for me as a person and a writer. I have a love-hate relationship with it and its social media offspring.
This past Lent, I gave up white flour and sugar and alcohol (except on feast days of course), and found myself blogging a little more frequently, which was what I set out to do, albeit half-heartedly. It felt surprisingly right and good. That got me thinking about how long it had been since I had left the God blogosphere; I realized it was exactly seven years. Through the working out of various circumstances (including a reconciliation I consider miraculous) in recent months, I had felt a gentle nudging to come out of hiding, so to speak, but also a sense of trepidation. Nothing had changed for me to be able to suddenly devote myself to my writing - my kids aren't little, but they're still young - and homeschooling is very consuming. So I really wasn't sure what the point in using my real name now would be, yet I also started to feel bothered about my picture being a face behind a book. While it had been apt for a season, I sensed that keeping it (and continuing to not use my real name) began to reflect a kind of cowardice that didn't apply to me. In fact, overcoming fear continues to be a major theme in my life.
So the seven year timing (I'm big on patterns and symbols and rhythms), feeling free to be myself, and rediscovering the joy of writing all gave me the inspiration to throw off the anonymity that bound me and cautiously start a new chapter in my blogging life, going forward with the lessons learned from my previous one, as well as what I have learned during these past seven years of relative reclusivity.
Here are some of my blogging resolutions:
I will not market myself or network or have giveaways (not really my personality anyway).
I will not blog out of compulsion or obligation or on any kind of timetable.
I will steer clear of controversial subjects, especially pertaining to other bloggers and their views.
I will write to express what matters, not just to me, but to others, and most of all, to God.
I will keep my family my first priority and not let blogging distract me or steal time from them.
I will be careful about what I share, guarding my family's privacy and not getting too personal.
If I am ever unsure, I will pray about what to say. I will not impulsively blog.
I will not compare myself to other bloggers or compete with them.
I will not feel compelled to respond to every comment. In fact, responding to comments will be the exception rather than the rule.
My husband likes to pretend he's working in the yard. In fact, we have no yard, but he does indeed work the land...or rather, the containers of dirt that line our outdoor areas. Having been raised by two farmers - one from the midwest, the other from the middle of the Pacific (Maui) - his thumb is greener than most people's. With nothing but a cement oversized patio and a covered porch, he has somehow managed to grow flowers and food. First we inherited potted rosebushes. Then my mother in-law gave us earthboxes, and he started with my favorite summer crops - tomato and basil. As the variety of plants has increased, so has his set up - installing grow lights in the house to sprout seedlings, very creatively using the minimal space available, and adding greenhouse type awnings to the sides of our patio walls.
We also don't have a garage or basement or any sort of tinkering area, which is not that big of deal since my husband is more of an artist than a handyman, but he can build stuff when he's inspired, so when I requested a fountain, he went to work and made one out of large ceramic pots in three different sizes. Then someone gave us a cute pedestal type fountain, so he spent time getting it to function properly. For Christmas, when he asked what I wanted, I requested an outdoor fire pit (I bet you're wondering how we fit all this stuff on our patio, along with a small table and chairs, and still with a little room for the kids to blow bubbles, do chalk art, etc...well, honestly, it's pretty miraculous), which he initially balked at, picturing the diameter to take up most of the width of the patio.
Well...a funny thing happened on Christmas Eve...he stopped into a bakery which our pastor had recommended, and guess who he saw? Our pastor and his family. He told them he was out looking for a fire pit to give me for Christmas, and then they told him that their landlord had left one in their yard which he said they could keep, but they didn't want it...so, you've figured out the end of the story, but the really amazing part was that it was the tall, narrow kind - called a chiminea, since the smoke rises out of it like a pot bellied stove - so it takes up very little space on our patio and it's whimsically charming. Best Christmas present ever. Smitten by divine serendipity once again.
