Umatilla Marble

“But let justice roll down like waters / And righteousness like an overflowing stream.” Amos 5:24, NASB

On the first Saturday in May my spouse and I worked with the Grand Rapids Urban Forest Project and Seeds of Promise planting trees in the Southtown area of Grand Rapids. The kids came too, but pretty much against their will. The group of us twenty-or-so volunteers spread out over several streets to plant. Our pod of four ended up staying on Umatilla Street where everyone had parked and met up and gathered gloves and shovels and shivered in the morning shade waiting for our planting assignments.

At our first planting location we shoveled out a deep round hole for the tree from the scruffy strip of city-owned grass between the sidewalk and street. Meanwhile our little sprouts complained they were cold. Help us shovel then, we said, working and moving will keep you warm. Nooo! they whined and instead lounged like bored cats on the sunny sidewalk about 30 feet up the street from us. The younger one brought me a piece of broken glass as if it were a non-dangerous novelty like beach glass or a shell. Mom mode kicked into hyperdrive. “Ah! Put that down! Watch where you’re sitting, guys.  There’s broken glass.  And if you see anything weird don’t touch it. Especially anything looking like a needle. And don’t wander off. If you’re not helping you need to stay there on that sidewalk.”

What did they think of these surroundings, I wondered?  What’s it like to be a kid and see only what you see in a place like this and not think about cause and effect? What’s it like to look around Southtown and not think you understand socio-economics and urban decline and food deserts and property values and upward mobility and suburban sprawl?  What’s it like to be able to just see things and people and take them in as-is and not read between the lines, not assume, not think you have answers, not have it break your greedy privileged heart?

In the overturned dirt I spotted a marble.  There were other items too–an orange Crush bottle cap, plastic wrappers, some nails, but nothing else as interesting as a marble.  I picked it up. It was mint green milk glass with a few tiny chips where dirt had settled in.  I nearly threw it back.  What was I going to do with a marble? Maybe it needed to stay here for someone else to find someday.  Then I changed my mind. I slid it into my pocket and we finished planting the tree.

At home I put the marble on the kitchen window sill temporarily, or so I thought.  So it wouldn’t roll away or get lost I nestled it in a corner near two smooth stones, one pinkish, one cream-colored. They were river rocks I probably plucked from the water on some vacation a decade or so ago. Together the two have a visually calming effect so they rest in our busiest, messiest, most conflict-prone area of the house–the kitchen.  The stones sit at the feet of a praying angel figurine given to me six summers ago by my aunt-in-law, Mary, as we left their house in New Jersey after a lovely visit.  I’m still not sure why she gave it to me. She’s from the South so maybe it was a hospitality thing. Or maybe she just wanted to get rid of it. In any case it’s been on my kitchen windowsills ever since. The faceless angel’s hands are together, fingers pointed upward like the prayer emoji.  On her gown below her hands in chiseled bas-relief is a tree. From her back, dark looped wires form the outline of wings. Stark and simple, they contrast the paleness of her skin and dress. Her chestnut hair is parted down the center and swooped low into a Ma Ingalls bun.  Flip her over and the inscription reads “a tree, a prayer.”

I wonder if I didn’t want to keep the marble because I didn’t want to think about how it got there.  After all, the marble would likely have been left from a child back when children played marble games outside on sidewalks in this part of Grand Rapids, back when it was safe to do so, back when kids played with marbles, probably back when this was a place where white folks lived, back when this street named for a Native American tribe would have seemed quaint and not tinged with irony.

It turns out that Southtown is a new name, a “rebranding” of sorts, for an old part of town. Up until a few years ago it was called Madison Square. In 1915 it was a bustling residential and business district according to the book Heart & Soul: The Story of Grand Rapids Neighborhoods. During the 1960s it saw enough racial violence to earn the nickname “Killing Corner” in the 1970s.  It seems since then some progress, albeit strategic and likely governmental, has been made. It appears to be a place trying to transition out of dark times, trying to rise out of the smoldering remains of a heavy past. There are new houses with brightly colored aluminum siding and doors peppered in with abandoned and run-down houses and littered vacant lots. It’s obvious to a casual observer that the fresh and bright structures are probably built with federal funds. It doesn’t seem like self-suffiencent, earned-income funded families with a choice of where to live are here now. Today if you live in Southtown it is most likely by default.  You’ll find a liquor store, but not a microbrewery. You’ll find graffiti but not an Art Prize venue.

