31: memento mori & memento videre

Turning thirty-one offers a little relief in settling into true adulthood. Part of this means that if my idea of a good time is talking about latin catchphrases on my blog while my children “nap” (today this means “alternately fuss in their respective beds for an hour or so”), I can do that. I’m an adult now.

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these grew in my yard. happy birthday to me! 

So, memento mori and memento vivere are the words that come to me when I think about this past year.  “Remember your death” and “Remember to live.” Especially during Lent and Holy Week, I see how inseparable these are, kind of like twin mottos that uphold each other. Most of the lessons and highlights for this year fit neatly into this intersection.

Memento Mori & Household Stuff.
Around my birthday last year, my mom and her siblings moved my grandfather into a nursing home and sold their big iconic family house in the woods. I morbidly joked to Aaron that meant he wasn’t allowed to die in the near future because my early widowhood backup plan (raising the kids in that house) was now off the table. But a big part of that process, which I followed from afar, was clearing out the basement and closets, sorting trunks full of unlabeled pictures, and nearly continual donation trips to the neighborhood Goodwill. I’m pretty sure my mom still has loads of this stuff in her own basement now because it’s hard to sort through things when you’re so emotional. My grandparents were not hoarders by any stretch, just upper middle class Americans who had lived in the same house for 45 years. (Which is to say, the ideal best case scenario for my end of days, too.) I’d read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo before we moved here and implemented what I could from her discarding plan (especially the “joy spark” question) as we packed and unpacked, but I’ve been challenged to continually tackle the clutter battle as a way of life. Because really, memento mori: I’m going to die someday, and I’d rather have my kids talk about their memories of me or the words I left them than know they will be sighing about cleaning out my basement, which I am quite sure was just sighed over and cleaned out by the children of this home’s previous elderly owners before I bought it, too. With this in mind I passed out all the kid toys that made annoying sounds, recycled 80% of the professional photo prints from my wedding (no one is ever going to look at them!), and donated a whole extra van load worth of household stuff… And you know? There’s a lot more living in our home when there’s less picking up, so it’s worth decluttering in the spirit of memento vivere, too.

Memento Mori & Projects
I am always, always up for planning a new project. The number of possibilities (household! Diy! education! reading! church! writing! handcrafts! start five podcasts!)  rolling around in my head is absurd, and I’m humbled every time I open my binder of family recipes, because I see a note in my Grandma’s handwriting. “This is the first edition of the long awaited Niemi cookbook – more to follow.”

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Surprise! There were no later additions to this collection. And it’s not just because she got sick. It’s because life is what happens within limits and you can’t do absolutely everything. This is true for all the ideas in my head, too, and memento mori here means making peace with unstarted and unfinished projects (which are legion), because I’m going to leave a bunch of things undone when I die anyway. Abandoning ideas more quickly, even ones that already made it to a mid-project stage, doesn’t mean that perseverance and completion are unimportant. It just means I can have a clearer head to discern and finish the ones that do matter.

Memento Vivere & the St. Louis Climate
Maybe you have heard of “hygge,” the Scandanavian lifestyle ethos that is trending everywhere these days? It’s all about the quality of being cozy and hospitable, and as a knitter, a candle-lighter, a true woman of the north, I want to embrace this. I feel silly complaining about warm weather after experiencing two of the most brutal winters on record during the short time we lived in Minnesota. But man, it’s unbearably hot and steamy for four or five months out of the year here, and I’m not paying to join the neighborhood pool until the kids learn to swim. We’re going to be trapped inside for much of the summer as long as we live here. So I’m doing my best to memento vivere and ignore the siren call of the Hygge life during winter, embracing every sunny day we can get out for a zoo trip and bundling the kids for playground time now. Winter here is for living, not hibernating. This means we can fully embrace the vibrant splash pad scene here when it warms up. Maybe order some fun inside activity gear. Buy Tazo Passion Tea in bulk to DIY my favorite coffeeshop summer treat. And save excessive movie watching for August, as backwards as it seems.

Memento Vivere & Motherhood 
If my life is a memoir, the chapter I’m living right now is titled “Everyone Is Crying.” There are a lot of good days with the kids, especially now that nearly all outings are possible with both kids on my own, but it’s amazing how easy it is to slip into the belief that life is what will happen next – When they can procure their own breakfast so I can hide in the basement and write every morning until Aaron leaves for work; when we finally get the house projects done so I can get a piano again; kindergarten, glory.

