About Gretchen O'Donnell

Gretchen O’Donnell is a freelance writer and columnist for The Globe. In her column she discusses everything from her lifelong secret desire to be a DJ to the humiliations of skiing in Switzerland. Occasionally she talks about parenting and ornithology and the pressure of having an Irish last name on St. Patrick's Day. She and her husband and three children live across the street from Iowa, where she writes, cooks, drinks the occasional cup of coffee, and reads. From time to time she even dusts.

The heart of Christmas

My earliest Christmas memory — a memory I know is mine and isn’t just from family stories or photos that make me think I remember — is me, age 10, I believe, so impatient and anxious to get to the important business of unwrapping gifts but having to wait for my sister to get off of the ferry boat because she’d had to work the night before on the mainland and therefore couldn’t arrive home to Orcas Island, Washington, until Christmas morning. I must have been quite a pest because Mom sent me with Dad to drive the 35 minutes to the ferry dock to pick up Kris, knowing that the enforced hourish away from the beckoning Christmas tree would give her peace and me something else to think about.

I’m not sure that it did give me something else to think about because I remember pouting all the way there and all the way back, but then, finally, oldest sister returned to the fold, we were home, breakfast was ready, and we could get down to the agenda of the day.

I can’t tell you most of what I received that year. Books, for sure. Puppets, possibly. Probably some Lego. Clothes, handmade by Mom, and that could have been the year I received an Instamatic camera from my grandparents with film that was two years expired.

But I do know for sure, that was the year I received my dollhouse. I had been banned from the loft above the kitchen for weeks, knowing that something more than just secret sewing was going on as sewing machines didn’t make sand-paper noises, or require anyone other than Mom to shut themselves away for hours at a time. I imagined all sorts of things — a book shelf, a birdhouse (though why I’d have been receiving one of those I’m not sure) — anything to keep me from imagining a dollhouse because what if it wasn’t that and Christmas morning would come and I’d be heartbroken because my imagined house wouldn’t be there, waiting in all its glory beneath the Christmas tree.

But it was a dollhouse. Three stories high. A kitchen off to the side. Wallpapered with wrapping paper and inhabited by tiny people my mother made and furniture made from upholstered match boxes. It was all I had secretly dreamed of and more, even if it was incomplete. That just meant I was able to help put it together, which was also fun.

I kept that house for years, finishing some architectural details that the arrival of Christmas had thwarted, installing new furniture over time, adding dishes and doormats and plastic chickens. I borrowed baby Stevie from my Sunshine Family dolls and he lived happily in a second story bedroom. I finished painting the front railings just about the time we had to put it into storage, the year I turned 16. I knew I’d miss it in my new German bedroom.

Four years later, having left West Germany behind and returned Stateside, a truck arrived with Mom and Dad’s things that had been stored away for all that time. A huge box was placed upon the grass, DOLLHOUSE scrawled across the lid in bold Sharpie.

“Where do you want this?” the man asked, indifferently.

“Just leave it right here for now,” Mom replied, handing me a box cutter. I think she was as excited as I was.

We sliced the tape, folded back the lid, and there it was.

Smashed.

Busted.

Literal sawdust.

Literal holes.

I turned away, unable to face the shock on Mom’s face. I brushed past oblivious moving men, went into the upheaval of my room and shut the door, flinging myself upon my bed. I cried that day. For far longer than one might think a 20 year old should cry for a broken dollhouse.

It had been a cherished hope. A wonderful surprise. A time-consuming art piece. A creative outlet. A miniature world. The one thing I had missed the most, and looked forward to with the coming of that great big van.

Destroyed.

I wonder, sometimes, if that’s how God looks at His world. He anticipated it; He made it; He saw that it was good. He cherished it; He watched it; He set it up to succeed.

Yet still it fell. Still it failed. Still sin entered in.

Destroyed.

And so He sent the angel.

So He sent His Son.

So He came to save us.

And as we fling ourselves upon our beds in our misery, we fling ourselves upon His mercy, and that wee tiny baby takes hold of our hearts.

“What shall I give Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would give a lamb. If I were a wiseman, I would do my part. But what I can, I give Him. Give my heart.” – Christina Rossetti

(All photos curtesy of my dad. The angel is me, by the way, circa 1976?)