White flight is no stranger to my family story. The textbooks will tell you that when the soldiers, including my Grandpa Don, came home from World War II they came back to marry and start families in new suburban areas around cities like Chicago, which is usually used as the classic example. But as my Grandpa Don told it there wasn’t enough existing housing to accommodate this huge influx of returning soldiers, these soon-to-be family men. So my just-married grandpa moved from suburban Evergreen Park into the city proper, to the Roseland neighborhood, where his new bride Ruth was from and there was more housing available. My dad, the youngest of Don and Ruth’s four Babyboomer children, told it like this:

My parents rented apartments until about two years before I was born. I think there were two different rental locations in Roseland. From where I lived at 106th and Eggelston you could see on the northeast corner a brick two story house that was owned by Grandpa Bandstra, my mom’s dad. That may have been one of the places they lived in before I was born. I’m not sure, I just remember that he’d owned that building near our house.

 We moved out of Roseland the summer of 1970. I think what happened was that as the neighborhood changed it became less safe as a whole. The first black families that moved in were very friendly, happy to be out of the bad neighborhoods that they came from. But as some of those first people moved out and others came in the people became less friendly. Now we started to become the minority–too many groups of teenagers walking through the neighborhood. Once Uncle Jim was stopped as he got off the Chicago Christian High School bus and threatened by one guy and two girls. Grandpa Don could see that for the sake of the family it was time to move. This wasn’t going to be the time and place for a safe integrated neighborhood. The home values were dropping because of the scare tactics of unscrupulous realators. The Roseland house sold for $17,000 and Grandpa Don bought the next house, back in Evergreen Park where he came from, for $30,000.  I remember that the last year we lived in Roseland I was always a little on edge whenever I was out in the neighborhood. I was not a very brave 12 year old.

The Umatilla marble is still here at the feet of the parting-gift angel on the kitchen windowsill with the river rocks.  Now it seems to belong there. It’s there so I will remember to pray for Umatilla Street–safety and provision for the people and regular visits from city watering trucks for those baby trees.

Spring changed to summer and summer to fall and the Umatilla marble has come to mean even more. Since the eruption of hate and violence in July at Charlottesville and the recent massacre in Las Vegas the marble has become a prompt to grieve our fractured American fairytale, our “veneer of civilization**”, our brokenness. The Umatilla marble seems to have taken on our inward upward groaning, our wordless pleas to heaven, our longing for justice to roll far healthier and mightier than the low mucky trickle of the Grand River, the still-toxic flow of the Kalamazoo.  One day, writes the prophet Isaiah, “the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them” (Isaiah 11, NIV). Maybe that child will walk barefoot down Umatilla Street, a drawstring pouch of milky marbles in his hand.

*Heart & Soul: The story of Grand Rapids Neighborhoods. Linda Samuelson, Andrew Schrier, et al. Grand Rapids Area Council for the Humanities, 2003.

**this term is used by a Vietnam War veteran in The Vietnam War PBS series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick to describe how frighteningly easy it became to brutally kill and destroy as a soldier. The episode in which the veteran’s statement appears, Episode 7, is named “The Veneer of Civilization.”


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To Pick a Peck

The work shift starts in ten minutes–past the orchard, the vineyard and over the tracks–  seven-tenths of a mile from here.  In so little time there will be the collection of payment for services rendered, the endless Swiffering of hair from floors, the folding of towels and reporting of tips, the greeting of clients and offering of beverages, the penciling in and confirming of appointments all served with the politenesses of presentable hair and stained lip and smelling like it isn’t a sweltering August day, like there isn’t sticky peach juice between one’s toes.

