REFLECTIONS

So, What About Santa Claus?

My husband and his sister JoBeth, circa 1950

((I’m so glad you asked.))

People are putting up Christmas trees early this year as we are all desperate for familiar anchors of joy and happiness in days gone by. We long for the comfort of traditions, the sights and sounds of the season, and what could be a more common sight than Santa Claus? Except this year there are none…. sigh.

Weaving together the wonder of Christmas involves one part birth of our Savior and one part life of a saint. The real-life character in question is a real-life saint–Nicholas, to be exact. It would be easy to blame our culture and their cashing in, literally, on the character of Santa Claus, but let’s not be so hasty. You might be surprised to learn the real story of St. Nick.

NICHOLAS WAS A REAL SWELL GUY

St. Nicholas of Myra, from a village in modern Turkey. The church calendar recognizes his generous life with the feast day of St. Nicholas on December 6. And no wonder; He was a generous man as well as a champion of the poor, employing people to make clothing for the needy and distributing food to the hungry. One of the best-known stories about him provides a toehold on the origin of Christmas stockings. (Sorry.)

Nicholas had a friend, a wealthy shipping merchant, who lost all of his ships and their cargo during a violent storm. The man was devastated because he had three daughters of marrying age and with this loss went any chance of contributing wealth to their dowries. Nicholas wanted to help. He had the resources, but he knew his friend would hesitate to take charity. Nicholas came up with a plan; after dark one night, he dropped a bag of gold coins through the open window of the eldest daughter’s room. Some of the coins fell into a stocking that had been hung out to dry. His generous act became the tradition we have hundreds of years later of hanging those stockings “by the chimney with care.”

If your family celebrates the birth of Jesus as the central focus of Christmas, bringing Santa into the mix can be sticky business. Some families deal with that in a stellar way. One family I know observes the church feast day of St. Nicholas as the day they open their family stockings. You may consider doing this, using it not only as an opportunity to tell your children about the real St. Nick but also to spread out the bounty of Christmas morning to more than a single day.

When I posed the Santa question on social media a couple of Christmases ago, my friend Marcie responded, “We do full-out Santa. Make lists, leave the fireplace doors open so he can get in the house, cookies and milk, carrots for the reindeer. The biggest and best present is left until Christmas Eve and it’s from Santa. Childhood is so fleeting, I’m going to eke out every bit of magic I can before my kids are too old to believe anymore.”

“Christmas,” she continued, “is absolutely the day we celebrate Jesus and his birthday. My kids have never questioned why Santa exists on Jesus’ birthday. It’s two completely separate things in their minds.”

The Day I Cleaned the Front of My Fridge & Found the Heart of Advent

The arrival of Advent marks the beginning of the church year, anchored  on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. In the year of our Lord 2020, the date is November 29th. Side note–New this year for 2020 FREE PRINTABLE cards for each Sunday of Advent. Just click HERE.

The word ‘advent’ is from the Latin word ‘veni’–adventus–coming. The cornerstone of the Advent season is the idea of making room for God to come.  It is a time of waiting, as Mary did, with the impossible promise that a Saviour would be born, the miracle of light coming to a dark world.

What does that have to do with refrigerators? Let me share.

Several Novembers ago we ordered new kitchen appliances. Everything started when the microwave died. This led to a conversation about the refrigerator which had been humming its way loudly to a definite motor-y end. We dug out the paperwork and discovered it was 17 years old.

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Here’s a photo of our kitchen on Thanksgiving 2000, one year after we got it, all brand spanking new. That’s my daughter Leah the chef basting the turkey. (And no, I will not talk about the psychedelic flooring.)

After a thorough appliance reconnoiter, husband and I decided to join the Black Friday crowds and head to Home Depot to shop the sales. Four hours later, we had ordered for the first time in our 35 plus years of being married, a matching fridge, dishwasher, microwave and range.  In stainless steel. We are so de rigueur.

