The Blade and the Earth

A courthouse is designed to provoke obedience. Everything from the unforgiving stone floors and stuffy silence to the polished rails and guards in their creaking leather belts demands order. And why shouldn’t it? It’s a place where justice is meted out. A place where disappointments like us went to be punished.

We were nervous before we stepped inside, and the cop who checked us in certainly didn’t help.

“Sir!” he barked at my husband. “You can’t bring that in here.”

We looked around, wondering what contraband he could possibly be carrying.

The guard sighed and pointed at the waist of my husband’s carefully pressed black suit pants. “Your knife, sir. No weapons are allowed in the building.”

Born and raised in the country, my husband carries a pocketknife everywhere he goes. It’s as much a part of his ensemble as a watch, wallet, and cell phone, and neither of us had even considered our destination that morning as we prepared for what promised to be one of the hardest days of our married life.

“I’m so sorry, sir,” he stammered, sliding it from his belt. “Can I leave it here with you?”

“Nope,” the guard replied. “We’re not allowed to keep personal items at the desk.”

There wasn’t time to make the long walk back to the parking garage, and we stared, genuinely flummoxed and more rattled than we had been when we arrived. But then my husband saw a stand near the door that held plastic umbrella bags. He marched toward it, ripped one from the peg, and headed back outside to the courtyard. I couldn’t help but follow.

img_6399Choosing the closest planter, he wrapped the bag around the knife, tied it securely, and then began to dig a hole in the moist earth between a row of freshly planted purple and white pansies and the concrete wall. Then he dropped the bag in the hole and filled it in.

When he stood, I saw his hands were dirty—as dirty as I felt.

For weeks, I’d known this day was coming. It had been inevitable ever since we discovered the condo we’d bought, along with hundreds of others, hadn’t been built to code. Despite tens of thousands of dollars spent on repairs, which more than doubled our mortgage, the place still wasn’t close to passing inspection. In a few months, our savings account was siphoned dry, and bill after bill slipped into “past due” status.

Rather than continue to throw money into what had become an 1,100-square-foot pit (with new carpet no less), we’d opted to file chapter 13 and cut the rope keeping the financial albatross around our necks. Now, I imagined everyone who looked at me saw a scarlet “B” on my chest.

There was something so final, so disheartening, about stashing his knife that I couldn’t help but sob. It was like he was burying everything we’d worked so hard for—hopes for home ownership and putting down roots. Of finally being able to paint a wall yellow or blue instead of sterile rental white. All of it was going into the earth with that blade.

The rest of the day passed in a florescent-lit haze. We entered the courtroom and numbly sat down next to our lawyer. And when the time came for us to officially declare our insolvency, we stood and locked hands—more grateful than ever for each other. Shame, heavy as it might be, sits a little easier on two shoulders.

As the judge droned on for what felt like hours, we waited, letting the waterfall of meaningless words fall over us. The entire time, I imagined I could still feel that dirt on our hands, ground into the whorls of fingers and the crooked lines of life and love.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, I thought. From it we were made, and to it we shall return—all at once or one piece at a time.

After the papers were signed, we escaped into the sunlight of a perfect Florida afternoon, exhausted and looking for the closest bar—unsure what to do now that we were, for all intents and purposes, homeless. We were so desperate to leave, in fact, that we nearly forgot the knife, but my husband remembered and went back. It reemerged as clean and sharp as when it went in, and—though it didn’t feel so at the time—the same would be true of us after seven long, lean years.

I won’t lie. Being flat broke and without credit was rather close to the bone, but it also had a way of clarifying things. The finances were tight, but somehow, there was always enough. The few things we did have were enjoyed richly. My husband and I grew to love each other in truer and more meaningful ways, and each day, we found the answer to Jesus’ question “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matt. 6:25) was a resounding yes.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Jamie A. Hughes“The Blade and the Earth” was written by Jamie A. Hughes. Jamie is a writer, editor, and unapologetic St. Louis Cardinals fanatic who currently lives in Atlanta, GA with her husband, two adopted sons, and a pair of needy cats. A former high school teacher, she now works as the managing editor of In Touch Magazine and is struck dumb by her good fortune. She blogs at and can be found on Twitter @tousledapostle. 

Finding My Place While Alone

There are two types of being alone. You can be alone and lost in the pulling chaos of your desires, or you can be alone in a place with the universe present to you and free from the consuming fashions of your own heart.

After work one day, I sat alone in my apartment. The feel of the room was like the sedated air of a cave. My heart was crowded with its own thoughts:

“What if this happens? What if they find out about me? What if she does not really like me? What if I am not good enough? I heard him say that, but what if he meant this?”

