#On Beauty, Books & A Birthday-A Photo Essay

No matter where I live, I recognize the song of a red-winged blackbird. In rushes near the shore’s edge of a California beach, along the canals and waterways in the San Joaquin Valley, the tall grasses along a Louisiana bayou or deep in marshes along Washington’s coast, the voice of the songbird is the same. There’s a trilling like no other, punctuated by startled flight and appearance of dark black wings dotted with a circle of scarlet. Once you hear the voice of red-winged blackbird, you will know it anywhere.

When I first began this blog, I was introduced to a writer whose work became a song of a different kind, with words that sang and soared right off the page. My friend and I have swooned over this writer’s work for several years now. We compare notes about the ways in which she speaks to the depths of our souls, the longing we share for rich literature, the tapestry of language that weaves the glory of God’s kingdom into a piece.

I recall sitting in my living room last year reading one of Lanier Ivester’s essays, “Songless.” I had a printout in my hand and the piece featured the color print of a red-winged blackbird. When I finished, I sat for a few moments in silence; I was literally struck speechless with the way the words were woven together.

I can either do one of two things when I encounter writing that is lightyears beyond mine (don’t we all have a different measure of what “better than I can do” looks like?) I can either throw down my pencil or close my laptop and give up. Or, I can drink from the rich deposit in my soul, be inspired to go on in my own work, and keep looking for beauty, order, design, clarity, whatever facets of God’s creativity I’ve been given to show to the world.

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I’m turning sixty five this week. It’s a daunting milestone and one that is bittersweet; I’ve officially lived ten years longer than my mother. Cancer took her at 55 when I was in the throes of raising two children who now have children of their own; I miss her a great deal. Turning 65 also prompts its own kind of contemplation—what is my contribution to the world? Have I achieved my dream(s)? What legacy am I leaving? Is it too late to make a difference?

I set out at the beginning of this year to write a book about the season of Christmas. When I discovered that Laura Ingalls Wilder published her first Little House book at the age of 65, I was greatly heartened. So, for my birthday, I’m giving the world a book. Sort of. Living the Season Well-Reclaiming Christmas won’t be released until the end of October some two months or so away, but it will still be in The Year I Turned Sixty-Five.  

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Besides birds and a book and a birthday I’ve also been contemplating the stunning beauty of blown glass.

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My sister visited recently and we wandered through the Chihuly Glass Garden in Seattle. Chihuly’s work is housed inside in quiet, cavernous rooms and outside in wide open, bright spaces.

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The glass sculptures that took my breath away were those inside, where uplighting pierced through each installation and shone through the dark in glittering rainbows.

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We were spellbound. “How does someone even dream up these ideas? Where does this kind of creativity come from? I could never do that.”

No, I can’t. But I can visually absorb the power of each piece, the scale, the variety, the brilliance. I can let it soak in just a little bit then take it as fuel for inspiration. What kind of creativity can I bring to the world? What’s in my hand? What’s in my heart? What’s in my head?

In 1699 Jean Haudicquer de Blancourt wrote a book about glass blowing which uses ashes, not sand. (I have no idea how old he was.) “The art of glass: showing how to make all sorts of glass, crystal, & enamel” details in great length the way to transform beauty from the ashes of hearths and homes across de Blancourt’s native France. People looked beyond what they saw in their chimneys and someone figured out a way to melt it into glass. Glass which provided people with a way to see.

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I began this post telling of a writer whose work is a tremendous inspiration to me, someone who finds beauty in ordinary things like gathering color from her garden or sharing a cup of tea. In a tragedy that defies all that makes sense, this beauty-bringer recently experienced the loss of her 100 year old farmhouse when it burnt nearly to the ground. She and her husband were left with ashes.

In the shock and trauma that have followed since then, the community of writers whom she calls friends have rallied around her–not by sending cash or showing up to help rebuild. No, many of us sent a gift for her soul—lovely china tea cups, plates and saucers for daily use. While time perhaps does not allow for the ‘taking of tea’ in this season, and indeed might seem a preposterous undertaking given the weight of the tragedy she’s endured, Lanier believes that beauty matters. The pattern on L’s new tea set? The Phoenix.