The bone maker

I’ve been thinking a bit about bones lately. Aching bones. Turkey bones. Dem bones. 

As far as aching bones are concerned, my fingers sometimes remind me that I’m almost 51 and it’s going to rain, only it’s been a dry year, so I’m not sure if I’m imagining it or if I really am getting arthritic in my (not so very) old age.

When it comes to turkey bones, however, I have a better grip on my knowledge. My mom was a magician when it came to turkey bones. The day after Thanksgiving she’d be back in the kitchen, removing every last vestige of meat from the once glorious turkey and plopping it into the largest cooking pot we owned along with an onion or two, celery, carrots, a bay leaf, salt and peppercorns and a whole lot of water. That thing would go on the back burner and simmer all day, coaxing out the goodness of the bones.

It always amazed me how Mom could make something out of nothing. 

This year I cooked down the turkey bones, too. I don’t do it every year. Sometimes I stick it in the freezer, meaning to get to it later, and then, along about Memorial Day, I disinter its forgotten and freezer-burned carcass from the bottom of the deepfreeze, give it one look and toss it in the garbage. 

But not this year. 

I pulled out my largest cooking pot. I wrestled with the greasy remains. I chucked in onions, skins and all, along with some celery seed because I was out of celery and all the other mystical ingredients and seven hours later I, too, had made something from nothing.

Last night we had turkey soup with dumplings. I’m pretty sure it was the best such thing I’d ever made. There is a pitcher full of broth in the freezer for another day. A few smaller containers for recipes. Each one gelatinous, healthy, magical.

Something from nothing.

“Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones…” I don’t know if that song is politically correct these days or not, but I like it. Ezekiel prayed and called an army of bones into the service of God! Talk about something from nothing. It’s a little-recalled Old Testament Bible story, but wow, it’s a good one. My guess is it’s not taught often in Sunday School these days – too strange, too scary for children – but the truth of it is golden: God can take dried up old bones and turn them to His service. Rheumatic old bones. Freezer burned bones.

Kinda makes me realize that even stuck at home in the middle of a pandemic, there’s a place for me in God’s plan. It’s never too late. We’re never too old. God can use our dusty selves.

He’s the maker of our bones, after all.

“Now hear the word of the Lord!”

 

Closed doors and open windows

So I have a few thoughts this morning. Random, perhaps, but here they are nonetheless.

– I said I’d post every Tuesday. That hasn’t happened! From now on, I will post when I am ready to post. Today, for example, in a crazy shift from the Tuesday format, I am posting on a Friday! I know. Wild. Don’t let yourself get dizzy from this radical change.

– In a total change of subject, it’s a strange feeling to be a time-bomb. Perhaps you can relate. “Do I or don’t I? Will I or won’t I? How bad will it be, if it be at all?” Those are the questions I felt when I was possibly exposed to this stupid virus until we heard that the person I was near did not have it, thankfully. Her husband did, though. And he died. Which is horrible and tragic and shocking. His death has made me want to just stay home a lot more than I did before because what if I have it and I don’t know it and I give it to someone? That scares me more than the illness. Though I’m not exactly wanting to be ill, either. It’s spreading around our town. A lot. Maybe it’s just in different factions than were affected last spring, so I notice it more, but it seems more real now. School is going all online again which is sad, but also good, but also stressful.

– The weather is turning, the leaves are falling, the ice makes nightly appearances on the lake and I haven’t yet worn a hat but I sure have worn my gloves. The cat likes me now that it’s chilly. She jumps in my lap (as long as I have a blanket over my legs) and deigns to grace me with her presence. Everyone in the family is jealous.

An autumn sunset over our point.

– I have begun reading through the Psalms again. One a night. I like some of them and I can’t really relate to others but there are some beautiful words. Psalm 39:4,5 (NIV) really stood out to me, thinking of my friend’s husband. “Show me, Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Everyone is but a breath, even those who seem secure.”

Yes, even those who seem healthy, strong, unlikely to be badly effected, are not secure. God is showing us how fleeting our lives are, and it’s not comfortable. I am intrigued by God’s concept of time, though. I look forward to understanding that when I get to heaven.

