Grocery Shipping

Thank you, Meijer corporate employee or higher-up store manager for the kind gift.  While shopping with my two daughters who were strangely mostly-well-behaved sidekicks last week, you approached me in the ethnic foods aisle. Maybe I looked tired, or overwhelmed. I wasn’t, but you know, I’ve been known to grocery shop disheveled and unshowered more often than I care to admit so I probably looked the part. Or maybe you thought I was making a mess of your store. I was, I confess, parting the Red Sea of jars on the shelf with giant sweeps of my forearms, trying to see if the one all the way in the back was hoisin sauce. Normally you carry two brands of hoisin sauce, but that day there was none at all.  So then I began reading the ingredients of the Korean BBQ sauce, wondering if maybe it could substitute.

So, in this wondering, problem-solving moment, my littles giggling and messing around amongst themselves, you were suddenly standing next to me.  “Hello, would you like to try Shipt for free for one year? No strings attached?”  Maybe she was expecting me to jump up and down like I’d answered the door in an old Publishers Clearinghouse commercial during the Super Bowl.  But I didn’t.  “Oh, Ok,” I said, “I guess I’ll think about it.”

“Well if you don’t use it make sure you pass it on to someone who will because it’s worth quite a bit!”

I wanted to be excited.  I wanted to want other people to pick out my grapes and cuts of meat and yogurt and secret stashes of chocolate and bags of potatoes.  But I just didn’t.  By the time we got to the back of the store, the kids begging for new $17 water bottles for school, I was getting a little bit more into the idea.  I texted the hubs about it, excited to share the news of getting what seemed to be an exclusive freebie even if  I wasn’t completely interested in redeeming it.

Then at the check-out the cashier asked me what I planned to do with the soba noodles she was bagging.  Feeling like a good multi-cultural cook I told her about my slow-cooker Asian Pork with Broccoli and Noodles recipe.  Unimpressed, she kindly schooled me in “what we do with them in Japan.”  She said they mostly make soups with them, vegetable soups.  In the summer they use udon noodles instead.  Last time she was my cashier she told me she was from Seattle and all about how she used to be a hair stylist but now she can’t do hair because of carpel tunnel. “Oh, so are you first generation American?” I asked.

“I don’t call myself first generation because I don’t necessarily consider myself as being from one place.  I was born here but my parents are from Japan and I’ve been there a lot and now my brother lives there.”  Schooled again. See, this is why I need this job.

And anyway, isn’t there something sacred, something meaningful about not only cooking but selecting our own food? We are already so separated from our food supply.  We already have to think and care so relatively little about it. There are already so many middlemen and meddlers that come between us and what we put in our mouths. Why add another layer? Why rob ourselves of this rewarding responsibility? Giving up this duty, this hunting and gathering, would be depressing, soul-numbing.

This is fulfilling, gratifying work. To come together and choose food for our families knowing it will not last long and we’ll be back soon reminds us that none of us are far from hunger, that our hunger unites us.  Individually and collectively we are hardwired for this ritual. I’m not proud of every item that ends up in the cart (I’m looking at you, Nutella), but I like being in places that feed people–churches that feed the soul, libraries that feed the mind.  Maybe food shopping–buzzing around alone with our carts but together in the pursuit–is as close as it gets to a true communal table.

Also, isn’t it sort of communist to just passively receive your food? Isn’t that what they do in North Korea–show up and wait in line for rations of rice and beans and salt for the week? Making specific food choices (this plum, that cabbage) is a wonderful privilege. Nothing screams capitalist democracy quite like the luxury of taking five minutes to pick an ice cream flavor because your choices line a cooler that seems as long as half a city block. God bless America!

And what about our kids? How will they learn to feed themselves? How do we teach them how to turn and sniff and poke and inspect produce–to recognize what good food is–if they aren’t there with us to buy it? How do we teach them to compare prices, to make wise shopping choices, to be good stewards of money if food shopping is yet another thing we do quietly, alone, in front of a screen?

In the past ten years, over a quarter of my life, I’ve lived in two homes, worshiped regularly at two different churches, and brought two babies into the world. When I started grocery shopping at the Meijer on Westnedge I didn’t have a smartphone or Facehook account or a job.  But every week since then, usually twice, I drive the same gray 2008 Toyota Matrix to the Westnedge Meijer for provisions. I’ve logged in about 1,040 trips so far.

