“In whose hearts are the highways”: A lesson on joy, brought to you by mountains and cornfields.

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In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis describes one saint, a surpassingly beautiful woman, whom his characters encounter while they are in heaven. While Lewis’s description of her is intriguing, it also puzzled me and even made me a bit uncomfortable.

As the woman approaches, MacDonald informs Lewis (the character) that this woman was in a way a mother to all children. Lewis asks if it isn’t a little unfair to earthly mothers that this woman “steals” their children.To this, MacDonald replies,

[H]er motherhood was of a different kind. Those on whom it fell went back to their natural parents loving them more. Few men looked on her without becoming, in a certain fashion, her lovers. But it was the kind of love that made them not less true, but truer, to their own wives. ( Lewis 119)

This episode stuck in my memory, perhaps because I did not understand it. How could loving something beautiful help us love lesser things more? A contradiction for sure.

But as my plane came in for landing at Midway Airport a few weekends ago, I glimpsed what Lewis was getting at…I think.

I had just spent a weekend in Seattle, soaking in the beauty of the hills and fir trees and mountains. I always joke that it’s a tragedy that I live in Illinois, because I adore lovely landscapes, especially ones with mountains and forests. In my opinion, the Northwest is prime real estate; suburbia Illinois…not so much.

So as I headed back home, leaving a place that speaks to my soul, you would expect that I returned somewhat wistfully. Not the case.

As our plane began its decent into Chicago, it flew over Illinois farmland. In the sunset, flat country stretched in every direction: rural highways lined by shaggy trees; a vast checkerboard of soy bean and corn fields; winding little rivers. Flat. All so flat. But somehow I felt grateful for those miles of fields. They showed off the fading light pretty splendidly. The awe and peace that came over me as I looked on matched the feeling I got when I flew over Puget Sound a few days earlier.

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That got me thinking about a peculiar property of beauty: Beauty does not make us resent other things that are less striking; instead, it helps us to recognize beauty in those things that we already know and have ceased to delight in. ….Which got me thinking about to Psalm 84, a passage of scripture that I’ve come back to repeatedly in the past year. I’d be hard put to find a more pure and contagious demonstration of thirst for God than this psalm.  “How lovely is your dwelling place, / O Lord of Hosts!” The Sons of Korah proclaim,

“My soul longs, yes, faints

for the courts of the Lord;

my heart and my flesh sing for joy

to the living God” (v. 1b-2a).

This psalm has become precious to me because this past year has been one of transition. I am so grateful that, in coming back home to work in Chicago, I’ve felt the support of my family and old friends. Yet no one can leave a favorite place and part from some of their dearest friends without feeling that they’ve entered a desert of sorts. At a time when I was experiencing the emptiness of transition, this psalm beckoned to my heart. I thirsted to be like these psalmists, who love God above all else and find fulfillment in Him alone.

“Blessed are those who dwell in Your house, ever singing Your praise!” they continue in verse 4.

Yes! I want that. I want to want that! I know nothing is better than dwelling in God’s presence and adoring Him, and I want to desire that like these saints do!

But, then again, I’m a teacher at a private school in the suburbs of Chicago. I’m a fiddler who plays in Irish pubs. I can’t spend all my time praying in my church sanctuary and I most definitely can’t just click my heels and find myself in heaven. Great for you, Sons of Korah. You’ve entered your rest and get to spend your days worshipping God, but I’m still down here struggling along. Thanks a lot for telling me how great it is up there.

But the sons of Korah aren’t done. In the very next verse, they introduce another category of “blessed” people:

Blessed are those whose strength is in You,

in whose heart are the highways to Zion.

As they go through the Valley of Baca

they make it a place of springs. (v. 5-6a)

Wow. Apparently, there is also a way to be blessed during our earthly toil. We can journey through the most barren places and still find rivers of water there (The Valley of Baca, according to Bible commentaries and such, was a desert in Israel at the time). But how? This I wondered and pondered and hoped could come true in my life.

