Thursday, December 31, 2009

Making Tracks and Traction

Yesterday, I embarked upon my last run of 2009. Nary a cloud in sight, everything was crisp and cold. All of the buildings and trees looked sharpened, like the first time you put on a pair of glasses when you really need them. (Ironically, I had to take my specs off after a block or two, because my scarf-covered face kept fogging them up.)

The pace was little slower than usual, since Minneapolis sidewalks are looking a bit different than they did a month ago. Now, it is a veritable obstacle course: snow boulders, mini-mountains from weeks of plowing, and patches of treacherous ice. Familiar paths, but covered with unfamiliar obstructions. You've got to pay careful attention to your ankles so as not to twist them, but it can be giggle-inducingly fun to navigate such terrain.

One thing that made it fun rather than worrisome were a pair of recently-acquired "Yaktrax", which are these fascinating rubber and spring contraptions that wrap around the treads of regular running shoes, and enable one to run in the winter. Well, particularly with less bruises on the elbows, knees, and bum. My dad couldn't use this pair (they were too small), so he passed them onto his very grateful daughter. This was my first try at running with them, so I headed for the steepest hill I know around our place: Kenwood Parkway. I knew the trek going up from the Walker Art Center would be both lovely and difficult. Lovely and difficult! Sign me up!

The traction provided by these was terrific. On solid ice, I still felt a little slippage coming off my stride, but never enough to feel dangerous. On the mix of ice and snow that has layered onto the footpaths in the city after numerous snowstorms, the treads were ideal. That is probably more than enough "gear talk" for those of you who do not really care about the gadgets and gizmos of my sport of choice. But the experience did get me thinking. (I have often thought that there must be some relationship between jogging and, well, jogging the brain.)

As I crunched my way through the neighborhoods and nearby lake, I was struck by the combination of the familiar and unfamiliar, and the beautiful and the treacherous. I suppose the number of times I've covered the ground between my apartment and Lake of the Isles isn't countless. But it does feel like it sometimes. Yesterday, however, the old routes were made new and pretty. Sometimes, it meant jumping over an ominous combination of snow and gravel, only to feel my foot to touch down and meet a slab of smooth ice hidden beneath the most recent dusting of snow. Needless to say, it was an adventure.

In some sense, when we came back from France this year, we returned to a city that we knew very well. The cherry and the spoon? Still there. Lifelong friends and most of our family? Still here. Music scene, university, restaurants...some cosmetic changes, but nothing really significant. Well, there was that bridge that fell down, but now there's a whole new one anyway.

But in other ways, much of the landscape here has changed. Some of it has gotten truly bizarre. Relationships that we thought to be genuinely warm and affectionate have been covered by snow, bitten by hard frost, taken on the quality of the frigid cold winter. Initially, we came running through jauntily, oblivious to the change in the weather. But we found the slippery stretches soon enough. Now, we ache alongside these who long for reconciliation, who don't understand themselves what has gone wrong, and why this boulder or that can't seemed to be moved for the moment. Tears froze on my cheeks yesterday, as I cried out to the Lord to change melt them.

What is the special sort of traction needed in these situations? Something akin to Yaktrax, but for the soul. The only thing I can think of that works like this is the Word of God. He gives us our firm step, one that can remain both confident and humble when we find ourselves scrambling up sheets of sheer, steep ice, or catches us when one part of our shoe hits on unseen, slick patch.

Who keeps us in life And does not allow our feet to slip. (Psalm 66:9)
He will not allow your foot to slip; He who keeps you will not slumber. (Psalm 121:3)

I imagine that 2010 will bring both familiar and unfamiliar paths for all of us. May you be able to navigate them with the nimblest of feet, outfitted with His never-failing truths!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Because He first loved us

Two and a half hours of running gives one time to think. A precious commodity in my life right now, and probably yours, too. As for me, I am assigned to mull over very specific things, like the trends of Mediterranean commerce in the 8th century, the translation of Saints' Lives from Latin into the vernacular Old French, and the development of romance in medieval France. But on a rainy morning last week, plodding along the solitary, worn dirt paths around the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes, I was afforded the opportunity to let my mind wander beyond the recent trails of thought and into slightly different territory.

I was thinking about how much my husband cares for me, and how that used to be a hard thing for me to believe.

This may come as a surprise to some of you that know us, but it is a story that goes back much further than Abbey and Karl. In short, I spent most of my single life disbelieving that someone would love me in that way. That much. Despite a truly loving father, and a firm grip on my heavenly Father, too, I still couldn't imagine that someone would bother to give me the time of day, much less want to spend the rest of their life with me. Yes, deeply insecure. Who knows why? But I do know that more people (especially women) experience this than want to admit it.

Along came my husband-to-be. We loved, stumbled around, forgave, loved all over again, and figured out enough for the next step. Ah, the delightful and sometimes maddening dance of the dating world. At this point, my insecurity must have been appeased, right? Attentive boyfriend, ring on my finger, striding down the aisle. These things were joyful and oh-so-right. But hardly decisive in my inner battles.

They quieted down for a while, but it wasn't long before the taunts and jeers of an invisible Enemy started working overtime to undermine our union. "He doesn't really love you." "You aren't sexy enough to hold his attention forever, you know." "What would happen if..." While the insidious suggestions began to pile up, I barely noticed. I would bat them away like so many pesky mosquitoes, while they were in fact poisoning my mind. But soon, the evidence came bubbling to the surface, sometimes ending in private tears, sometimes strange, accusatory conversations (monologues?) with my baffled husband, who did not know the extent of the war within. The excitement of moving to France eclipsed my struggles (become "our" struggles) for a while, but eventually the same old hurts would flare up, and in newly-destructive ways. I started to wonder if I wasn't just a little crazy. I read along the way in Proverbs: "The beginning of strife is like letting out water, so quit before the quarrel breaks out." This verse became a watchword, since "talking about it" those days was usually ending in a torrent of conflict.

