Sisu, sleeplessness, and the marriage supper

When my Grandma died last year, we experienced fully the forethought of grief, where you get to hang on to the tension and dread of a protracted, agonizing death. Sometimes it is like that. But sometimes death just happens, and all you can do is try to keep breathing when someone you love isn’t. The forethought of grief was not an option with my grandpa. The phone calls came quickly and suddenly this time: Falls. Heart murmurs. Bed sores. Hospice. Long naps. Soon. Maybe tomorrow? No, today.

And all of the sudden, Poppa is gone. This was expected because, of course, we’re mortals, and he’s an old man with heart defects and Alzheimer’s, ailed by who knows what host of other problems he couldn’t describe due to his memory problems. But it feels too fast, too soon, and too wrong. I suppose it never feels right to hear that news. Death is always a loss, always cutting against the grain of our eternity-bound hearts.

A robin flies into my window the next day, and the thump against my house drops it back dead on the porch. Seizing the opportunity to practice a hard teaching moment, I point out the front window and explain the bird’s death to my little daughter. She can’t understand it yet, can she? Still shy of her second birthday, she proudly tells her baby brother Thomas about this as soon as his nap ends: “Tho’as! Bird. Nap. S’eepy outside. No wake up. Dead. Icky. ‘ook, Tho’as.”

We need to walk past the bird to get in the van, to get to the mall for new black funeral shoes. Old shovel in hand, I swallow hard and can’t get the edge under the bird; I don’t really have the gumption to take control of the dead bird situation. When my scooping efforts fail, I let the bird slide off the porch into the flower bed. It lands between two overgrown boxwood, right next to a new bush Aaron planted. He’s so much like Poppa, with curious joy in watching new life spring forth from the earth. He can move the bird away later, and it won’t hurt us in the meantime. Still disconcerted by the sight of this poor robin in the bushes, I take the children around the back door anyway.

That night Aaron says he’s glad to hear the bird landed in the mulch. He needs to fertilize the new bush soon anyway. The best thing to do, he says, is just leave it. We go about our evening: My grandpa is dead, the bird is dead, and my children are miraculously full of even more life than usual after our trip to the mall. We sing cheerful songs before they sleep at night, because that dead bird monologue didn’t translate into actual understanding of my (and our) loss. Cheer and grief: what do I do with this dissonance?

The Lord liveth — though Poppa is dead.
Blessed be the Rock — since we are dust. 
Let the God of our salvation be exalted —
…while we lay someone low in the ground. 

The funeral, exactly a week before my sister’s wedding, finds me preparing to share a eulogy about Poppa’s humble beginnings, his love for the creation and the Creator, and his determined spirit. That sanctuary holds many special memories: My mom’s and aunt’s wedding pictures, my cousins’ baptisms, late Christmas Eve services, Grandma’s funeral last year. Poppa was there for all of these. We sing some of his favorite songs, like How Great Thou Art, and it’s hard to believe he’s not sitting in his row, belting it out alongside us. Since the minister’s homily covered most of my main points, I begin with a joke that my speech “got scooped.” Thankfully, a story as good as Poppa’s is worth telling twice. 

The tales of Poppa growing up as the child of unassimilated Finnish immigrants yet earning advanced degrees, serving in the Air Force, establishing elementary schools in Alaska and colleges in Michigan, traveling the world, and always, always gardening might seem disjointed, but their common thread is found in a little knowledge about his Finnish roots. My Poppa started elementary school speaking only Finnish and knowing just a few English words. I’m the opposite, because I just speak English, but the one Finnish word I know is sisu. It doesn’t fully translate to English, but it means grit, determination, valor, fortitude, sustained courage, and fighting with the will to win. Sisu is considered the true Spirit of Finland, and with this tenacity, Poppa’s life demonstrated that he kept the best of his Finnish heritage with a sisu drive for faithful effort in carefully chosen pursuits.

