Monday, February 10, 2014

A Winter Update

“Nothing can be possessed but the struggle. All our lives are consumed in possessing struggle but only when the struggle is cherished and directed to a final consummation outside of this life is it of any value.”
-Flannery O'Connor

It is freezing outside. I'm cozy enough on the second floor of this silent library, but the shiver I see in the trees makes its way to me through the nearby window. This past week has brought some of the coldest temperatures we have ever experienced and has left a bright blanket of snow on everything. Contrasting with this white is the darkness of bare trees shooting out of the ground, reaching up to the heavens. Today those heavens are concealed, and a subtle fog hides the details of outstretched branches, but I know they're reaching. Branches maintain this pose all year long, but in the winter, with all the leaves dead and gone, they can't hide their strain. Nothing can cover their twisted reach upward.

This year feels like one in which much straining has been laid bare. It has been a year thick with substance and rich with experiences. Celebratory occurrences have carried more significance this year. Recently Olivia was marveling at the fact that, the more she learns about numbers, the more difficult it is to understand what she knows. This feels true of many things.

Brett and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary and were able to spend a lovely fall weekend on Berry College's campus where we began our fascination with and love for one another. When I shared my gratitude to him for being the strong one, keeping us moving along so beautifully, his surprised response, “I've always thought of you as the strong one,” seemed to perfectly embody the mutual appreciation we have for one another. Olivia, while continuing to love life and learning, searches to find what is good and familiar in the midst of a socially and academically rigorous 3rd grade school year. Mae, still the dancing free spirit, pulls to connect her joy and goodness to a new understanding of difficulties and hardships. Brett, as department chair and professor, reaches for new ways to view occupational challenges, to lift his workplace and students to a new level of rigor and support. And I keep trying to seize these moments, dealing with them as creatively in real life as I strive to deal with them on the page. But there are some moments I'd like to rewrite.

Our friend Will Gray lost his battle with cancer this summer. He and his wife Angie were our neighbors on Martha's Vineyard and accompanied us on our move to Mount Vernon in 2008. Will was 33. It's hard to separate the events of our year from the events surrounding Will's illness and death. We're grateful to have been so affected by the life of this friend, and we join Angie in feeling the presence of his absence.

My grandmother, Zilpha Sharp also passed away this fall. We'd all come together to celebrate her 100th birthday just two months before we gathered again to attend her funeral. Her life was one of tremendous service and love, and her example is one we will spend the rest of our lives hoping to follow.

And so through loss and struggle, we feel connected to those bare trees and their reaching. Understanding feels hidden in the fog and the snow, but Mae would direct us to wonder. Recently, overcome by what she saw in a new snowfall, she began an extemporaneous poem of sorts:

Nature is quiet and beautiful.
The things that happen outside are more rightful than respectful.
Nature is beautiful because it is grateful.
It uses its breath to move the snow from here to there.
It makes beautiful sounds like birds and bunnies and giraffes.
Like us, it sometimes likes to hibernate. Like bears and squirrels.

We often spend much of our year hibernating. It's a strong temptation to simply remove ourselves from this harsh winter and stay in the interior, all huddled together, feeding off each other's warmth. But we know to push ourselves outside of ourselves. We're committed to cherishing the struggle and directing it toward its final consummation. Please step outside, bring your shiver, and join us in reaching upward.

With Much Love,
Brett, Elizabeth, Olivia, and Mae Wiley

Monday, January 28, 2013

"...and are we not of interest to each other?"

Our "Christmas" card-- the online version:

Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,

overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way

to get from here to there...

...Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,
and are we not of interest to each other?

-from “I Believe,” Elizabeth Alexander

January 2013
Friends and Family,

We've certainly missed the cut-off date to call this a Christmas or New Years greeting, but it turns out the most opportune moment for me to pause and consider our lives, our year, our community-at-large occurs in January. And I can hope that after a month of mailboxes full of beautiful faces and messages, maybe this note can be of the most service to you arriving on a bleak mid-winter afternoon. We also joke that perhaps our family photo will find a prime spot on your mantle or fridge now that all the other Christmas cards have found their way into those feel-good baskets and keepsake boxes, or heaven forbid, the recycling bin.