Somewhere along the line, I also listened to a sermon from John Piper back home in Minneapolis about womanhood, and one of the qualities was "fearlessness". She laughs at the future. In my broken inner state, this seemed like an unattainable ideal, but I still fixed my hope on it. I read the passages over and over, cried, and reached out to God. Can You change me to be like that?

You're waiting for the dénouement, aren't you? And rightly so.

November 2008. Normandy, France. Mere kilometers from entrenched earthly battles of the past. The weather was cold, wet, and gray. I sat chatting with one of my dearest friends, and suddenly felt compelled to let all my exhausted confusion of the years and years come out spilling out. I wept. She prayed for me. I distinctly remember her words: "This is the beginning of the end of those lies." And that's exactly how it went. From that day forward, my eyes were clear - I could see when an attack was coming. And it wasn't Karl against me. It never had been. It was the Enemy of our souls against us. And we belonged to the Lord. And that was that. It was time to stand firm, therefore.

Since that day (dare I say D-Day?) our relationship has been gradually liberated from misplaced expectations, unfounded accusations, strife. God has been faithful to us. As soon as I began showing confidence in my husband's love for me, it multiplied. Love begets love.

All that to say, as I was treading the muddy path along Lake Harriet, I squinted into the misty rain and thanked the Lord. The deepest truth of all is that Karl loves me because He (God) first loved us. And "underneath are the everlasting arms..."

Weeks Three and Four of Nospend Month

Some of you have been wondering how this adventure wrapped up for us. Well, in the third week, we passed up our goal of $200 total by a little bit. This sort of took the wind out of our sails for the rest of the month, and we coasted through the last week with a more typical household expenditure. Not extravagant, but...we weren't really holding ourselves to the goal anymore. (Homemade fried rice cakes at right, terrific use for leftover brown rice.)

It is so true that in this sort of project, there seems to be a fatigue and lagging attitude that sets around week 3. We didn't succumb to key lime pie particularly, but maybe cookies and cream ice cream. (Tee-hee.) A subtle, indignant little voice kept insisting that we should have more spending power than we were allowing ourselves, and led to an uncalculating trip to the grocery store or two. (Bits of bread stuck in the freezer made for a savoury bread pudding. It's like a delicious, more hearty version of a soufflé.)

This is not to say we didn't learn or benefit from the experience. On the contrary! Thanks to the faithful record we kept on the side of the fridge of everything we spent and on what, we now have a very useful map for plotting our purchases on a regular basis. For us, we do spend more (than we would in small trips) at the supermarket when we go once a week. I call this EFS - Empty Fridge Syndrome. You feel a little desperate, and buy three kinds of cheese, when you might only need 1 or 2.

Secondly, the Minneapolis Farmer's market is infinitely more economical that the grocery store for vegetables, even Cub Foods. Plus, it is SO FUN. The only hard part is developing the routine of going there, but once that's established...a full produce drawer is yours for a pittance. (Watermelon sorbet at left a great way to use the fruit that's gotten a little grainy...)

For the record, $200 is way too optimistic a figure for us, even for a slim no-spend month. Next year, we'll aim for $250. However, I do believe the budget lines in our regular food budget are overinflated by a bit, and this experience was helpful for determining that.

Sitting down to a meal on our patio one night, Karl remarked that "if this is no-spend month, sign me up!" Before us was a feast of steak, tasty veg from the market, homebaked bread, cheese, and two glasses of red wine. You might be thinking: maybe this is why you overshot your budget...? Nope. That meal was one of the best buys of the month: bread is pennies for me to make at home, the steaks were drastically reduced in price and lovingly tended to by Karl on our little barbecue, the veg was about a dollar, and the wine from a boxed table wine we like, carefully apportioned out. Oh, and the cheese a gift from a family friend who owns a local goat farm....mmm. Fresh chevre on warm bread. Delicious morsels are to be had.

In the wake of moving from France to Minnesota, it has been a fascinating experiment to redraw our patterns of eating, cooking, and living, inscribing them on our new/old geography. There are some habits we can "import" - drinking wine at most meals - for a reasonable price. Other things, like bread and yogurt, we've learned we have to make by hand to be satisfied with the quality to price ratio. Yes, these things are worth our precious time (Have you every had homemade yogurt from raw goat's milk, simmering at left? To DIE for.)

We are busy people (more about that in blogs to come), but no one should be too overextended so as to miss out on the joys of dining together as a family, at least one meal of the day. That's my my philosophy. It doesn't have to be steak. More often, it's "just" an omelette, side salad, and a glass of wine, but...oh so sweet when shared with a loved one. Oh, then there was the night when I made homemade pizza and Karl insisted (he is so stubborn when it comes to having fun!) on throwing it on a cutting board and carrying it to the picnic tables in Loring Park. As we hoofed it across the busy street, we got not a few envious glances (including from a cop in his squad car cruising by!). Settling down with the pond reflecting great swaths of redwing blackbirds preparing for the migration to come, we downed our savoury slices and thanked God for the mild, waning light of summer. It's the simple things in life.

Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred. (Proverbs 15:17)

Go and find someone you love, and share a meal with them!