After talking about his life and the resurrection  – Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ is coming again, Alleluia – we scoop potato salad onto our plates in the fellowship hall before moving outside to stand in the blazing sun, scooping earth over ashes. Grandma and Poppa are set there together, dust over dust. By their quiet faithfulness to the gospel and each other, my grandparents were, in so many ways, like trees planted by streams of water, like great Oaks of righteousness. We sow in tears, grieving that this is so final and awful and wrong. We sow in faith, believing boldly that God will reap them as His glorious harvest following the raising of Christ, the firstfruit of all who sleep.

When we have laid them to rest, we return to a full house since so many aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings stay for the week until Naomi’s wedding. We do not rest ourselves. No one ever wants to go to bed, and this is not just the kids cajoling for 5 more minutes. We’re adults who know we are dangerously exhausted, but still we turn on the movies and make snacks to procrastinate on our necessary wedding projects until the wee hours every day. Is it because we want to try keeping today long enough for a little more joy? Or because we know sleep is a mini-death? Maybe it’s because we want more time with Poppa, which we cannot have, so we hang on to every moment with these people who gives us a little bit of him and his memory.

Grief is exhausting because you just want to keep it at bay; if you keep busy, keep fighting to embrace what you have, maybe the memories of your loss will stay away longer. And you stay up late so you aren’t trying to will yourself to sleep with fewer defenses against the pain. You want to be too tired to pay attention to how bad it feels. If you lay there with any energy left, you will remember. It’s easier, in the short term, to fall apart from exhaustion than to be alert to what you have lost.


Bill Niemi and Thomas Hummel. Poppa kept saying, “You can tell he really likes me!”

The Apostle Paul says that in death and resurrection, what is sown does not come to life unless it dies, planted like a bare kernel. Everyone who watched Poppa’s remains go into the earth (we who are now folding bulletins and altering bridesmaid dresses and spray painting table decor) also watched this happen in Poppa’s garden every summer. Just like we joyfully tasted the firstfruits of his garden labors, in ripe red tomatoes and long green beans and crisp cucumbers, we see the joyful fruit of his life among us. To say nothing of blessings among my cousins and the wider community of family and friends, my sisters and I all celebrate our new boys: I have Thomas, Beth is roundly pregnant with Ellis, Naomi is marrying Matt.  We live in the tension of loss and exponential increase this week especially, somehow starting to make peace with what we have heard and spoken about the resurrection: What God raises up out of death is greater than what existed naturally in the first place.

So is it with the resurrection of the dead:
what is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable.
It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory.
It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power.
It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.

Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord,
knowing that in the Lord your labor is never in vain.
– 1 Corinthians 15:42-44, 58.

It makes a lot of sense that we spend our initial grief for Poppa in wedding coordinations, moving from funeral grief to marriage joy in that same church the next Saturday. We celebrate the seamless call of the gospel and the example of Poppa’s Finnish sisu, to abound and labor for good fruit by the finished work of Jesus. We persevere in preparations while Naomi and Matt open their hearts and arms to each other, in the shadow of Poppa’s life of diligence and devotion. We prepare to rejoice and feast in celebration of their new life together, echoing the eternal life Poppa revels in at the marriage supper of the lamb.

PicMonkey Collage.jpg

wedding photos via  hello rose photography 

Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb! -Revelation 9:9

William Jacob Niemi, Jr., passed away on July 17, 2016, surrounded by family. 

reading round up 2.13.15

[What We’re Up To] 
This has been a fairly out-of-control few weeks. My grandmother recently passed away, so Annie and I spent over a week in Michigan for the funeral, and came  home with wicked colds. I’m still not entirely recovered, probably due to her waking up congested/crabby/hungry 4-6x every night for the past several weeks. We’re surviving, but we’re also wearing our pajamas for several days in a row and the house is a complete disaster. (As in, “it’s a good thing no one is calling CPS on us” dirty.) But! The disarray is also here because we’ve got stuff pulled out all over the place to prepare for installing the new floor in the whole upstairs starting this weekend! Then we’ll use a gift card and go out to eat, because making progress on DIY projects and not having to cook speaks love and romance to me in so many ways. Aaron is a good man and he knows this about me.