But right now here in the grove it’s silent save for cicadas, the crunch of dry grass like shredded wheat underfoot. Grasshoppers with their black and white capes bound out of the way when I pass, like superhero preschool boys leaping from the furniture.

Twist, twist, twist, pull. Sun-warmed spheres in sunset hues are encased in bearded flesh, newborn-soft. Despite intentional delicacy, fingernails pierce crescent-shaped punctures and the ooze of juice ensues. Shoot, somebody’s gotta eat this now. It won’t keep. 

All this gazing up into trees distracts from the potential perils of honey-bee feasts of mushy fallen fruit. Surely their yellow jacket cousins–a 1950’s biker gang in slicked hair and stingers–are here too.

This is its own universe. Who needs more? What is money compared to row upon row of food, dappled shade, quiet? And what of this grove? Who will tell her she’s unkempt without a wax, without a cut and color?

This is some serious business falling from chin toward work shoes. Wrist watch, you are so unfair. 

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Tree Man

For at least 25 years I’ve been doodling trees–in margins of notebooks in high school English, on my flared jeans in Sharpie during Survey of the Old Testament in college.  Near home in Tinley Park, Illinois, there was one particular tree, deep down south on LaGrange Road, in a soybean field between the Speedway and 17st Street that always drew my attention and affection on the way to the mall.  The field would flood around that tree making it look more sad and scruffy and alone than usual.  I adored that tree.  I once loaded black and white film into my camera, took it’s picture, framed it, and kept it  in my room on the table my dad built for a desk–a hallowed place some teenaged girls reserved for pictures of their boyfriends.

It’s therapeutic to see what shape a tree will take as you draw it.  You start with parrallel-ish lines at the bottom of the space and see where it takes you, what kind of tree you’ll end up with.  It’s sort of labyrinth-esque maze-making, the artistic original ancestor of those intricate zen coloring books. What kind of tree will you end up with–a young spindly seedling with a few small leaves or an old stately oak? Most tree sketchers aim for the latter.

In general, it’s about division, this tree drawing. From the trunk you divide into branches, then divide and divide and divide again until the branches are but thin pencil lines. If all goes well your tree is proportionate with a beautiful crown, a full canopy. Just make sure it isn’t all too uniform. Make sure you have some unpredicted but balanced bends. Add a crooked or broken branch here or there. It is a fallen world, after all. Trees are as imperfect as the rest of us. Try to envision real trees you’ve seen as you draw.

You might have misjudged your space and your tree is growing off the page. Maybe your tree time was interrupted and your tree looks leafless and dead, like an ash boarer beetle victim, or a diseased elm or like the utility company had to saw off a major limb so as not to crowd the wires and it’s looking rather imbalanced. It’s all good. You still made a tree–or at least part of one.

If you have extra time–in my case if class wasn’t over–you might add a tire swing to a low branch or a bird’s nest in a choice crook to give it that lived-in, finished look.

As a teenager I knew where the only gingko was in our Valley View subdivision. It was very young with not many leaves.  I took a few fallen yellow ones, rubbing that soft midrib-free leaf texture between my thumb and fingers. When I moved out of the house I found those leaves, lighter and more brittle but still as bright, between the pages of an old dictionary.

“Do you ever pray for your future husband?” I was asked from the drivers seat of the minivan. I was maybe 15, riding shotgun, getting delivered home after babysitting.  I politely declined and didn’t mention that I didn’t even know if I wanted to get married or even thought about it very often.  But perhaps just her just saying it aloud was a kind of prayer. Years later it was her daughter who said I should meet her best friend’s brother, a fine young lad who had yet to discover his tree man identity.

I never dreamed back then that one day I would have my own tree man–a man who spends his corporate bonuses and vacation time planting trees.  I never dared to dream that one day I would share a life with a man who would plant me a ginkgo, like the one in Oak Park at the Frank Lloyd Wright home and studio. Who wouldn’t love a tree that adorned the gray November with its hundreds of sunny yellow leaves–looking for all the world like a quiet celebration of Japanese fans? And who wouldn’t love a man who would plant that for you with his own hands?