When I run into old friends they ask why I still shop there. There is more than one reason.  For one, it’s near other stores. It’s also exactly the same distance from my house as the newer, more suburban-y Meijer. More significantly, after all these years, I know the contents of every aisle. But the real reason I still shop there is because I see people (and once in a while dodge seeing people) that I’ve known for almost as long as I’ve lived in this state: seniors who held my babies in church nursery, former neighbors, co-op preschool moms, sweet Harriet–mother of our former church secretary and grandmother of our old babysitter–who lost her jaw to cancer. She can’t speak well anymore, but can still smile and radiate love from behind the cart she still pushes down every aisle. I see school moms, Kellogg wives, home-schooling dance moms, friends from whom I’ve grown apart but still hug in the frozen food aisle.

And then there are the anonymous coupon fairies that leave their expertly-trimmed, soon-to-expire savings on their respective items.  Every time I see the evidence of these random acts of thrifty kindness my heart vertical jumps and clicks its heels in midair. I wonder if they are the same senior ladies who eat grapes when they walk past (This irritated me to no end when the girls were little. Over and over again I would have to tell my little ones that we have to pay for the fruits and vegetables before we eat them. And then who’s breaking the rule right in front of us? The grandmas. They get away with everything I tell you.).

And speaking of seniors I have to tell you this one last story about a fellow shopper that I nearly ran into the other day.  Literally our carts almost collided as I rounded the corner. “Sorry!” I said cringing, when I realized he was there. He was very old and wearing aviator sunglasses which were a standard adult size but looked too big on his small frame. “Don’t be sorry!” he said cheerily from behind his cart which also looked slightly oversized, “a farmer don’t care!” It still makes me smile to think about it.

Despite the colorful cast of characters, most Kalamazooans don’t share my fondness for Westnedge Meijer. Sure there was that pharmacy incident when I got the antibiotics home for the sick baby only to learn that the bottle was still just pink powder. They never added the water to it. It is “special water” so I couldn’t just do it myself. And then that time this summer when my very observant child pointed out that a Planter’s nut snack pack I bought for her the day before was six months past its expiration date. And of course there are the buckets that make appearances throughout the store because of a leaky roof. And just the other day when the yogurts felt warm and the cooler’s thermostat said 62 degrees I had to inform employees of the problem. It is a place not without its major flaws.

But I’ve had my moments, too, for sure.  I’ve probably yelled at my kids in every aisle by now. Like all relationships, if you make enough mistakes in front of each other it kind of makes you feel like family.  But if that’s what we’re calling us now, I’m cheating a little. Lately I buy meat, fresh fish, bulk and bakery items from a new earth-friendlier outpost across the street. But I could never leave my Meijer completely, not after everything we’ve been through.

So, thanks, but no thanks, Meijer Lady, for the free grocery shipping.  I will pass it on to a young working mother I know. She lives close to the Westnedge Meijer but shops elsewhere because she says its too dirty to take her five-month-old baby there. I think she’s maybe exaggerating a little but I understand.  I’ll keep shopping for myself and my family with a renewed appreciation for what it is–for the life in it and for the lives that continue because of the food we find inside.





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Aromatics, Part I: You had me at “the blessing of the backpacks”

“You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” –David, Psalm 23:5

The website for our nearest United Methodist Church outpost had this curious write-up: Blessing of the Backpacks: August 27th during the 10:30 a.m. service. Bring your backpacks to get blessed for the upcoming school year! Extra backpacks will be available for families in need.

Immediately I loved the idea of dedicating worship time to blessing something so important to the very young, something so commonplace and essential as a child’s daily luggage. A kid’s backpack really is so important. It has many roles, really. Like it or not, for them it’s a fashion statement (which is why they want a new one every year). It’s a lunch-bearing security blanket, a shield for keeping secrets from bus-mates, a pillow for the bus ride home after a long day. Other times it’s a burdensome enemy for the load of homework inside or that really bad math test requiring a parent signature.  This thoughtfulness of children at the start of their school year–this concern for their day, their purpose, their challenges–was poignant and apparently enough to get us there that Sunday.