Maybe my dear readers are already aware of what such a purchase entails, but I don’t think we considered exactly how arduous ‘out with the old, in with the new’ would be under such circumstances.   The ensuing chores involved five hours of cleaning of stove and frig–outsides only–and cleaning of the floors underneath. I was appalled at the debris and gunk on the sides of our range. I blame 16 years of coffee prep. And under the frig? I will also not talk about that.

I had been notified via my daughter in our Thanksgiving conversations a few nights’ previous that magnets do not stick to stainless steel. Oh. I did not know that.  Well, there go the grandkids’ photos and artwork. There go my magnets from Laguna Beach and Yosemite, my favorite of Lucy and Ethel at the chocolate factory, Scripture cards, quotes I liked.  A veritable bulletin board available 24/7, reminding me constantly of All the Things.

People, places, Bible verses, photographs. Football schedules, equivalent baking measures, an encyclopedia of input and information.  It would all have to go.

So, empty box in hand, I swept the surface clean and windexed it to its glorious, brand-new, former self.

My words are a paltry representation of the change that came over me after that clean sweep. Every time I walked into the kitchen I literally breathed a peaceful sigh. Husband and I remarked many times throughout the next day at how pleased we were with the empty space, that it seemed quieter in the kitchen because all the noise on the fridge was gone.

Hearts on Pilgrimage-Poems & Prayers-My Upcoming Book

Dearest Readers, thank you so very much for your blessed response to  launching my new book into the world. January will be here before we know it; until then, we will walk out all the days God gives us one at a time. They are truly in His hands. Below you will find the Preface to give you an idea what’s in store in the pages of Hearts on Pilgrimage. If you’d like to join the Launch Team, the application is HERE.** 

The Path

When I said my initial yes to Jesus over 40 years ago, I found poet Luci Shaw’s first book, Listen to the Green and was overcome with the perhapses and possibilities of being a poet. I am adept at saying way more than is needed to communicate a point. What would happen, I wondered, if I intentionally pared down my words to say more with less? Listen to the Green was the inspiration and beginning of my journey into poetry.

I managed to scribble random lines, gathering thoughts in the margins of my days between chasing children and teaching school. Most of it was very bad “poetry,” but it was a start. As I chose to grow and learn, I invested in an informal education, “the school of 3,000 books,” as poet Barbara Crooker would say. The volume you now hold in your hands is the fruit of that learning, a culmination of inspiration and encouragement from poets I’ve had the pleasure of reading and learning from along the way– Laurie Klein, Scott Cairns, Malcolm Guite, Luci Shaw and many others.

The Process

When I began the draft of Hearts on Pilgrimage it was early Spring 2020.  I had been approached by a friend about placing my poems in her care for their possible publication. After a time of waiting and listening, the work landed back in my lap while our collective lives were put on permanent pause by the entry of a disruptive and devastating virus. Life in the time of corona has wreaked havoc on life as we know it. Knew it. But if we are listening, there are lessons still to learn about what we have lost.

I will never look at Spring the same way again, but I am hopeful. And that is the purpose of Spring–God’s eternal message that new life will come from what seems lifeless and gone. Winter’s barrenness provides a Creation backdrop that speaks to God’s presence in the middle of life when everything has been stripped away, and no year illustrates that more than this one.

I’m Writing Another Book! Help Me Tell the World?

First of all, hello to new subscribers and welcome! I’m glad you’re here.

By now you all know I write a bit of poetry…. much of it has been published here on my website but I have had the honor of seeing my work in print and in other places here on the web over the years I’ve been writing.

Have you ever noticed when you have a conversation about poetry, the usual response is, “I just don’t get poetry,” as if there was some secret, codified way that words arranged themselves and only an initiated, select group of people can really understand it. Hence, not many folks read poetry.

I’m here to change that with my new book, “Hearts on Pilgrimage.”