Annie is now six months old, so in celebration we presented her with an exciting, but not quite age-appropriate, toy. Max understands it better than she does. (And now that enough time has passed and I’m sure my thoughts on the whole thing are not crazy, or at least they haven’t changed with this much perspective, I may get brave/annoyed enough to share some *non-graphic* thoughts on the “birth culture” in America.)

[Valentine’s Reading]
My all-time favorite treatise on love and finding contentment with the simpler life is The Romance of Domesticity, written by the husband-half of one of my all-time favorite couples.
Despite a few nagging theological differences, I think a series on marriage from a while back at Like Mother, Like Daughter really hit the nail on the head for me. I was very encouraged to know we’re building something of spiritual value in marriage, even before we had kids, and even when building up marriage and each other comes at the expense of other “good” things. Now, this can be taken WAY TOO FAR, and I think the book below provides some balance to that, but there were some encouraging thoughts found here. 

I’m reading You and Me Forever by Francis and Lisa Chan, which can be purchased on their website or downloaded free in PDF format. (I chose the free PDF.) I really appreciate the focus on the Kingdom of God instead of the glorification of marriage, which is what usually oozes out of stuff I read. If I hear one more thing about how the primary key to Christian life is “Building a Marriage-Centered Family” or something like that without this balance, I might scream. (It’s dangerous and idolatrous.) Instead, I’m finding this very refreshing:

You are more than a spouse. If you have been blessed with kids, you are more than a parent. You have a unique role in the Kingdom of God, and he has great works for you to do… For some of you, it isn’t about the “Christian Bubble,” it’s just the plain old idolatry of the family. I want you to seriously ask yourself: Do I spend more time focusing on being a good spouse and parent, or more time focusing on being a godly person?

This excellent Ted Talk asks, “Can You Feed 9,000,000,000 People?” and goes over much of the truth the “organic” crowd misses when they condemn GMO crops. I’d ask any of my friends to thoroughly examine these claims before condemning genetic engineering in crop science.

Mostly classical and nerdy this week…
The Firebird Suite by Igor Stravinsky
Toccata and Fugue in D-minor, BMV 565 by Johann Sebastian Bach.

One-Star Book Reviews are just plain fun. As I think about children’s literature, I can’t help but appreciate the kindly reviewer for The Flopsy Bunnies: “The focus on killing baby bunnies and fighting over what to do with their bodies once they were dead, wasn’t very child friendly.” Duly noted.
These New Titles For Children’s Books (Based Entirely On Their Covers) is providing much entertainment here. My favorites? “Whoever Is On That Boat Is About To Be Disemboweled,” and “When The Colorblind Decorate.” Maybe “Midget Girl Adopts Satan’s Puppy,” too.
Unrelated to kids’ reading, Elizabethan Superheros is also worthy of a few chortles.

Happy Valentine’s Day, and happy weekend!

Rich men have chickens

“If I were a rich man…
I’d fill my yard with chicks and turkeys and geese and ducks
For the town to see and hear
Squawking just as noisily as they can
With each loud “cheep” “squawk” “honk” “quack”
Landing like a trumpet on the ear
As if to say, ‘Here lives a wealthy man!'”

“I want to hear about chickens because we’re thinking about doing it, too.” I get that a lot. Now that we’re a year out from the start of our unfortunately short-lived chicken adventure, I’m really wishing we’d been able to keep them!

