Treehouses, Letting Go, and the Definition of Food: Friday Link Love

Let’s start with a feel-good:

97 Year Old Woman Gets a Diploma — Washington Post

She had to drop out during the Depression:

“When I told her she was getting a diploma, she sobbed as if a pain had been relieved from her heart,” [her daughter] said. “I never knew what it meant to her. She wanted this.”


The Minister’s Treehouse — Colossal

A self house! Built over 11 years and without blueprints:

More at the link.


What is Food? — New York Times

Mark Bittman doesn’t mince words in his support of Mayor Bloomberg’s limiting the size of sugary drinks that are sold in New York:

If the mayor were to ban 32-ounce mugs of beer at Yankee Stadium after a number of D.U.I. arrests — and, indeed, there are limits to drinking at ballparks — we would not be hearing his nanny tendencies. (And certainly most non-smokers, at least, are ecstatic that smoking in public places — including Central Park — is increasingly forbidden.) No one questions the prohibition on the use of SNAP for tobacco and alcohol. And that’s because we accept that these things are not food.

Sugar-sweetened beverages don’t meet [the standard of ‘food’] any more than do beer and tobacco and, for that matter, heroin, and they have more in common with these things than they do with carrots.


You’re Not Special — Boston Herald

A high school commencement speech from David McCullough, Jr.

…do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.

The empirical evidence is everywhere, numbers even an English teacher can’t ignore. Newton, Natick, Nee… I am allowed to say Needham, yes? …that has to be two thousand high school graduates right there, give or take, and that’s just the neighborhood Ns. Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That’s 37,000 valedictorians… 37,000 class presidents… 92,000 harmonizing altos… 340,000 swaggering jocks… 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs. But why limit ourselves to high school? After all, you’re leaving it. So think about this: even if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you.

It’s downright theological, the way it critiques an overly indulgent, everyone-gets-a-trophy culture… but then flips “you’re not special” at the end:

Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, a gratifying byproduct. It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things. Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly. Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.

Because everyone is.

Watch the video interview too, as he talks about privilege.


A New Ministry Scorecard — Progressive Renewal

How’s your church doing?

% of people who can articulate a clear sense of vision and purpose for the church

% of active participants in all areas of the life of the church

% of first and second time guests

h/t: Jan Edmiston


The Art of Letting Go — Harvard Business Review

“You know what,” I heard myself saying, “I don’t think our work is right for you at this point.” He looked slightly stunned. In all honesty, so was I.

I couldn’t quite believe I’d let go of a potential client who had explicitly expressed interest in our work. But by the end of the evening, I felt lighter, as if I’d done the right thing for both of us.

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. After reading this, I said no to an opportunity that had been shoulding on me for weeks. Wonderfully freeing.


Speaking of letting go…

The Good Short Life — New York Times

After posting this sad story written about a mother’s slow, sad and (yes) expensive decline unto death, “The Good Short Life” is a wise and pithy “yes-and”:

No, thank you. I hate being a drag. I don’t think I’ll stick around for the back half of Lou [Gehrig’s Disease].

I think it’s important to say that. We obsess in this country about how to eat and dress and drink, about finding a job and a mate. About having sex and children. About how to live. But we don’t talk about how to die. We act as if facing death weren’t one of life’s greatest, most absorbing thrills and challenges. Believe me, it is. This is not dull. But we have to be able to see doctors and machines, medical and insurance systems, family and friends and religions as informative — not governing — in order to be free.

It’s an uplifting article, really. I discovered it while reading this post, about seeing life’s most profound challenges as not debilitating, but “interesting.” Easier said than done, but…


I’m on vacation next week, and The Blue Room will be closing up shop while I’m gone. Be good, and savor your life.


Friday Link Love

We’ve had a lot of new visitors to The Blue Room lately, so by way of orientation: every Friday I post a variety of links to items that interested me over the last week, most of which require little commentary. We cover everything from art to faith to brain chemistry. Some weeks it’s lighthearted stuff, some weeks not.

And now, for all your Friday procrastination needs… Link Love:


Creative Dad Takes Crazy Photos of Daughters — Jason Lee

Fun with Photoshop. Lots more at the above link.


Motherhood Mantras: It’s Good Enough — Theresa Cho

Theresa is a rockstar in Presbyterian world. (Yes, I realize the cognitive dissonance there. Work with me, people.) She’s also a righteous babe.

In my ninth week of pregnancy, I had the most vivid dream. My family and I were vacationing in a cabin. While my son and I were hanging out in the backyard, a black panther appeared and began to circle around us. I screamed for my husband to save us, but he couldn’t come. That dream haunted me for months after I found out I miscarried.