Just what is it that makes the Valley of Baca “a place of springs” for the faithful? Longing for God with all of their hearts, of course! “In whose hearts are the highways”…The joyful heart is the one longing for and running toward God, no matter where the body is “stuck.” When our hearts are engraved with the paths to God—yearning to run to Him even when our feet are tangled and we can’t—our eyes suddenly spy springs in places we believed were deserts. Sounds counter-intuitive doesn’t it?

Yet looking back over this past year and my life in general, I realize how true this is. When I expect the most from where I am, I find myself dry and disillusioned. It is in those times when I’m fixing my eyes on Christ, learning more about Him, crying “Come, Lord Jesus!” that I find myself standing in my little world blinking at the blessing around me.

Lewis’s beautiful saint made men fall in love with her but return to their wives loving them better. Just so, pursuing God renews our delight in our lowly lives. When we see Him more clearly as He is, we more clearly see Him in places we had not hoped of finding Him. What a wonderful God we have, Who rewards those who seek Him by making them more content where they are!

In some ways viewing the majesty of a mountain and beholding the glory of God work the same wonder upon us: they make us better servants in the flatlands, laboring in fields white for harvest.

By and by, the chains will fall from our feet and we will run to the One we long for. But that time is not yet. Until then, let us continue to reap the harvest….with our eyes to the hills and highways in our hearts.

“They go from strength to strength, each one appears before God in Zion” (v. 7)

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1. Lewis, C.S. The Great Divorce. 1946. New York: HarperCollins, 2001)

“Do it again”: A call to delight in monotony

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“I’m sick of sitting by myself and reading books. I’ve been doing this whole alone thing for awhile now and I’m just weary of it.”

There it was again, the loneliness–the feeling I’ve had so many times in my life.

I guess it was pretty inevitable. As the youngest of five children, I grew up in a house where there was always something going on and always people with whom to do things. When it was time to go to art class, we piled in the van and rocked out to Third Eye Blind. A “quiet night at home” meant several killer rounds of UNO. And it wasn’t a normal a day in the Danaher household without someone throwing an object (such as a pencil) at someone else’s head.

When I was nine years old, however, my sisters left for college; in the coming years my brothers followed. “Together” faded into “alone.” Now, when I have a place to be, rather than fighting for elbow room in the back seat, I’m usually driving by myself. I play less UNO and read more novels. I haven’t hit anyone in the nose with a magnet for about fifteen years.

I could explain more, but this isn’t meant to be a sob story. Suffice it to say that I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like to be alone, but God has so arranged my life that I’m alone pretty often. I’ve gotten used to it and have come to appreciate the blessing of quiet hours. But, on some days, the impression that everyone is off together doing things while I’m left by myself is hard to shake. Today was one of those. Today I was tired–tired of walking alone.

I looked up from Crime and Punishment to a sky beginning to blush with sunset. I was sitting in the field across from my townhouse, a field bordered by trees and complete with its own vegetable garden and a few rows of corn. Tonight was a breezy one. Branches dipped in the wind while corn stalks rustled. Swallows swooped overhead and robins bobbed in the grass.

It was one of the loveliest nights I could remember, but I felt sad and weary and alone.

I stared at that field and wished I had the strength to rejoice in this evening. Feeling my weakness, I began to pray. I lifted up my heart clumsily, trying to praise God for the beauty around me. And then it happened.

The very occupation I had just disparaged– you know, the whole “I read too many books alone” thing?–brought me a blessing. Into my head, off the balmy breeze, strolled one of my favorite passages from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy (a book I read several summers ago, by myself):

Grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. (Chesterton 108)

This passage left me encouraged and marveling at the goodness of our Lord. For one, He’s been around forever and has presided over a world that is largely the same year to year. Yet, He never throws in a fifth season, just to shake things up. He doesn’t hurl random ice storms down from heaven in May because He’s bored. Every year in spring, daisies bloom that look identical to those that bloomed the year before. Every autumn, maple trees shower crimson leaves on forest floors. Each day, whilst we are growing old in the situations we have endured for a few months or years, God gives ancient beauty as heartily as He did when it was new.