Monday, September 07, 2009

Week Number Two - Labor Day Weekend Special

Boy, this no-spend thing is harder than it seems. It would be different if Karl and I lived an insular life and never saw any friends or family, but that would be a pretty dismal existence. So we hang out. And human beings like to spend money together. I have no problem with spending money...except for this month. [The flip side of this: that our friends and moms and dads and aunts often invite us over for dinner, and lovingly feed us. And we try to do the same for them. It's a way of expressing affection, the giving and receiving of nourishment. It's a good thing.]

So, the grand (and I mean grand) total for this week's spending was...$107! Wow. This went towards: produce from the market, some basic staples at Cub Foods, and some wine and snack purchases on our way to various parties and barbecues. We also had to fill up the car (he gets hungry too), but we won't have to do that for a while again.

Living in France, I'd forgotten about the gravitational pull towards the backyard grill and family and friends that Labor Day weekend entails. It sort of took me by surprise. And with that came proposals for moviegoing, let's go to the FAIR, BYOB, bring something to share, and lots of "let's hang out...we're at this bar, want to join us?" kind of opportunities. Terrific! But hard to balance with our specific financial goals.

We didn't do this perfectly, but we came up with some successful solutions. The fair was out-of-the-question (for us, not enough bang for the buck.) Saturday morning, the friend who wanted to go out for coffee or breakfast came over and we indulged in steaming cups of joe and warm, homemade muffins. For a girls' outing, my mom found a cheap matinée showing of Julie and Julia way out west (though since we got turned around, I'm not sure we didn't spend more on gas...but I've decided not to make that calculation. We'll just stick with "we saved money" on that one...) Going to a barbecue and have to bring something? One enormous watermelon for $3.99, plus the hilarity and excitement it generated at the party due to its exceptional size seemed like a super investment. Observe which of your friends really couldn't care less about saving leftovers (incredulous voice: "you're just going to throw this aWAY?") and take some home. Grilled corn doomed to the trashcan made a kick-butt corn salsa a day later, and everyone was raving about the flavor. Be free and buy a bottle of wine to share - in that category, what goes around definitely comes around.

This seems paradoxical, but there is a freedom that comes from having a budget. The feeling of "this is what we have to play around with" is a pretty stimulating challenge, good for the brain, and good for the pocketbook. We may have had an expense-heavy week, but we are determined to stay the course. Halfway there!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Just Starting Up

Week One of No-Spend Month. We spent $23 on household items and food (toilet paper, peanut butter, flour, bananas, coffee) over the course of the week, and $27 out for drinks and music on the last night, for a total of $50. Among the lessons learned. Homemade coffee smoothies taste good when you're craving ice cream. Leftovers can be reworked so as not to seem repetitive. We have a lot of friends and family that like to invite us out and over. Cheap chicken is not worth it. Taking a long walk with a packed dinner is very satisfying. Martinis are unduly expensive. God is taking care of us.

In other news, some career decisions. Something that we carried away from our life in Paris was a growing realization that Karl is meant to be in music. No surprise there, you will say. He's a piano player, he always has been. We all went to his shows "back in the day," cheered him on. Still, he's always held down that other job, just in case. And I loved him for it. We were able to pay the rent, pay for groceries, line our pockets with little luxuries...wait, what?

Hm. Maybe there's something more important than that last one. More and more, it seems somehow right that he fully take up the responsibilities he has towards the musical gifts that God has given him, and by fully, I mean full-time. So, I guess you could say we are in a start-up, in the interest of being genuine to our callings. It's kind of like moving abroad...casting off all we know and depend on for security, and putting our faith in a loving and sovereign God. Those of you who pray, please do. We need bands, gigs, and piano students to make it work.

Things are starting to happen, signposts that seem to be telling us we're heading in the right direction. Some funky guys writing music on the south side. A house band for a new club in the western suburbs. (More details to follow.) And the martini night may have been expensive, but it re-united us with one of his former bands, and all of those excellent players. Think of that glass of gin balancing in my hand as an investment in our future. Sure, why not. At any rate, we are training our minds and hearts to say: "If the Lord wills, we will do this or that." If He doesn't, we won't. Either way, it's going to be a great adventure.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Preoccupation with Bread

Jesus feeds four thousand people plus with seven loaves and a few small fish, as Mark recounts in chapter 8 of his gospel. In addition, He and the disciples end up with seven baskets full of broken pieces. We are told that Jesus wanted to feed them because his "bowels" of compassion were moved (our pastor pointed out last Sunday that this is a universal human feeling - your guts lurch when you see a person or an animal being hurt. Or they should.) In light of Jesus' extraordinary act of mercy on a crowd weak with hunger, the Pharisees don't get it. They get in his face and ask him for a sign. Jesus heaves a deep (exasperated?) sigh and leaves in his boat.

The next part is the bit that interested me today. Mark goes out of his way to tell us that the disciples in the boat "had forgotten to bring bread, and they only had one loaf." Where is all of that miracle bread you had leftover? My frugality wants to chew them out. I mean, they could have made a bread pudding, or croutons at least. Maybe they could have soaked the bits it olive oil like the Italians, I don't know. But Jesus is not so preoccupied with their management of ministry resources as I am; He has other concerns.

"Watch out!" He says. "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod." What on earth does that mean? I want to know. I'm sure the other disciples are just as curious as I am, which is why they begin discussing..."the fact that they had no bread." Wha...really, guys?

Jesus turns around. "Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet understand? Are your hearts hardened?" (At this point, I imagine Jesus rapping his knuckles on the one loaf of bread they do have, now gone stale.) "Having eyes, do you not see, and having ears, do you not hear? And do you not remember?" (Ouch - that was just a few hours previous, right?) "When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?" They said to him, twelve. "And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up? And they said to him, "Seven." And he said to them, "Do you not yet understand?"