In the meantime, we press on. “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:13,14 NIV

 

 

 

 

Let’s Talk about “Essential”

What? I’m actually posting? Yes! Here I am!

I feel as if I ought to apologize. I have been absent from the “blog-waves” (is that a thing?) for weeks now and I said I’d be here weekly. I feel both bad about that and defensive about that. Bad because I said I’d do it. Defensive because, by golly, life is hard right now and some things have had to be set aside in the interests of mental health and that just has to be okay.

Honesty is good, yes?

I wrote a whole paragraph about the stress of living during a pandemic and then I erased it. You all know about that stress. I’ll just leave it at that and say that I hope you don’t mind that I won’t appear here every week because I just can’t handle it every week. 

‘Nuff said.

So…on to more theology and less dishevelment, how about?

I recently looked a little bit at the story of Dorcas in the Bible. Remember her? In Acts chapter nine we read that Dorcas, aka Tabitha, had died and a lot of people were very upset about it. Apparently she had been a great servant for the Lord, especially known for making “robes and other clothing”. 

Shortly after she passed away, Dorcas’ friends asked Peter to stop by to see if he could help. I guess they held out hope that they’d witness a miracle and turns out they weren’t disappointed. Peter “got down on his knees and prayed” for Dorcas and then said, “Tabitha, get up.”

And she got up. She was dead, washed and ready for burial, and she sat up.

People die all the time. We mourn them and we grieve for them and we wish that God would work a miracle to bring them back to life but for all of the millions of times that has been wished, it has only occurred a small handful of times that we know of from the Bible. 

Dorcas, for some reason, was deemed indispensable. Perhaps her sewing skills or something else we don’t know about made God put her on the short list of “the dead raised to life”. Her absence created a hole that no one else could fill. 

God decided she was an essential worker.

Kinda rings a bell, doesn’t it? 

We have heard plenty about “Essential Workers” during this pandemic. But what about poor Dorcas? Here she was, dead and in the presence of God, and she’s brought back to life for reasons we don’t know, put on hold from her heavenly reward, only to come back and sew a few more “robes and other clothing”. 

I kinda think that she’d much rather have been deemed “unessential” at that point and been allowed to remain in the presence of God. Yet God had His reasons. We don’t know them. But we can trust that they were made with far better wisdom than our reasoning can understand. 

That’s the thing about God. We don’t always understand His ways. Let’s face it, we often don’t understand His ways! But we always can trust that His ways are best. 

“As for God, His way is perfect;” says 2 Samuel 22:31 (NKJV) “The word of the LORD is proven; He is a shield to all who trust in Him.” Or, in a different version (NIV) and a different reference (Psalm 18:30) it says, “As for God, His way is perfect: The LORD’s word is flawless; He shields all who take refuge in Him.”

So if we believe that God is who He says He is, and if we believe His word, then we believe that His plans are perfect, tested, true and flawless, and that He protects us when we run to Him. 

And that means that we can trust Him. We may not always like where He leads us, but we know that anywhere He takes us, He is right there with us, protecting and shielding those who trust in Him.

And that, my friends, is essential.

Oh, the humanity of Christian leaders

I was in early middle school the first time that I was terribly disappointed in a Christian leader’s behavior. I didn’t fully understand what was going on at church, but I knew that my parents were embroiled in some sort of issue with the pastor, and many other people at the church were, too. We ended up leaving that church it got so bad, and since we lived on an island — Orcas Island, Washington — where the only other church available was Episcopal, my parents and others started a new church which met in homes for a while and then in the local high school. Quite a few years later — maybe 20 — the two churches reunited, which was a lovely ending to the old hurts.

Though I saw the hurt that my parents’ suffered in that situation, it didn’t impact me a whole lot personally. I didn’t have strong feelings about the pastor either way other than I disliked him for hurting my mom and dad. A few years later, however, when I was in college, I experienced two separate hurts from Christian leaders who were closer to me. These weren’t moral failings, or even theological failings, as the situation with our pastor had been, these were personal hurts. I was hurt because, with one of them, she left the church — as in the extended, universal Christian church — entirely. I couldn’t believe it. How could she? The other hurt was because I expected too much from a person and was horribly saddened by what I saw as a personal rejection of me as a disciple of this person’s teaching. I wanted more of their attention but I was given less.