After several months had past and I had experienced another miscarriage, I decided to see a therapist for a completely different reason than the miscarriages. But somehow that dream entered into our conversation. After telling her about the dream, she asked me to close my eyes and have a conversation with the panther. Are you kidding me? Talk to the panther? I decided to humor her. The conversation went something like this…

Read the rest. It took my breath away.

This article is part of a series by Mihee Kim-Kort, who is also a righteous babe. I’ve been pondering my own motherhood mantra and hope to participate in this great project at some point.


Fifteen Things You Should Give Up to Be Happy — Purpose Fairy

Blame, complaining, the luxury of criticism… what do you think? What makes your list of impediments to happiness?


A Teacher, A Student and a 39-Year Lesson in Forgiveness — Oregon Live

When he was 12 years old, the boy did something he only later realized probably hurt his seventh-grade teacher. It was minor — he was, after all, a kid — but in time, when he was older and wiser, he wanted to find this teacher and apologize.

But the teacher seemed to have vanished. Over the decades, the man occasionally turned to the Internet, typing the teacher’s name into the search box. He never found anything. He never quit looking. A few months ago — by now nearly 39 years after this happened — he got a hit.

It’s not too late. Interesting to read this article in conversation with the one on forgiving and forgetting earlier this week.


A Thin Toy is a Happy Toy! — Jana Riess

You guys know I write about body image stuff. A lot. Check out this post about how kids’ toys (e.g. Strawberry Shortcake) have gotten thinner over the years. What the heck?

Oh and Jana Riess? Also a righteous babe.


Just for fun: Jesus Tap-Dancing Christ: The Greatest Craigslist Car Ad Ever — Jalopnik

The owner, Joe, who seems to either have some decent design skills or an easily conned friend with said skills, is offering a 1995 Pontiac Grand Am GT for the low price of $700, marked down from the expected price of $199,999. His hyperbolic rhetoric about the car has an intoxicating effect, and I’m actually feeling like I want– no, I need– this Clinton-era example of what Americans can build at their absolute unfettered best.

We tried calling Joe, but of course his line was busy. Duh. There’s probably a line around his block of people hoping to look at the car, or maybe just lick the oil pan to cure cancer or have their baby breathe some holy exhaust. We’ll update if he gets in touch with us before he’s raptured to Heaven.

He did get in touch with them, and there’s now an interview up at this site. Silly post, silly ad. A bit PG-13. Don’t send me letters.


And the obligatory posts from my favorite art site, Colossal:

A Wall of Shattered Glass Floods a Benedictine Monastery:

and Ridiculously Imaginative Playgrounds by Monstrum. I can’t possibly choose my favorite, but how awesome would it be for a church playground to feature one of these:

Jonah… go to Sunday School…

“No way, God! I’d rather be in the belly of the whale!”


Have a good weekend, wherever you may find yourself.

“A Prize I’ve Won by Not Doing Something”

Written earlier this week, before I left for FFW:

This article, called “The Hunger Game and How to Win It,” resonated with me on many levels: the fact that the author David Gessner has a self house, for one, which is something I covet. But also in this tangled-up stuff about achievement and possessing stuff. And hunger:

We have turned [our] insatiable hunger on our own land, swallowing, goring, fracking, drilling so that we can have more and so that we can fuel the vehicles and machines that transport us elsewhere. One of the reasons I find it hard to be too fully moralistic about this behavior is that I share it. In my own work –which is writing — I am always hungry, wanting more and better, and I recognize in my own ambition the same never-sated animal that I see in others. Long ago, I sent a letter to a neighbor on Cape Cod who had built a monstrous trophy house. I wrote: “You’re obviously an ambitious man and in that we are alike. While your workers hammer away up on the hill, I hammer away at my keyboard. Like you, I dream of creating something big, something great, and like you, I sometimes feel that my passion for this controls me, and not me it.” So you see, I am not writing about hunger as an outsider, not Spock looking on puzzled at a world full of Kirks.

And yet that does not mean that I believe that this gets me, or us, off the hook, that we can let our inner Kirks run wild and shoot phasers in the air and make out with every Nurse Chapel they run across. The next sentences in my letter to my neighbor were these: “But we are more in control than we admit, than it’s fashionable to say these days. I don’t suggest the laughable premise that we are rational creatures, or that reason controls our lives. What I do suggest is that our imaginations can be nudged, and work best if nudged earthward.”