We are in a season of visiting churches after feeling nudged out of the congregation where we attended regularly for four years. Our list of grievances was growing but its polygamous ways tipped us over the edge. Essentially they believe the Church can be the bride of both Jesus and Uncle Sam and the Hubs and I disagree. So we are church homeless for right now.  We discern and discuss and keep wandering forward, looking for shelter each weekend. Homelessness is a lot of work, but there is nothing like it to experience the kindness of strangers. A little self-concious and awkward on Sunday mornings, we fumble about trusting we’re moving in a direction that is honorable, truthful, upward.  All pilgrims need a rest, though, so we hope this season won’t last long.

So based on that website write-up I thought the blessing was just a prayer over the kids with their backpacks. Instead the kids lined up, were anointed with fragrant oil on their foreheads and were given little tags (with the church’s name on it of course) for their backpacks which were also anointed with oil. My babies came back to their seats smiling and so pleased with their participation, so glad to have ventured out and been blessed–like for-real blessed–by a gift of physical touch, an oily souvenir from a prayerful person.

General run-of-the mill protestant churches like the ones the Hubs and I grew up in like to toss around terms like blessing and anointed. But what do they mean when they say them? They seem like just a part of the church vocabulary, historical and scriptural words to pepper into dialogue and song with no tangible relevance or physical act attached to them. That Sunday we learned that these words can come alive.

During the prayer stations part of the service adults in the congregation lined up for anointing. I tried to get out of it. I whisper-shouted pleas to my family about being guests and being unsure how it worked. They simply wouldn’t have it. So up we all went to the front and the Hubs and I were anointed with oil–his hand, my forehead–for the first time ever. Well, unless you consider a nail tech dabbing cuticle oil on my fingers an anointing.  We can’t exactly rule it out.

In any case I like very much that this word blessing has overridden its vague overuse, its scuffed up misuse in my brain. It is now not just a way to justify a stockpile of material possessions as the “prosperity gospel” people like to use it, or even to boast about a wealth of human relationships or an overstuffed schedule. Instead this word’s meaning now includes the act of a servant of Christ looking me in the eye, touching my face, smudging consecration into my dirty pores. Indeed, we have been blessed.

For the first time in a very long time, with all four of our anointed selves and two backpack tags, we had the car smelling pretty good on the way home.  For the rest of the day I didn’t want to touch that precious oil smear, didn’t want to bother the blessing even though it itched a little. I wanted the sacrament–and that fresh anointed feeling–to stay all day.  And it did. Every once in a while I’d catch a whiff and it would call me to attention of where I’d been that morning and to whom I belonged.  I spent a good chunk of time that afternoon just watching bees on calamint, prompting my husband to ask if everything was OK. Oh, yes, Babe, everything’s grooo-vay. It leant the whole sabbath a worshipy calm vibe. That’s not to say that the oil smelled particularly good. I’m not sure what’s in it but it wasn’t lavender essential oil or sandalwood or something one would buy for a plug-in defuser. There were notes of both perfumed old lady and pachouli.  It smelled at once like newborn freedom, braless rebellion, patient wisdom.

I want to worship at a place where a person can smell that God is good and fragrant and meets us where we are and is Immanuel dwelling with us in that very place.  Acknowledging our noses–these ordinary organs placed so centrally in the front of our faces–is not unlike blessing a backpack.

Aromatics in church help us bridge the gap between what we see and what we do in a way music and words cannot. The wafting up of fragrance rounds out the worship experience without amplifier, spotlight or stage. It helps remind us of who we are, of whose we are. It is an articulation, a quiet language of the soul. To exclude this from the worship experience seems like error, like omission, like theft.



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the maimed and miraculous

“And I dreamed I saw the bombers / Riding shotgun in the sky / And they were turning into butterflies / Above our nation” –Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock”

“Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you; you are are gentle with us as a mother with her children.” –Anselm of Canterbury, Canticle Q

I was going to tell you about a miracle that happened the Monday after the alt-right rally and protests at UVA in Charlottesville this summer.  My daughter spotted an eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly missing half a wing as it sipped nectar on a butterfly bush out back.  It flew around the yard normally as if it had no mobility challenges in complete defiance of our pity. I was then going to tell you that the joke was on you, that I actually snapped the photo last year of this very same insect and that it must have wintered in Mexico or South America and come all the way back to this very same plant. Yeah, you were going to be so proud of this little one. It was going to be a differently-abled survival story and God was the hero–the navigator, the nurse, the rehabilitation specialist of this mangled-wing beauty.  You were going to feel so empowered and uplifted and awed by the detail to which God cares for something so lowly as a flying bug.