And then nine years ago, to pass the afternoon hours until he got home, I would sing to our baby a church song from my childhood by Ken Medema called “The Tree Song.”  It’s a song I still sometimes sing to that baby’s restless little sister at bedtime.  The verses are about a riverside tree, then a wintertime tree and then a city tree.  After each verse is this beloved chorus:

 I’ve got roots growing down to the water / I’ve got leaves growing up to the sunshine / and the fruit that I bear is a sign / of the life in me (echo: life in me!) / I am shade from the hot summer sunshine / I am nest for the birds of the heavens / I’m becoming what the Lord of trees had meant me to be / a strong young tree

And then in my best sweet-mommy voice I always say at the end to my little one: “And you’re becoming a strong young tree!”

There isn’t much I wouldn’t do for the tree man.  If he wanted me to stand here barefoot with soil between my toes until they grew roots deep down into the dark earth I would.  If he asked my arms to be branches, to be shade for him, like a prophet in the desert sun, I would. If he asked I would grow tall as a tulip poplar and thicken my bark like a cedar and photosynthesize the sun for food.  I would drink rain and bend in the wind but only for my citizen forester, my Jonny Appleseed, my one and only tree man.


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Confessions of the Tarred and Graveled

“Be hospitable to one another without complaint. As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” 1 Peter 4:9 NASB

I went to bed unsettled last Monday night.  Mostly this happens these days when I’m scheduled to be at work the next morning and I have a sick child and a spouse unable to work from home. Sick-child Lolo was completely bummed to be missing another day of day camp. She’d already missed out on climbing the rock wall on Monday. How could she also miss Tie Dye Tuesday? Her laments were understandable. She’s an active and athletic extrovert and camp is so her thing.

Meanwhile, the just-done-being-sick-with-a fever-and-cold-over-the-weekend older child, Ivy, had finally calmed down and fallen asleep after what appeared to be an anxiety attack (or was it just a tantrum?) which at its climax involved her shouting out her fears to herself in the basement at ten p.m. The only thing left clanging around in the bottom of our parenting toolbox was some not-so-old-and-rusty bribery. And so we used it.  If she finished strong as a camper and went every day for the rest of the week and at least tried the activities we would buy her something. We told her to lay in bed and think about what she wanted.  Sure enough, drifting away in a dreamland of material goods, she fell asleep. I know, I know. You want to nominate us for parents of the year don’t you?

So just to recap, on Monday night we had the sore-throat-and-feverish kid longing for camp, and the now-healthy older one melting down because she really really didn’t want to go and couldn’t go and couldn’t do any of it because it was so hard and boring.

Here’s a little context. To accommodate my daughters’ busy social calendar of never wanting to leave our street so they can run around playing with neighborhood friends all summer (and also because I make no money when I have to pay for childcare) I moved most of my part-time working hours to nights and weekends until school starts.  Except for last week.  The plan for last week, the last full week in July, was that the kids would go to awesome crazy fun (but not free) day camp at church from 9 to 4 Monday through Friday and I would work Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, 9:30 to 3.

So I went to sleep last Monday night praying to God that he would heal Lolo miraculously overnight so she could go to camp.  And not only because then I wouldn’t have to worry about what to do with her while I worked at the front desk of a salon for five hours.

In the morning she wasn’t feeling better.  But I knew better than to take her temperature.  Because I volunteered at registration the day before I new very well that there was a question on the intake form that read: Has this child been exposed to any contagious diseases or had a fever in the past 24 hours?  If we had any hope of getting her to camp on Wednesday, I knew I needed to not take her temperature. Then when I answered “no” I wouldn’t be lying–well, not technically anyway.

So at breakfast Tuesday morning I talked to Ivy the reluctant camper about the prize she would get at the end of the week.  She couldn’t think of anything she wanted but I knew better.  Shopping–specifically clothes shopping–is her love language.  I suggested a new outfit and she concurred.  After that, getting her out the door, despite just a bit of grumbling, wasn’t so difficult. So did we parents get punked? Was she playing us that whole time? We still have no idea. I made her lunch, rounded up the iPad and headphones for my sick sidekick and gave her ibuprofen, finished getting myself somewhat presentable enough for work and brought Ivy to church with poor Lolo in tow.

