New Post at Church at Charlotte Blog

I’ve got a new post up at the Church at Charlotte blog today, some thoughts on what I learned when I visited Auschwitz. Last week was the 70th anniversary of that camp’s liberation. It’s likely the last commemoration that many of the survivors will make it to. I read a piece that talked about how remembering Auschwitz will change–by necessity–as the survivors are no longer with us.

It reminded me of our tour guide the day I visited, and her story:

Agnieszka responded by telling a story. She had gotten the job and started the training and—understandably—been overwhelmed by the horror of it all. So she considered quitting. She turned to a friend for counsel, an older woman who was a psychologist. Agnieszka laid out her case to her friend. It couldn’t be emotionally healthy, she argued, to learn all those stories and tell them over and over. She should quit, right?

Read on.


The Stalker Robin

I was trying to do some organizing and purging of digital files this evening. A friend mentioned on Facebook yesterday how full of junk her digital files were, and commented, “I don’t think I would have let them get so messy if they were physical and I could see them.” I’m in the same boat. I do tend to collect papers, but every once in a while I hold a purge. I take the piles and I go through them sheet by sheet, filing the necessary ones, recycling the rest. It’s a good rhythm.

My most successful purge to date was the spring before I moved to Alaska. My parents were studying in London for five weeks and I had their house to myself. They had cable and rerun episodes of Clean Sweep made an incredibly inspiring background for purging and organizing projects. So I brought the piles of my world down to the family room, turned that on in the background and worked at sorting my life to that point into a manageable size and system.

One morning, I woke and made my way downstairs to a rhythmic thumping in the family room. Confused, I peeked around the corner as I got to the kitchen and looked into the family room. There, beyond my piles of papers spread across the floor, standing on the firewood stand outside and launching himself repeatedly at the window, smashing against it, then landing back on the firewood stand, was a robin.

His rusty frontispiece was tufty and ruffled. His feathers didn’t lie smoothly. Everything about his appearance pointed to him being slightly undone. The fact that he was running into the window at twenty second intervals only confirmed the matter.

Thinking the bird must be seeing his reflection in the window, due to the dimmer interior of the house, I walked over and kindly lowered the window shade for him, hoping that would cut the glare enough to set him right. I glanced at the window on the far side of the fireplace. Best to lower that one, too.

Half an hour later, settled with my breakfast and my coffee, I looked up to notice that when I’d lowered the second shade, it had not gone fully down to the sill. In the triangle of window at the bottom of the crooked shade stood the robin, ducking his head down to peak in and cocking it to one side, eyeing me.

Photo by David Wenning

Photo by David Wenning

I crossed the room, closed the shade, and then closed the shade to the window on the back of the family room. An hour later, the robin had made his way around to the doorwall, where he stood on the ledge, tilting his head and staring.

That morning began a month-long fascination the bird had with me. He would stand on the window sills and stare in every day. He would sit in the back yard and watch my movements through the doorwall. He would come to the front door, stand on the porch, and tap-tap-tap on the metal kick plate. When I went to the door, thinking someone had knocked, he quickly flew back, landed in the pin oak tree about fifteen feet from the door, settled his unkempt feathers, and cocked his head in my direction.

When my parents returned I told them of the stalker robin. Sure enough, their first morning home he made his appearance at the front door. Tap-tap-tap.

I left for Alaska soon after, and about halfway through my first summer up there, I got a note from Mom. “Your robin has been hanging around all summer, though we didn’t see him much this week.”

That afternoon, a robin ran into my open apartment window.

He landed on the ground, dazed, but generally unhurt. As I watched him right himself, I noted his rusty front and raggedy feathers. He cocked his head at me once before taking off once more.

I never saw him again, but a week later the stalker robin appeared back in my parents’ yard.

Here Be Dragons

I was talking with a coworker today about the location of another area church. He explained to me that it was just up Park Road from the Quail Hollows Shopping Center, where Gleneagles Road intersects Park.

