An Imperfect Concord

“Somebody could walk into this room and say ‘your life is on fire. It’s all over the evening news, all about the fire in your life on the evening news…'” (Paul Simon, “Crazy Love, Vol. II”)

Words are like maps. You unfold them and they can take you to unexpected, delightful places. The word “imperfect,” for example, has etymological roots in areas ranging from law to botany to music. In music, one of the definitions of “imperfect” is: “a cadence ending on some chord other than the direct chord of the tonic, usually that of the dominant, and having the effect of a partial close or stop” (Oxford English Dictionary). I have no idea what this means, so I asked someone who does, and he told me to think of it as the combining of notes that are dissonant or inharmonious. “Is it a mistake or can it happen on purpose?” I asked. He sort of laughed and said, “It depends what effect you’re trying to have.”

The sound of a police siren or fire engine, especially the ones you hear in European cities (click to hear one) is an example of this kind of deliberate dissonance. It’s loud, irritating and disruptive, and it’s that way on purpose; its intent is to get your attention. Somewhere there is a problem, someone is in trouble, someone needs help. It might even be you. It might be your life that’s on fire.

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Pieced Together: The Strength of the Imperfect: An Invitation to Advent 2013

Welcome to Advent 2013 at From the Heart. This season I’m contemplating imperfection, and you are invited to join me. A very lucky fortunate thing happened to me a few weeks ago: I had an important dream, a guidepost dream, one of those dreams that feels like a visit with the force that knows what your life is meant to be about. I dreamt of broken things–boxes filled with cracked porcelain and shards of blue-green glass, rooms of strange pieces of furniture that didn’t belong together but were somehow beautiful, and people I know who are messy and flawed but authentic and deeply human.

The phrase that kept repeating itself throughout the dream was “pieced together,” and I dragged it with me through that time between sleeping and waking like a fish flailing and heavy on the line. Fully awake, I felt like someone collapsing on the shore with a kind of hard-earned sustenance in my arms.

“Pieced together” is what my life looks like right now–broken, scary, confusing, and somehow powerfully real. Perhaps the most powerful part is seeing more clearly how many of us live just this way–with jagged pieces of our lives that don’t fit together, that don’t make sense, that hurt, and yet must be held and carried right alongside the pieces that are smooth and whole.

okayMaybe it’s illness, or loss, pain, grief, fear–whatever we didn’t ask for but arrived anyway and can’t be shaken off. What I hope for this Advent is to believe that there is treasure in a pieced together, imperfect life, and to figure out how to find and share it. I hope you’ll be here with me.

Below, a lovely poem that recently appeared on the Writer’s Almanac, a hymn to Mary by, surprisingly, Edgar Allan Poe. Note the hopefulness in the request that Mary be present in both bright and dark times, and let it remind us that there is tremendous power in the humble act of asking for what we need.


At morn—at noon—at twilight dim—
Maria! thou hast heard my hymn!
In joy and wo—in good and ill—
Mother of God, be with me still!
When the Hours flew brightly by,
And not a cloud obscured the sky,
My soul, lest it should truant be,
Thy grace did guide to thine and thee;
Now, when storms of Fate o’ercast
Darkly my Present and my Past,
Let my Future radiant shine
“With sweet hopes of thee and thine!

Edgar Allan Poe

Mini Miracles & the One Gift that Really Matters

A few weeks ago, my 6-year old son Gabriel asked me if stories were made or made up.  I’m not exactly sure what he meant, but I decided that he meant were stories “created” or “built.”  Well, this got my little writer’s heart beating faster and I immediately began imagining an in-depth and brilliant reply that 1) touched on the power of words to create things, 2) extrapolated on the biblical “And the Word became flesh,” and then 3) ended up with a pleasing recitation of Pablo Neruda’s stunning poem “The Word.”

But then Gabe said, “Anyway, since I can’t read, I don’t have to open cards before I open presents.  I can just open the presents right away.”  And we moved on.

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Only You Can (Extended Version)

Apologies for not being here yesterday, but I have dreaded “technical difficulties” with my laptop and I know I’ll be spending a long time on the phone with Dell this afternoon.  Now, this is actually something that someone else could do for me.  Someone could buy me a new computer, too.  Someone else could clean up my living room, make my meals, my bed, my kitchen floor visible under all the grime.