Our year has been good. We're often busier than we want to be, but busy with what we consider to be interesting, worthwhile endeavors. Mae, now 4, began preschool this fall and is thriving in an ideal class-size of only 6 children. She continues to sing and dance through her days, showing an uncanny ability to create obscure rhymes and enjoying anyone who comes across her path. When she sees any child approximately her own age, she'll often declare, “Look, there's one of my best friends!” Olivia, 7, is enjoying 2nd grade, navigating her days with great thought and enjoyment. If you ask her for the highlights of her year, she points to the 5k she ran with a group of friends this fall, her horseback riding and sewing lessons, and any days she was able to spend with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

Brett and I continue to enjoy our lives in this mid-Ohio small town. We love where we came from, but we also bask in the way of life this little place nurtures. As those who have become important to us are both close by and scattered far and wide, we cherish the time, notes, shared interests and experiences that keep us close. We celebrate, grieve, and connect with friends and family far away, and we long to be closer to everyone.

Most of you know words, though limited in their ability to fully express our love, are of great significance to us, and we rely heavily on them to keep these connections going. As our relationships with you become older and deeper, the words between us begin to look more like poetry. In another of her poems, entitled “Praise Song for a Day,” Elizabeth Alexander writes,
“We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.”

So thank you for sharing your poetry. Thanks for writing, visiting, calling, thanks even for “tagging,” “liking,” commenting. In all these things, we recognize attempts to shorten the distance between us, and these actions convey to us interest, value, and love. We gratefully receive it and hope we return it well.

Enjoy this day. Love.

Elizabeth, Brett, Olivia, and Mae Wiley

Thursday, January 24, 2013

An Ocean Reverie

Here is an entry I recently wrote for the blog, Women In Journey. My good friend Abby Moss Rosser edits the blog and is soon to have her book, Oh To Grace, published by DemmeHouse. Please enjoy.

Monday, July 2, 2012

"I am for people. I can't help it." -Charlie Chaplin

In just a few hours Olivia will wake up, and we will begin celebrating her 7th birthday. Once again she'll hear the stories that make up the day of her birth. She already knows much of the narrative, but she always brightens up when we start sharing moments from her story's beginning. Often she asks us to retell another particular detail from the day that we might have forgotten to include. She loves the part about her Pop Pop and Nana arriving late the night before and Pop Pop taking her dad out to The Grill, a 24-hour diner, to get a bite to eat while Nana sat with me in the hospital room. She loves to hear that her older cousin Dorothy cried when she was told she couldn't accompany my brothers on the drive down to Athens from Nashville to meet her. She loves the bit that includes our neighbor Michael stepping out of the Sunday church service to call and see if she'd been born (She had been, and Michael was extremely efficient in getting the message out). She still hangs on to the picture our friends' son Noah drew for her and delivered to her in the hospital. And she loves for us to recount for her all of the people who came to see her that first day of life. She won't settle for names of people. She likes to pull out the pictures of everyone, and she wants to be told again who they are, what they are like, and how their lives connect with ours. I love this about Olivia. She gets that people matter, and she seems to understand, often better than I do, that we can't really get through life well without them.

I remember the complete agony I felt when Brett and I left Olivia in the hospital nursery for a couple of hours that first night. I was an absolute mess all the way back to our hospital room-- I remember thinking that anyone who passed me would wrongly, but understandably, assume something tragic had happened to our baby. I felt silly for being so emotional, but I remember telling Brett, in between my blubbering sobs, “No one in that nursery loves her as much as we do. She's so special.” This thought returns to me every first day of school, though fortunately my reaction gets more controlled each year. But it's true. She is so special. I'm delighted that on her birthday she treasures the details of her first day that are tied to other people. And to be honest, on her other days, she shows me that very few details aren't tied to others.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

"Ears of My Ears"

The kind people over at the Blue Bear Review recently published one of my essays. If you like, you can read it here.