And, “I know I am supposed to do that, but my couch looks really good. The TV and mindlessness are close. I need this.”

Heart, mind, and will grow sticky under the odd mixture of shame and selfishness. It’s a common and crippling feeling I’ve known often in my life. Shame creeps through everything. It enters you in silence, and it will take years for you to uncover its source. Even then, who knows if you’ll ever unroot it. Selfishness is natural, but it loves to couch itself next to shame. They sit together when I’m alone speaking in rationalizing consonance.

“I am not good enough, so don’t mind anyone else. Do what pleases you now.”

The apartment I live in is more of a home for cockroaches than people. There is a growing graveyard for them on the very desk on which I am typing. Often, I feel its dankness wearing on me reminding me too well of my own thoughts. The decaying wood and plaster rubs its ruin into me.

On this day the joy of every other moment I spent with people dissipated within these wall. Sometimes, I let this sensation rule for whole evenings, but on this day I walked away from it. I needed to get out of there, out of me. I went outside.

As I walked, steps began to form words, and my mind cleaved to meanings more than to the previously crawling feelings. Hard shapes formed in my motion. My senses snatched stories of the universe outside of me as I slowly tread in my raggedy shoes around a couple blocks near my apartment.

The immediate smell of spring’s fecundity trampled the plastic stasis of my self-contained thoughts. I crunched on thousands of scattered seed pods thrown about by the will of the trees and wind who seemed intent on ruining cars with their loamy stains. They remained on the concrete smashed into brown-green stains and reminded me of nature’s hopefulness. In this concrete desert the trees still cast their life to the ground because life is meant to be given from one to another even in the face of certain failure, it’s never meant to be self-contained. The whole world of life honors this, why wouldn’t I?

As I walked further, I became lighter. I was surprised. There were so many robins. One picked up a worm but then let it drop to look at me. It stopped to see what I’d do. I watched the earthworm wriggling out of the moistened mud then took three steps away and witnessed the robin happily return to his meal.  Even the death of an earthworm and the life of a robin made me think of things outside of me. What life and death in this world means is always hard to figure, but being present to it even while alone is being open to the the life outside of us: the only life that will bring us joy.

I marched on through busy honey bees buzzing about in the white flowers of a shoulder high bush. They bumped about me as if I were one of them. People run together and into each other like this most of the day. We are happy to be busy, happy to be amongst others passing through this cacophony of life and death, and our thoughts do not crowd into us like the ruin of my apartment crowds into me when I am alone. But when we are alone, we get to order our lives and our thoughts. We must choose to mark our moments with a thoughtful intention to enjoin the universe with our lives or be left to dankly decay in our own fickle desires.

I walked home leaving the weight of my formless, self-devouring thoughts along the walk around my block. I prayed to be reminded of this all again tomorrow.


To Trying (& Waving Off the Brown Bear)

At 4:00 on a Thursday, I find myself a little ahead of schedule at work. I made it to the end of Day One in our two-day Mental Health First Aid training a few minutes early. By 4:30 I’ve packed my things, and am preparing to zoom across town to grab Matt at his school’s aftercare. At this point, I can maybe barely miss the burst of rush hour traffic. If I do, I’ll grab Matt by 5, zip across town to get Sam at Tae Kwon Do by 5:30, and then get home and maybe – maybe – have dinner on the table by 6:30. I want that single extra half hour, I’m pining for it the way my kids want their “video game time” or “play dates” on the weekends.

“You’re leaving?” one of my co-workers asks as I blow down the corridor.

“See you tomorrow,” I announce, bracing myself for what I know will follow.

“Must be nice,” comes the chime.

“I can’t do this now – ” I plead.

“Some of us have work to do here,” she jokes. I can only growl inside, then lean heavily into the door.

I make good time on the pick-ups, but on arriving home, my oldest, Sam, realizes he’s left something at Tae Kwon Do that he needs for school tomorrow. We drive back. He finds what he forgot. We return home. Oh, well. I tried.

We eat. They bathe. At 10pm, Sam’s still doing his homework. I work a few feet from him, prepping for the following day’s training. Soon, he can’t hold his eyes open anymore. He’s so tired tonight, we do the unheard of and skip reading to each other before bed.

I make it into bed just before midnight. Read from How to Worry Less About Money for maybe three minutes before I can’t hold my own eyes open a moment longer. I check to make sure the alarm is set: 6:45. I roll over, close my eyes. Breathe, I murmur.

All too soon, it seems, we begin again.