In the beginning of this year I started gathering poems into a manuscript with the goal of self-publishing them. After I had my first draft ready, I sent the collection off to an Editor. Many, many months later….thanks to covid-19 delays and whatnot, I am now on to second edits and will be sending her back my revisions soon. The Preface is practically perfect, I’ve chosen a cover from a lovely watercolor by Laura Winslow(above) and the next step is to reach out to a book designer and write The Acknowledgments.

A Little About the Poems (from The Preface)

The title “Hearts on Pilgrimage” came from a poem by George Herbert  and this passage, which had been rolling around in my head for many years. The poems sort of organized themselves around the theme of a journey through the seasons of the year, much like our lives. I was thrilled to see there was a guiding framework that echoed throughout the work. Beginning with Winter and moving through Spring into Summer and Fall, the book reflects the circle of seasons in the church calendar as well.

The poems are mostly pastoral in nature and I write a good deal about nature, birds, my garden, the way light lands on my kitchen counter or the quiet mornings of coffee in the kitchen. I also deal with the difficulties of death and loss through the lens of God’s faithfulness and presence. It’s important to pay attention to beauty, notice the sky and birds and the trees, the reflection in a puddle, the sound of water–all the ways that God speaks to us without words.

As to form, most of the poems in “Hearts on Pilgrimage” are free verse, but I also play with rhyme and meter a bit, which was a delight to try. George MacDonald’s offerings in Diary of an Old Soul provide inspiration for the cycle of five seven-line poems included. There are also a few sonnets, written in a very loose form, patterning my attempts after others whose work I admire. Initially intimidated by the constraints of the pattern, I was surprised at the freedom provided in writing within prescribed boundaries.

Readers can peruse the work through the year as it is written, or match it to the season they find themselves in currently (literal or figurative.) My prayer for the book is not only that people learn to fall in love with poetry for the first time, but also that they would find an echo of our Creator’s voice as they journey on their own path.

Publishing a book of poetry in this current decade, noticing life around us and pointing out the good, true and beautiful seems a fruitless endeavor in the midst of challenges and heartache. But we will always have trouble and sorrow with us. While we live in a fallen world, we live with a risen Savior; the invisible Kingdom of God is there for the seeing. All we need be aware of is His presence and the beauty around us in every season.

Susan Cowger-Slender Warble, Poetry

_The major problem with letting others define you is that it borders on idolatry. Your concern to please others dampens your desire to please Me, your Creator._ -Jesus Calling Sarah

 

 

 

 

 

 

Susan Cowger confesses she was the ‘black sheep’ in the family, not quite fitting into the mold of family vocations–nurses, pharmacists, sensible people. Instead, her first language was art, a calling that led to a BA in Fine Art (1977) from Montana State University and subsequent MFA in Poetry with a secondary emphasis in Art from Eastern Washington University in 1997.

Susan is a sculptor, visual artist (oils and watercolor) and a writer. What made her take the leap from two dimensional and three-dimensional work to words?

“Art is often abstract. I wanted to help people enter into the art, so I started writing little poems. It seemed to help,” she said.

Susan later founded Rock and Sling Press and Journal in 2004, a well-received publication in the world of faith writing. Editor and fellow poet Laurie Klein joined the masthead for many years and partnered with Susan in its mission. Rock and Sling’s operations were passed to Whitworth University in Spokane WA in 2010.

Susan has continued her creative expressions in the paths of writing, sculpting and painting and recently published Slender Warble, a collection of poems from Wipf & Stock’s Poeima Series.

The book’s back cover blurb explains the title.

“Within the bewildering paradox of suffering and beauty, we often miss the Invisible One. Never quite what you’d imagine, the nudge of his Presence can be mind-bending. More often, the Almighty gives no more than a slender warble. This collection is about finding the presence of God in spite of and because of the trappings that make us most human.”

