The Window Porch

The best part of our house—the one we’re renting for 2 years, because we don’t know what we’re doing with our lives right now—is the sunporch. Around here, they call it a 3-season porch. I’ve stretched it into a 3.5-season porch with a heavy-duty space heater, blankets, and fingerless gloves I knitted myself (so proud!). 

The porch is made of windows, and the windows are surrounded by pine trees. If you look up our address on Google street view, all you see is pines. It’s difficult for visitors, but it’s a tiny woodland hideout for us. Hummingbirds zip around at eye level, tucking into the crevices of the branches with speed and style. Squirrels race through the yard with alertness as though a fox was on the hunt. 

The inner wall of the porch is mostly windows as well. A medium window provides light to the staircase inside. When the bathroom is in use, I do my makeup by the light of that window, in the enormous mirror hanging on the stairway wall. The natural light makes me see myself differently than in the bathroom vanity lights. Daylight is much more telling than lightbulbs, but it points out its observations graciously, without criticism.

The front door, leading to the porch, has a large window cut out of the top half. This is exactly the door I would’ve picked out if I was the one doing the choosing, some 100 years ago. It says to the world, “Do come in. It’s all windows here. Nothing to hide.” 

The remaining half of the interior side of the porch is also made of windows, looking into the living room. This is one of its best features, as I can keep an eye on the kids while I’m working at my desk, which sits facing the pine trees. All I have to do is swivel around to see the kids jumping on the couch or watching videos on their iPads. 

I’m almost always on the porch between the hours of 1 and 4pm, when the kids are in “resting time” (a big kid version of naptime) followed by “screen time.” My husband will come out to say hello, usually around 3 or 3:30. He’s starting to wind down his work for the day and needs to stretch his legs. He will stand with a wide stance looking at the pines, vaguely nodding his head. With an air of “I don’t expect any big news,” he’ll ask, “How are things going out here?” I rarely have big news to share, so I almost always say, “Just fine. Working on _____. How are things for you?” Sometimes I’ll get up and hug him. His hugs are tight and strong and I squeeze hard in hopes that he will feel as secure and alive as his hugs make me feel. 

Sometimes, one of the kids will look up from the iPad on the other side of the window. They still, after more than a year living here, think it’s something really special to look at us through a window. Even during my morning walks, if they happen to be looking outside when I come home, they will wave frantically and I can hear a muffled, “Mommy! Mommy! Over here!” And it’s like Christmas when I look up and wave. For kids, repetition doesn’t much diminish the joy of a thing. 

Yesterday, it was my middle child looking like Christmas at his dad and me through the window on the porch. His smile was as big as he could make it, which is very wide for his little face. His front teeth are permanent, but most of the rest are still baby teeth. So the front teeth are prominent and not paired evenly yet. His smile and laughter are so easy for him, consuming his whole body, which wiggles and shines with glee, just for looking at his parents through a window. 

He holds not a drop of self-questioning, not a hint of hiding or composing himself. That term, to “compose” oneself is hideous. The verb should be reserved for musicians, artists, and poets, creating something new and honest. When people do it to themselves, it’s more like painting a muraled wall white.

The light from the window clarifies every line, every hue in my child’s face. It displays the candor of which I am jealous. In my son, I see a simplicity that is not the absence of complexity but the freedom from checking himself, managing himself, or behaving himself. He simply lives. He does not look into a mental mirror when smiling at me like that. He doesn’t wonder if his hair is out of place or consider for a second whether I’m noticing his teeth out of alignment. He does not consider whether I will enjoy his full-faced, unmitigated, for-no-reason smile. A child’s freedom comes from looking through windows more than into mirrors. 

[Addendum: I just had a Jumanji moment. I wrote this yesterday morning and came back to edit it this morning. When describing the pines that frame the sunporch windows, yesterday’s version only told about the hummingbirds. Today I added squirrels fleeing imaginary foxes, because the squirrels are really necessary to round out the picture. And I was teasing them by saying they run around like a fox is chasing them, pointing out their paranoia. We live in a tight little suburb, and one side of the sunporch, I can reach out and touch my neighbor’s fence. I’ve not seen any wildlife in our neighborhood bigger than a couple of early morning skunks. Definitely no foxes.