I believe that my husband would argue that no one can garden for you, take care of your home for you, mow your lawn, fold your laundry.  I believe that he would argue that no one can do anything for you because it is your life, that you are not interchangeable, despite how small or trivial the tasks.  And I get that, but it’s only one way to consider this philosophical question.

During the conversation with my colleague about things no one else can do for you, I said, “You coud just say that no one else can live your life for you.”  His reply: “That’s what you say when you want the conversation to be over, when you want to stop thinking about the topic.”

So here’s my first attempt at a list of things no one else can do for you (me).  I hope you’ll add to it, comment on it, and share, as Cynthia did in her comment about her father-in-law’s death, the perfect example of the truth of this belief that there are things that only you can do.

  • No one else can learn for you
  • No one can suffer for you
  • No one can grieve for you
  • No one can love for you
  • No one can be faithful for you
  • No one can tell you truth for you
  • No one can tell your story for you
  • No one can die for you, be born for you, give birth for you, be present exactly as you can be present

David Whyte says that human beings are the only corner of creation that can choose not to show up, not to be themselves.  A crow must always be a crow, but a human being can choose not to be him or herself.  Viewed through this lens of there being things that no one else can do for us, how sad and wasteful it is when we choose not to show up, fully, as ourselves.   We forfeit the truth that everything we do matters.

What have I left out?  What would you like to add to this list?  Let me know!  And have a great weekend!

And I’ll add with a quotation that Ann left as a comment a few day ago:  “To the world you may be just one person, but to one person you may be the world” (Brandi Snyder).

photo by Bre Davis

Only You Can

Some time ago, one of my colleagues told me that he kept a list of things that “no one else can do for you.”  The example he gave me was “no one else can kiss your kids goodnight for you.”  I’ve thought of this many, many times when Gabe is already in bed, one of us has done the elaborate bedtime routine, I am so ready for my day to be over, and he comes out of his room for “one more hug.”  Or he sends a message downstairs to where I am already snuggled up, pillows perfectly arranged, book at the ready, that he wants me to come back upstairs to say goodnight.  Again.

Gabe in the Smokies

And I always go, because every time, I remember what my colleague said.  No one else can kiss your kids goodnight for you.

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Your Life as a Pie Chart

At the beginning of this year, I had to attend one of those perennially unhelpful workshops on work/life balance.  I strongly despise the whole concept of work/life balance, partly because it implies that your work is not your life and your life is not your work, and partly because balance is a static position that doesn’t last.  (For more useful ways of looking at this issue, see David Whyte’s The Three Marriages.)

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Life Savers (Let Me Hear From You!)

Busey Woods Winter

In the days following Gabe’s birth, six years ago on November 28th, I listened often to Carrie Newcomer’s CD “Regulars and Refugees.”  Gabe is our only winter baby, and lying in bed, holding him, with a clear, clean light coming through the big windows, I listened to that CD over and over.  The first song has a character named Gabriel Thomas in it and that is Gabe’s full name.  The music on that CD helped me find a part of myself that I recognized again, which was really welcome after the life-exploding event of giving birth to another human being.

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Better Late Than Never: Advent Blog 2011

The 2nd Sunday of Advent has come and gone, the amaryllis’ that I wanted to plant by December 1st are still in their boxes, and last night we just didn’t have the energy to decorate the tree that Martin put up in the morning.  But! This morning in the shower, I decided that it was not too late to do another Advent blog.  I’ll explain how this came to be in a moment, but know that I’ll be doing my very best to post every day until Christmas, and I would love it, as always, if you were here.

not the amaryllis in my house

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All Flowers Keep the Light

Merry Christmas everyone!  For folks who have been following this Advent blog, you know that today is the day we have been waiting for.  Waiting quite literally, as Advent is a season of waiting for the miracle that is on its way to us (remember that it is from the Latin adventus, and means “coming”)? 

For those of you who landed here in search of our annual family holiday letter, welcome!  You’re in the right place, and I’m so glad you’re here!  Please read along (and maybe even visit some of the previous posts)!  Everyone will also find some Srajek family 2010 moments over at:

The title of today’s post comes from a quotation by Theodore Roethke: “Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light.”  Advent is called “the season of light,” and writing this blog [one post and one poem (not by me!) for each day of Advent] has, from the beginning, been a way to draw attention away from the typical experience of winter darkness, and towards the light, whatever form that light may take. 

copyright Mary Schwalm

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