It is good for us to stop and enjoy the weight of God’s glory that shines in the sway of flowers in our garden, the glance of sunlight on the water or birdsong out our windows. We also can live as purveyors of goodness and beauty, shining our own gifts through the ‘glass’ God gives us.

Can you draw or paint? Write a song, play a tune or dance?

Have you a pen in your hands you can yield to God as you write through your pain?

Is speaking your gift?

Bring beauty from your ashes, write the words, fashion a glass and help us see. 

*****

Lanier’s post “Songless” is here.

 

Why Your Story Matters

Some friends and I were having lunch the other day, discussing various challenges to find the time to write—caring for children, caring for our homes, talking with spouses, all manner of delights and duties. Then there was the other ‘D’—distractions.

In between bites of fish and chips, I lamented the ease with which I am sucked into all sorts of social media vortexes. That particular morning it was Instagram—and decried the slippery decline away from what I actually set out to do—write an original thought or two, unhindered by all those other voices.

My friend Holly told us about what she called a ‘download’ earlier that week straight from God’s heart to hers—a message that everyone’s story matters, especially the stories of those who feel they have no voice. (She’s drafting a six-week workshop on just that very thing—such a needed message.) Each one of us chimed in with our individual roadblocks to writing and the ways we fall into listening to all the other noisy gongs out there. Then we circled back to the truth–we each have a story to tell that is uniquely our own. Adoptive mom, recovered trauma victim, heart transplant survivor, grandparent and over 60 book author….a vastly diverse group.

When I sat with our iced tea and lunchtime conversation running through my head the next morning, I heard the Holy Spirit remind me what we writers do: tell the world what we know from where we are in our own way. But the white noise of other voices—actual flesh & blood ones, or virtual via Facebook, Instagram or other writers—can drown out the voice of our Shepherd Jesus.

Then I thought of the words about Jesus in John 10:3, “…and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls out his own sheep by name and leads them out.” And verse 4 “…and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

I find myself often battling not only the subtle shouts of other people’s words but the shoulds. “I should write about this,” “I should sound like this,” and so on.  But that’s a way of being pushed, not led.

Jesus leads us out, the enemy of our soul prods and pokes and pushes. I want my words to take me where God leads. I don’t want to make up content or manufacture an idea—I have all I need with the life I live to write from what I already have. My life experience is different from your life experience and the way I flesh out my walk with God may be an encouragement to you. I want to write about that.

Another thing about sheep (face it, baaaaa…) sheep are confined; they know their boundaries—and they only go somewhere else when the Shepherd moves them. I often want to be in a different pasture than my own, different circumstances, a better place. But the problem with looking over fences at other peoples’ ‘property’, real or imagined, is I’m left dissatisfied and there it is again, distracted, from the words God has given me to share.

There is only one voice, one vision and one view from where I stand. That’s all I can tell you about. As I stay where I am, nibbling on this ‘grass’ from God, I want to hear Him the way Holly did that day, to get a regular ‘download’ of ideas and words to share. And I remember I can.

When we belong to God we can all hear from Him if we are open to listening. I want to keep tuning into His voice.

What about you?

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My lunchmates and I are part of an online and in real life group called Glory Writers. Find out more about joining us in our Facebook group here. 

Why Writing a Book is Like Building a House

Hi friends~ you know I’m writing a book, yes? Oh, you didn’t? Well~

The practical and helpful volume-to-come is titled “Living the Season Well-Engaging Your Family in All of Christmas.” The heart of Living the Season Well is helping parents and grandparents find ways to slow down and simplify Christmas, embracing not just one single day of presents, but making room for God’s presence. In LTSW I share from my own Evangelical perspective what I’ve learned about church year traditions and observances, providing ways for families to adopt or adapt the ideas. My own experience of becoming acquainted with liturgy of the church year has helped re-focus my approach to the season of Christmas–that is the message I have to share.

I began my book-writing process a few days after Christmas last year and am looking to launch in October of this year.