I knew the point of reference. Just last week I was over that way for lunch with a friend. My coworker’s directions to the church were to turn right on Park from Gleneagles. I’d turned left. I realized that I had no idea what was to the right.

I paused. “Does Fairview intersect Park?” I asked. I thought I remembered being on Park Road, and getting there from Fairview.
“Yep,” said my coworker.
“Farther up?” I asked.
“Yeah, if you turned right onto Park from Gleneagles, you’d eventually cross Fairview.”

The Lenox Globe, As illustrated in the Encyclopædia Britannica, 9th edition, Volume X, 1874, Fig.2

The Lenox Globe, As illustrated in the Encyclopædia Britannica, 9th edition, Volume X, 1874, Fig.2

I tried to picture it all in my mind. I had two anchor points, two places I knew, but the space between them was a blank.

I realized that most of my mental map of Charlotte is like that. I have intersections or roads I’m familiar with, but the space between is the “Here be dragons” areas of the ancient cartographers—utterly unknown.

I suppose my “Here be dragons” areas will diminish with time, but for now, I rather revel in the mystery. Who knows what thrill or terror might be around the next corner?

Throwback Thursday

It’s Thursday, and in the world of social media, that means the hashtag #tbt is making the rounds. “Throwback Thursday” it’s called—an opportunity to post those photos from the years before social media, the ones sitting in albums and desk drawers.

I’ve actually never done a #tbt post. I considered using the hashtag on Tuesday of this week when I posted something one of the pastors had said in the hallway a few weeks ago (which he followed by telling me, “You can tweet that”). I figured, since I hadn’t, I should get it out. But the #tbt seemed off—it was Tuesday, after all, and while alphabetically, the two days align at their beginnings and ends, nothing else about them matches.

But I sometimes think about photos that I could use for a Throwback Thursday.  There are far too many. I am the daughter of a photographer after all.

Tonight, though, I figured I’d pull out the Pioneer Girls photo album I won as we left Pioneer Girls to go into middle school. We were the year that they decided to change the youth group to grades 6-8, rather than just 7-8. It was a big deal, because for our class, it could mean missing our final year in Pioneers—the year we would get to be the oldest group, the big dogs, the rulers of the roost.

I remember Amy’s dad, the youth pastor, sitting Amy and me down and talking it through with us. He asked us what we’d like to do and someone came up with the idea of splitting the year. Before Christmas, we’d be in Pioneer Girls and after Christmas we’d move to youth group.

It was an excellent option, and I remember that last semester of Pioneer Girls fondly. In fact, my parents still use the angel I made as a Christmas project to top their tree—ours had broken the year before when we had an unfortunate mixture of a crooked tree, a wood floor, and a kitten in the house.

So, #tbt:

Pioneer Girls

The Quaker Maple

I’ve got an app on my phone called Timehop. Every day it gives me a catalog of all of my social media posts on this day in previous years. I shall begin by saying with pride that I have not yet used it to find fodder for this month’s blog posts. I shall then break my victorious streak and tell you that I am using it today. You do what you can when you get into the final third of the month.

One of my posts, from a year ago on Instagram, was a photo collage of a tree I call the “Quaker Maple.” I loved the Meetinghouse across the street from our apartment in Newtown for a number of reasons. I loved the clean white lines of the building, the porch with swings I always wanted to go sit on but never felt brave enough to. I loved the graveyard beyond it, full of the seeds of resurrection, the sinners and the saints. Everyday people buried in everyday graves, marked with simple stones. It was a lovely place.

I loved the parking lot and driveway, which were typically empty, and in which Christine and I often directed friends to park if we had a house full—not an uncommon occurrence. As we said to one another, after all, they’re Quakers; it’s not like they’ll be mad, they’re pacifists.