“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” I urge the next morning, as we blow across the snow-dusted parking lot. I hear myself, my tone, and deflate and sigh. I sound like a crazed third base coach waving the runner home as the ball is hurled towards the infield for the play. Worse, I’ve directed that order to my youngest, Matt, who’s pitifully trying to keep pace with us, his big brother and I, but scampering along the lot while jerking his arm upwards to keep his backpack from sliding off his shoulder.

His big brother has darted ahead of us, but then he pauses and waits a few feet away for us to catch up. In that instant, a spark of tenderness cuts through my exhaustion. One’s waiting for us, the other’s racing to keep up. We’re trying.

Everything in me is invested in that moment after we cross the school’s threshold – after greeting the crossing guard, shaking hands with the principal at the school entrance, smiling to the school receptionist, nodding and bidding “hey” to the random teachers and parents with whom I lock eyes for a fleeting moment, after which time the entire cyclone of our week’s routines comes to a rest with the boys hugging me goodbye at their classroom doors.

Only then, following that hug goodbye, can I rally. We made it, I proclaim to no one but me, We did it! On the last day of our weeks together, the morning where I drop them at school and they then go to their mom’s till I see them next, my heart surges with something more than relief. I don’t know what you call it, but I’m fairly certain those guys that successfully scale Denali or even Everest have nothing on this: We did it! Another successful ascent – er, no –  we survived the week!

In those moments, I get to let go of the splash of nausea that shoots through my insides those last mornings before the handoff to their mom. For a few days, I can release, too, the head-spinning and stone-heavy weariness that I confess at its absolute worst and most draining makes me contemplate the point of it all; occasionally causes me, albeit shamefully, to envy the male brown bear’s “deadbeat dad” status in the wild, who gives mama brown bear her babies and who then just gets to saunter off into the sunset, never to be seen again.  Yellowstone grizzlies

But not so fast today. No rallying yet, it turns out. Today, we step into school and are instantly adrift on a wave of plates, pans, and baskets boasting red and white towels and handkerchiefs. Heart-shaped cookies, cupcakes, and more are stacked on various decorative serving trays. Parents whisk them through the corridors like waiters at fine restaurants – that is, if waiters wore Patagonia and Marmot down coats. Their children carry small bags and baskets stuffed to overflowing with pink, white, and red envelopes.

Outside Matt’s first-grade classroom, I bite my bottom lip. As he removes his coat and boots and hangs them up, I jiggle the change around in my pocket. When he takes his spot in the line of his classmates waiting to shake Ms. J’s hand, Matt’s head turns towards the basket of handmade Valentine cards that the boy in front of him is holding.

I entirely spaced Valentine’s Day. Only in that instant do I vaguely recall an email or two addressing Valentine’s Day festivities at school. I stoop down to Matt, who is still looking at the basket. I place my arm around his shoulder. He seems startled when I do and his face is flushed when he looks at me. I want to say something. But I don’t know what to say, and so I just stroke and then nuzzle his strawberry-blonde hair.

I don’t remember what I finally whisper, and I’m sure he doesn’t either. My head down, avoiding eye contact on my breeze through the corridor, I feel a familiar burn in my core.

There are days, and this is another of them, when I wonder when, how, or if I’ll ever be able to keep apace with the stream. It’s hard not to imagine that if the “Single Dad Moments” I’ve been accumulating in the nearly two years since my divorce were granted the same cultural status or weight as “Senior Moments” among the elderly, my kids might be having The Talk with my extended family right about now – the discussion about how maybe Dad needs to consider an assisted living situation, or a hired aid. Something.

I stare into the steering wheel. I start the car. But we’re trying.

I slide into gear. I have to get to work. I’m due at my other job.

denali ascent

A little like this?

Home Church

The reasons we chose the church weren’t particularly flattering. It was close, under five minutes from our house if traffic was favorable. They had a pretty thin looking praise team, so if they’d have us, we would both be able to play. The pastor seemed nice and the sermons didn’t strain my liberal sensitivities too hard. And it was relatively anonymous, so we didn’t feel the scarlet A’s branding us every time we entered the sanctuary.

We were married now, but that hadn’t always been the case. We had attended church together for five years, but in the before days, we had been married to other people, and lots of people in the church community of our town knew it.

countrychurchIn my previous life, when I had changed churches, I always knew immediately when I found my new church home. In those instances, there was a simple feeling of belonging. Even if it hadn’t made sense to me why I felt that way, I could tell when a new congregation was home.

But I didn’t have that feeling here.

I told my husband I’d probably feel more at home when I started serving in the congregation. I told him that when I was giving something of myself to the church, I would get that feeling of belonging. It wouldn’t just be the church that I went to, but it would become my church.