But the joke is on me because eastern tiger swallowtails don’t migrate.  Apparently they hibernate and the adults only live for (well, sources contradict, but) a handful of days or weeks.  But I did find one seemingly reliable website that said unlike other butterflies eastern tiger swallowtails can fly completely normally after losing a tail wing to a predator. This would explain why I saw this “miracle” twice in two years.

So it’s not a miracle exactly.  Technically it’s probably micro-evolution, a defense mechanism, if you want to be all dry and scientific about it. It’s a little like when a person loses a kidney and the other kidney gets bigger and does the job of both to make up for it–well, sort of anyway.  But maybe we could instead think of it as a miraculous adaptation for a species that probably would prefer better camouflage, a species burdened by its high-contrast colored coat. This is an insect that could use a leg up, a little extra help survival-wise. Just imagine taking a long nap in a bed you made yourself and waking up in the most gaudy, eye-catching and cumbersome costume you’ve ever had to get around in.  And as you fumble and flap about trying to figure it out all the birds think you look as delicious as a juicy flit-flying hamburger.

Miraculous or ordinary, is this not the tending, the nurturing, the motherly need-meeting of God? Again with that dogged divine provision–always one step ahead of us, relentless in its way-paving and never ever leaving us. We couldn’t shake it if we tried.

This capability of the eastern tiger swallowtails’ busted up wings, excelling beyond what physics should allow is a great assurance to our mustard-seedy faith. Surely if he made an escape hatch of sorts for such insignificant creatures–that like the lilies are here today and withered away in a flash–he will provide miraculous adaptation for those mourning now over the loss of innocent life to violence.

Though we don’t deserve it surely God will mourn with all of us his children over our collective self-serving greed, over our lack of imagination in showing kindness to our neighbors. Surely he will grant safe passage in flight with these our mangy wings–recovered but ragged, stolen and partially ravaged but miraculously functioning as whole–that we might carry on doing justice, loving kindness and fluttering humbly with our God.


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“Do you ever do commissioned work?” I asked Sister over the phone a year or so ago.  I’d painted the master bedroom and there was still that blank space above the bed. Ultimately the room wasn’t going to be at peace until something big and horizontal was there. I wasn’t sure how she felt about making art intended for the tame family-oriented spaces of older siblings but she seemed glad about the idea and agreed to to it.

To fully appreciate the painting you need to know the back story.  When she agreed to make it I admit that I wasn’t totally confident I would see a completed piece.  We’ve been here before. She started work on a table for us for a wedding gift but never finished.  I don’t blame her for this. It was shortly before she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Just before I got married Sister and I were both back living at home with our parents (and assorted brothers) for a while and that south suburban Chicago two-story house, built by the hands of our own father, wasn’t big enough for the both of us. I’d just finished college and she was working on an art education degree at a local Christian college. Our times together vacillated from spontaneously sweet to horribly explosive. One time we were both in the kitchen and she leaned over to get something from the produce drawer of the refrigerator and I saw MY UNDERWEAR peaking out from under the waistline of her jeans. I lost it and initiated some manner of cat fight. I can’t remember what specific aggressions I took but I can recall my fury, a rage that raises my heart rate even now just to replay having even my underwear stolen and worn (non-consensual underwearing!).

Another time I was searching everywhere for my driver’s license.  Where could it have gone? When did I take it out of my wallet and for what reason? Oh, it turned out Sister had taken it weeks ago because I was legally of age to enter a bar and she wasn’t. I unknowingly drove around all that time without a license.

There was little remorse for these events. There was only ever the flippant, “Oh. Sorry.”  I can’t recall ever hearing a sincere apology from her. Where does personal responsibility end and mental illness begin? I’d like to know. These things are funny now because I’m over it and we live on opposite sides of Lake Michigan.  My undees and ID are safe now.