However, this morning, moments after I wrote the line about the paranoid squirrels, a fox came galloping through my yard. It was large and orange and had no place to go in our narrow slice of land but right next to my window. 

Now I must read through a fourth time to make sure there are no references to ____. Better not risk writing it out.]

The Prominence of the End

Photo by Werner Du plessis on Unsplash

The proper place for what is to be made most prominent is the end.

The Elements of Style, William Strunk

In other words, what comes at the end will seem most important. This rings true: a man’s last words, a poem’s last line, the closing scene of a movie or play. The curtain is lowered, a silent moment waits, and then, if all goes well, an uproarious applause. The end stays with us.

Most parents have learned this. “Take out the trash, wash your hands, and after you’ve done those things, come to the table for dinner.” With eager obedience, the child rushes to the dining room for food. Next time, it’ll be, “Before you come to the table for dinner, wash your hands. And before you wash your hands, take out the trash.” 

I think this attention to what comes at the end is hardwired into us. I think it’s a God-given penchant for valuing the conclusion, because most significant of all is what comes at the end of time. 

The New Testament writers constantly, patiently recall our attention to the promise of what’s coming. 

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

2 Corinthians 4:16–18

I imagine the Bible authors biting their fists at how quickly our minds meander, wandering away from that which holds substance. 

We are as distractible as my e-learning seven-year-old. He is expected to watch only the 6-minute YouTube video on fractions and definitely ignore the sidebar of videos about farting pirates and epic skateboarding fails. Since this is a constant issue, I sit next to him for the duration of his e-learning sessions and with Herculean restraint, calmly say, “Okay, son, time to go back to the assignment,” fifty-seven times per hour. 

Everyone understands this problem of attention with a 7-year-old learning fractions on YouTube. And we know that social media, Netflix, and the host of other screen-based circuses daily absorb our thoughts. Even text messages can turn our eyes from something so obviously deserving of our focus as driving. 

What matters most is in the future. But the ancient, the extinct, the mysteries of the past fascinate us. In Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, Ransom finds himself, an ordinary college professor, face to face with the archangel of Mars (it’s a wild story). After some dialogue about the history of Mars and the spiritual trajectory of the cosmos, Ransom turns with awe to a nearby rock. A Martian artist has etched an episode of cosmic history into the rock’s side, and Ransom is drawn to the idea that this very rock was present when the event unfolded eons ago. With parental restraint, the archangel redirects Ransom. “You do reverence to nothings and pass by what is really great.”   

Our wonder at ancient things, made holy by their distance from us, is justified. We have much to learn. We’re proud of ourselves when we devise new ways to learn. These lessons, however, are meant to train us for the life to come. They are a means to an end. 

Probably most often, the past consumes us in the form of regrets and/or nostalgia. Both are forms of judgment on the past and make it difficult for us to learn its wisdom. 

As for the present, it is, of course, necessary and real. Just because what comes at the end is most important doesn’t mean that the present has no significance. God delights in daily moments of surprise (as it turns out, farting pirates are hilarious). God energizes the small faithfulness of doing the dishes for the fourth time today. God grieves even more than us for the current anguish of humankind, the tangle of selfishness and neediness that we’ve got ourselves into. These moments matter. 

The intensity of today’s moments and the wonder of ancient yesterday become distractions only when they become bigger to us than the promises ahead. 

The Bible concludes with a herald of newness: 

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 

‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” 

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” 

Revelation 21:3–5

As we argue about what’s most important right now—the economy vs. the death count, e-learning vs. parents’ sanity, freedom vs. restraint—let’s keep the end in mind. The light from the past is dim but beautiful. The light in the present is better when it’s not LED. The light of our future with God is brighter than the sun, but our eyes were made for taking it in. The longer we look, the better we see. 

Recent Works

Hello QuickReads friends! It’s been almost a month since I’ve posted, so I wanted to check in. Having the kids home all day every day has made it interesting to work in writing time!

I now have a good routine going. I get up a couple hours before the kids. I have an hour to drink my coffee, plan for the day, and spend time in the Word. Then I have an hour for writing. My mind is clear and the house is quiet!