Is He annoyed that they forgot the bread? "Hey guys, I made enough bread for you to eat, it was your fault you left the baskets behind. I'm just the miracle worker, here." I don't think so. It seems like He was trying to use the topic of bread and hunger, an earthly reality, to talk about heavenly food, and they just weren't making it with him to that higher plane of thinking. And truly, how can we wrap our brain around a concept like "the leaven of the Pharisees" when the fridge is empty? How do we set aside our human preoccupation with bodily fuel in the interest of spiritual things? Do we ignore our rumbling tummies, and those of our neighbor. No. Jesus Himself was concerned for the crowd before he fed them, that they might faint on the way if they tried to walk to the store. He knows we are dust, and our need for sustenance. But how much time and mental energy should we devote to these things?

This is a significant question for me personally for two reasons. Lately, given our latest jump into careful spending, it takes a considerable amount of time, planning, and extra work to run a household. Many things turn out to be a fraction of the cost when made by hand, such as bread, whole wheat tortillas, sprouts, fresh herbs, jam, cleaning products, and face wash. Of course, I have found a lot of joy and purpose in rediscovering some of these "housewifery" skills (nice, old-fashioned term). The "simple life," a trendy concept in the blogging world, promotes the values of homemaking, from-scratch cooking, gardening, local markets, and I love it all. I just eat it up. But is it really "simple," and how much of it is unnecessary preoccupation with earthly bread? (Sheesh. That's a big question. Maybe I'll save that one for a later post.)

The second reason that Jesus' reprimand to His disciples resonates with me is the recent scuttlebutt about health care spending. Now, I'm not all "wee-weed" up about it or anything, but I do read and think about these things, because they involve not only the physical health of our country (the "bread," as it were), but also the spiritual health. Why do I say that?

The story in Mark says that Jesus had a visceral reaction to the physical hunger of the people. The same word, "moved with compassion" is used when He was faced with the leper in the first chapter of the same gospel. "My heart goes out to you," by now a clichéd phrase, seems to describe the feeling pretty well. Well, I think this ought to be my first reaction when faced with the multitude of sick. (Notice, I did not say: the multitude of the uninsured.) They need help, and I need to ask God what my personal role is in alleviating the physical troubles of this world for His glory. Pray for healing? Yes. Volunteer my time, maybe. Volunteer a greater portion of my paycheck willingly? Maybe? Let the government take it from my paycheck? Maybe. Regardless, my motive should be Jesus-like compassion. As James says in his epistle, "If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says, 'Go in peace, be warmed and filled,'without giving him the things needed for the body, what good is that?"

But also, like Jesus, I don't want my focus to stay on the physical satisfaction of needs. The things that I give should be like a parable, enabling me to talk more about Him. That is one problem that I have with the government (or the economy!) in the role of benevolent giver; they can only satisfy earthly needs. It's the opposite problem of the one posed in James. And goodness knows, when our earthly needs are taken care of, we tend to forget God.

Is that what he meant by the "leaven of Herod"? Hmm. I wonder...

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"They had everything but money"

In an essay by Wendell Berry, 'The Work of Local Culture', he tells the following story. I thought it was poignant and true.

I was walking one Sunday afternoon several years ago with an older friend. We went by the ruining log house that had belonged to his grandparents and great-grandparents. The house stirred my friend's memory, and he told how the oldtime people used to visit each other in the evenings, especially in the long evenings of winter. There used to be a sort of institution in our part of the country called "sitting till bedtime." After supper, when they weren't too tired, neighbors would walk across the fields to visit each other. They popped corn, my friend said, and ate apples and talked. They told each other stories. They told each other stories, as I knew myself, that they all had heard before. Sometimes they told stories about each other, about themselves, living again in their own memories and thus keeping their memories alive. Among the hearers of these stories were always the children. When bedtime came, the visitors lit their lanterns and went home. My friend talked about this, and thought about it, and then he said, "They had everything but money."

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Give us this day our daily bread

Last time, I mentioned that Karl and I had been reading Randy Alcorn's book Money, Possessions, and Eternity together. We have also been doing some thinking back to our first year in Paris, when our budget was extremely limited. Though it was not an easy season, it was one of the sweetest times in our life together, when we had to lean on God's faithfulness. Yup. Poor as all get-out, and our life just a bowl of cherries.

A little financial tête-à-tête this past week also revealed that it was time to tighten the belt again. Hm. I thought we were doing pretty well. (The debit card history told another truth.) Rather than get all glum about it, we agreed to treat the situation like a game. We have x amount of dollars for the next month. What can we squeeze out of it creatively? More importantly, what can we learn about about God's investment in our material needs?

This is not a glamorous idea, nor a new one. It's the basic idea of budgeting, of course - but with a tighter constraint than we normally have. The frugal blog Small Notebook's No-Spend Month Challenge is an excellent recent example. We will be closely following their model, a family of three who limited themselves to $250 dollars for one month to cover the following:

-food & eating out
-household items

The figure did not include:

-rent, insurance, bills
-health expenses
-work and education expenses
-savings and investments
-tithes and gifts

We'll be doing $200 for the next month, from August 23-September 23, with the added non-included expense of mass transit (Abbey's bus pass falls under the work/education category). We are starting with a semi-full fridge, and 3/4 tank of gas.

There are two things that I don't want this to become. First, a morose experiment in self-deprivation. Alcorn's book has an excellent chapter or two on how asceticism can be pointless, and even dangerous to one's outlook on life. God created many things for us to enjoy, and that is exactly why we're working with constraints for a short period of time: to appreciate them more. Secondly, I do not want this to become all about how clever Abbey and Karl can be in the face of a dilemma. (Though we might have to get a little clever!) The point is that the Lord wants to teach us new ways to view our pocketbook and glorify Him with our money and possessions. What can we learn in these respects?