Monday, January 23, 2012


Olivia's 1st grade class is writing poetry. It's been a beautiful and humbling process to witness. I feign nonchalance as I walk past her sitting in the dining room, her elbows on the table, pencil eraser tapping her chin. I can't resist throwing a glance at her work in progress. What turn of phrase will pass through her pencil? And how does it come so easily for her when I wrestle with every word choice? Her freedom inspires.

Today she came home with a poem she wrote about her experience at the Wildgoose Festival last June. This festival on justice, spirituality, art, and music included three days of rich conversation for all of us, and we hope to go back in the future. But there is no question that, over the past 7 months, the children have brought it up more than Brett and me. Here's Olivia's take on the festival, in verse:


fun and great
tweet, tweet goes the bird
I snuggle, I cuddle with my mom
I hear the bands
I snuggle in the tent
in the tent I cuddle
in the tent
some nights, sit by the lantern
some nights by the band

-Olivia Wiley

Monday, December 26, 2011

Merry Christmas

“Are our sensibilities / too blunt to be assaulted / with spatial power-plays and far-out / proclamations of peace? Sterile, / skeptic, yet we may be broken / to his slow silent birth / (new-torn, new- / born ourselves at his / beginning new in us.) His bigness may still burst / our self-containment / to tell us—without angels’ mouths— / fear not.” — Luci Shaw

Dear Family and Friends,

We hope this letter finds you and yours enjoying this season of Christmas. As is often the case, we’ve traveled much of the past month away. We were able to join Brett’s family in Chicago for Thanksgiving, and now we’re enjoying time with my family in Nashville. The break from our daily routine certainly brings it’s challenges, but more so, I believe it tends to offer clarity as we’re able to step outside of our everyday ways and look at them with a fresh perspective.

Olivia, now six, has really grown into her role as the older sister. She, more than any of us, is ready to jump into Mae’s imaginary world of play. For Olivia, I sense this world is often more familiar and comfortable than the 1st grade world she maneuvers so gracefully each school day. We continue to marvel at her desire and ability to learn new things. This year she’s successfully tackled the scooter, the written word, the Lego manual, the bike (she calls it the two-wheeler), the piano, and just this past week, the knitting needles.

I recently learned that our neighbors like to refer to Mae as “the little woodland creature.” This is an apt description as I watch her spritely form sing and dance around me with her crazy hair and make-shift costumes. I sense this is exactly what a three-year-old girl should be doing. For our family, she is the great communicator. She lets us know, in her gentle way, when our family dynamic isn’t quite right and when more is right than we recognize.

Brett continues to appreciate the significance of the opportunities made available to him through his work at MVNU. This past spring he was given the President‘s Award for Excellence in Teaching; he is grateful for his employment at a university that appreciates his contributions. He continues to write and present in his areas of interest.

I still teach a course or two at MVNU and write when the schedule allows. My work with the art program at our church continues to be a substantial combination of challenge and blessing. I’m constantly enriched by the witness of both the volunteers and the children as, each week, we engage in the humbling opportunity to create together. I’ve also enjoyed more time to delve into the rituals of home, discovering the value of slowing down and fully engaging in everyday domestic tasks.

And of course, mixed within warm moments like these have been the rushed episodes where we allow our supposed needs—to be on time or to get out the door—to excuse our shortness with each other. We let our consideration for each other fall to the floor so we can hold up our expectations of perfection to one another. Or we let temporary ownership of a particular possession (insert name of toy here) take precedence over sharing freely. Add to this an unusual season of sickness for our family--colds, fevers, and beyond-- and we become keenly aware of the fragility of our broken, mortal form.

This is where I take great comfort in the angels’ proclamation, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, and good will toward men.” Of all the phrases to utter, of all the “threads of speech” to snap so that we could understand, these are the words they chose. No doubt a host of angels filling the sky would be a fantastic sight to behold, but I believe the display was only to give further weight to the words chosen to accompany Christ’s arrival. Through his birth, peace and good will come to men. As self-contained as we’d like to be, it’s not possible, thank the Lord. And so we pray for the proclamation of his birth to burst into our days, to make its way through our blunt sensibilities, that we may receive the message and in turn, offer peace and good will to each other.

Glory to God in the highest,
Brett, Elizabeth, Olivia, and Mae Wiley