Missing the Quaker Maple this year. #autumnisadrugforme #newtownpa #courtstreet #timehop

A photo posted by Carolyn Givens (@carolyncgivens) on

But most of all, I loved the gargantuan maple in the front of the lawn. I loved it in all of its moods, all of its seasons. I watched its branches dark against steel skies on wintry days, lined with white on snowy ones. I watched it burst with pale green in the spring and thicken into a miniature forest of glossy dark leaves standing up from the branches in the summer. It was typically the first herald of autumn—and that was my favorite mood.

It would burst. Burn. Flame. Golds and reds and crimsons and browns. In the morning the tips of the top branches were alight with the sun peaking over the housetops. In the afternoon the low light shone between the houses and lit it from within.

It dropped its leaves, filling our driveway multiple times each autumn, but I couldn’t mind. It was worth it.

Oh, yes, I do miss the Quaker Maple.

And Then There Was the Day…

And then there was the day that I didn’t want to write a blog post. I wondered when it would happen. I was feeling pretty impressed by myself for making it through nearly two-thirds of the month without running out of ideas or just simply not wanting to write.

But I’ve hit my wall. I don’t feel like it.

I’m desperately trying to come up with some memory of a time when I had hit a wall and I just didn’t feel like going any further.

I can’t.

So, instead I’ll tell you in broad sweeps with very little attention to detail and no revisions whatsoever (except for there when I just typed the word “whatsoever” as “whatsover” and hit the backspace button to fix it) about the weekend that my family went camping at Warren Dunes during Hurricane Hugo.

Warren Dunes

Warren Dunes

It was a great trip. We met up with my uncle and aunt and cousins and Seth and Shane and I spent hours in the vine-festooned woods where we would break off dried curly-cues of vine and use them as keys to get us through the doors we imagined in the vine-and-branch posts-and-lintels into Narnia. And there we met Caspian and Reepicheep and Peter and Edmund and we shouted, “Narnia and the North!” and traversed the land—except for when we were playing it on the dunes themselves as we hiked toward Lake Michigan and discovered we were headed west and therefore changed our phrasing to “Narnia and the West” so as to be geographically accurate.

I don’t actually remember the storm. I slept through the tent collapsing on top of us and Dad and Uncle Hal getting up to anchor the tents to the cars and the trees. I missed it entirely.

But Hurricane Hugo was the storm that blew a Yugo off of Mackinac Bridge up in Northern Michigan, so to say I was tent camping that weekend definitely lends me some cred.

Julie’s Porch

I sat in Julie’s living room this evening. I walked in, looked at the sofa, and turned to look back at her.

“I’ve never sat down in this room before,” I said.

She raised one eyebrow and cocked her head a little. “How is that?”

I gestured to the darkened screen porch out the back door. “I’ve spent many hours on your porch.”

It will be a strange thing this winter, learning the living room at Julie’s house. I’ve gotten to know the kitchen quite well and there’s a bedroom upstairs that’s been mine for nights in a row. But the porch. That’s my spot.

I first came to Julie’s at the very end of May in 2013. I was tired. I was worn. I was hurt.

A quiet breakfast on @juliesilander’s porch with good books and a delightful mug. @therabbitroom

A photo posted by Carolyn Givens (@carolyncgivens) on

And she offered me coffee, books, and a spot on the porch. And I took it. And I drank in the cool days, the quiet yard, the trees, the birds.

And for the better part of two days, she didn’t bother me much. She’d come out, sit on the other wicker loveseat, and read her own things. From time to time we’d read out a passage to one another, or stop to talk for a few minutes. And in quiet mornings a cup of coffee and a good book was healing for my soul.

On the last night of my visit—my birthday—the whole family joined me on the porch and fed me cake and asked me questions, a household birthday tradition.

I came back in late March this year. It was warm enough again to be on the porch, and I dragged my laptop out and counted dragons in the final battle of Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga as I copyedited The Warden and the Wolf King.

Then, in April I returned again. I didn’t need the room upstairs, but the porch was still there for me. And on it we gathered other friends, some new to me, who shared their hearts and their words.