And of all Persons, God has the most reason to give up on us, to stop the starry spectacle. You see, while He creates all this beauty, we humans do a lot to mar it. We murder; we steal; we throw objects at each other’s heads. God, however, possesses what Chesterton terms the “eternal appetite of infancy,” the never-exhausted delight in bestowing the same beauty, again, on a tarnished world. Every day, human beings commit sins that the sun should not have to look on; yet, they fall asleep and wake to a sunrise.

I sat there in the field a little longer, thinking these thoughts until the mosquitoes forced a retreat inside. As the evening wore on, nothing changed: I spent the rest of the night reading Crime and Punishment alone. But a little germ of courage had found me on the warm wind, and it began to make younger my failing heart.

Sooner than I should like, I will grow weary and faint again. But the next time I am tempted to impatience about my “monotony”–the next time I feel like I cannot repeat the feat one more day–I will remember that the fact that I have another day before me means that Someone Else has already decided to “do it again.” He is strong enough to rejoice in the sameness, and He is strong enough to help me do the same.

After all,

The Lord is the everlasting God,
The Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
His understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint
and to Him who has no might He increases strength
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.

 

(Isaiah 40:38-41)

 

*Chesterton, Gilbert Keith. Orthodoxy. New York: John Lane and Company, 1908. Print.

The Blessing of Love

“Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart…” Eph. 5:18-19

This Lent, I have been incredibly blessed by Fernando Ortega’s album, “The Shadow of Your Wings: Hymns and Sacred Songs.” Fernando’s album is a subtle, elegant combination of old hymns and graceful settings of Scripture, and thus the perfect accompaniment for meditation on God’s love and Christ’s sacrifice. I was particularly struck by the first track, entitled “Grace and Peace.” The track weaves the simple words from 2 Thessalonians 1:2 (“Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”) together with elegant piano and violin. I was struck by how much the music sounds like a love song: it could serve as the theme to a film version of a Jane Austen novel. The exquisite finale of the song–vocal harmony soaring to proclaim the words “And the Lord Jesus Christ”– is enough to give one beauty-induced goosebumps.

At first, however, I was a bit surprised, the melody of the finale was so breathtaking, but what flashed through my mind was “Wow, during the climax of this song, that gorgeous melody, they’re only saying ‘And the Lord Jesus Christ.’” Only. I blush to acknowledge that that was what I thought. It was almost disappointment for a split second.

The beauty and rapture present in that phrase, the adornment that the arrangement gave to the very name of our Savior, soon took powerful hold of me. So, thick upon my “disappointment” came the joy that Jesus’s name is rich and precious and sweet enough to deserve the most beautiful melodies on earth and in heaven. Hardly can we sing something so comprehensive and comprehensively beautiful as the name Jesus Christ.

If only I had the memory of that beautiful crescendo in my heart always! If only my heart brimmed all the day with a love song to God, how much of Christ’s love would I show? (The more appropriate question is perhaps, “how much could I keep from showing?”) With what delight would I serve Him in places I have hitherto clawed my grumbling way through. If only!

St. Augustine would agree. In his Enchiridion, a treatise on the three Christian virtues faith, hope, and love, Augustine argued that what a person loves greatly determines the kind of person they are.

For when there is a question as to whether a man is good, one does not ask what he believes, or what he hopes, but what he loves. For the man who loves aright no doubt believes and hopes aright; whereas the man who has not love believes in vain, even though his beliefs are true; and hopes in vain, even though the objects of his hope are a real part of true happiness; unless, indeed, he believes and hopes for this, that he may obtain by prayer the blessing of love.

St. Augustine, Enchiridion, CXVII.

So often, my intellectual self becomes caught up in what I believe about God. I study scripture. I love theological debates. And these are good things. Study of Scripture is essential to a proper knowledge (and thus a proper love) of God. BUT these must lead to greater love for the Lord to be valuable. After all, the most gentle spirit and the most willing hands come not from the full head but the overflowing heart.

So this Holy Week, as I contemplate our dear Savior’s death and resurrection, I will immerse myself in scripture, striving to better know our Lord in His crucifixion. I will rejoice in the hope of eternal life made possible in His resurrection. But my dearest prayer is that God will grant me “the blessing of love” towards my Savior.

For only then will I begin to do His will as I should–that is, with a singing heart.