Besides having a book that is ‘under construction’, we have a window project that began last year right after Thanksgiving, which is also in process. In fact, we have ladders placed as a permanent fixture in front of our house, waiting for the day when my husband can get back up and finish the installation of new siding. In the meantime I’m grateful for the cover of our birch trees that are filling in with their leaves, hiding a view of our construction zone from the street.20170515_124619

We have had another project under construction for five years–the roof on our back deck. But life keeps getting in the way, in challenging in cheerful ways. All of this got me to thinking about the process of writing a book and how it might compare to building a house. I’m not a contractor, but I think the comparison fits.

A few months back I wrote about Seven Things I’ve Learned About Writing a Book. Here are seven more discoveries–how writing a book is (sort of)like building a house:

Step 1–PLANS–the blueprint

First there is an idea, a revelation, if you will.

You draw (or write it) down–penscratching on a napkin back or use pencil scribbles in a web of words

The message is refined. You’re ready to begin.

Step 2–FOUNDATION–the bedrock 

Are you sure there’s a need for this book?

Research, gather facts, be willing to learn

Lay the groundwork in your mind of what you’re going to ‘build’

Step 3–FRAMING (2×4’s providing structure)

This is the skeleton, a place to hang your words

Write an outline, use bullet points,

Number headings and a. b.c…..; use the whole alphabet if needed

Step 4–BUILDING (the walls, sheetrock, plumbing, electrical)

Write, write, write.

Write some more. Pound that keyboard, use that eraser.

Flesh out the picture you have in your head

Step 5–APPLIANCES/FIXTURES (the finishing touches)

Revise, revise, revise.

That’s all. Things are looking much prettier.

See all that shiny-ness? (think stainless steel)

Step 6-FINISH (painting, decorating)

Choose a book cover

Write the Acknowledgments

Send your words to a designer

Hold your breath and pray

Step 7-HERE’S THE KEYS! (your house is ready)

Introduce your book to the world and invite people to come and see what you saw.

Take lots of pictures of your book warming party

Thank the crew who helped you with the project

(and buy new pencils; you never know when another idea may strike!)

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Will you join me on my writing journey? I’m gathering a book launch tribe of 75 folks and would love to have your help, especially if  you’re on social media often. The book campaign begins August 15th. Email me at jodyo70(at)gmail dot com if you’d like to take part and I’ll send you the schedule and more info. I’d be ever so grateful. (Or leave a note here in the Comments).

Thank you!

 

 

 

Shaping the River Into Words

“My heart bursts its banks, spilling beauty and goodness.  

I pour it out in a poem to the king, shaping the river into words:”

Psalm 45:1, The Message

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Some people are artists who process their world through paint and pen, fabric, clay, paper. Thoughts become images or design, an expression of what’s inside or what inspires. Others are musicians, turning their experience or expression into lyrics and orchestration, poetry put to harmony and melody.

My experiences and ideas pour out in words providing a way to rein in my random, swirling thoughts.  Perhaps the swirling is because I am currently seated on the couch surrounded by other voices–poets and writers whose work inspires and informs my life. I am seeking for a way to borrow some of their expressions to describe my own because sometimes I’m not sure what I think or feel until I read it in the lines of another writer’s words.

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God gave me the Psalm 45 verse above many, many years ago when He confirmed my calling as a writer. I didn’t want to own it for many years, but I can trace the path of God’s hand on my life as a witness that this is so; I am beginning to live into that calling more each day.

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Psalm 34

I cannot tell a story more profound/than stars, a single blade of grass/a lilac breasted roller/painted by Your hand/all designed in perfection/for your pleasure

I ponder bones, flesh, blood/coursing through vessel highways/mechanics beyond human ability/eyes of sea green/topaz/aquamarine, variety for beauty’s sake/and glory shines.

-Karin Fendick, “Ashes to Glory”

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Life has been very ‘big’ lately; a new baby joined our family on Sunday night, a grandson turned 11 the same day (and he forgave me for wishing him a “happy 10th birthday” on his birthday card.) A dear friend is experiencing the gray days of loss as she mourns her father’s death and deals with her mother’s grief. My daughter is carrying her own kind of grief and seeking healing for the loss of yet another baby who has gone to Heaven, her fourth.

cropped-56a1f-dsci0354.jpgJune threatens to burst its banks with color and birdsong, skies the color of a robin’s egg and late evening views that put the most sparkling orange jewels to shame.  Sometimes it’s all too much to rein in, as if my senses can’t quite grasp the sights, colors and sounds. I need a better vocabulary to speak of what I see.