He goes on to talk about the ramshackle cabin he built, and how a nest of wrens took up residence thanks to the fact that he neglected to screen up a gap between the door and the roof:

My life feels better, more intense and elevated, having this new family around…

For my part, I am not ready to retire like a Zen monk to my shack. I am still hungry for things. A Pulitzer Prize would be nice, for instance, and after that maybe a Nobel. But right now I am enjoying a different sort of prize, and I can’t help but think this is a prize I’ve won by not doing something.

That is a wonderful characterization of Sabbath, so the quote grabbed me. That’s grace, isn’t it? The goodness that comes to you when you’re not pursuing it.

But I also related on a literal level: our family, too, hosts a family of birds. I wrote about them in Sabbath in the Suburbs. They live in the exhaust vent of our range hood, and they show up every year. Because every year we forget to plug up the dang hole.

I try to be honest in the book about the difficulties of choosing a day of rest over so many other things—things like installing a finer mesh over a hole, so our stove’s exhaust fan doesn’t blow out because the duct is clogged with twigs and leaves and baby birds.

But I like the way David Gessner thinks about it. After all of this time spent Sabbath-keeping, I still have a lot to learn.

Things I Learned While My Kid Was at Camp

As I mentioned on Monday, Caroline is at Girl Scout camp this week. The weirdest thing for me is not even being able to talk to her. Camp is one of the last experiences in which parents and children are in complete radio silence from one another. Robert and I went overseas several years ago, and were on an island inhabited by 200 people, and still we talked regularly to the girls. (James was in utero.) Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great and necessary, just weird.

Some other random thoughts I’ve had this week as I think about her often, miss her very much, but feel confident that it will be the experience she needs to have.

Notice I didn’t say I was confident she would have a good time. I’m not confident of that. This is her first camp experience, so we’re in uncharted territory. The odds are in her favor, though. And that’s the calculation we made when we (and she) decided she was ready for a week of camp: she loves Girl Scout activities, she has been camping a few times and likes it, she’s been away from us overnight many times, and it’s a water- and swimming-themed camp, which is her thing.

Not to mention that the Girl Scouts have been at this for almost a hundred years.

But it’s true. She may have a not-great time… and it will still have been an important experience for her. She will have learned that you can have a not-great time and it will not kill you. That bad times come to an end and she can survive them. And as long as the week might have seemed, she will know that her parents will be there at 8:15 on Saturday morning to fetch her and to hear all about it.

I am certainly not rooting for a not-great time, but aren’t those fantastic lessons to learn? That you can survive a nasty girl in your cabin, or chigger bites, or food that’s not your favorite, or homesickness, or the bad thunderstorm we had on Monday?

I say this because not everyone I’ve talked to this week has been supportive. “A WHOLE WEEK!?!?” one mother shrieked when I told her. Geez, you’d think we were sending her to Glass-Chewing and Chainsaw-Juggling Camp. Another was relieved to hear that the camp was so close by should something go wrong. Then there was the mom who told me about the friend-of-a-friend whose kid had to be picked up because she wouldn’t eat. Or the kid whose parents had to pick her up because she cried constantly with homesickness. And look, it does have to be an individual decision with your own kids’ personality in mind. But really? Those aren’t horror stories. Those are stories of taking a risk and realizing it wasn’t the right time or the right fit. Those are learning experiences. You can make all the right calculations and things still go wrong. I say it’s better to take a chance.

Remember this Atlantic article about parents who smooth over their kids’ childhoods to the point that they don’t know how to deal with setback and failure as adults? (I talk about it here.) I don’t want to do that. “Will they be homesick, or could something go wrong” seems to be some people’s lines in the sand. Well… yes they will be homesick. And yes, something is likely to go wrong. And unless you think the homesickness or the something-wrong is going to be severe and debilitating, those aren’t reasons not to do it.

But here’s the other thing I realized about moms who shriek and tell horror stories:

There is such pressure around here to be the perfect parent. Keeping up with the Joneses in my leafy suburb of NoVA has nothing to do with cars and TVs; it’s all about giving your kids every opportunity to succeed, excel, be enriched, etc. So at first I heard these comments and thought, “They think I’m irresponsible, making her grow up too fast. They’re judging me.”

And they might be.

But it’s just as likely that they’re judging themselves—that they feel inadequate as a parent because their kid’s not ready and “should” be, or because the parents can’t bear the thought of their child being away from them, or they can’t afford to send their kid to camp and they feel he or she will miss out. Realizing this allows me to hear their feedback, consider what part of it is useful, and not take on what’s not.

Yes, lots of learning and growth for the mama… but I’m still running to the mailbox every day wondering if there’ll be a letter from her.

Image: Caroline’s home this week. It’s cool how close the shelters are to one another. I remember when I went to GS camp, I was in a tent that was back in the woods such that you couldn’t even see the other tents! Which was a little creepy, though I still liked camp. And get off my lawn.