In local literary news...our neighborhood library was a zoo today - they're remodeling the downtown branch, so everyone has been re-routed to ours, which is tiny. I couldn't find my requested books on the hold shelves - turns out there are so many transfers right now that they had to put them all in a room in a back. I've never seen the children's section look so sparse - the EZ readers had been totally raided. I guess this is a good problem to have..but I will be glad in a few weeks when our sleepy library is back to its normal self, complete with our usual librarian - he's a young-ish guy with a ponytail, glasses, who's reserved but friendly - I'm guessing he's into sci-fi and technology and saving the planet. Today it was a slew of older women running things, probably from the main library, which is about five times larger than ours, and not within walking distance...though we rarely walk to ours since we always are transporting so many books back and forth, and it would probably shorten the life of my trusty bookmobile.
It all started with a groupon. Half off the price for one hour in a sensory deprivation flotation tank sounded intriguing, especially after I researched the concept - what's not to like about all that soothing epsom salt and 60 minutes of uninterrupted solitude? Plus, I love the sensation of floating and serenity and relaxation. Long ago in college, I had once gotten a deal on tanning sessions, and although I never repeated that experience, I did actually enjoy the time spent under those lamps in that coffin-like bed - it was warm and peaceful.
So I bought the groupon - a LivingSocial voucher actually - and when it was approaching its expiration, I finally made an appointment, in fact the only one available, since everyone else was cashing theirs in last minute as well. I started to feel a little nervous and thought about cancelling, but I didn't want to flake on a commitment or lose the money...or most importantly - give in to fear.
The day finally arrived. That day was today. I dropped off the kids at my mom's and drove to the establishment with the float tanks. Upon entering the reception area, I was told the rules (basically the grown-up version of "don't pee in the pool" which includes a lot of other stuff), given a healthy, yummy cookie (which I could actually eat ), and then I sat in awkward silence with two men in the waiting room - one reading a book, the other staring off into space, since his only other choices were our eyes or the ceiling or floor. I sipped water and rummaged through my purse for a hair band I knew I didn't have.
A few minutes later, the owner, handed me a hair band and whisked me to the bathroom where I was to shower briefly. When I was all ready to go, I stepped across the hall to the room with the tank, which was actually just a curtained off area next to another curtained off area with another tank. In fact, the reception area, waiting room, and tanks were all in the same room, or seemed to me to be, but it was very dimly lit and I was mildly freaked out, so I'm not totally sure, but such details have no bearing on my tale anyway.
The tank door was open, so I put in ear plugs, and peered inside. It looked very dark. Indeed, as I stepped in, I realized that when I shut the door, it would be almost pitch black. I was in a quandary. I didn't like the idea of not being able to see at all, nor did I realize in advance that it would be unlighted, but my only other choice was to leave the door open, which would create a draft, and more crucially, only a curtain would separate me from being exposed to the world. I couldn't take that chance. Worse than not seeing would be being seen. I really wished I had worn a swimsuit, but everything I read had recommended against that, saying that the fabric would add weight and create an uncomfortable wet/cold feeling.
So I closed the door and I floated and I didn't like it. Actually I liked the floating, but that was all. I tried putting my hands under my head, like the owner had suggested if I have neck/shoulder tension, which I do. Still, I didn't feel relaxed. I felt existential. I started to think that this is how atheists imagine death - simply ceasing to exist - a place of total darkness...but wait, if I'm thinking, that can't be non-existence, so actually this was more like hell, except for one big difference, I'm not separated from God. But even knowing that, and weakly attempting to pray, my intuitive self couldn't shake the creepy vibe, that something was spiritually amiss in this setting. I asked myself why my soul was at peace floating in a pool or the ocean, but not here. My answer: no sky, no sun, no trees, no space even to bask in the beauty of God's creation and to breathe in his grace.
Breathing. That was what happened next. I realized my mouth was closed, so I tried opening it and breathing more intentionally, but it still felt somewhat labored. Combined with the feeling of stuffiness/humidity and an irrational fear that I might suffer from oxygen deprivation (and even a vague paranoid delusion of a hypothetical situation that someone could be trying to kill me this way), I was overcome by an intense desire to breathe freely and deeply. I opened the door and gulped in the delicious air.