Perhaps you can relate.

Scripture tells us the skies have speech without a sound. Silent stars, magnificent, rolling clouds, cobalt blue sunrises. flaming orange sunsets shout with their own words, “there is a Creator.” After God made the world by His word He sent Jesus to become the living Word. John 1 says that Jesus ‘dwelt among us.’ How is that possible? How can the Word dwell among us, live with us or in us? I believe one way He does that is through what we say, speak, and write. Our words have power to bring peace to someone, to provide joy or comfort and create a way for someone to say, “that’s exactly the way I feel.”

“It is the function of art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.”    -Anais Nin

I’m living in a more cautious place these days as I reckon with the power of that gift to open a window for others to see God in a different way or provide a vessel to carry their own expressions when life gets too big.

My heart bursts its banks as I pour out my words to the King who has entrusted me with this one voice I have. My prayer is I will carry it well.

 

May, March and April in Books #ReadUpstream

In keeping with the inauguration of the #ReadUpstream movement, I’m going to speak a little about what I’ve been reading and maybe entice you to do your own reading ‘upstream’; i.e. choosing classics and good books that speak to your heart, even if no one else is reading them. More about the origin of #ReadUpstream is here.

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When it comes to those things that bring me joy, I’m not sure whether I fancy birds or books more. Perhaps equally. I have books with ‘birds’ in the title melding those two—a love of reading and a fascination with my avian friends. There is much I learn from both—life lessons from the birds, echoing God’s message of carefree, trust-filled living and lessons in the lines of the many books that populate my home.

I often am reading many books at one time, which is why the title of this post is “March, April and May in Books.” There are many books that continue to engage me, but I will attempt to whittle down the list to include some of my current favorites.

  1. Fierce Convictions—The Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist, Karen Swallow Prior

I first learned the name of Hannah More in the film ‘Amazing Grace’ (2006) about William Wilberforce and his campaign against the slave trade. There was a small part played by a feisty young woman named Hannah, whose name I catalogued for later. The later arrived with the release in 2014 of this book by Karen Swallow Prior, Professor of English at Liberty University.

Hannah More’s life was set in the backdrop of Bristol, England in the early 1700’s, a historical period that was the height of the slave trade in Europe. I’ve only just begun reading how Hannah and her sisters started a school for women, an outright novelty for the day and age, as well as learning of the unheard of practice for her to spend time–imagine this–writing in a place of her own-mostly poetry. This particular privilege was made possible by the allowance of kind benefactor who was a previous suitor.

Hannah and I have much in common—a love of writing and reading and a background in education. Of course, the part we don’t share is an experience in opposing the slave trade. That tale is ahead of me in this book and I look forward to reading it.

Continue reading

Home-A Poem in Three Parts

Beginning

Years and miles evaporate

like the morning’s ocean fog where

the strong, bright gleam of

friendship holds true.

Holds true like trees that have

weathered decades of sun as we

weathered our own wearying

waves of life, lapping at the edge

of our friendship, threatening

to erode the years of tears

and laughter, the breaking

in between.

In between we hold on, reach

out past the yesterdays touching this

day as we raise high our glasses,

crystal etching the air, the sound

like a chime announcing

we are still here.

Middle

I threw myself at roaring rolls

of foam and froth, abandoned

my limbs skyward as I jumped

the tops of broken, bowing

breakers, exploded in laughter,

surprised after all these years that

I still know how to dive when needed,

that my body remembers the bounce

and bob of moving water and most

of all, recalls the healing taste of salt,

the wondrous sky-blaze balm

that is the sun.

End

The melodious midnight insistence

of cricket backdrops my sleep.

I drift into memories of summer

nights when this accompaniment

was the only sound, a lullaby

for my youthful self; I rest

with a song.