I’ve been (very slowly) working through a book my brother gave me called They Say, I Say. It’s geared toward students writing college essays, but it’s been helpful and challenging. I’ve started an essay to practice some of the concepts.

Hopefully I’ll be churning out more blog posts as I have a dedicated writing time. Meanwhile, I thought I’d share some of the articles I’ve written recently for Bible Study Tools.

All the best to you and your families!

Allie

All Your Waves and Breakers

It used to be that when the psalm writer said, all your waves and breakers crash over me, I felt I was in the depths with him. I felt not necessarily low emotionally but that I was in over my head with God.

Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls. This was a drawing under, quite like the pull of ocean waves around my calves. I could steady myself and take a step back, or I could not. I could let the power pull me in. Watching from the outside, it may seem like a nonevent. But within, I was locked into focus with the voice and presence of the Almighty.

A trip to the seaside leaves you sun-drenched and so sandy you take the beach with you for days. Next spring, when you pull out the flattened beach ball, some of last summer’s sand sprinkles your toes, who fondly remember the salty grit and how easily they were buried when the waves rolled around them.

That tangible, textured memory is how I remember worshiping you, God, and listening to you. I remember how it felt to be swept into communion with you. To know you had spoken and were present, to dwell in waters both dangerous and splendid. With you, it’s radiance and life. With you, it is constant change.

Do I long for that now? These days, I am at the spiritual equivalent of a resort swimming pool. There is no running, no sand, no real danger for an adult who knows how to swim. On the plus side, there are bathrooms, lounge chairs, clean water, and no jellyfish. This pool has straight lines, careful steps and ladders, and tan teenagers with whistles to keep everybody in order.

Do I miss the sound of waves, the smell of wet salt, the hot walk over desert sand to reach the shore? Do I miss the unknown, stronger-than-all depths?

I would have to travel from where I am now to experience you as an ocean again. I suspect that if I ventured out like an hiker in search of a waterfall, I would find you. Can I not now seek you out?

You have said, "Seek my face."  
My heart says to you,  
"Your face, Lord, do I seek."  
Hide not your face from me.  

You spoke first. If I answer, it’s because you called. I think you’re calling me again, but it’s distant, like the sound of ocean waves from a roadway.

When I was a missionary, many ocean moments were built into my life, even weekly. Our church and ministry sought to bring to the forefront that connectedness and sense of power and mystery.

Now that I’m in a different church culture and no longer in ministry, those moments are farther out of reach. My new church reveres God, thinks of him deeply, and serves him wholeheartedly. The potency of God’s goodness permeates our regular interactions.

There are times when people respond to God emotionally, but it’s very controlled, like an English funeral. One dabs one’s eyes with a tissue and and neatens one’s makeup before making eye contact with others. It’s far removed from the wailing of a deep South black church funeral, where emotions are honored and their weight is shared.

I was a bridesmaid in my sister-in-law’s wedding. She is a white midwestern intellectual and she married an upper class Zimbabwean. During the wedding, from my precarious place on the steps, I watched the groom’s mother break into a joy-dance. Aptly, she is named Joy. She let out a little whoop and jigged around the front, even though the music was not very vigorous. A few black hands clapped along in encouragement.

It was evident to me that she chose her moment to dance. She was not so overcome with happiness that she could not constrain herself. She stood out—literally and culturally—because she brought her own ways into the ceremony. She was slightly and charmingly defiant of the order and posh that pervades a white American wedding.

So it is with people in my new church who raise their hands or pray in the corner for longer than the allotted time. There is love and acceptance for those exceptions to the norm, but they must make their own way.

This new church culture has a different sense of the costliness of worship. The church life I’m used to is marked by all-night prayer meetings, a sense of anguish and languish in worship, and sometimes sweaty, jubilant dancing. It’s often enjoyable, but it is rarely comfortable. Other expressions of costliness in worship might be going to a weekend event to seek God or potentially embarrassing oneself by leading out in spontaneous prayer. There, the expense was in risk and fervor.

My new church knows costly worship, but they use different currency. They spend actual cash on beauty and excellence in worship. They also give to the needy and take care of each other. Still another costliness is in giving things up for Lent. These are measured, well-thought-out sacrifices of comfort, pleasure, and normalcy.