That's when I decided it was worth taking the one percent chance that someone would tear open the curtain and see my birthday suit. So I left the door open and went back to floating. Brr. And still no view. Sight yes; anything worth seeing, no. One thing I knew for sure, I couldn't close that door again. I would not face that darkness and feel the muggyness and worry about my breathing. It was all over for me, not more than 15-20 minutes into my hour.
This is not where my tale ends, however. First of all, I would be remiss if I didn't share one other part of my experience, which albeit a little embarrassing, is worth noting. In fact, it may actually have been the one thing I could take home with me. When I first laid down in the tank, the warm water, the dark room, my body stretched out...well, it put me in the mood. My husband is nearly always in the mood - perhaps it's more accurate to say he's on standby - and I'm mostly not, so this was interesting. It made me think that I should try taking a warm bath on those nights when I'm not feeling it, because it might just open up a seat for him if my love jets are all fired up. Sorry, I couldn't resist carrying the airport analogy further, though of course I will not talk about the flight itself, as this is a G-rated blog...well, maybe it's PG-13.
So where was I? Oh yeah, just getting out of the flotation tank. Wrapped in towels, I tiptoed a little ways down the hall toward the reception area, saw a man and woman seated at the reception desk, and called out the owner's name. Thankfully she hustled over to me, and I explained it wasn't working out. She was really nice and suggested I try folding up a towel to put in the door to let a little light and air in (beyond what the air holes were already letting in, which wasn't much). She saw by the look on my face that I was done, and she said understandingly, "it's just not for some people," and I nodded.
After I showered and dressed, I planned to just take off, but the owner came into the reception area, so because I felt like I should make some parting words, I said somewhat laughingly, "I guess I'm just a child of the light." She replied, "but there is light." I said, "There's a little," and she said, "I mean light inside of you." Then she invited me to sit down. So we had a conversation about God and darkness and love and Rumi and stuff like that. Just your every day Buddhist meets Christian kind of dialogue. Except that I was breathing silent prayers of help for what to say. At the end of our five minute chat, she said she wished I had liked floating because she would have enjoyed having me come there on a regular basis. And then she gave me another cookie. The end.
Well, not really the end. When I was in the car, starting to beat myself up for wasting money on another groupon that didn't turn out to be what I expected...I had an epiphany. What if the whole reason I bought the groupon wasn't for me in the first place. What if it was for those five minutes that God wanted to bless another person and draw her toward him...even to do a little name dropping, just in case...the name of my church, that is, because I know I'm biased but I really think it's the most grace-filled place where I live, and I know people there who have found their way in the darkness to light and healing and hope - hope was a word that really lit her up when I said it, as I was talking of God's restoration, of him one day making this broken world whole, but for now we get glimpses of his beauty as a foretaste of what's to come. The idea of community also resonated with her. She has only lived here a year and she said she really misses her spiritual community back east - I could see that longing in her face.
I reflected back on all my "spa" experiences - most of my groupon splurges have been for food or pampering. Nearly every single one was not the quiet "ahh" time I had hoped for (though still usually blissful, I admit), but instead a deep conversation with the aesthetician, always leading to spiritual things. I realized that because of my lifestyle, in which I am fairly consumed by raising and educating my children, it's rare for me to meet, let alone have hour long conversations with total strangers, especially those outside my faith. Rarer still is for that to happen right after I've just read Romans 5:12-21, one of my favorite passages about sin and grace, which excellently nutshells the gospel. In fact, I had been so moved by it that I read it aloud to my children just before we left the house, and it had sparked a good discussion between my oldest and me.
One last thing. Part of me wrestled with whether I did the right thing in ending my session early. Granted, I wouldn't have had that meaningful conversation with the owner had I not been "unusual," nor would there have been time for it. But still, it caused me to think about my fears and resistance to being absolutely, totally alone with God. Because I had the opportunity, albeit an uncomfortable one (but aren't those the best for growing?), and instead of praying away the distractions of my own body and mind, I pronounced the unfamiliar not good. I'm still unsure about this. Part of me is very convinced it was a light vs. dark experience and that I did the right thing in choosing the light. The other part wonders if I should have persevered longer, if it would have helped me to more fully trust and rely on God. Either way, Romans 8:28 is the final word and I find that comforting.