I'll be using lifelong fling over the next month to update you on this latest adventure. Hopefully it won't be too boring - I'll try to keep it to a healthy balance between the practical (as in, oh my gosh! do you know how much money you save making your own x?) and the philosophical (i.e. I wonder what Martin Luther meant by the "conversion of the purse"?)

Should be entertaining!

Addendum: I find it curious and encouraging that once we decided to do "No-spend month", two things happened: my brother insisted on taking us out to breakfast, and some music colleagues of Karl gave us produce from their garden. None of them knew about our master plan - we just rejoice in God's provision already showing up in unexpected ways!

Friday, August 21, 2009

New Home

When it comes down to maintaining a blog long-term, there seems to be a whole lot of ebb and flow. Part of this stems from the fact that writing is an art, and inspiration comes and goes. The old meaning of the word "amateur" (from the French and Latin originally, someone who loves what they do) gets to the heart of the matter. If the muse is not moving, I won't be in the mood, so I won't be enjoying myself, and since it's all about loving this pursuit, I procrastinate. No deadlines. No editor to breathe down my neck. I write because I want to.

But then there's all of you. I'm not even sure how many of you there are. But you're all out there, reading faithfully, despite long pauses in-between posts. Hmm. I guess the pressure is on anyway. Thanks. I needed that.

This lifelongfling is an ongoing adventure. And since all great adventures start from home, it's time to introduce you to chez von Gohren, à Minneapolis. (This is mostly for the benefit of our friends who are scattered the world over and can't just drive over for a visit. Those of you in the Cities should just drop by and hang out. Send a texto and make sure we're here and...well, decent.)

It's a one-bedroom flat on Loring Park, and the building is from the 1920's or so. This is the dining room, facing south and looking into the kitchen (at left) and the bedroom (at right) a little bit. You are standing in the living room with your back to the front door.

Here, you will find Karl in his studio, imitating a French travel poster defaced with the head of Alan Greenspan. Strange things happen when you move things around. More pictures of the studio to follow soon, with or without Mr. Greenspan, I'm not sure.

On the other side of the roon, you will also find Karl sipping his coffee on the futon we found in the alleyway next door. Several bolts and a new 2x4 later, we have a comfy place to sit for about 2 or three dollars in extra screws and bolts.

Ok, further into the dining room, you find a spot for reading and playing guitar. Absolutely essential in any home we've ever had, not to be underestimated.

Next, we walk south through the apartment, and you can see here the east side of the kitchen (Apparently, I'm picking up my great-grandmother's habit of thinking about houses in ordinal directions. Uff da.) We got our beloved dishwasher up the two flights of stairs thanks to my ingenious husband who was able to take it apart and put it back together.

Continuing southbound, we end up at the backporch, where we have a grill, and a table where we take most of our meals, and some plants & things. I love this spot. The bistro table was also a product of dumpster diving

Bedroom. Karl is planning to build a platform bed, but until then, our mattress rests on the tippy-top of an air mattress. Quite a nice sleep!

Then, my desk alcove in the front end of the bedroom, next to a walk-in closet. It is my little space to concentrate and forget about my surroundings while I work. Sorry it's so messy. Just moved in, you know.

I won't bore you with pictures of the walk-in closet and the bathroom, but they're pretty nice, too. We just keep lookin'around and saying: Thanks God for a good place to land. We can walk to many stores, take the bus anywhere, run in the park, walk to many of the museums. It's that sweet spot between Uptown and Downtown. We are so grateful to call this home for now.

It's also been very thought-provoking to read a book called Money, Possessions, and Eternity, by Randy Alcorn, and think about the spiritual and physical ramifications of STUFF. Now, we knew we'd have to acquire a few things to live efficiently and well, but we both were digging our heels in the whole way - "don't want to accumulate!" was our battle cry. Several trips to IKEA, pickups at parents', and a moving day when many dear friends helped us life about sixty boxes up three flights of stairs - all made us feel weighed down a bit. But somehow, it's in the human spirit to nest.

Still want to travel light on this adventure of ours. More thoughts on that soon...

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Wait, which box did I pack my brain in...?

I have a confession to make. I haven't made time to sit down and write in about five or six days. We moved all of our possessions on our fifth-year wedding anniversary, the last day of July, into a one-bedroom apartment on the south side of Loring Park. The boxes were up around our ears for a few days, and the only thing that seemed important was getting things where they belonged. *Sigh* This is not true, but it felt true because it's close to the truth.

Thus, I've neglected some of the daily joys like writing and running and baking and reading. But they are slowly creeping in again, gaining ground. At least it coincided with summer vacation, so I didn't feel quite so guilty.

But I actually began this post to announce the hopeful fact that I am jumping back into it, beginning this morning. Here's to many mornings to follow (I'm raising my coffee mug) - chin chin!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Race Report

Today, I embarked on my very first triathlon, the Heart of the Lakes. 1/2 mile swim, 19 mile bike, then 5.5 mile run. It's technically called a long course, but it's just shy of an international distance. This is a tri that gathers people from all over Minnesota, so a lot of local talent. My friend Kari and I headed out in her little Geo Tracker when it was still a little dark out, when the fingernail moon plus a planet still lingered over the blushing east. The IPod kicked into gear with triumphant music, and we were happily sipping our coffee. I felt ready.