Prescription drugs get a bad rap these days, but I know this painting is done because of  the life-saving medicine that allows her to function normally, to be able to see a creative project through to completion.  For so many years I was always angry with her for taking my stuff and never ever putting it back, for never getting out of bed and making me late for school. “She’s always in her own little world,” we’d say. “She’s so selfish and never thinks of anyone but herself.” And it was true. But she’s different now.  She’s pleasant and thoughtful of others and less intense. She’s herself but tempered, mellowed, more relational, reliable, rational. She’s quick to laugh and generally pleased with the world and life instead of alternately being in love with or competing against it. I think this is the person she was always meant to be. I don’t know if she would agree.

Since Sister’s diagnosis the Hubs and my mother have also been diagnosed with clinical depression.  One day it just dawned on me how surrounded I am by it, how much it has been an unnoticed shaper of my life. So does it matter? Reluctantly, I’ve concluded that it does. Suddenly then the weight of this was palpable. I shake my fist at the devil because these struggles, these pains, are his victories, his gaining of ground against us. How dare that bastard mess with my tribe?

All three of these diagnoses were made less than a thirteen years ago so for most of my life I’ve been around depression without knowledge or language to understand–or even name–this aspect of the relational framework that held me up. I don’t say this to draw pity or to blame these brave beautiful people who suffered, still suffer, in these invisible ways. I write these things because I am probably not an exceptional case. We need more awareness, more acknowledgment that depression effects entire families and systems of relationships not just the one diagnosed. We need to free the victims of shame and empower them talk about it more objectively, more often.

They are so brave, though, my spouse, sister and mother. That they walk on with this parasitic cloud, this unwelcome narrowness of thought makes them all my heroes. It is brave to take medicine daily that causes side effects, that alters your sense of self, the self you knew for 20, 30, 60 years–the person you might feel is the real you–for the sake of stability.  It is brave to take medicine that might not let you be sad when sadness or grief is appropriate. It is brave to take medicine when you feel it’s mostly not for yourself but for the sake of the people who love you. It’s brave to check in with the psychologists and psychiatrists when it seems unnecessary, expensive and inconvenient. And it’s so brave to sit across from those casually-clothed maybe slightly condescending medical people and tell them the truth.

There are some stories about depression’s effects that are too dark to tell. There are stories of episodes with sibling, with spouse, where the intersection of depression and the living has been an all-out physical war, has commanded monstrous attention, has metaphorically bloodied all in its path, has cost so very much.  Those stories remain untold because it has taken so much effort to overcome them, to move past and forgive those words and deeds. Living it was enough. But you should know that they are there, that there have been moments when depression’s darkness has reigned. There were losses and there are scars.

I absolutely adored the midwife who cared for me with both of my pregnancies.  Especially with my first baby, two states away from my mother, in a new neighborhood, she was an answer to a prayer I might have and certainly should have prayed. She was like a fun, gentle aunt (who happened to need to check my cervix?). Well, maybe not an aunt but one of those aunt-age ladies at church that adore you and your kids and listen to all your problems and commit to praying about them.  She took her time and was never in a rush at appointments. She was a very skilled listener (which is why I often had to wait so long in the waiting room).  She happened to be on duty when I went into labor with my first daughter so she was there with me through that first (posterior, drug-free, thirty-plus hour) labor and delivery. She’s now retired from midwifery and I haven’t seen her in years. Honestly I can’t even remember her name but I remember her gentle, low, gravelly voice and her face and so many things she said. Along with my next door neighbor and my Coffee Break church lady friends, she was in the inner ring of Michigan people I trusted and cherished back then.

I still remember a conversation we had at an annual exam maybe a year after my second daughter was born. I mentioned that my sweet new baby had suffered such horrible colic which sent my husband into a mental tailspin leading to a diagnosis of depression. I’m not sure how we got there so fast at a routine vaginal exam but there we were.  “It is very hard living with a person with a chronic disease, which depression is,” she said with such compassion. What a tremendous relief that was to hear. I’d never heard anyone say that before. I don’t remember what I said in response but those words were so deeply encouraging it has stuck with me as well as anything ever has.