But if I wasn’t waiting to start my life until the kids were born, I’m not waiting to start it now. I really don’t have enough time to do the things I want (and even need, really) to do for my own peace of mind, but remembering to live means figuring out how to fight for even a glimpse of peace in the middle of all this hustle. So maybe spending mornings at a gym with a nursery isn’t an option, but I can still grab the stroller for a walk or turn up fun music to have a “dance party” with the kids. (In doing this I have learned toddler interpretations of the lyrics to basically all my desired workout songs are definitely “explicit.”) Maybe I can’t sit down and write like I’d want, but I can play hard with the kids in the morning and let them watch a few shows after their nap so I can spend an afternoon lost in a book even when there are not enough solo hours to craft paragraphs myself. A little extra screentime isn’t as damaging as growing up with a crazy mom, you know.

This year memento vivere means that anything worth doing is worth doing even a little bit. Because if I have to wait until I can spend an hour at the gym or drink hot coffee alone or sit still long enough to create something beautiful in my journal or on a set of knitting needles to really live, I’m not going to be able to live contentedly with what God has given me. And that’s no life at all.

 

 

 

mercy every morning || (part 2)

[the wormwood & the gall(stones) || part 1] 

I’ve never understood why some people hate making New Year’s resolutions. Even if they come to a fail, you can always try. And at least an effort toward your goal is totally worth it, right? Not trying seems like the worst kind of failure to me. Relinquishing my usual practice of claiming a huge and completely unrealistic batch of resolutions in 2016 felt like a huge sacrifice. With limited support and two small children, especially that baby who didn’t read those books about how much babies should sleep, choosing a survive-every-day plan was the right thing to do. The circumstances forced me to live in the tension of believing that raising a child is one of the most productive endeavors and that it can also feel like you’re wasting your life. Yes, the children need more of me than I thought possible and that matters, but how could I have basically no other direction for my hopes and dreams in life? Did I not want to get anything done or become My Very Best Self Ever? Honestly, it was almost embarrassing. 

If you don’t like New Years Resolutions, you’re probably shaking your head at all of this. But really, whether you have an overly optimistic series of goals or don’t resolve for anything (and I guess whether February finds you powering through or in despair over broken resolutions), the problem with New Year’s Resolutions is not that some of us think too much of January as a “fresh start.” It’s really that all of us don’t think highly enough of the mercy God makes new for every day.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day and the darkness he called Night.
And there was evening, and there was morning, the first day. – Genesis 1:3-5

Creation poetry might be my favorite part of scripture. I love the consistent whisper of hope: there was evening and then there was morning! The first day. There was evening and then there was morning! The second day. It happened again! And again! God’s specific and general self-display all confirms this: Light comes out over dark. Then day comes out over night, plants come out over dirt, order comes out over the void, all pointing to the truest poem of the resurrection, when life comes out over death. This is breathtaking, but it almost seems ironic for me: these days, mornings can be very hard. For a long, long time we lived in the tension of desires to consistently train the kids to stay in bed until a reasonable hour and not let that morning’s protester (because you KNOW they trade off like that) scream long enough to wake the other one. So when we sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” with our kids most nights, that line “early in the morning/ our song shall rise to Thee” is a little haunting. Every time, I wonder: exactly how early are we talking here? And is this just once, or many different times? Just as those little people start sleeping more consistently at night, they develop the ability to crawl out of their cribs and the morning training takes a whole new set of strategies.

Mornings can be hard for other reasons, too. It’s a gift that in sleep, you are removed from whatever hardship you’re facing. This is true of daily tasks and difficulty alike. In sleep we are all leveled the same. But then eyes open, you remember where you are, and the task of the day comes over you.
My body is dirty and my belly is empty.
My child is poking my eye and the baby is crying.
My job is waiting, where I must face my own inadequacy or pour myself out for someone else’s benefit. Also, my boss is a jerk.
My relationship is broken – either I am in the wrong or I must forgive someone, or both.
Maybe my dream is crushed, or someone I love is gone, or whatever.
In waking we must eat, shower, tend, work, reconcile, grieve. Even the very best mornings, especially with my small children who can’t do any of this themselves, require a lot of faithful making: make the coffee, make the bed, make an effort to write, make the eggs. This year’s resolutions, even when I rejoiced to make them, have a way of condemning me with my failure to produce, and I think about that in the morning these days, too. It is in these early re-rememberings that God shows he is also in the business of faithful making, with new mercies that come every morning afresh.