At some point in the time it took to bring Ivy in to meet up with her counselor and small group and kiss her goodbye a construction crew descended on the street just off of the church parking lot.  Now last year during camp week they completely took the road apart to put in new sewers and a brand new road so I wasn’t sure what they could be doing.  Especially with all these cars coming and going for camper drop-off at a large church this couldn’t be major road work again. There were no orange roadwork signs or caution signs or barricades.  But just as I was approaching the road a dump truck was laying down a strip of something wet-looking just off of the parking lot so that I have to drive over the wet strip, whatever it is, to exit.  In the middle of the road stood, very casually in an unengaged fashion, an orange-vested construction worker.  There was one car in front of me.  It drove over the wet strip and was silently directed to proceed down the road by the the worker.  So I did the same.

An hour or so later Lolo was at the salon reception desk with me.  The desk is tall so no one could see her back in the corner just behind me. She sat silently, totally engrossed in an episode of Barbie Life in the Dream House. She was still hot even on ibuprofen.  Then out of the corner of my eye I saw her scratching all over, covered in a rash.  The hubs made her a doctor appointment while I left work real quick to take her home.

But I was stopped in my tracks when I got to my car.  The driver door was completely splattered with wet tar, even up to the door handle.  It looked like I was off-roading in that “bubbling crude” scene in the theme song of The Beverly Hill Billies.  The whole area around the wheels appeared to be completely coated in a slick of . . .  “Oil that is! Black Gold! Texas Tea!” and it was already on my work clothes.  Also I’d just washed my car not 48 hours before.  And I only wash my car every two years.

I took Lolo home, kissed her warm face, set her up with cold beverages and fruit and TV for the hour until her dad could get there. Feeling rather defeated and forlorn, I returned to work.  After work I went straight to pick up Ivy.  I was a little early and would use the time to track down the construction worker, or maybe the crew foreman, who let me unknowingly drive my low-riding little Matrix through a pool of tar that morning.  But the road crew had already left.  And the whole road was covered in tiny gravel bits.  Now this church is not within the city limits, its just in a township, so corners are cut, concessions made, when roads are resurfaced.  Apparently, in the seven hours since I’d dropped off my camper they had covered the whole road with that not-so thin layer of tar and then a not-so even layer of little bitty gravel pieces and called it a day.  I guess they just make sure the tar is mostly covered and then leave it to the cars to flatten and smooth it out over time. How convenient for them.

So to retrieve my child I had to drive my tar-coated car on this street with freshly dumped, mostly-loose gravel. By the time I parked at church my poor car had been successfully tarred and graveled. Think glitter on glue, sprinkles on frosting, leaves on Linus’ wet sucker.  I was too tired to be anything but modestly angry. I surveyed the damage, took a bunch of pictures to document it and wandered into the building to notify the church secretary.  I’ve been a church secretary.  I know their secret powers. I also know a lot of people tell them things just because they need to say it.  I told her nicely that just in case anyone asks, yes, cars have been damaged by the negligent construction crew that was out there today.  After that it still wasn’t 4 o’clock so I called the Kalamazoo County Road Commission.  They of course didn’t pick up.  So I left them a crotchety message with my name and phone number. They have yet to call me back.

When I reunited with Ivy she was all smiles and said she’d climbed almost to the top of the rock wall and had gone down the big inflated waterslide. “I knew I could do it if I tried,” she said, “Part of me was saying do it, and part of me was saying don’t do it, but I did it anyway.”  I was so proud of her that despite its disasters the day had–in the words of Harry (in Dumb and Dumber)–TOTALLY redeemed itself with her bravery and her victorious smile.  The tar was hardening up on the car, but my heart was warm and melty.