I’ve always struggled with Lent. We’ve tried to participate for a few years as my husband has become more “liturgical.” To me, Lent feels like Old Testament sacrifice. A prescribed ritual to make a statement; an untested trust that the mystery is real; a quietness of expectation—a sowing of seed.

There are Old Testament stories of costly worship that resonate more with me. Hannah weeping at the altar for a baby; Jacob wrestling with God and walking away with a broken hip; and Moses’ face aglow with holy bush fire.

The Old Testament is replete with both ritual and drama. Ritual sustains and reminds and keeps things in order. Drama directs and surprises and fuels the engine of faith. In a similar way, swimming laps in the pool at the YMCA means I can jump in the waves when I make it to the ocean.

Five years of singing

On March 9, I looked in the mirror and saw his eyes looking back at me.  I’d never noticed before how much my eyes are like his. It hurt me to see his eyes looking back at me and know they’re only mine.  His eyes won’t see me anymore. A girl loves for her dad to see her. He saw each of my children. But not two of my nephews.  

Why does the pressure still rise from my throat to my ears and spill out these strange eyes that sometimes feel more his than mine?  It’s been five years. But these five years, he could’ve been part of my life. I needed him when our house caught fire and we had to rebuild the whole thing.  I needed him to know that I would do what was best. It wasn’t that he had all these important words of advice all the time. It was that he really did think we were going to make the best choices.  And when we made bad choices as teenagers, the look of surprised betrayal clouded his sky-colored eyes and he furrowed his brow.  

I need him to trust me with the choices we’ve recently made to change our career.  It’s a risky move, full of sacrifice and emotional turmoil, but also I know he would understand, and he wouldn’t question it.  Being dead, he can’t trust me anymore. Too many times I earned his distrust but he gave it away. He turned in his proof of being right all the time.  He walked away empty-handed, again expecting the best from me.  

I really don’t think he expected anything unreasonable.  But I have so wanted to surprise him with good. Possibly I want to deserve his expectations.  

The way I’m describing him, it sounds like he was an idealist.  And I guess he was an idealist in the sense that he was driven by ideals.  But he was painstakingly pragmatic. He believed in eternity, and he staked all his pains on practically influencing that reality.  He believed in eternity like he believed in old age. Though we can’t see it yet, it’s coming. He believed in eternity like he believed in a lake we were visiting for the first time.  Having mapped it out and planned our trip with airtight detail, there was no doubt that the mass of blue on the map was going to equate to a peaceful body of water in real life. My childhood was charted with the confidence that he wouldn’t mess up something important like that.

For a man so set on eternity, watching him die was impossible.  It seemed not possible. Eyes that had looked into mine for my entire existence now had no seeing behind them.  Where is he? How could he not be in there? Can he see me now, from somewhere else? 

He was awake on Saturday afternoon, March 7.  My sister and I sang to him – I don’t even remember what we sang.  Maybe “How Great Thou Art.” Why, God, did we not sing longer? Because we both had small children who couldn’t visit the Cardiac ICU, and they were too rowdy to hang out in the waiting room for long.  Anyway, as we sang, he turned his eyes to look at mine. A few silent millimeters of movement and my heart filled with the communication of his love. He saw me for the last time that day.  

The next morning was Sunday—both actually and symbolically it was a Sunday—March 8.  I came to see him again on my own. I had another song that I wanted to share with him.  Why is singing such a natural part of sending someone into the next life? I think it might be because there’s singing in heaven.  It helps people get ready.  

I killed a fish once because I dumped it into water that was too warm.  I thought he would like it, since he was a tropical fish, a beta. And for a moment, he seemed to enjoy it, swimming around fast, very fast, so very fast until he shivered and stopped and floated to the surface, tail first.  So far, I haven’t shaken the feeling that I am a terrible pet owner and will probably kill anything we get. I have also killed a lot of house plants. The point about the fish is that I learned—too late—that you have to change the temperature of their water very gradually.  You’re supposed to somehow get them to swim into a little bag that you seal very tight and then you sit the bag in the water you want them to get used to. I haven’t yet tried this method for myself. But I sang to my dad when he was dying and it felt like getting him used to something new.  