We never wanted our past to come to the surface and catch the leadership of the church unawares, so we had lunch with the pastors, one of us gripping the leg of the other who was telling their part of the story, trying to send strength to each other through leg compressions. Grace was extended, and we were invited to join the team of musicians. We had our first rehearsal with the team. We played our first Sunday, almost a year to the day from the last time we had played together, and it was a joy-filled experience. Everything was coming together in the best possible way.

And still the feeling of “home” evaded me.

I didn’t know what was wrong with me. What was holding me back from experiencing that sense of belonging in this place where we had been shown so much grace and love? Why couldn’t I feel at home when I was being embraced by those I worshiped with each week?

I turned these questions over in my mind and realized that the only thing holding me back was me. I didn’t feel at home because I wasn’t allowing myself to feel at home.

In my mind, I heard the voices that had told me I wasn’t welcome in church any more. Heard the voices that told me that I was a distraction. Heard the voices that told me that I didn’t belong.

Instead of seeing the ways we were being accepted, I kept expecting rejection. I waited for the shame I felt to be reflected back in the words or actions of others. I listened to the voices in my head instead of the voices of those right in front of me.

I wanted to feel at home, so I made a different choice.

When the voices in my head started telling me that I didn’t belong, I started looking for the ways that my church was helping me to belong. I thought about parking lot conversations after services. I thought about late night dinners at Burger King. I thought about hugs offered when we explained why the baby dedication service was too painful for us to attend. I thought of all of the ways that the church I was attending was becoming my church.

And it finally felt like home.

 *   *   *   *   *

424033_10151308414006236_662319879_n (1)“Home Church” was written by Alise Chaffins. Alise is a wife, a mother, an eater of soup, and a lover of Oxford commas. You can generally find her sitting behind a keyboard of some kind: playing or teaching the piano, writing at her laptop, or texting her friends a random movie quote. Alise lives in West Virginia and blogs at

Pizza on Thanksgiving

When I was 21, I was a college dropout living on the floor of a friend’s apartment. I was estranged from my family because I chose not to be around them, and I was completely lost in myself.

During that year, I spent nearly every day alone. Over the previous two years of my life, I had slowly slipped into myself, away from friends and any purpose to guide and drive me beyond the most present satisfactions.  I lived in a cage of self-absorption. For Thanksgiving in my 21st year, I missed all of my family’s activities, including our goose-hunting trip and the Thanksgiving Day meal at the ranch house. Instead, I chose to cut myself off from communicating with everyone, seeking desperately to avoid seeing another face that might recall me to my own lonely heart.

I have always been content alone. My mother often told me I was so easy as a child because I needed no attention—I had my own mind to get lost within—yet this also rightly worried her because I did not seek others out, especially when I was hurting or feeling shame. By the time I was 21, after two years of burying myself in the shame of not living up to who I could be as a student as well as a pile of addictions and self-hatred, I was even more intent on fleeing others; they awoke in me an awareness of just how lonely and lost I was. I could hide my heart’s aching loneliness from myself with a series of addictions and distractions, but the face of another person was a mirror to me.

Thanksgiving day for my family usually consists of turkey, stuffing, endless rolls, a goose, pecan pie, football, and thanksgiving. The central focus and culmination of our meal is our giving of thanks where, with a solemn yet joyful procession around the table, we offer up our gratitude for family, friends, and all the goodness of life. This is one of many sacraments my family practices around the dinner table on special occasions. For birthdays, my family intentionally sets aside a time at the end of the meal to tell the family member who was born that day why we love them. These moments recall us back to joy, thanksgiving, and shared love. But for that Thanksgiving, I was a prodigal so desperately mired in the muck of myself that I could not handle love, joy, and thanksgiving. When we turn in upon ourselves and seek our satisfaction from only what we desire, our hearts can shrivel up to the point where love and joy become painful for us. Right then, love and joy were painful for me to encounter.

Instead of community and celebration, I spent that Thanksgiving alone. I locked myself up in the apartment and wanted no one to come near me. Because I was so afraid of seeing another face, I did not leave my room until I became hungry. Around mid-afternoon, I finally decided to order pizza (which to my surprise was still delivered on Thanksgiving) and waited in my cavern for it to arrive. I was watching football, just like my family was likely doing, when the pizza arrived. When I opened the door, I found a young man, probably my own age, looking at me quizzically. I immediately wondered: Why was this young man working on Thanksgiving? What had led him to the point where he wasn’t at home with his family, eating a joyful Thanksgiving meal? Was he without a family or friends to share joy and love with today?