The weather was perfect, with the course being a beautiful tour through Minnesota countryside, and the people were so friendly - volunteers, fellow triathletes, and spectators all. Kari, who is a veteran with this sport, showed me the ropes - transition areas, entrances and exits, how it all works. I was so pumped. An 8 o'clock start for the elites, and my wave would jump into the water 20 minutes or so after that.

I wasn't too driven to get a specific time, which turned out to be a good thing. The swim was sloshy on the way out with all of those swimmers, and I was gasping in the cooler water, hard to get my breathing regular. (Remember that part for later.) I did finally find my stride, stroking easily and joyfully all the way through to the sandy-bottomed return at the water's edge.

Running up to the spot where I had carefully laid my gear earlier that morning, I whipped my wetsuit off and headed for transition for the first time. This is where things got interesting. That air I dragged in on the swim? It gathered into a stitch in my side when I hopped on my bike. Hm, that's odd.

That little cramp came to me at mile one of the BIKE, developed into a whopping pain, and didn't leave until I trotted into the finish line on the RUN about 2 hours later. It became so debilitating around mile 1 and 2 of the mile that I could hardly breathe, much less run. As the tears streamed down my cheeks through transition and the first half of the run, I had to give up my dream of finishing fast, and I began to wonder if it wouldn't wise to lay off altogether. The sag wagons were all keeping an eye on me, communicating the difficulties to each other of "Abbey, number 521" by walkie-talkie.

I was pleading with God this whole time to lift this heavy burden. Why did I have to suffer under this, when my muscles and conditioning were happy and healthy, yelling 'let's get ON with it!'? Then, I thought of the Apostle Paul's struggle - much more significant, I sure - with what he calls his "thorn in the flesh."

"A thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming too elated. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me...for when I am weak, then I am strong." (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

Regardless of what Paul's "thorn in the flesh" actually was (theologians LOVE to bandy that one about), I know for certain that this race suddenly meant more than just finishing a race. It was a spiritual discipline as well as a physical, a training for future trials, a great reflection of the race we all run when we have trusted in Jesus Christ as our Saviour, and we have to learn how to trust Him when life becomes...interesting.

This is where the rubber meets the road, the shoe tread hits the pavement, at the water's edge when you've just got to jump in and do it. He was there for me, His grace sufficient in the torrent of tears, tearing pain, and disappointment.

Actually, I had a great race. Thanks for asking. : )

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Framing France

It is one thing to go on vacation in a place, and come home to show family and friends digital snapshots on the laptop slideshow. ILife makes it slick enough, setting your memories to music and condensing the whole experience into a neat 10 or 15-minute presentation. IRemember when IShow you my IShots.

It's been different this time somehow. We arrived with no less pictures than usual. More, perhaps. But our motivation to pull out the slideshows was somewhat muted. Sure, we've shown a video here or a photo there, but nothing like the marathon storytellings we've indulged in during every visit home in the past few years. I have been trying to figure out why this is. Does it have something to do with the fact that we're not leaving again immediately? Probably, but I also suspect something else is going on.

Paris is home. It doesn't seem like the kind of place we need to showcase anymore. We loved the beauty, never got jaded enough to ignore the way a street weaves a serpentine path, or how almost every wall you walk past is embedded with sculpture, or how those musicians who play in the metro are actually pretty good sometimes. But appreciating all of that becomes part of living there, like breathing.

Now we don't live there. That has felt like a problem that needs solving to both of us. Our discomfort comes poking out in awkward statements about "just moving back" and such. It seems quite unlikely at this point that we'd be abandoning our current course to chase yesterday's dreams. Perhaps it's just time to dwell upon some new ideas for the future, whether they involve the same country or not, and enjoy the respite in Minnesota with family and other dear ones.

Still, I'm compelled to surround myself with images of home. (Our home over there, I mean.) A generous soul on craigslist responded to my plea - "frames wanted" - and I'm on my way to framing France. I've been trying to fit our rich life into squares and rectangles of various sizes to hang in our home (over here, I mean) whenever we define that space. Despite my intense drive to do this, I'm a bit skeptical myself. I can see capturing the joys of a holiday in a scrapbook or set of frames, but a full three years of life? Still, I'm trying.

At least part of that life apparently fits into an oblong three-dimensional package of about 12 inches by 6 by 6. We came home last night to a such a knobby bundle on the kitchen counter, which had arrived while we were out. It was addressed from a bunch of friends in Paris (two cunning masterminds in particular!) and contained many memories, encouragements, bits of Paris. It was overwhelming. And wonderful. It seems as if I might be needing some more frames.

This is only one side of the complexity of grappling with our two homes. More about the other side next time. "For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Jesus Christ."

Wednesday, July 01, 2009


"The help which I have received from others shows that autobiography here does not exclude the notion of collaboration, and hence of the collective." - Sarah Kay

"Real life is meeting." -C.S. Lewis

In this forum, I do not often bring up my studies in medieval literature, but sometimes they intersect with life in surprising ways. Sarah Kay, in her book involving authorship and medieval autobiography, expressed her thanks to her support system by putting an emphasis on the collaborative. I think her comment is helpful for understanding what life is about in general. C.S. Lewis' chapter heading in that Hideous Strength sort of sums it up.

We're all writing an autobiography. You may never pen the words yourself, but every minute of every day is adding to a greater, overarching story that holds together in the long run as a "good read." But none of this would be possible without the other people to whom we are connected. This is why I find Kay's quote illuminating. Essentially, there is no "me" without a "we."

As a Christian, the first collaboration I have is with God. We are hardly peers (!), so the analogy does not work in quite the same way, but I do participate in His work. Plus, the God I worship is Three-in-One: a perfect union of work and love. The collective does not get much better than that.