Although it seems like this started when I went away for a weekend and came home to find Aaron working on a half-built “play house” for our “future kids” in the garage, there is more history than I’ve mentioned before. The story of our chickens really begins two decades ago, when a little boy with long legs and a squeaky voice built an egg incubator and searched all natural habitats he could access in hopes of scoring a duck nest with eggs he could swipe and raise himself. Later he actually had a chicken business in the backyard, with a little flock of laying hens and funny anecdotes about training his dog to stay away from the chicks. (At one point he ran a home-made ice cream sandwich business, which I am hoping will resurrect itself in adulthood as well.) Just like his “mean” parents were hesitant about supplying fowl eggs, he grew up and got a “mean” wife who shot down his suggestions about chickens every spring with objections like, “We don’t have enough time,” “We’re probably going to move,” “They will make the backyard stink,” “It’s not actually going to save money,” and “If we’re committing to animals we should just get a dog, which is what we both really want anyway.”

As it turns out, every one of my objections about chickens actually came true, but it worked out after all. I was pretty ticked about this at first, and I could have put my foot down and stopped the whole thing right then, but I also realized it was providing a strong boost for Aaron when he was feeling very beaten down by a long, lonely stretch at the end of his PhD program. He needed to know his extreme life-long desire to understand everything about nature was a blessing, and that it didn’t only mean being locked in a lab for six years just because he was grown-up and reasonably smart. I tried to bite my tongue for the most part, but I stipulated that he was responsible for ALL chicken work and the coop had to be cleaned as often as I wanted when the weather warmed up. We’ve since agreed that decisions of that financial and personal scope require two “yes” votes no matter what, but I came around when they started laying and now I’m bummed we didn’t get them sooner to enjoy more eggs and hilarity. Our new neighborhood isn’t zoned for chickens, but I’m very interested in getting another coop next time we move!

So, for people thinking about chickens, here are a few things we’ll consider next time..
The Coop: 
Aaron built our coop and we were really happy with the A-frame on stilts that could be moved around the yard.  I would probably think about adding wheels to a future coop for easier moving. This was almost  too heavy to move around. It can be done, but if it couldn’t be made lighter, I think at least one set of wheels would be easier.

DSC05796I don’t think our yard was quite big enough for a coop of this size because the chickens’ scratching and eating in the pen was rough on our grass, even when we moved it every day. We had a particularly dry summer and we were very concerned about keeping the grass up in case we had to sell the house, so it might have been fine in a different year. We will do more research about the best ratios of coop-to-yard size next time. We weren’t fenced in, so full free-ranging wasn’t ever an option, but that would have lessened the “patchy” impact, too.

The Chickens:
This is probably an issue no one else will have, but Aaron is particularly nerdy and an obsessive perfectionist about these things, so we went through several breeds of chicks. In future years, we’d just try one or two new kinds every other year and live with the fact that there might  be a breed out there that would eat a little less and produce a little more. We tried Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rocks, and a California Grey hybrid, eventually landing with two Rhodies and two Californias for our flock. I think we’ll start with the California Greys next time (even though I like brown eggs better) and branch out from there.
DSC05559Who Should Get Chickens: 
Everyone. They are amazing. Okay… you should make sure you’re zoned for them, and petition your township/city to rezone or give you permission if you’re not!  Even though it worked out for us, I would NOT recommend spending this much money or getting animals if your roommates or spouse aren’t on board. And while they are lots of fun, I don’t think we saved any money on eggs, because the cost of their food alone was just about what we would have spent on eggs anyway. The extra benefits were huge for us — it made composting easier and more fun, the eggs were delicious and easily shared with friends, everyone’s kids wanted to come over and see the chickies, and it was fun to have a non-house project to work on together. I think chickens would be a great “pet” for kids, because they don’t require as much upkeep as a puppy or kitten, and they lay eggs instead of… something else. And it could be a great first business for your kid, because all your neighbors would pay top dollar if your adorable child went door-to-door selling eggs from “Li’l Johnny’s Chicken Emporium.” (We are already planning as much for our family and I might have already worked on a possible company name and logo.)