 

Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall!
My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. – Lamentations 3:23-25


Mercy is interesting, especially when you’re thinking about hardship and restarts, because I don’t know if we always talk about it rightly. I’ve heard the word used many different ways lately: “Traveling mercies.” The mercy of a quick death.  The severe mercy of loss. The mercy of a parent passing over a child’s punishment. Sometimes mercy is supposed to mean divine protection, or healing, or sovereign guidance. I always think about the older translation of Psalm 23: “Surely thy lovingkindness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,” and the dictionary tells me it’s a compassionate forbearance usually shown towards an offender. Let’s be really frank here: Compassion sounds great, but it means “Suffering-with” when we would rather pretend like hard things aren’t there. And then mercy meaning that compassionate forbearance there is “towards an offender”? I don’t like the implications of that last little part very well, either. But this is God’s solution to affliction. It’s not that we can ignore it or that he will necessarily remove it. We have to call hardship what it is to know the fullness of God’s love for us, because maybe this is how we know it doesn’t interrupt His care for us. Fresh mercy for every day means that in any state of sin or sorrow, whatever hits me when my eyes open each morning, God meets me there – no holding back, no matter what. It means I have to show up to whatever difficulty comes to me or I’m going to miss what God is doing for me in it. And it means that in any state of disarray, from my bed to my brokenness, God is faithfully making these messy and hard things new. 

the wormwood & the gall(bladder) || part 1

With over a year of living in Missouri, it’s fair to say this has been a move no one would ever want to relive. Though it came with so many good things, like a new job and a baby, moving is an unpredictable mix of gift and loss. Leaving and remaking home is hard anyway, but many of the details of this move and the rest of our lives this year have been notably challenging. When I was coordinating my recent gallbladder removal surgery (because amid this all I was having painful gallbladder attacks, of course), Aaron kept saying, “This has to be the last thing, right? No more emergencies for a while.” Two weeks later we were stranded with the kids in busy traffic when our van overheated. If this is irreparable, it will require a third vehicle purchase in less than eighteen months.

I am the man who has seen affliction … Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. – Lamentations 3:1, 21-23

With physical ailments all around, expensive home repairs and neighborhood problems, and a long haul in cultivating new friendships and community, much of this has been affliction. But it’s also wandering, which feels like wasting, uncertainty, aimlessness, and disconnection – an affliction of it’s own sort, really. Our Minnesota theme was we didn’t see that one coming. So far Missouri’s is we can’t get a break or as thine income, thine emergencies shall be in measure. I said settling in here was going to be full of unknowns, full of newness. That has definitely been the case. 

These new things are hard, but there is also always, always good there, and it has been my practice to keep a gratitude list, recounting God’s gifts in all things. There is something particularly sacred about training our eyes on the way beauty and grace come through in all of life, but there is a difference between talking about redemption through hardship and ignoring hardship all together. 

I could easily share how God’s grace flamed so fiercely in this, and maybe I should, but I’m also starting to think there would be some spiritual benefit to keeping track of the bad stuff in life, just as much as the good. Why memorialize the wormwood and the gall, the bitter and bile? Scripture does so all the time, I find. Still, I have been fighting this since it seems to conflict with (among other things, like not wanting to sound whiny) my very-present concern for those souls stranded or running for their lives in the war-torn Middle East. We’re not under siege or refugees, so we’re okay, right? Things aren’t that bad. I’m a secure stay-home mom with living children, great health care, and food in the fridge, which alone means I have many, many circumstances “better” than others. People around the world risk their lives every day pursuing a small portion of these comforts and freedoms. But this mostly-empty empathy is more pride than gratitude. My help in life is not in being generally safe from ISIS coming to my front door, or comfortably feeding and staying home with my kids during a season when they need so much of me. My help in this, and everything, comes from the Lord, Psalm 121 says, under the heading “a song of ascents.” What is an ascent but climbing from lowliness to height? With the right perspective, with our hearts grounded in God’s mercy, recounting hardship is part of gaining a humble perspective. Brushing difficulty off because “it’s not as bad as someone else” is not always a sign of a content heart; sometimes it comes from a heart that doesn’t want to be needy.

I didn’t even realize this part of it until I started groaning every time I saw the negative consequences of my exhaustion, which has been just an undercurrent of these overall afflictions. This looked like lots of grumbling, but little praying, and a fair share of disappointment against other people. These are not the responses of seeing-grace-in-the-hard; this is evidence of resentment when others need me or I need something, and ignoring neediness, maybe hoping it will go away.  Acknowledging hardship admits a lack of control. Given full autonomy, who would choose difficulty or incapacity? Yet this is precisely why Christianity is not a point of achievement but a constant path of growing smaller: We are the backwards people, and our journey of ascent starts out being bowed down in neediness. Lamentations doesn’t tell us the wormwood and gall are to bend us down forever, but it does show that hoping in God and recounting his mercies starts from a place of honesty and humility about that affliction. 

I lift my eyes up to the hills, from where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. – Psalm 121:1-2

[I don’t think I’m copying her ideas directly in anything here, but my thoughts on humility have been very much formed by Hannah Anderson’s excellent book Humble Roots. It’s definitely recommended reading!]