Tonight we moved our words indoors and feted them with hot apple cider. It’s grown chilly for the screen porch, but next spring—next spring I’ll be back there again.

Time Differences and Squirrel Sacrifice

My sister Jessie just FaceTimed me from Singapore. She’d just gotten off with Mom and Dad, currently in Hawaii. “It’s strange,” she said. “They’re six hours ahead of us, but a day behind.”

I recall that strange feeling. For the vast majority of my life I have lived in the Eastern Time Zone. Therefore most of Asia is twelve or thirteen hours different (depending on location and whether we’re on Daylight Savings Time or not). I’ve spend a lot of life interacting with Asia. I understand that twelve-hour time difference pretty well.

And then I moved to Alaska. Four hours behind Eastern. And my brain was so confused that I made a chart: If it’s this time in Alaska, then it’s this time in Michigan, and this time in Macau (where Jessie lived at the time).

But the time difference with Asia wasn’t my only problem. I had trouble getting my head around the four hour change to the East Coast, too. I became the person that people called when they were driving late at night—for me, it was only 8:00 or 9:00 p.m.

I was looking through old files today and found an AOL Instant Messenger conversation with my friend Natey (Supertenor38) that I’d saved which started off on that very topic.

Supertenor38: hey, how’s Alaska?
QuoteUnquote: hot!
QuoteUnquote: this week, that is.
Supertenor38: what’s it like to not be awake at 1am?
Supertenor38: that always gets me
Supertenor38: im like, why is she on so late?
QuoteUnquote: lol
Supertenor38: then im like, oh yeah, its not so late there
QuoteUnquote: I’ve just become a night owl…
QuoteUnquote: not so late
Supertenor38: yes, im sure
QuoteUnquote: only 9
Supertenor38: yeah
Supertenor38: i can subtract
Supertenor38: and add too
Supertenor38: every now and then
Supertenor38: 😉
QuoteUnquote: I wasn’t sure you knew how many…

Evidently, time was not my only confusion in that conversation. I also had his birthdate wrong.

With Paul and Natey at George and Jamie's wedding (10 years ago this week!)

With Paul and Natey at George and Jamie’s wedding (10 years ago this week!)

QuoteUnquote: How are you?
Supertenor38: i’m alright
Supertenor38: a year older, but none the worse for wear
QuoteUnquote: hey, I beat you there by 2 months, you know.
QuoteUnquote: It’s not that bad a place.
QuoteUnquote: I’ve had a little bit of fun since I turned 24
QuoteUnquote: just a little
Supertenor38: yeah, i havent
QuoteUnquote: that’s sad
Supertenor38: but then, ive only been 24 for like an hour and a half
QuoteUnquote: darn…do I have the wrong date in my head again?
QuoteUnquote: the 11th?
QuoteUnquote: I was thinking the 8th.
Supertenor38: nope, that’s jonny
Supertenor38: april 8th
QuoteUnquote: I always do that…
QuoteUnquote: I don’t know why.
Supertenor38: but its ok, it was the sentiment that was important
Supertenor38: and for that i thank you
QuoteUnquote: Thanks.
QuoteUnquote: or, Your Welcome
QuoteUnquote: take your pick
QuoteUnquote: that means I didn’t slice open my finger on your birthday, which makes the day suddenly much less eventful.
QuoteUnquote: very disappointing.
Supertenor38: sorry about that
Supertenor38: you need to do something today to make my birthday special
QuoteUnquote: break my neck?
Supertenor38: no, dont do that
Supertenor38: too extreme
Supertenor38: but you’re thinking, and i like that
QuoteUnquote: I’m trying to live a life of adventure here…c’mon!
Supertenor38: well, breaking your neck could result in death, and that would make all of us sad
QuoteUnquote: oh, that…
QuoteUnquote: okay, I’ll try to go for something not involving blood, stitches or dismemberment.
QuoteUnquote: or death
QuoteUnquote: my own, that is…maybe I’ll sacrifice a squirrel
Supertenor38: ummm….i think i would have to disown you as a friend
Supertenor38: that crosses the whole “weirdness” boundary line
QuoteUnquote: I am in an odd mood tonight…
Supertenor38: clearly
QuoteUnquote: so anyway…
Supertenor38: yes anyways
QuoteUnquote: I probably won’t sacrifice a squirrel
Supertenor38: oh ok
Supertenor38: i’m surprised to find that im actually a little disappointed. i mean, its weird and all, but talk about a great conversation starter
Supertenor38: “….so i have this friend, who sacrificed a squirrel once….”
QuoteUnquote: for a birthday celebration, no less
Supertenor38: yeppers
QuoteUnquote: I think it could work…
QuoteUnquote: maybe you can just use the story, and pretend it happened.
Supertenor38: oh no question
Supertenor38: it’s just one of those stories that you can’t help but listen to