Giving Up Should for Lent

I have an unofficial goal (call it an intention) of posting to the blog each weekday, with Friday being a short roundup of links I found interesting throughout the week. But that’s not always possible, or even feasible. Sometimes there isn’t anything to say, and anything I do would be forced. Sometimes my kids are sick. Like, today.

So instead I want to share this article about reading a book a week… or more to the point, not reading a book a week. And how that practice of “Not” takes on a special significance during the season of Lent:

The tradition of Lent lies in direct contrast to our culture’s belief in resolutions, our quick proclamations of will and self that are meant more for our personal gain than a real change of heart. And I need, as St. Augustine put it, a “new pure heart”; I believe that my reading habits reflect my own heart’s current needs, ones that resolutions bent on my own success cannot touch.

This article really spoke to me. As I shared in this post/sermon, during Lent I am letting go of my pursuits at excellence and intentionality, noble though they may be, or not. Instead, I am practicing contentment, even radical self-acceptance. Which sounds self-centered and very me-me-me but is, I’m finding, the exact opposite.

A Meditation for Ash Wednesday

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
March 9, 2011
Ash Wednesday
Isaiah 64:1-7

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
2 *as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
4 From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.
5 You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;  because you hid yourself we transgressed.
6 We have all become like one who is unclean,   and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,   and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
7 There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered* us into the hand of our iniquity.


Last week, as I was walking with Caroline to the bus, I heard something that I hadn’t heard for several months. It was a shaking sound, like the rhythm instruments my children like to make, homemade rain sticks made with paper towel tubes and rice and coiled up pieces of aluminum foil.

I looked up, and saw the source of the noise. It was a tree full of leaves that were rustling in the wind. These leaves were dry, brown, shriveled—a remnant from last fall, but there they were, still clinging to the trees, fluttering, ludicrously enough, in the breezes… of spring.

It was so incongruous. So foreign to my auditory experience of early March. All around me were bare trees—in fact, those trees are starting to bud! And yet here is this one tree, still clinging to the leaves from two seasons ago—in effect clinging to its past self.

Now surely there is a horticultural explanation for this.
Maybe certain species of trees do this.
Maybe there was a quirk of the weather during its normal leaf-dropping phase and it just didn’t follow the program.
Or maybe this is a very unhealthy tree.
I’m sure one of our master gardeners will set me straight after the service!

But of course, I looked at this tree with an eye of faith, and a wondering about what the Spirit might be up to here.

Today is the first day of Lent, but because the season of Epiphany was such a long one this year, we are here on Ash Wednesday with just 12 days until spring begins. And if you are like me, you are ready for spring, practically on a cellular level! You are ready for daffodils and crocuses and tulips and color and growth. And I’m ready to see what that tree does with all its brown leaves. I’m fairly certain that those are going to have to go before the new buds can form.

But maybe like that tree, we are still clinging to the debris from the past, and maybe in this season we are called to discard that debris, so that there can be new growth. Otherwise spring will come and spring will go, and more to the point, Lent will come and Easter will go and we will still be hugging tightly to stuff from two seasons past.

Our text today is one of contrasts. Isaiah contrasts the greatness of God with our own iniquity, our own sin. God is associated with mountains and power and fire and the torn curtain of heaven. And we? We are associated with forgetfulness and faithlessness and sin and insignificance.

“We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”

We want to hold on to what is comfortable, or what is familiar, or those things that make us feel important, or those things that we think will preserve our lives… but those things crumble like a dry leaf in our hands.

We sit in this sanctuary tonight wearing the mark of the cross on our foreheads. The ashes that we bear come from palm leaves from last year’s Palm Sunday celebration. These ashes come from the leaf that has faded, crumbled, been burned…

We are reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. We are a dry leaf that flutters away. It’s not a message we like to hear. It’s not exactly the stuff of Oprah Magazine. But it’s the deep dark truth—our lives are finite. And if we needed a reminder of this grim, precious truth, we need only watch today’s news and think about the couple in rural Pennsylvania who lost seven of their eight children in a fire that consumed their home.

Complete devastation.

We all fade like a leaf, and the wind takes us away.

* * *

Many of us, after we’ve gone home and wiped off the ash, take up a practice to try to keep Lent before us. We may give something up during this season—I spoke to people today who are giving up caffeine, or who are fasting from the midday meal, and so forth.