Next, I collaborate with my husband - with all of life. That is not to say he proofs my conference papers, nor do I tell him how to play a song a certain way, but our lives overall are meant to be one great cooperation. By God's grace, we challenge one another to think differently and grow, all while being like-minded and of one, loving spirit.

There are all sorts of collaborations that spill out from there. Run a marathon, but with a friend or my dad. Write, but check in weekly with two other writers for comments and edits. Read, but get two copies and share observations with another reader. Make music, but eventually start a band. Worship God, but in the corporate setting of the church. Study, but go to class and write papers that must be reviewed by other academics.

No man is an island, but we just might be an archipelago.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Time to Plant, A Time to Pluck up

My, we have a lot to catch up on. Do you have time to pull up a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, depending on the time zone? I'm not sure I can fit all my thoughts into one post, but we've got to start somewhere.

A time to plant, A time to pluck up what is planted. Isn't this backwards? We experience it the other way around. Two and a half weeks ago on a gray day, I painstakingly extricated my stubborn roots from foreign soil. It is good that my destination was marked "family" in my mind and not "Minneapolis", or I am afraid I might have never come back. The weather matched my mood, gloomy. Rain droplets gathered on the small oval window that peered onto the tarmac of Charles de Gaulle airport and I tried not to act like a cliche.

At the end, I was very cheered to see the bright smiles of my mom, dad, brother. Lots of shining teeth, energetic hugs held long and sweet. The next day, I dove headlong into the bustle of my cousin's wedding. More smiles, hugs, talk about France. Surprised looks when I tell some that we're back for now. Most of them figured we'd be over there, well - forever. Part of me wonders.

Karl is still on the opposite shore, holding the other end of the tape as we measure the probabilities and improbabilities of the next season of our lives. I ask him about decisions, aspirations, but he cannot fathom those questions now. He's got to uproot before he can replant. I understand completely.

As if vaguely aware of my vulnerability as a transplant, within a week of my return, I was actually planting a garden. (Okay, as fond as I am of metaphor, I mean this literally this time.) Zucchini, lettuces, beets, basil seeds dropped into pots as a birthday present for someone I love. The humidity and heat caused them to sprout almost immediately. I crouch close to the minuscule leaflets, glowing green against the black backdrop of soil. I imagine I can see them unfolding as I watch. The sun is hot on my head and I move into the blue shade along the side of the house.

Another revelation. In terms of landscape here, green is the rule, and gray is the exception. This formula is inverted in Paris, its beauty sketched out in other ways. Now, midwestern suburbs may seem calm to most, but when you've been wandering in a four-toned print for three years, Minnetonka feels as rich and colorful as a rainforest. Then I remember that it used to be a prairie. In the morning, I take my coffee onto the front porch and gaze around me, dazed and fascinated, senses swarming with exotic creatures. The metallic clatter of dragonfly wings, swarming moths, bees swinging around the daisies like industrious acrobats. It would take a long time to catalog all of the insects that scurry past my bare feet - ants of all sizes, black shiny beets, translucent spiders.

I trot off into the neighborhoods a few miles from my parents' house and find the secret passageway to the park. I remember when my best friend from across the street showed it to me, cutting through a well-worn hole in the sumac on our dusty bikes. Purgatory Creek Park. A sandy trail runs white hot in the sun where prairie grasses give off the hot breath of sweet clover, and then it dips down into the woods for relief, deep draughts of cool air and shade. A deer nearby turns his head and looks at me, unconcerned.

Other than this, I have been reading like someone starved. The lives of Dorothy Day and Ernest Hemingway help me feel at ease with the paradox, the stark contrast of landscapes in my life. The paradox of loving the city and natural beauty both. After mainly finding her identity in her hometown of Chicago and her wild life in the Village in NY, Dorothy Day went and bought a cottage on Staten Island with her first major earnings as a writer, a full hour from Manhattan. Must have been quite the switch. Hemingway found that writing about Michigan flowed nicely when he was ensconced at a table in a clattering, brassy Parisian bistro.

I wonder if that works the other way around. Will I be able to write more about Paris now that I'm back in the Midwest? I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Monday, June 08, 2009

30 years and Countless Blessings.

As my consciousness bubbled to the surface, I heard exuberant voices ringing out a familiar theme. My messy head flopped out from under my covers to see my three flatmates boldly marching in with glowing candles and smiles and flags waving. I couldn't stop giggling at how wonderful it was to get woken up by the birthday song. It's a Danish tradition. What followed was a beautiful breakfast table laid out with more candles, flowers, croissants, pain au chocolat, nectarines, presents. Karl was the funniest and sweetest as he did his best to pray a blessing for me when he'd also only been roused from peaceful sleep five minutes previous, pre-coffee and everything. (I will be adding pictures shortly.)

After lingering, Karl and I decided to spend the rest of the morning using our French bikes one last time to meander down the Coulee Verte. This is a trail south of Paris that winds through some pretty little villages. We ended up in charming Sceaux, and discovered for ourselves an exceptionally good boulangerie with a sidewalk table. We started with quiche with salmon, dill, and sun-dried tomato, and the server looked at us quizzically when we said this was my “birthday cake.” We took that as a sign to indulge in a luscious tarte aux pommes, and 2 cups of espresso. She approved.