I saw three of those kamikaze squirrels dead in the road this morning. It’s a little late for Natey’s birthday present this year, but I guess it will have to do.

Kamikaze Squirrels and Zinzi’s Cat

I drive through a quiet neighborhood on my way to work. This morning I was forced to drive it like a mad woman, dodging squirrels right and left that jumped out from the side of the road that ran across in front of me. They scooted by as my tires rolled through the leaves scudding across the road. One had dropped his nut right in the middle of the street. I did my best to avoid him, swerving to one side, and he worked hard to get his paws around the acorn and get it into his jaws. Just as I passed, he scampered off, his tail barely clearing my wheel.

The close encounters with furry woodland creatures put me in mind of one of my favorite memories: my introduction to Zinzi’s cat.

In May of 2001, I went on a Reformation Tour with my college. There were about twelve students, mostly girls, and the rest of our tour bus was filled with friends of the university—many of them senior citizens, quite a few retired naval officers. It was a quality combination that led to lots of entertaining encounters. But this story only includes the younger generation.

We spent our second night in Herrnhut, Germany, at a guesthouse run by the Moravians there. Technically, Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf und Pottendorf was not a part of reformation history, as he lived about a hundred years too late, but, since Herrnhut was a good stopping point between Prague (where we studied Jan Hus) and Luther’s territory, we paused there and learned a little bit of Moravian history.

The observation tower in the Herrnhut cemetery.
Aussichtsturm Hutbergaltan auf dem Hutberg, Herrnhut

We’d toured a large cemetery in the center of the village that afternoon and had seen the sarcophaguses of Zinzi (as we affectionately named the Count) and his family in the center of the main path. In addition, we’d seen a hill on the far side of the cemetery with a white observation tower above it. When it grew dark that night, we discovered that the stars were shining brilliantly—small towns like Herrnhut not having quite the light pollution of major cities—and someone got the bright idea to make our way to the hill and the observation tower to see what we could see.

Eight of the girls jumped on board with the idea, and Mike, as the conscientious brother that he was, decided that we could not go alone. So, the nine of us jauntily made our way from the guest house, along the path through the cemetery, and up the hill to the observatory. Upon arrival, we discovered the observatory tower itself was locked, so we were forced to stand about on the ground—still high above the town—and enjoy the sight of the night sky from there.

After half an hour or so of stargazing we turned back to the path down the hill on our way to return to the guesthouse, and all suddenly had a realization: it was pitch black, we had one flashlight, and we were about to walk through a cemetery.

Spooked, we each grabbed a buddy. I linked arms with Kate and we set ourselves second in line behind Emily and Crystal with the flashlight. Behind us Deanne and Claire paired up, and Mike, with Bekah on one arm and Jamie on the other, brought up the rear.

We navigated down the hill carefully. Emily and Crystal would spot a root across the path and whisper it back to the rest of us, “Root!” and the message would pass along. We’d hear “Turn!” at each bend and pass it on back, “Turn!” “Turn!”