Others like to take on something new during Lent. I encourage people to read a psalm a day, or make their way through one of the gospels, or practice a random act of kindness. I spoke to a pastor today who is going to be more intentional about physical exercise and self-care. (Although, as some church members pointed out, taking something on involves giving something else up—perhaps it’s an extra 15 minutes of sleep each morning to get up and read!)

I think all of those things can be faithful Lenten disciplines to the extend that they point us to God. Whenever you think about that grande mocha with double whip, it can serve as a reminder to stop, take a breath, and pray. Daily exercise becomes about more than personal improvement, it becomes about stewardship of this precious gift of life that God has given to us. These practices can be like the string around our finger that reminds us of God’s presence in our lives.

But this year, I’m feeling a different kind of nudge. The fact is, I see myself in that tree. Instead of taking something on, or even giving something up, let’s think about letting something go. I think that is the true work of Lent. That’s the work of repentance. That’s the way we die to what’s old and outdated and small and dull.

Letting go sounds a lot like giving up, but I think they are very different things. To my ear, giving up has an air of resignation to it.

Giving up feels fatalistic.
Giving up suggests we’ve thrown in the towel.
Giving up is a defeat.

But letting go is a victory… because letting go is an act of faith in a power that is beyond us and greater than us.
Letting go shows trust, that God’s deepest desire for each of us is to know abundant life.
Letting go is a statement that the God who shakes the mountains and makes the fires to blaze will not annihilate us for our misdeeds, but will take those bare branches of our lives and paint them with resurrection color.
Letting go is the work of Lent. So that when Easter bursts forth in six weeks we are prepared, we are ripe; we are not caught short, clutching our dead brown leaves.

…We all fade like a leaf, and the wind takes us away.

But letting go is what makes that verse good news. When we let go of old habits, or of the need to be in control, or of crippling resentments, or unrealistic expectations of ourselves or others, we can embrace this life that God has given us, this life that is fleeting. There is not a moment to lose.

I have this thing I do each month. Last year I read about Ben Franklin, who kept a list of virtues that he wished to cultivate in this life, and each day he would reflect on his day and see how he did, and actually check off items as he went. I was charmed by this notion of keeping track of ourselves, because I think we all have ideas about how we want to be, but it’s easy to stray from that. And because I, like Ben Franklin, want to live an intentional life, I started keeping a list of intentions each month.

I would pray about the upcoming month and ask, “What does the Lord require of me?” (A good biblical question from the prophet Micah!) And I’d choose a few things to focus on. Some of my monthly intentions are very concrete, like taking care of myself through exercise, or nurturing my marriage by having a meaningful conversation with my spouse each day (not as easy as you think with three kids around!)… and some are more general, like “practice gratitude” or “do the loving thing.”

This has been a transformative spiritual practice for me. It appeals to my OCD side, I guess, to have a checklist. I don’t ever beat myself up when I fall short; rather, it’s been a real gift to ask each month, “Who does God want me to be?” and to seek to live it out.

But for Lent, I feel God inviting me to let go of the monthly intentions. I’m going to let go of keeping track of my “progress.” Hopefully I’ll still do those things that bring joy to myself and people around me, but I’m not striving to do them. For a season, I will let go of a sense of control. I will let go of self-improvement. I will let go… so that I can be reminded that I am loved by God, right here and now, just as I am. That’s the good news I need in this life of mine that is so structured and organized—by necessity—that it can easily get brittle and dry.

What might you let go of for these few short weeks of Lent… or forever? What needs to go so that you can experience good news again?

Pastor Anne Howard from the Beatitudes Society wrote this morning in their newsletter, “Lent is less about tackling a pile of spiritual disciplines than it is about accepting the invitation to focus in and look into the messiness, the chaos of our inner selves, our society and the world, and acknowledge our need for God.”

What do you see when you look into the messiness of your self?

What are you desperately clinging to?

What are those things that have been with you so long that they have left your spirit dried and shriveled and impervious to anything new or surprising or bursting with joy?

What would it take for you to let it go, right now, tonight?

Carrie Newcomer, a Quaker singer/songwriter, has a song that describes this process. Perhaps it can be our anthem for Lent:

Leaves don’t drop they just let go,
And make a place for seeds to grow.
Every season brings a change,
A tree is what a seed contains,
To die to live is life’s refrain.

I’ve traveled through my history,
From certainty to mystery.
God speaks in rhyme in paradox.
This I know is true.

And finally when my life is through,
I’m what I am not what I do.
It comes down to you and your next breath,
And this I know is true.

Leaves don’t drop they just let go,
And make a place for seeds to grow.
Every season brings a change,
A tree is what a seed contains,
To die to live is life’s refrain.

To die to live is life’s refrain…

To die to live is Lent’s refrain.

Thanks be to God.