What We Learned:
-Don’t invest in livestock without talking to your spouse and having full agreement.
-Know when to let it go (for me, this meant having chickens) and when to stand firm (but still making him do all the work).
-Chickens were much more fun than I expected.
-We absolutely want to have them again.
-For us and where we were at, chickens were a sorry placeholder for the puppy we really wanted. So now we have Max, and I’m really excited that someday we will have dogs and chickens!  (I’m also starting to think about bees, if we have more room someday…)
-Most importantly, we experienced a lot of God’s tender care at the end of our time with these chickens in passing them on to some little girls who were VERY EXCITED to be getting pets, and these memories are filled with with great reminders of God’s love and provision for us in all circumstances.

chicken Collage


Lord, who made the lion and the lamb,
You decreed I should be what I am.
Would it spoil some vast eternal plan,
If I were a wealthy man?

–“If I were a Rich Man,” from Fiddler on the Roof.

{concerning marriage} entertainment

{Yesterday I shared about the crazy process of planning for a wedding and life, and today I have some suggestions about the media’s vision of marriage. Be sure to check out the first post and watch for a few more coming!}

Several years ago I started watching Glee, which made sense because I’m a musician and lots of my friends watched it and wanted to talk about it. But I had to stop watching when the choir director was part of a subplot developing positive romantic tension with another teacher instead of his wife. My best friend was in the middle of getting divorced even though they were homeschooled, parentally-approved, rule-following, supposedly all set for life, bla-bla-bla. (Remember that planning thing? Not foolproof.) I knew that no matter how atrocious the original wife was portrayed, the show was selling a lie that marriage or divorce aren’t a big deal. The pain for a one-flesh-tearing-asunder that wasn’t even mine didn’t feel fun or entertaining, and the experience profoundly changed how I thought about TV and movies.

It’s not a surprise that Christian marriage is counter cultural.  A religiously-oriented life of permanent sacrifice and fidelity is perceived as an attack on freedom in a world that worships the profane trinity of me, myself, and I, and our entertainment reflects this. When you watch commercials, women are often caricatured with artificial physical beauty and men are mocked as idiots. This Discover commercial…? Rude! It would be really offensive if the genders were reversed. 

When you get back to the regular programming, romantic leads on a TV show “can’t get married” because it “ruins the tension” of the show. So unrealistic. Legitimate marriage has plenty of tension. Married or single, chances of building a good life are better if you avoid passively receiving the idea that marriage is a joke, or that a romantic high is the ultimate fulfillment of your existence. I’m not going to tell you what not to watch! But I think negativity about marriage and family slipping under the radar poses a greater danger of messing up a life than most straightforward steamy scenes or course joking. With that in mind, here are a few movies and TV shows I’ve found encouraging…

1. The Sound of Music. Watch how Maria and Georg transform through the story, growing as individuals and strengthening each other while caring for their family and living bravely in adversity.
2. The Harry Potter Series – Molly and Arthur Weasley, parents of Bill, Charlie, Percy, Fred, George, Ron, and Ginny. This is a great couple who built a life of modest means overflowing with love and respect for each other.
3. The King’s Speech. So much appreciation and encouragement! And a story of personal growth that happens in the strength of their day-in-day-out marriage, not a fantasy relationship.
4. Julie & Julia. Apparently this all falls apart in her second book, but the movie is really sweet and shows two different married couples building each other up in love and encouraging each other to be their best self.
5. Shadowlands. Kind of corny, but this is a great look at love and loss from the life and writings of C.S. Lewis and his wife, Joy Davidman.
6. Father of the Bride I and II. Also corny in a different way, but hilarious and positive. There are lots of real-ish life fights and making up, and a commitment to a lifetime of love throughout.
7. Duck Dynasty. All the married couples here have lots of fun joking around and showing that marriage is worthwhile, exciting, and meaningful. (Also, if you ever think your husband is gross, this show will give you a good dose of perspective. Or maybe that’s just me.)
8. The Office – Jim and Pam Halpert. This couple has always been a favorite because their romance was based on friendship and personal connection, not an immediate physical fling. Especially in this last season, their heartfelt reconciliation after months (years?) of hurt feelings, which resulted in some marriage counseling and a conscious choice to live out 1 Corinthians 13, from a flashback of their wedding, with each other was beautiful. 