All was well until we reached the sarcophagi in the middle of the main path. We’d skirted the path edge, giving them a wide birth as we went, and it was only when most of us were beyond them that Mike could hold it in no longer.

“Is it just me,” he asked, “or is that coffin opening?”

Simultaneously, in sepulchral whispers, eight girls said, “SHUT UP!” He was vigorously swatted by Jamie and Bekah as he laughed.

A few more minutes down the path, we could see the edge of the cemetery ahead and the comforting lights of our guesthouse across the road. The end was in sight, but something in the beam of the flashlight had caught Emily and Crystal’s attention. They slowed, peering ahead.

“What is it?” Kate and I asked.

“I think—” Emily moved the flashlight and dragged Crystal another step forward. “I think it’s a hedgehog!”

Delighted, we passed the word back, “Hedgehog!” “Hedgehog!” and we gathered closer to the tiny woodland creature. None of us had ever seen a hedgehog before, and they really are as adorable as they look in all the pictures. We’d formed a small clump around the edge of the path near him, traumatizing him and paralyzing him with fear as we trained our flashlight upon him and whispered our excitement.

“I’m going to take a picture of it!” said Kate. She reached for her camera, one arm still hooked in mine. She brought the camera to her eye, focused, and pressed the shutter.

As she did so, a white cat came flying out of the darkness, aiming for the small prey we’d so conveniently trained in a spotlight for him. Simultaneously, the flash of the camera went off, startling the humans, the cat, and the hedgehog equally and sending us all reeling away from the center point where the hedgehog had been. Terrified back to action, it went scurrying off in one direction. The cat, shocked by the sudden bright light, ran the opposite way. And all nine of us jumped back in alarum.

It became an emblem of our entire tour, that night did. We told and retold the tale. We dubbed Kate the “Savior of Furry Woodland Creatures” (though “furry” may not have been the best description for the hedgehog). We honored Mike for his bravery in bringing up the rear, and chastised him for his attempts to terrify us.

And in every city we entered for the next two weeks, we saw a white cat, Zinzi’s Cat, who followed us across Germany, haunting our steps until we would provide him with another snack.

A Favorite View

There’s a spot along the North Carolina/Tennessee border where the mountains grow more angular, as if they’ve sucked in their breath. Their spines arch across the sky and all their rib bones show under their skin of trees.

I’ve decided it’s my favorite view on the drive to Nashville. Evidently I’ve driven that route enough times to feel like a “regular” on it. When I’m a regular, I choose a favorite view.

Winter view

Winter view

Summer view

Summer view

My favorite view on the Glenn Highway in Alaska was just after you get through the mountains and enter the Copper River Basin. To the south is a valley full of trees and rising from the far side are the Chugach Mountains. The sea side of the Chugach range has ski resorts and ocean views, but it’s the “back” side that I always loved.

Once, when I had a van full of visiting prospective students, we stopped at a pull out on the bluff to take photos of the valley. As the van rolled to a stop near the edge, a bald eagle took off from just out of view over the side—no more than ten feet from us. Its wingspan must have been six feet at least. The huge bird did not go far. It perched itself in a rickety black spruce nearby and stared at us inscrutably.

I glanced back at the students in the van. Wide-eyed, they stared back at the raptor.

I hated to break the majesty of the moment. “Um, so, guys…just so you know,” I said, “there may be a carcass right off the edge there.”

They blinked back to reality as I gestured to the eagle, pointing out the red smears on his white plumage. Yes, he’d just been feeding.

We stepped out of the van, a tad more trepidatious than typically. Sure enough, just off the edge, below our line of sight from inside the van, was the massacred carcass of a moose. I have no idea how she met her end, but the animals certainly demolished her flesh once she had.

‘Twas a bit of a turn off on the view for the first-timers among us. It’s hard to take in the lovely planes of the mountain sides and the snow-tipped spruce scattered across the valley floor with a mangled corpse before you and your nation’s symbol of power and grandeur eyeing you with ire for interrupting his snack.