We had to book it back to Paris, as my friends Peter and Aubrey had invited me over to have lunch at their place and hang out with their new little daughter Rebecca. Indian takeout, a beautiful bouquet, good music, laughs, hugs, prayers. Karl joined and our dear friends pulled out an awesome bottle of champagne to celebrate. Tear-filled smiles- this was au revoir for a while. I paraded through the streets of Paris with a gorgeous bunch of red and white flowers (I will say that carrying flowers around sure makes one feel pretty), and continued on to my friend Alexandra's, who had offered to have me for tea. We indulged in the most amazing fondant au chocolat and fresh cherries, and laughed, played with Karl-Johann (her eight-month old), prayed, cried, and then I headed home.

When I arrived, it was already late-ish for dinner, but Ray and Karl were just finishing up the preparations for Japanese curry and a playlist of Johnny Cash (what else would you do in Paris, I mean really?) Tasty, on all counts. At this point, it was 9 pm. We were pretty tired, had to be up early. Still some packing to finish up. So, we went to bed, right?

Well, eventually. (You know us better than that, I hope!) I mean, it was our last night in Paris for a while. So, we got gussied up and ventured out for the late show at the Duc des Lombards, a famous jazz club we'd always talked about going to. As we sat bouncing our knees to the lively interpretations of Benny Goodman tunes, we lolled mouthfuls of Madiran over our tongues and just savoured. That's what this day was about – to enjoy and be thankful for 30 years, 10 percent of which I spent in this wondrous city with the man that I love, making dear friends that will last through this life and beyond. Merci, Dieu.

N.B. The best gift of all was my amazing husband, as you can see he was hovering around, carefully making sure all day that my birthday went well. Love you, K. Also, I wrote this post too soon, as more beautiful roses were awaiting me when I arrived back at home. Thank you, Pam!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Spider and the Rosebush

I am sitting in the early morning haze of our garden in Gentilly. You can tell from the still, damp air that the heat will be stifling later, but my spot is still cool with shady blues. In this calm, my mind starts to flit over the past few years, and all that God has given us to serve our joy and His glory.

There is an exquisite spider web to my right, bravely slung across a vast opening between the stone wall and the hedge beneath. Every once in a while, half a head of fragrant white rose petals comes tumbling ripe from its perch in the bushes above. Every time, I wonder if the fine threads of the web will escape the incoming avalanche. So far, so good.

We came to this country nearly three years ago with all the determination of the spider that wove this little marvel. We, too, cast out threads and - perhaps somewhat to our surprise - found our haven anchored to firm foundations. Certainly, we had imagined it would be more ephemeral than this - a sort of net for catching a few delicious days as they flew by, temporary and lovely.* But then it lasted. And lasted.

Now it comes to an end, it seems. There are gigantic blossoms looming over our heads, threatening to topple and tear us away from a home we learned to weave. This is a bittersweet season, in which greater joys come to destroy our makeshift designs with their magnificence. But somehow, crushed by the beauty, I think we won't mind.

Onto the next adventure, where we will cast thin strands about in another spot in the garden. For now we rest thankful, buried in the weighty remembrance of heady roses that once floated past. This is the lifelong fling.


* "A a net for catching days."Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Thirty-Three Bridges

A week ago today, laced up my running shoes, dreaming of crossing all of Paris' 33 bridges in one outing. I'd been thinking about doing this for a while, but it suddenly took on more meaning about a month ago.

This year, a very good friend of ours was diagnosed with brain cancer. She has a loving husband, a good church, and a whole lot of courage. Yet I couldn't help shuddering when I thought about the costs involved for her treatment.

I honestly don't remember when my wacky thought about the bridges converged with our friend's health situation, but that's probably because the credit for the idea goes to God. One minute, I was thinking about performing this feat for fun, and the next minute, it had taken on an eternal quality. I think life is like this. God inspires us to do something, and then He creatively conjoins these desires to the real-life needs of people so we can serve them. In all of this, we make much of Him!

I watched open-mouthed as he moved the generosity of people in our church here in Paris (many of them know this friend), until I had over 1000 euros in pledged donations, should I successfully finish all 33 bridges. With the wind at my back (half the time anyway!), I charted a course that zigzagged through this beautiful city, from east to west. Rain was forecast, yet I enjoyed sunshine and a pretty haze that beautified the scenery even more.

The beginning of the course was in fact the most difficult, because it was downright ugly. Pont National runs through rusty industrial zones and train yards, and the first sign I saw was "Interdit aux Pietons" (Forbidden to Pedestrians). Not a very promising beginning. But everything just got better from there.

My 2 1/2 hour journey took me through the very heart of Paris - the city I love, the city that we've made ours. It was like running through a photo album of our last three years here. The towers at left are the library where I spent most of last year studying. The bridge at right leads directly to Bercy Stadium, one of Paris' main musical venues where Karl will play on the 31st of this month with a gospel choir. As I ran, I was simply saying: "thank you, thank you, thank you." Over and over again.

In the centre-ville, the bridges get quite short between the two islands, Ile-de-la-Cite and Ile-St.-Louis. When I ran past the Cathedrale Notre-Dame (about the halfway point in my calculations, I slowed my pace. Not because I was tired (really!) but I just wanted to savor each moment. It was happening too fast. So much like our stay here - gone so fast. (Oh Lord, teach me to be content with what I have!)

My original calculation for the whole run was 11 miles, but a few detours due to construction and industrial areas (dang train yards) brought the grand total to 15 miles. My legs were pretty wiped out by the end (my knees have gotten used to comfy dirt paths of my usual running trail south of Paris), but it was worth every step.

I found out later that day that I had inadvertently planned my course for May 10, which happened to be not only Mother's Day, but also the birthday of the friend for whom I was running, and the traditional day for Race for the Cure. These were details that I could not have planned. It is such a delight to be running on the path the Lord has laid out before us.