After mostly-unknowingly sending Lolo to camp Wednesday with Strep (yes I made the appointment for after camp) she had two doses of amoxicillin in her by Thursday morning and she rocked her short camp week. She would have been at the doctor Tuesday but we canceled the appointment because she lied and said her throat didn’t hurt anymore–she wanted to go to camp so badly.  We should have disciplined her for lying, but I think we were just so relieved to have an eager camper that we let it slide.

As for my little Matrix, when I drive at high speeds the tar melts enough for the gravel bits to ping off.  Every time the car heats up the tar melts a little, either from the engine running or from the morning sun shining into the garage. Every day since last Tuesday a steady stream of ebony, stalactite-y drips form and hang there suspended in gooey globby viscous strings, eventually dropping to the garage floor in black snakey blobs. I’ve quit trying to keep up with it. I’ll let it do it’s thing and clean it up in a month.  As the hubs says, “It’s the gift that keeps on givin’.”* It’s a wonder no one has stepped in it and tracked it all over the house yet.

So during all that Monday-through-Wednesday madness I was occasionally thinking about the upcoming dessert party we’d planned to host on our patio on Sunday night.  I was tempted to cancel it.  Maybe I wasn’t going to be up for it.  Now, you should know that I hadn’t invited friends or neighbors over in two years–ironically, about the same amount of time it had been since I’d washed my car.  When we initially planned the event about a month ago Ivy said, “So we’re having a party?  That’s so weird!” Yeah, this hospitality drought needed to end.  It wasn’t so much that I wanted to have people over, it was more that I felt called to it as a matter of obedience.  Saint Peter said to practice hospitality.  It’s a pretty straight and simple direction. There’s no getting around it.  You can’t weasel your way out of making it a cultural thing or something open to symbolic interpretation.  So since this was a matter of obedience to God, an extension of my love for Jesus, probably a prompting of the Holy Spirit, it seemed like the plans needed to stay.

And anyway, maybe the complete exhaustion and frustration of the week’s beginning meant that our get-together was going to go really well. So we were hopeful, but trying not to be too be hopeful.

The weekend weather looked promising and it seemed like we were going to have a good turn out.  We strung christmas lights on the balcony and stairs around the patio.  The hubs and I each made two desserts and they turned out well.  I borrowed the Keurig machine from work so we could offer coffee.  We set up the badminton net and rounded up chalk and bubbles and bouncy balls for the toddlers.  We set up camping chairs and put beer and Capri Suns on ice.  I totally forgot to make ice for the iced tea (Apparently you aren’t supposed to eat party bag ice?) but we just rolled with it.  The whole process, the setting up, the working together to prep for our guests was really quite fun–good old-fashioned family teamwork.

So seven p.m. on Sunday came and our low-key event was pleasant and bigger than us, just as I’d hoped it would be.  All but one family could come and almost everyone stayed until the end, which was just about when the bugs showed up anyway.  That 2.5 hours was saturated with life and color and neighborly moments.  Bill, who’s in his 50’s and whose house faces ours, got a kick out of having a PBR which he hadn’t had since he used to steal it from his dad’s fridge.  He also finally met Joel, who has lived in the house next to us for four years.  We got to pay it forward and introduce the newest neighbors on our street to everyone, which our backyard neighbors did for us when we first moved in.  And we figured out that three families have boys going into Young Fives or kindergarten this fall. It turns out that hosting a party where people smile and relax and make connections is incredibly satisfying. Huh.

Somehow we didn’t even get upset when uninvited, friends-of-guests middle schoolers came and crashed the party. Even though they were huddled up in the hallway when the party was obviously outside and the hubs had to send them back out. Even though one of them broke Lolo’s badminton racket. Something overrode our disgruntled impulse to send them home and I’m glad it did. When Jesus said to love our neighbor, he meant the awkward and rude tween set too, even if it does feel like they want to make doormats out of us. Sometimes love feels like that, looks like that.