Is there plenty of trash on the show? Yes. (I totally watched all the seasons anyway. I’m not telling what to watch or not watch.) But how often do you see mainstream media showing the key to succeeding in marriage is to be patient, kind, forgiving, humble, hoping the best for each other, and not failing no matter how hard it is? How often do you see a “couple” saying they have worked together every day for 9 years (a Hollywood eternity)  and their family is the most important thing in their lives? That all happened on network television during the last season, and I think it’s encouraging.

Jim and Pam

A rare attitude coming from network TV!

I’m sure this list could be much longer! Are there any other ideas for refreshing and uplifting marriages in entertainment from you guys? I mean besides the most obvious suggestion, which would be a reality TV show of the two of us, of course. iowa movie

{concerning marriage} planning

With our fifth anniversary and the family weddings this summer, I’ve been mulling over some ideas about marriage, and I’m sharing some thoughts from conversations with friends and sisters here. I know just enough to spout off a few things but I am basically a five-year-old telling a newborn baby what life is all about.

Everyone’s busy asking, “So how’s the planning going?” There is so much to talk about, to dream for, to plan on when you are getting married.  We even read a book about 100 things to talk about before engagement or marriage, encouraging discussion to ensure we prepared for an impossible number of topics. This is well-intentioned, but I think it can accidentally promote the lie that careful planning means you can control the outcome of your days. Is he planning to propose?  When is the wedding? Where are you going to live? How will you split the holidays with your families? When do you want to have children? Will one of you stay home with them? What about adoption? Are you going to homeschool? Do you want to travel? Go back to school? Start a business? Buy a house?

Of course, you need to talk about these things, and many others, but you should keep them in perspective. Is it wise to marry someone who doesn’t share your vision for life? No.  But it is not wise to marry someone based only on your shared vision for life, either. If circumstances (incomplete list of possibilities: test scores, lost jobs, surprise pregnancies, barrenness, illness, financial hardship, natural disasters, change of heart, governmental collapse, death in the family, End of Days) alter or disrupt that dream, you want to cheerfully weather uncertainty together.

Also, you want unity and agreement when starting life together, but a healthy marriage should spur your maturity, and this usually results in changing your mind about some things. This probably includes things you think are really important right now. It’s good to grow in surprising directions and to be ready for your spouse to do the same.

When I was engaged, I thought I was moving to California for a crazy few years that were supposed to include a shoebox apartment, working for a year, starting a family, and earning two Masters degrees between the two of us, and not necessarily in the order a reasonable person might think. We had done lots of careful planning, and after the deployment we felt like we had grown up quickly, anxious to get our external situation caught up with how we felt inside. Obviously, that’s not what happened. Who plans for hardship? Who plans for messed up military schedules that mean moving to a land of ice and cornfields instead of SoCal, or long PhD programs, church problems, war recovery, faith crises, depression, miscarriages, long years in bad jobs? No one. But that’s our real life. In the breakdown of the original dreams, there have been lots of good things we hadn’t expected, too. The gospel is crucial here: For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ (not in a prayerfully coordinated marriage!) shall all be made alive. There are problems in life – they’ll be there in marriage, no matter how carefully you select a spouse and plan your life, and they’d be there if you were single. If following all the “rules” or carefully planning meant anyone could avoid trouble, it would nullify what God says about humanity and salvation. So when things are messed up, it’s not because we didn’t prepare enough or should have anticipated better. When things work out well, it’s by God’s grace and not because we had our ducks in a row at any point. Either way, you just take it and go with it.

The surprising news: With the right attitude, all this planning is the kind of test that prepares for real life. I’ve found that persevering in marriage calls for lots of dreaming and re-dreaming. And the important part of the planning is not the plans themselves, but the teamwork and unity that grows in the process. In light of this, enjoy the planning and dreaming! Because getting married means you will probably be doing a lot of it for the rest of your life.

[Just for kicks, this was taken five years ago this week. We even look like babies to me.] honeymoon2