The trajectory of the work covers four parts of Cowger’s own faith journey, beautifully summed up in the opening poem here. The arc of her writing includes sections in the book: In the Tunnel has poems that show how one begins to listen for God. Sections Between Two Hands, Is That You? and A Voice Clears, record the way one comes to faith, not in an instant but in a lifetime of awakenings.

Each section of the book begins with a “Weather Report” as she calls it, including the date and time of day, whether it’s early morning or dusk. They also set the tone for each section and frame the poems.

The theme of water weaves through the poems, looming as a powerful, pummeling force in a piece about nearly drowning.  Drink and thirst, floating and sinking, as well as the ocean feature frequently; water appears also as “silent drops of dew.”

Cowger’s signature style is punctuation-less, a remarkable feat for an editor and writer. When I asked her about the odd line breaks and spaces instead of periods or commas, she remarked, “It was intentional. I hope to redeem the current ways of communicating. We speak too fast, write in abbreviations, listen only half-heartedly.”

“My poems force the reader to slow down, read with care, pause at the end of each line and breathe. One must pay attention.”

“Light in the Woods” Susan Cowger

Cowger continues to pay attention in her studio in Eastern Washington and shares her art work and poetry online via her beautiful, new website. The tagline? “Art and Poetry are mirrors to see what you love.”

I hope you’ll take a moment to visit, view her work and more importantly, open the door to the possibility of poetry and listen for God’s “slender warble” in your life.

You can find Susan’s book HERE.

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To read more of my poetry book reviews and interviews, click HERE

No Anchor But Jesus {{#backtochurch}}

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Crocosmia in my front garden

“Where do people put such things when they live by Plan? Our entire plan is simply Miscellaneous.” -Gladys Taber, Stillmeadow Seasons, 1950

Last Sunday was our first time back in a building to gather and worship for church since March of this year. I refer to that time as “2020 B.C.” as in Before Coronavirus.

Guided by our pastor and staff, we were properly spaced in family or couple groups, masked up and elbow-bumping our hellos to one another. It was….. weird. And it was somehow wonderful at the same time. Why? Because we were together again with our brothers and sisters, standing in the same room with live music. No more screens with live streaming church services…the body of Christ was re-membered–put back together again.

But yes, it was weird. Not the church part, but the whole year part.

For instance, how is it almost July?

It seems like 2020 should only have two months–January and June. Or better, just two parts–Then and Now. The plans in my Daytimer were thankfully in pencil (I’m old school like that) and erased easily enough. But instead of checking off or crossing out events and tasks, January through June just became one gaping hole.

Weeks have turned into months, days are jumbled together in no particular order. I wake up nearly every morning and wonder, “Now is it Tuesday or Friday?” Without Sundays set aside to be in fellowship and worship, weekly anchors that held my life in place disappeared almost overnight.

Yes, there has been little to plan on in these days of #coronavirus. Facts change overnight, what was for sure and for certain and familiar has vanished. I have been forced…. goaded? nudged? into facing the one fact that remains–God’s word is the only anchor I can count on. His truth centers me, His spirit fills me and His daily faithfulness in the world around me has continued to save me.

I am forever grateful that this pandemic and isolation came when Spring in our corner of the world was just waking up. Now here we are in the thick of Summer and flowers and trees are lush and vibrant, my potato vines are flourishing, the bees are busy in the lavender. Life continues in God’s creation whether there’s lockdown or not. You can’t quarantine nature, that is for sure.00100lrPORTRAIT_00100_BURST20200629121951486_COVER

The nudges I feel in this season were summed up beautifully the other morning when I read in Psalm 143 during my quiet time.

Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you.

Show me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul. Psalm 143:8

I so wish I could actually make plans in my Planner. That I knew what was going to take place in the next month or two. But the Holy Spirit is continuing to remind me that we are only given one day at a time and our days, whether we acknowledge it or not, belong to God.

I can’t think of anyplace safer to be right now than listening and looking into the coming year one day at a time. That is God’s saving grace.

Tell me, what’s saving your life right now? I’d love to hear in the comments.