I learned several things through these three situations. I learned that my expectations of people were often wrong and possibly even ill-advised. But more importantly, I learned that Christian leaders fail us. They don’t meet our expectations of who they should be. They prove, over and over, that they are human. Whether through moral failure, rejection of the church, or failing to meet our expectations, they make their own choices and those choices don’t always line up with what we think they ought to be.

But the core truth that I learned is far deeper: people will fail us, but Jesus never will.

In all of those years when I felt disappointed in God’s people, never once did God himself fail me. In all of those times when I compared people to God’s son, felt cynical over human behavior and wept metaphorically or truly over my hurt feelings, never, ever, did Jesus fail to live up to what he promised to be.

Never.

It was good to learn at a young age that Christian leaders are fallible, because it has kept my eyes open and my heart more attuned to the infallible Jesus. A church — or a nation — should not be filled with people who are there only for the leader. That becomes a “cult of the personality”, a group there not for a higher purpose (that of serving God) but there because they think the leader is such a great guy (or gal).

Christians are called Christians because we are named after Christ. Not after any human being. Jesus is the only sinless one, the only perfect one, the only one worth following. He will not disappoint. He will not morally fail. He will not change like shifting sands.

The hymn “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less” came to mind this morning as I saw the headlines in the news. “My hope is built on nothing less that Jesus’ blood and righteousness: I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand: all other ground is sinking sand; all other ground is sinking sand.”

If your faith is built on people, it will sink.

When my faith was in people, even my very world seemed to crumble, but Jesus was solid. That was a good lesson to learn given that today, when the world truly is in massive upheaval, I know and have seen through 50 years of living, that Jesus is unshakable.

Set your mind on Jesus, friends. Build your hope, your faith, your life on His unchangeable love.

“Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.

Such a high priest truly meets our need — one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests men in all their weakness; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever” Hebrews 7:23-28

I’ve been having fun on Canva

My head is tired. Tired of planning when I can’t plan because who knows what will happen in the world in a week? Tired of thinking deeply. Tired of trying to organize my thoughts into coherent words that people can read and be inspired by. Can you tell I’m tired? I even ended my sentence with a preposition.

Since I feel incapable of thought, I decided to have fun instead. I hopped onto Canva and began messing around with Bible verses and old photos. So, for the next few weeks, this is what you’re getting: verses and pretty pictures. 🙂

I took this photo several years ago. It’s of beach glass that my sister and I collected over years of beachcombing. This photo makes me happy and this verse is comforting in these difficult days.



Barn Blessing

 

The Apple Barn

I’m a sucker for old barns. The kind that are barely standing, just waiting for a massive gust of wind to smack them down. The kind where the wood is gray with age and the last re-roofing took place in the Carter Administration. The kind where skunks are more liable to live than horses or cows.

I’m fairly sure that I know the origin of my love of barns. My dad, a semi-professional photographer when I was growing up, had the same obsession. If a barn on Orcas Island was picturesque, screaming for a photo shoot, he was there to oblige.

Several of those barns remain in my mind and, thankfully, in his files. There is one – most people called it the Apple Barn – which sits (yes, it’s still standing) in a small, often misty valley, not too far from my sister’s house.

We pass the Apple Barn on the way to and from the ferry landing whenever we visit. When we pass it upon arrival, I feel like I’m really there, back in Washington State. Home. When we pass it upon leaving, I feel like it waves goodbye. Like the benevolent apple-scented spirt of the barn ushers me off of the island and wishes me farewell wherever I fare.

We round the corner, and the barn disappears, and always, always, the loss that settled down upon me like a cloak as we braked down the hill from my sister’s house, releases like a wheezing balloon and for the rest of the drive to the ferry dock the tears I fight back are tears of joy. Joy that I grew up in this place. Joy that I have sisters and parents and family to love. Joy that God has given me this visit, this moment, this island to come home to.

 “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.” Colossians 2:6,7 NIV