Then, I saw in his eyes the same questions being asked back at me. Beneath my armor of distractions, the desperate beating brokenness of my own heart pulsed with billowing pangs into my consciousness. In this pizza delivery boy’s face, I saw my own loneliness.

Driving through a small town on I-45 the other day, I saw a big billboard, the type of sign you only see in a small town in Texas, which read: “Lost? The map is in My Book. ~God”. When I saw it, I was struck by a realization: When I am lost, the map back to where I need to go has not often been written on a page but in the face of another person. When I was lost that Thanksgiving day, the face of a pizza delivery boy first woke me to how lost I really was. Now, every time I attempt to escape back into myself to hide from the constant reality that I am lonely, broken, and in need, I find myself face to face with another broken heart. I writhe to run, but the God whose face is always seeking mine will not let me turn forever from my own brokenness. I am recalled back to the place of my own poverty, where I am unable to live without another living within me, beside me, and for me, and where in turn I am called to live for others outside the ruinous cavern of myself.

Where I Am: Under a Dallas Sky

The slight fall of morning light slipping through the cracks of my window wakes me from my restless sleep to the crude demands of the morning. I roll out of bed into the shame of being unprepared: my clothes are not laid out, which means I will wake my roommate as I dig blindly through my very wrinkled dress shirts, my lunch is not made so once again I will go lunch-less, and I have a pile of ungraded math homework still waiting for me when I arrive at school. While I go about my early morning routine, all of these shames cluster in the blackness below my waking mind.

I enter the kitchen of my ancient apartment and hurriedly turn on the lights. My eyes dance from the floor to the refrigerator hoping to avoid catching a glimpse of the inevitable running of the roaches occurring below me as they scurry from the presence of light as if their very lives were deemed too sinister for life in the light. In the refrigerator, I find the needed caffeine rush in the form of canned bubbling chemicals. Desperately trying to escape considering anything above the automatic, I dress, brush my teeth, and hurry to my car in a matter of ten minutes.

“Get me out of this morning and on to bigger things” is all I can muster in a hurried prayer as I begin driving.


The car ride to where I work in West Dallas as an 8th grade math and science teacher carries me across several layers of Dallas. When I was growing up in North Dallas, I never made this drive, nor did I know anything about the totally different cultures of South and West Dallas, much less the many surrounding suburbs which make up what we simply call the Metroplex. My total lack of knowledge about the city I have called home for over twenty years struck me last year when I was on jury duty with a large group of South Dallas residents. Their conversations about local politics, churches, and socio-economic problems were so foreign and curious to me. Their concerns and perspectives were utterly different than what I was used to hearing in North Dallas, and I had never seen many of the places they referenced.

Beyond simply being geographically fragmented, Dallas has no discernible cohesive culture. The only thing everyone seems to agree on is an affinity for football and a hatred of Jerry Jones. Dallas’ cultural conglomeration is like a kid’s stick glued art project all jaggedly matched together and glittered with silver and blue sparkles. Dallas imports and slaps together all kinds of cultures stolen from other places like Austin’s hipster vibe, LA’s glam and glitz, the Deep South’s style and sense of class, and the cowboy swagger of West Texas with brief cases replacing the revolver in Dallas. None of it seems to be authentic, and if you went looking for Dallas’ soul, you would get lost somewhere between the Northpark Mall, Fair Park, and the Bishop Arts District.


As I drive, I go under the North Dallas Tollway, by the Salvation Army on old Harry Hines, and finally under I35, the great heartland highway which splits Texas into two discernable halves, before I reach the one unpopulated portion of my drive over the Trinity River and its surrounding flood plains.

When I cross the bridge just northwest of downtown Dallas, I look back to my left to catch the sunrise from the southeast behind the Dallas skyline. This morning the river is shrouded in a snake of smoky fog clinging to the water and walled by big pecan trees. The skyline is tinged in amber by the sun rising directly behind it, and above it all, the Dallas sky, which is bigger, wider, and higher than even the “everything is bigger in Texas” slogan lets on, is shaded orange, purple, and blue. When I arrive at school just on the other side of the bridge, I get out of the car and turn once again to face the amber beauty of this Texas sunrise. I give thanks for the sky, and as my mind stills and relinquishes some of its shame and anxiety in this moment of delight and thanksgiving, I am reminded of a prayer I wrote two years ago when I first started teaching:

Draw me to the present, the work of today

I repent of rejecting the meager means

Help me to embrace these trickles of You


Here, under the Dallas sky which I have seen lit up in a thousand different ways over 21 of my 27 years, I live.