-c. Jody Lee Collins 2017

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I recently returned from a 5 day visit to Southern California, the land where I grew up. I spent my days and evenings with family and friends, enjoying the rich, singular experience of a place that is buried deep in my bones. My mind was flooded with memories when I came home and, as usual, poured out into words. (‘Beginning’ first appeared on this blog in September, 2016).

 

 

God Can’t Make You But You Can Let Him

Just when you think there’s going to be a breather between some professional sports championship or another, a new season starts. Remember the Sweet Sixteen in basketball? Done. Now we have baseball to think about. Our Seattle Mariners have already played several games—they’re about even for wins and losses—but I still can’t get used to it.  In my mind baseball is a summer sport, but the April weather in the Pacific Northwest says anything but summer. No matter; our M’s are used to the rain and sunshine so they travel here and there, swinging at pitches, throwing, catching and striking out. It’s practice, practice, practice.

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Little League baseball wasn’t around when I was little, we just had our neighborhood match-ups, usually boys against the girls. I’ll never forget that fateful day when my head collided with a bat. I was playing catcher; my friend Colleen was up to bat and when she swung through her pitch, I ended up getting knocked ‘thwap!’ in the head. I fell down unconscious and the next thing I remember was sitting in the front seat of our station wagon, a rag held to my pounding head, my mom frantically driving to the hospital. We made it to the emergency room where I received a multitude of stitches. I still have the suggestion of a mild lump right above my left eye and a very, very faint scar. That’s a fun story to tell but there is nothing fun about being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

* * * * *

   God’s not using a bat these days but he is budging me ever closer to playing my own position in the correct game in the season where He’s called me to practice. Because, boy, can I get in the wrong place. The field of Christian bloggers is a big one, the voices out there are many and the messages come thick and fast. I fall prey time and time again to wondering what all the other players are doing.  I don’t want to just be outstanding in my field, I want to be outstanding in everyone else’s field—looking at the uniforms, admiring the bright colors, noticing the cheer of the crowd when a star player is up to bat.

Then I hear the voice of The Coach hollering at me from the dugout, “Keep your eye on the ball!”

“No, your own ball, not that one!”

I am prone to want to be everywhere else instead of exactly where God has called me to be.

I want to sound and look like the homerun hitters, the crowd pleasers. I imagine the cheers and attention of onlookers applauding my brilliant plays. Wouldn’t it be grand to have all those followers?

And there He is again, an aside this time, just He and I standing at the edge of the grass as the sun goes down.  A whisper, “You weren’t made for the big crowds, the nameless faces. You want a personal touch when you swing your words out into the world, connecting with people one at a time. That’s who you are.”

The reminder rings true deep down.

I wasn’t called to be playing the field out under the lights, waving to the fans in the stadium. I’m more of a snack bar conversation kinda gal, chatting one-on-one with the folks in front of me in line waiting for their hot dog and coke. You know, where we can talk about the weather and our kids and our week.

I come alive when I’m sharing in an intimate group around a living room or kitchen table, talking in a small chapel or chatting with friends on a front porch. I feel the pleasure of God and the most like myself when what I have to say is welcomed bit by bit, little by little, one friendship and one connection at a time.

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When a principle or phrase is being drilled down into our spirits, don’t we often say God is really “driving it home?” Maybe it’s because He knows how many times we have to run the bases to come around again and again to what we know is true. And I’ve been running the bases a lot.

I know my propensity for distraction, the mixed-up desires I have to be like everybody else, but I’m turning again in the direction of the dugout early and more often. When I consider the corner of the world where I’ve been given a chance to bring light to others, when a bat goes swinging and a ball comes my way, I’m learning to stand my ground and yell, “not mine! Not mine!” and let another player catch it.

If I start complaining about my position on the field, or glance at the scoreboard to see who’s ahead, I remind myself to stay tuned to the Coach. My prayers are changing from, “God please help me hear you,” to, “God, I give you permission to speak. As many times as you need to, remind me this patch of grass, right here at short stop, glove in hand is where I need to stay.”

“And if you need to, yell like all good coaches do.”

I’m keeping my eyes on the ball, and if it connects with the bat and gets knocked out of the park, I’ll let God decide who sees it. I’m just going to keep on swinging.