What He’s Drawing Me To: the presence of joy in the absence of coffee

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“My food is to do the will of Him Who sent me

and accomplish His work.”

John 4:34

     It happened as I traversed the cheese section, drifting starry-eyed past  blocks of horseradish cheddar and espresso-rubbed BellaVitano. As I wandered, I nearly ran into a little blond girl in a plaid jumper.  Immediately, wordlessly, she hugged me.

Then grew the guilt within. I had been a bit crabby with my class that morning. Now, when my student saw me at Mariano’s grocery store just minutes after dismissal, her first impulse was to hug me. She might as well have heaped flaming cheese curds upon my head.

Such guilt resurfaced as I went through the checkout line. I turned to see another student–usually confident and friendly in class–sidle up to me and greet me shyly. I reproached myself that her hesitancy might have been caused by my attitude that morning.

Then the excuses came: I’m overwhelmed today. I’m tired. After all, I haven’t had coffee today.

Which brings me to a subject of grave importance…coffee!

If you know me at all, you know two things: I adore coffee (I have had a cup almost every day since I was five) and I tend to get stressed when I encounter new challenges or situations. The sad part is that stress + coffee makes me feel fluttery. So, when stress accrues, I often have to give up the umber elixir of life and plod through days of walking death.

And that’s just what happened about four weeks into school. The excitement and steep learning curve of teaching brought on the heart-doing-flip-flops feeling with every cup of coffee. I ignored the fact for a few days, but had to admit the inevitable. In the days that followed, I forged ahead, disarmed of my greatest defense against 5 a.m. grogginess. Day upon day, I found it hard arise into the dark, brave the maniac drivers on 294, and be a responsible adult to my class…all without the warm and comforting caffeine boost. Although I loved my job, my exuberance often foundered in those metaphorically foggy mornings.

This struggle lasted more or less up until that day at Mariano’s. And then ceased. But before I say how, allow me to take a slight rabbit trail.

Because Clapham School is a Charlotte Mason school, I have immersed myself in Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education since the beginning of the summer. One thought that has particularly struck me in Mason’s philosophy is the call to “draw children with what we draw them to.”* In other words, we should not get a child to do their work by offering external rewards. If we tell a child, “Do these math problems and you’ll get candy,” we essentially tell the child “you couldn’t POSSIBLY like math itself; you need some reward to motivate you through such a  wearisome task.” Charlotte Mason believed that such external motivation was harmful to a child because it prevented the child from discovering the joy that naturally flows from doing that subject well. She believed that when children push through the struggles that come with math or reading or drawing, they will eventually grow to love each subject for its own sake.  While I’m still learning how to do this consistently, I have seen the deep satisfaction students gain from solving difficult math problems, reading rich literature, and accurately copying a famous painting. But I digress….

     On the way home, I pondered the scene that had just transpired. The quick hug and the shy hello replayed in my head. Again, these were mingled with twinges of remorse but mostly a blossoming  gratefulness to God.

      How blessed I am to have these students! What gifts they are! Ignorant and weak and sinful, too, but truly delightful. THEY are why I get up every morning.

And then it hit me. The “all-work-and-no-coffee” roller coaster I had ridden over the previous weeks was not an ill-timed catastrophe. It was God’s perfect timing of drawing me to my work at Clapham school. Through some long and groggy days, God stripped away my dependence upon any external motivations to do the task he has called me to. It sounds silly, but I had truly relied upon coffee as the only POSSIBLE way I could get through those early mornings and jam-packed days. God would not let me stay that way. He  made me  push through the pain of early mornings and hours of planning after school and weekends spent working without the comforts of French Roast coffee, a short commute, or even a handsome salary, for that matter. I wake up every morning because I have seven bright, growing second graders who are eager to learn God’s truth. They are enough.