While I sang that song, my father’s eyes were closed, but it was a song he knew and a few tears rolled down the creases of where he laughed the most.  My God, how I long to hear him laugh. I used to be really sassy at the dinner table. He would come home from work quiet and sometimes a little sullen. But I wanted to hear him laugh, so as everyone was chatting, I would throw in these punchy lines.  He would laugh with surprise that I was using grown-up humor. Certainly not vulgar humor. That would’ve brought on the furrowed brow of disapproval (my siblings and I called it the “badger look.”) I wish I could think now of an example of things that would make him laugh.  It never came to me ahead of time. It was the surprise and slight daring that caught him off-guard and made him laugh, sometimes loud, sometimes with relief at all the pent up seriousness of his world.  

That last morning, I sang to him, “My Jesus, I Love Thee,” and I focused on getting the words right.  I had memorized it by singing it to my infant daughter. That sounds really sweet, but it was when she was fussing and wouldn’t go to sleep that I ended up singing that hymn.  If she went to sleep easily, I would only sing “Jesus Loves Me” and maybe “There’s Just Something About That Name.” But if she was really giving me a hard time, we’d get to “My Jesus, I Love Thee,” which has four verses, and by the time my dad was dying, she was two months old.  We’d gotten to “My Jesus, I Love Thee” lots of times by then. So I knew the words, but I wanted to get it right. And I was really focusing on that, until the tears came out of his eyes. I looked up at the nurse attending him—she was always doing something with the machines or tubes or blankets.  I looked up at her to share the joy that my dad could hear me singing, even though he appeared to be unconscious. And she, the nurse, was dripping with tears all down her face while she worked on the machines.  

By then I’d gotten to the third verse, which I sang with a wobbly voice and my own eyes crying, blinking to see my dad this last time.  “I’ll love thee in life, I will love thee in death, and praise thee as long as thou lendest me breath, and sing when the death dew lies cold on my brow, if ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ‘tis now.” 

I don’t care that it’s a pitiful scene, I hold onto it.  That moment was a gift to me, and I hope to him too. I hope it helped him get ready to sing.  His singing is the other thing that I need him for. He and I sang together in church once. In front of everybody, just him and me.  We sang, “I’d Rather Have Jesus.” And I would rather have Jesus. I truly would. But I would also like to have my dad. 

Practicing

A friend gave me a writing book called The Elements of Eloquence, by Mark Forsyth. I imagined it’d be about as fun as reading a thesaurus. But it turns out that Forsyth knows how to have a good time, even with what could be a mundane subject. He winsomely teaches the figures of rhetoric, which I didn’t know were a thing. And he gives examples regularly from the Bible and Shakespeare. Thus I’ve found poetry the most natural form for these practicing these ideas.

I hesitate to share these poems here, because they are so different from what I would expect from me. But if we wait till I have another standard blog post to share, we may be waiting for quite a while. Also, I’m terrible with titles, so if anyone wants to give suggestions for numbers 1, 2, or 3, I’m all ears! Here we go:

1.
Little girls are beauty of unmade making;
Grown-up girls are beauty painted over;
And women...women can go either way.
2.
This boy is a forest; his brother is a garden.
I will not still the forest.
I will not toughen the garden.
I will not farm over these boys.
3. 
From back of me, I see you 
Raiding the bin of towels
To make an indoor beach party

From downstairs, I see you
Deep in concentration
Playing at your desk with Legos

From the side yard, I see you
Slipping through the front gate
To scooter down the sidewalk

From the garden, I seem to see you
Grinning with pride
To be out in the glad world

Now my ears see you—you've gone too far
My eyes find you and listen
There's your form on the grass far away
Folded over one knee, frowning over broken skin
You're wishing for me to come 
Waiting for me to come see you

Snapshot

She leaves in her wake a flutter of construction paper fragments, like a flower girl. Mangled tape sticks to her shoe as she holds up a glue bottle for me to unclog. A paper crown pushes stray hair into her eyes. With a leap, she declares she’s going to make a crown for Daddy and give it to him when he comes home. For her, sequins are everyday wear and light-up shoes go with everything. Though she insatiably delights in all things princess, she is no prim and priss, better-than-thou member of the royal class. Her crown is of her own making, and if you come here often, you’ll get one too.