So I sensed this post coming together while washing the sticky after-party floors  yesterday and remembered a line from Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, which I read almost two decades ago. She wrote something about when things are very hard its because something beautiful was trying to get itself born.  So I put down the mop and picked up my phone and Googled “Anne Lamott something beautiful trying to get born” and found it right away.  My PMS-y self almost got a little teary because it spoke such truth about the week as a whole:

“It turned out this man worked for the Dalai Lama. And he said–gently–that they believe when a lot of things start going wrong all at once, it is to protect something big and lovely that is trying to get itself born–and this something needs for you to be distracted so that it can be born as perfectly as possible.”

*referring to the quote by Eddie in National Lampoons Christmas Vacation






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Still in their respective mothers’ wombs when cancer took her life, these were the first two of the five grandchildren who didn’t get to meet our sweet Grandma Ruth.

Offspring of Ruth’s younger sons, Ryan was due first but took his time arriving so Lindsey is older by a few weeks. Out of the fifteen of us they are the closest in age. They’ve always been cousins, classmates, friends. There is divine provision in this. It is if God said I know it’s hard to be a child who never gets to meet a grandma in this life, but you have each other. 

Last week all of us cousins watched Lindsey promise to love and cherish her new husband Zach. One of us, a pastor, wed them. Since then Ryan has proposed to his Lauren.

There are no new words for the gift of God’s hand moving with us through time, day by ordinary day, recognized mostly by us mortals only in retrospect. There is only the resounding echo of the psalmist’s assurance: His faithfulness continues through all generations (Psalm 100).

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Maybe it’s because she’s a sucker for flowering roadside weeds, but she thinks to herself that what she just witnessed was a few seconds of life distilled into its most hopeful, most essential. At 60 mph, she just saw an 80 year-old man pulled over to the side of a country road called Texas, gathering a bouquet of Queen Anne’s lace, the mid-summer stems nearly as tall as himself. Nothing she’s seen in her brief life has ever whispered shalom quite like that–so brimming with tenderness and truth.

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Marine Layer

There are those parenting moments, even on vacation, maybe especially on vacation, when you look down at your children and you seem to be without hope for their character, their well-being, even their souls. They will never stop bickering or being selfish or entitled.  They will always think life exists for their personal convenience.  This decade of mothering–of doing nothing very substantial other than shepherding these hooligans–seems to have done nothing at all.  Perhaps they could have fared the same living barefoot and feral in the UP.  My partner and I should maybe have picked a different way to spend all of that time.  Imagine how many trees we could have planted, me and that Jonny-Appleseed of a husband of mine.

And then you wander at the shore decidedly away from your offspring–following the ribbon of high-tide debris across the beach–searching, searching, for some unknown treasure in what the ocean coughed up in the night.  You see baby driftwood, limp seaweed, indigo and pearlescent mussle shells, remnants of a sea bird’s crab feast, salt-softened stones, chunks of cedar bark rendered circular.  You are lost in this for a time.

And then you look up and your children are squabbling but somewhat working together to drag and carry driftwood through the sand.  They haven’t thought of rolling them.  You try to leave them to their own devices and wander just a little farther away so the waves drown out their voices just a bit more and continue your beach-combing pursuit.

Then out of the blue–or the marine-layer gray, as it were–they are running at you with good news. “Mom! Mom!” shouts the elder one, “We built a lean-to!” And sure enough they have.  And you’re not even sure how they know what a lean-to is, or even if you’re absolutely sure you know what a lean-to is.  Pa Ingalls is all that comes to mind.  But what they made seems legit.  People even ask if you’re sleeping on the beach tonight.  They’ve leaned smaller (but still large enough to need help moving) driftwood perpendicularly against a massive, half-buried, but still-waist-high log.  This horizontal piece is bleached white as snow, smooth, dusted with gray lava-rich sand.  They keep adding logs, tiny ones to decorate the top, the biggest ones to widen the shelter, until the cavern underneath is big enough to cover them if they lay very close and rest their backs on the big bleached log.

And then your heart is awash with grace and tenderness and affection for these two little people.  You think just maybe if they can dream and build shelter with another that all has not been lost. You think that once in a while, even under heavy cloud cover, a true treasure washes up onto the dark pacific sands of their fierce little hearts.  And it is enough to at least keep you on the beach.


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