I have long believed that Christ’s disciples called Jesus “Rabbi” (teacher) for good reason. When God drew me to Clapham, he knew better than to situate me across the street from my school (I have a 35 mile commute), entice me out of my slumber with steaming lattes, and pad my pocketbook with Benjamins (let’s face it, every teacher’s pocket-book is lined solely by Washingtons). Doing so would be saying “Maggie, you couldn’t POSSIBLY love spending eight hours a day with these ignorant, irksome children. So, if you do, I’ll make all bearable by giving you caffeine every morning and pay you for your trouble every other Friday.” May it never be! God has drawn me with what he’s drawn me to. Morning by morning, he’s given me the blessing of seven second graders. I have learned their personalities, helped them in their struggles, and received their grace on days when I’m not at my best. And after pushing through the pain that began my journey, I know that spending my days with these delightful companions is a joy in itself.

Through the kindness of God, in the cheese section of Mariano’s, I have discovered a great and metaphysical truth: If the world suddenly ran out of coffee beans, my cup would still “runneth over.”

How could it not when my blessings runneth over to hug me every time they see me in the grocery store?

* This exact phrase also comes from an informative video by Ambleside Schools International. The principle is presented in Part 3 of the introduction here http://www.amblesideschools.com/main/video/chapters-7-9 another helpful video is chapter 8 here http://www.amblesideschools.com/main/video/chapters-7-9

“Back I go”: What to do When Life Hands You Pirates (or hands you over to pirates, as the case may be)

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They say life is like a box of chocolates. Beg pardon, Forrest Gump, but I reckon life is like a pack of pirates!

I come to this erudite conclusion after re-reading Stevenson’s classic Treasure Island and watching the Turner Classic film version (with a young Christian Bale as Jim Hawkins). As I revisited this old favorite, one exchange in particular truly moved me.

The scene occurs at the stockade when Jim has been taken prisoner by pirates who hate him and may kill him at any moment. Dr. Livesey comes to give medical attention to the pirates, and then asks for a word with Jim alone. Long John Silver agrees only when Jim to swears that he won’t try to escape.

At the edge of the stockade–the Doctor outside the fence and Jim just inside it–the two converse. While he is angry with Jim, Livesey loses his composure when Jim mentions that the pirates may torture him.

     ‘“Jim,” the doctor interrupted, and his voice was quite changed, “Jim, I can’t have this. Whip over and we’ll run for it.” 

  ‘“Doctor,” said I, “I passed my word.”

      “I know, I know,” he cried. “We can’t help that, Jim, now. I’ll take it on my shoulders, holus   bolus, blame and shame, my boy; but stay here, I cannot let you. Jump! One jump and you’re out, and we’ll run for it like antelopes.”’ 

While I don’t have a specific example to share, I know that I‘ve come to the very same situation many times in my own experience. Life hurts. It bristles like a gang of bloodthirsty pirates. In fact, holding to truth and serving God often seem like running straight into brandished cutlasses.

But then…deliverance! A light glimmers: there’s a quick way out! Of course it won’t come by doing the right thing, strictly speaking. Your quick escape may hurt someone else, but at least it will put an end to your pain. If you stay, you’ll only face death and pain and inconvenience. You simply can’t have that, your inner Dr. Livesey whispers. Just jump. One Jump and you’re out!

But consider Jim’s response:

‘“No…you know right well you wouldn’t do the thing yourself…and no more will I. Silver trusted me. I passed my word, and back I go.”’

No one could have blamed Jim for breaking his word to cheating pirates. After all, they plotted mutiny on the Hispaniola and now threaten his life. But instead of doing the understandable, Jim utters three of the hardest and most admirable words in literature: back I go. With those words, Jim chooses to endure what may come not because it is convenient but because it is right. He keeps his word to swindling, murdering pirates, from whom he can expect only death and torture.

Brave lad, to be sure, you say. Glad you got some inspiration from a children’s book, but what does a cabin boy’s pluck really bring to bear upon 21st Century America? Very much, says I.

Today, we are blessed with technology that makes life easier in many ways. But the prevalence of the “easy fix” in modern life leaves us with a problem. Because of the conveniences of modern life, people expect quick solutions to every painful situation: if your marriage becomes unbearable, get a divorce; if you don’t want the baby, have an abortion; and in Europe, if life itself becomes too painful, well, there’s euthanasia for that. Hardly a hardship exists nowadays that man can’t find a short cut out of.