They say that for good or ill women marry men like their fathers.  But I think I was drawn to my husband because subconsciously being around depressed people felt like home. Now don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t the only thing by any means that drew me to him. The Hubs was and is not a burden on the eyes and gets better looking with every passing day. He’s humble and thoughtful and respectful and super smart and probably a better feminist than me.  But I think the depressed part of him was part of the equation.  Had I not been raised by a mother who struggled with depression could we understand each other enough to live in partnership for all our remaining days? Perhaps not.

Sometimes I inadvertently self-check my own mental health status. If at noon on a Thursday I’m still writing in my pajamas does that make me depressed? If I go for a walk and come home to a violently hissing kettle because I forgot I started water for tea and my husband gasps, horrified, and says I could have burned down the house, does that mean I’m mentally unstable? If I spend an inordinate amount of time in the dairy aisle deciding which yogurts to buy does that mean I can’t make decisions and am therefore depressed? If I spring for not just the moderately expensive box of tea but the really expensive box am I a compulsive shopper, am I bipolar-ly disordered? Is it just the power of suggestion? Or anxiety?

I once asked my former physician if maybe I’m depressed. “If you were depressed you would know it,”  she said curtly. She recommended blood work and a vitamin. Still somehow I often sense that sharks are near.  Patiently they bide their time for me, circling ever nearer, waiting for a slip-up, for a scent of blood as day in and day out I tread the waters of love and errands, muse and wages, crock pot dinners and holy communion.

I have wondered what the ethics are of writing about how depression–its indirect pressure on me from three sides–has effected my life.  Is it mine to write about if this chronic disease is not in my mind, not in my body? If I experience it externally is my voice valid? It must be.  If I pull loose the threads of their perspectives and experiences from the remnant fabric of my life there would be a lot of holes.

So the painting is here now, properly hung in the space that called for it. It looks stunning. “It makes the room look bigger,” said the brilliant Hubs, “It’s like a one-way window to the Great Lakes.” I’m so proud of it, so proud of Sister.  This whole thing we did from scratch: the impetus was mine, the ideas ours together. She built the frame, even used a friend’s saw to cut scrap wood triangular supports for the corners. She stretched and gessoed the canvas herself and worked on the painting so diligently in her garage for a year. Periodically she’d text me photos of the progress, her cat a black blur in the shot, a frame of reference for size.  I told her initially I was thinking of something like a Rothko in blue as a nod to the Great Lakes. Where it ended up is even better. The realistic sky but the geometric water, the gold leaf sails somewhat bridging the gap–only a person  who knows me, who gets me the way only a sister does could make a painting I like this much.

It’s all possible because she puts forth great effort to keep her mind un-cloistered, balanced. Because of this she could step outside of herself enough to think about what I would want, not just what she wanted to express or wanted me to receive. This is generosity and graciousness of heart. This is giving.

The painting was packed and shipped courteously and properly by her friends who make and ship their chiropractic tables all over the world. When I called to let Sister know that the painting had arrived via UPS just when she said it would I mentioned how touched I was that her friends would go to the effort of shipping the painting for her, for me–a complete stranger*. “That’s just how it works up here, ya know? You do shit for people and they do shit for you.” And by her tone I knew it was coming from the comfy couch in the living room of her self.  It was coming from a nestled-in sense of place she’s partly carved out but partly stumbled into up there in Wisconsin alongside her incredible husband and cats. It was coming from a sense of belonging, of living well in that unglaciated, rolling green pasture land of a region called Driftless.

*They had Sister forward a message to me that cautioned me to be careful when cutting the packing tape so as not to cut the canvas underneath it.  Their reverence was delightful and infectious. You better believe I sawed gingerly through those seams with nothin’ but a butter knife.





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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 familial 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 urban 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.  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 fruit, 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 this dripping down chin toward work shoes. Wrist watch, you are so unfair. 

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“For God wishes to be seen, and he wishes to be sought, and he wishes to be expected, and he wishes to be trusted.” –Julian of Norwich

“Do stones feel? Do they love their life? Or does their patience drown out everything?”  –Mary Oliver

It is at once with embarrassment and pride that to you I introduce my pet rock, a large-ish petoskey stone. I like to think of it as a rare and very special find. A few years ago the Hubs and I camped at Fisherman’s Island State Park on a lakefront site in a tent-pole-warping wind storm.  The upside was that in the morning the shore had been all disturbed and new rocks had washed up. I found petoskey stone after petoskey stone, charlevoix stone after charlevoix stone.  I found so many beauties so easily it seemed they were actually finding me. The smaller or less desirable ones I was throwing back.  For a geology nerd it was unexpectedly the camping experience of a lifetime.

My favorite, my pet, is a large slightly concave triangular shaped one that fits comfortably in the palm of my hand. I only know it’s a petoskey stone because some of the grit and grime and the outside has been scraped away, presumably against other rocks. Without that you’d never know it was a fossil.

When I got it home I rubbed its surface with sand paper to see if I could uncover more of it.  Indeed I could with a lot of careful sanding.  I can’t tell you how rewarding it is to be uncovering an ancient treasure like this, like an archeologist of the prehistoric.

That first winter with my rock I spent a ridiculous amount of January hours sanding sanding sanding away in the basement because I just wanted to see what was under the next edge, see what that next hexagonal cell looked like, polish my way to better revelation of, redemption of, this Devonian Era lake debris.

It is amazing to hold a rock knowing it was once a living thing over 400 million years ago and to see these individual hexagonal pockets where life has turned to stone, has been preserved. Once this was alive in a shallow sea and now it sits on my garage shelf above tennis rackets and beside a box of liquid ant bait.  That one can find, hold and own something so very old is truly wondrous.

At this point I think about working on the rock a few times a year and then don’t do anything with it at all. I walk past it going from the car to the house without noticing it.  Next time we go camping I’ll sit by the fire and work on it, I say, but don’t remember to bring it.  Maybe when I’m old I’ll sand the stone while I porch-sit on summer mornings.

I’m not afraid to talk about glaciation or ice ages or about when Michigan was once a warm shallow sea. God is big enough for all of those chapters.  Learn a little about rock or fossil formation and you’re soon learning about a very old planet.  This doesn’t alarm me. Instead it makes me wonder more about God’s creative process, about God as artist.  When I create I take my time and enjoy every stage and state of the art’s form at each point in the process.  In fact, time has a way of falling to the background because I’m so engrossed in the enjoyable craft.  I imagine we get this tendency from our Heavenly Father.  If you were God wouldn’t you want to go slow and enjoy every phase of creation? Wouldn’t you watch every animal–the way we watch babies we’ve made–just sitting there so pleased to watch what the created do?  Remember that before we showed up it was all perfect, just as he wanted it to be.

I think a lot of Christians like to believe that the earth is young because it’s comfortable to have answers and it gets us off the hook.  It makes it seem like less of a big deal that God made this beautiful world and then we crashed the party.  If the world is old, if God took that much more time, if he put that much more relational investment in the plants and animals and the symphony of their incredibly complex ecosystems it makes us feel more guilty about spoiling it.  An old world highlights our greed and ravage of the planet.  A young world makes it seem like it’s more about us and that God built the world for us, rather than that God made each and every cell, every atomic particle for his own good and perfect pleasure.

No matter how much time has passed since then, God knew me when that coral was alive.  He knows the journey of that fossil.  He knows everything that happened to it and all the conditions it withstood from warm sea to glacial ice and melt to falling to the bottom of a freshwater inland sea. All that time he knew that one day I would pluck it from the great polluted puddle of Lake Michigan and turn it in my hand. He knew I would be deeply awed by him and his ways that have never been and never will be our ways.  If only a stone could speak.

One day I hope to finish working on the petoskey stone.  If I get it sanded and polished all the way around it would be quite a specimen.  Sometimes while I sand it I imagine someone wants it for a museum.  I dream that instead of pointless dusty tedium I’m doing very important saving work important to unborn generations.

I don’t believe that it’s in God’s nature to drop red herrings, to put things in the wrong places to test us or throw us off the trail of finding him. I believe he wants to be found in creation’s past and present and in all things.  He doesn’t want us to be afraid when we find remnants of his splendorous works. He doesn’t want us to try to justify our preconceived ideas of him, to be caught up in “rightness” or complete accuracy but to look for him in the evidence and ultimately to stand amazed.




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