How few of us today, when wooed by the greener pastures outside the stockade, have the courage turn away and walk right back into life’s sharp edges?

It won’t be easy, but the next time you fancy taking the convenient route out of a sticky situation–the next time the good-intentioned Dr. Liveseys in your life open the escape hatch–think first of Jim Hawkins and the jump he didn’t make.

What I’m asking won’t always have a fairy tale ending. Sure, Treasure Island ends happily when the pirates die and Jim inherits a literal boatload of guineas. But sometimes “back I go” will kill you. Sometimes the pirates will win…kind of.

I said I didn’t have a specific example from my own life of a situation like Jim’s, and I don’t. I know that in countless small ways I’ve been Jim and in countless small ways I’ve failed to be him, but I’ve never had a serious test of this brand. In a way, then, I’m being hypocritical in urging each of you to give the uttermost when you find yourself in a bad way. But I do have one more example of a person who chose to endure agony for the sake of ungrateful scoundrels when he could have ended his suffering in an instant.

He died. But you should be glad He did. Hallelujah that when they told Him to “save yourself and come down from the cross!” He didn’t listen.

In His name, I pray that next time I won’t listen either.

Adventure Enough: what a little life has taught me about the wide world

Friends and familia,

      Behold a wonder! Herein lies the inaugural post of my very own blog “Adventure Enough: what a little life has taught me about the wide world.” I do hope you enjoy it and stop by again another time, when you’re in the neighborhood…cyber-ly speaking.

    Since I love to write and, in my post graduate life, can write at my leisure, I have been pondering the subject and title of a blog. Because I always like a good name, I wanted to lift a quote from Dante or a pithy phrase from Chaucer, but nothing stuck. Comparing myself to either of those poets just seemed ambitious and high-flown. So, instead of modeling my project on a bearded Florentine or a jovial Englishman, I decided instead to borrow some thoughts from a rat.

     A water rat, that is.

     I admire many characters in literature, from Shakespeare’s Edgar to Cooper’s Cora, but if I could choose one to emulate in my everyday life, I would pick Water Rat (“Ratty”) from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. Rat is a first-rate friend and something of a poet–two qualities of soul to which I aspire. Rat makes no grand pilgrimages to Paradiso or even to the rodent equivalent of Canterbury. While he holds his own in the treacherous Wild Wood and weathers his share of exciting happenings, Rat meets most of his adventures near his home, the River Bank. By the steady, cheerful river Rat learns patience and contentment. Through ordinary days on the lively water, Ratty demonstrates courage and loyalty to young Mole, teaching him the meaning of friendship.

The best reflection of Rat’s philosophy (and the title for my blog) comes actually through Mole. Early in Grahame’s book, Mole tries to step into the Wild Wood in search of adventures for which he is not ready. Rat valiantly rescues him. After Rat’s rescue and through a bit of introspection, Mole realizes that he was wrong to venture into the Wild Wood because he does not belong there. On his journey home, Mole concludes that other animals are suited to encounter “the asperities, the stubborn endurance, or the clash of actual conflict that went with Nature in the rough….” For his part, though, Mole realizes that “he must be wise, must keep to the pleasant places in which his lines were laid and which held adventure enough, in their way, to last for a lifetime.”

Mole sees that he does not belong in the Wild Wood or the Wide World as others may. His place and his adventure is with Rat on the River Bank. But the point is that this little adventure is enough. Far from a sad limitation, the River Bank provides the fullness and excitement fit for a lifetime. 

As I thought of this blog, I realized that I have much in common with Rat (and Mole). I don’t have a Masters degree or Ph.D. (someday in the future?). I haven’t done great things in faraway places. But in my little life, I have found truth in the moments and days and people God has placed in my path. Like Rat, I have had simple experiences, but in these I have found a rich store from which to learn and teach and write. I hope that my fledgling thoughts and little experiences provide adventure enough to be worth the telling.

AND I hope you think so too…..

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“For others the…

“For others the asperities, the stubborn endurance, or the clash of actual conflict that went with Nature in the rough; he must be wise, must keep to the pleasant places in which his lines were laid and which held adventure enough, in their way, to last for a lifetime”

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows