Hope in a Box {A Simple, Thanksgiving Practice}

hope in a box - a simple thanksgiving practice

The first few months that we lived in China, I was hungry all the time.

I remember that hot August night in 2004 when we arrived, taking the school van an hour-and-a-half South from Shanghai to Pinghu. I remember crying all night in the unfamiliar flat where we’d spend the year, and then waking up puffy-eyed and jet-lagged to drag myself to a required lunch with the school president and his wife.

At the local restaurant, waitresses gathered around in their Mandarin-gown uniforms, watching us surreptitiously from the hostess stand. Dish after unrecognizable dish appeared on the Lazy Susan in the center of our table — things I’d never seen, things that smelled odd to my picky American sensibilities, things that made my still-jet-legging stomach turn. But when I tried to pass politely on a food item, the president, Mr. Zhang turned the table back toward me. “Try,” he said, and it wasn’t a question. His face was stern and inscrutable across the table as he gestured toward me with his chopstick. “You try.”

Not sure what that thing in the middle is, but off to the left was a platter of fried chicken feet.  This is my brave face.

Not sure what that thing in the middle is, but I definitely remember the platter of fried chicken feet on the left.
This is my brave face.

In those early days, I dreamt of cheese. I dreamt of pasta. Of soft, warm loaves of bread and homemade cookies straight from the oven. Our town was small and their varied attempts at “American” cuisine was probably about as dastardly as our attempt at Chinese food. (The pizza at one local place had peas on it.)

At our school’s teacher’s cafeteria, I picked at cold blocks of white rice and some sort of soupy celery concoction, and then, after I was done teaching classes, I went around the corner to the little shop next door and bought rolls of Oreos.

I gained ten pounds. Fifteen. Twenty.

I never found cheese or hot-dish or the familiar, comfort foods that I craved. And even as I binged on Pringles and M&Ms and Diet Coke, there was some deep abiding hunger that I couldn’t name but could feel all the time like a window draft. Like a deep, whistling hole.


A few months into our year in China, our group of teachers went on a trip to Beijing. While we were there, we met up with Andrew’s college Chinese language professor, who took us to her favorite restaurant and ordered things that tasted like home.

I don’t remember what it was that we ate, but I remember the gratitude I felt when I ate it. Did I cry at that outdoor cafe table in her Beijing neighborhood? Or did I just want to. Whatever I did, I must have confided my loneliness, my isolation, my hunger, because she took us to a local superstore, marched us straight over to the appliance aisle, and handed me a toaster oven. This, she said, matter-of-factly. You need this. And a hot-plate. Do you have one of those? When I shook my head no, she piled it onto the cart. It’s like a little electric stove top. There is nothing you can’t cook with these things.

In the checkout line, she spoke rapid Chinese, and the clerk boxed up my appliances for easy transport through Beijing and back home. Sometimes you just need something to get you through, she said to me as we rode the escalator back down to the street.

Hope in a box, she said, gesturing to the thing I was now carrying. Just a little hope in a box.


Look, you know I’m not one for the Inspirational Christian Story, the sappy anecdote, the overdone spiritual trope. I know that life is not a Christian romance novel, and if I’m going to err on one side, I usually choose cynical over sparkly.

But this is the time of year when the signs start going up — Donate! Give! Pack! Volunteer! So much need, so many attempts at filling it.

This is the time of year when we pick up the giant wicker basket from our church foyer and take it to the grocery store. This is the week I fill it up: stuffing mix, hearty soup, fancy cocoa, very good coffee. Things that say to me “comfort.” Things that say, “Be warm. Be filled.”

In about two seconds flat, my cynic-side can come up with half a dozen reasons that this is a waste of time and a waste of money. I’m cautious, prone criticize first, question later. I tend to self-shame, to second guess, to whisper to myself that this wicker basket full of cheap food is a poor substitute for true involvement and empathy for poverty and need. And maybe in some ways, that’s true.

But also, I think of that cheap toaster oven, that hot plate.

I think about that box, filled with metal and plastic and wiring…and who knew that hope could look like an appliance?

Who knew you could carry it with you down the escalators, through the subways, and back to your tiny flat, and that it could change everything?

hope in a box - fragile


That first Thanksgiving in China, I planned our feast.

By then, I wasn’t the only one with a hot plate and toaster oven. Every English teacher had one, and I had a Cooking Schedule. We’d use them all — every single one.

I made lists and spent hours on AllRecipes looking for substations and made one intense trip to the Shanghai International Market to buy extremely overpriced American staples. Cheese. Spices. Brown sugar.

From the various relatives of teachers who were making the trip over from the States, I requisitioned mini marshmallows, cans of cream of chicken soup, cranberry sauce, fried green beans.

Hope arrived in suitcases, in beat up packages at the Pinghu post office, in grocery sacks. I held it in grateful hands; it felt like a miracle.

On Thanksgiving morning, the Chinese cooks left a plucked, dead turkey draped over the kitchen counter (complete with head, wings, and feet), and we cooked it one tray at a time in toaster ovens along with the bread I’d made from scratch. We made stuffing. We made mashed potatoes. Someone wanted deviled eggs, so I figured those out for the first time ever with an Internet recipe and a $12 bottle of Dijon mustard from the International Market.

By the time we ate that evening, our flat was so coated in dirty dishes and spilled flour and the debris of feast-making that I could barely walk through it. I was so tired I could barely eat as I sat down at the table, plate full.

And I know this will sound like I’m romanticizing, exaggerating, simplifying things when I say this…but I’m not:

It was the best Thanksgiving ever.

Did I forget to bring my contacts to China? Why the ugly glasses all the time Addie? But doesn't she look happy, reading her book, cooking on her hot plate in her creepy little "kitchenette"?

Did I forget to bring my contacts to China? Why the ugly glasses all the time Addie? But doesn’t she look happy, reading her book, cooking on her hot plate in her creepy little “kitchenette”?


Is there a moral to this story? A call to action?

Not really.

All I know is that this is the time of year when I think of how hungry and empty and needy we all are. About all the unexpected ways that hope is handed to us — all the ways we receive it.

My fragile, imperfect prayer as I toss random things into my cart one at a time — stuffing mix and hearty soup and fancy hot cocoa and really good coffee — is that these will be small, unexpected bearers of hope. And when I write the card that goes with the gifts that we give, I tell the story of that teacher in Beijing who took us to the store.

After all, sometimes we all need someone to march us toward what we need, pick it up, and place it in our arms. And once upon a time, hope came to me in a box and looked for all the world like an off-brand toaster oven, a cheap, simple hot plate.

Who would have guessed? Who would ever have known?

Welcome to the Dark Season

dark season

It’s pitch black at 5:10 at night, and the boys are outside, playing Captain May I by the thrown light of the moon.

Andrew has turned on the little string of white bulbs that are looped along our lilac bush. It’s not even dinnertime, but it feels odd to hear their voices through the open door, through the darkness, through what feels like the middle of the night.

“Take three snake slithers!” Dane says. “Oh! You didn’t say Captain May I! Go back to the start…”

On Saturday night, after the trick-or-treating and the candy-binging, after the costumes came off and the faces were scrubbed and kissed and tucked into bed, the clocks went back, back,, back. Fall. Back. An extra hour of sleep! Unless your a parent of small people, and then it’s an extra hour of hell at 5:00 in the morning.

And who knows why exactly the hours go back and forth like they do twice a year. Daylight Saving, it’s called, and of course, we are trying to save it, hold on to it, make it last. Summer fades into fall and then into winter, and the sun herself moves farther and farther away, casts longer shadows, leaves us in the dark.

It will still be several more weeks before we stop shaking our heads as we look out the window at 5:00, 4:45, 4:30: How can this be? It’s so EARLY!

It always takes so long to get used to the dark.


If you’ve been reading here long, you know that I am a little obsessed about the seasons. It’s embarrassing, really, how much I write about this changing, this subtle movement — hot to less hot to cool to cold. Light and dark.

In Minnesota, where I make my home, the summer and fall are glorious, but the winter is long. Five months at least — some years more than six. And the ending of Daylight Saving time in October/November every year feels like the starting shot to a race I’m never ready to run:

Winter. Darkness. Winter darkness.

But here we are. It’s 5:10, and it’s pitch-black dark, and for the next few months, the darkness will stretch her arms wider and wider and wider until you can go to work in the morning in the dark and leave in the afternoon in the dark, and never see one small sliver of sunlight.

Here we are. Again. And I am stone-still at the kitchen table, squinting outside into the yard where voices drift in as a chorus — Captain May I? — and my husband is a silhouette on the swing, going back and forth, in and out of shadow.

The dark season is beginning.

Hold still; do not be afraid. 

What will we learn here?

What beauty will we see in the absence of the sunlight?

What will we learn when we close our eyes and breathe, breathe, breathe it in?

What I’m Into: October 2015

what i'm into - october 2015

I thought that by now, I’d be into a routine.

I thought that we’d get through September, and then I’d  have it. I thought that by now, I’d be on top of my writing and the kids’ schedules and homework and the housework. I thought I’d be in a groove.

This is not how my October has gone. At all.

The thing that I’m discovering about the school schedule is that it’s not all that dependable. There are, like, random days off just sprinkled willy-nilly throughout the school year! And field trips that your kids beg you to come along on! And class parties! And conferences! And three days off for the “Minnesota Educators Association” or something. And “Come have lunch with me at school today Mama, pleeeease?” 

And how am I supposed to get any work done with all of this happening? It’s impossible! It’s madness!

October, for me, has been a month of interruptions — many of them beautiful, some of them hard, all of them stretching for this routine-loving introvert. Still, as Anne Shirley says, I’m so happy to live in a world with Octobers. (Even if they’re slightly crazy.)

What I’m Reading:

Books I Read 1

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel, Robin SloanI thought this book was so much fun. It’s like Da Vinci Code meets Silicon Valley when a guy ends up working in a super-secretive bookstore and begins to work with a Google engineer to try to solve the puzzle of what’s going on there. Plus the cover glows in the dark, so that’s a win.

Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being CreativeAustin KleonThis is an easy, short read, and if you need a little inspiration, it’s perfect. My favorite bit of advice? “Chew on one thinker […] you really love. Study everything there is to know about that thinker. Then find three people that thinker loved, and find out everything about them. Repeat this as many times as you can. Climb the tree as far as you can go.” I really like the idea of following a creative genealogy and seeing where it leads you, and am planning to spend some time doing that over the winter.

Everything I Never Told You, Celeste NgGorgeous, complex and heartbreaking novel about family secrets, assumptions and prejudices. It had a perfect ending, and I’m picky about endings. I cannot recommend this one enough.

Books I Read 2

My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman: This book was brilliant and beautiful, but dense. The language, the insights, the poetry — all of it is so multi-layered. Christian Wiman is a renowned poet, a Guggenheim fellow, and the former the editor-in-chief of Poetry magazine, so this should surprise no one.

This memoir is his exploration of faith in the face of death (he continues to battle cancer), and it took me most of the month to read this book because I had to do it in teeny, tiny chunks. Even so, there’s so much I missed…and so much I didn’t understand. But so much beauty. SO much beauty.

Bandersnatch, Erika MorrisonI’m not quite done with this one, but I’m close enough that I’m going to write about it here. This is a book about identity, and I love how Erika takes familiar words like avant-garde, alchemy, anthropology and art and reimagines them through the life of Jesus.

I will note here that Erika is a much more unconventional, free-spirity-type-person than I am, so there were parts where I had trouble relating and where her “avant-garde” faith rubbed weird against my baggage and cynicism…but I think she would say that’s okay. Good even. Because the message of this book isn’t to become like Erika…or anyone else for that matter…but to figure out who it is the God made me to be and live in that truth. Lovely.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Gabrielle ZevinI thought this book was fun, if slightly predictable. (It would make a really good Hallmark movie. Hallmark-Powers-That-Be, take note.) When I began, I’d expected a much more condensed time-line and was surprised by the several-year-streak that the book ended up spanning. But it’s a fun, fast weekend read — particularly for book lovers.

What I’m Listening To:

After watching this video (below) of Sara Groves talking about her new album FloodplainsI bought it on the spot. She talks so coherently and beautifully about what it’s like to be a person who struggles with depression, a person whose faith is formed in those floodplains, so I figured the music would be just as good. I was, of course, right. (Floodplains doesn’t officially come out until November 6th, but you can order the digital copy (or other packages) at her website for $10. Worth it.)

I also downloaded Ledges by Noah Gunderson because I kept listening to it over and over on Spotify, and though I’m committed to careful sampling-before-purchasing, I believe in paying artists when I really love their stuff. This album’s melancholy and a little depressing — which is kind of my favorite. I could listen to the title-track, Ledges, over-and-over on repeat all day.

What I’m Watching:

This month, I kicked a couple of my “must-see” shows to the curb: How to Get Away with Murder (got a little too dark for me), The Good Wife (just, meh) and (finally, my husband says) The Vampire Diaries (too many of the characters I loved have been killed off. Too many new ones introduced. I couldn’t be expected to continue caring and investing my emotional energy. For the love, I am thirty-two years old. I’m too old and too awesome for that.)

Still watching: Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, Nashville. And Jane the Virgin, but only because Preston said to.

Andrew and I have been watching Heroes Reborn, mostly because Zach Levi (Chuck) is in it…and also Brooklyn  Nine Nine. After a couple nights of particularly bad zombie dreams, I gave up The Walking Dead for good…but luckily, the Hallmark channel has been awash, this October, with cheesy goodness, including titles such as Harvest Dreams, Autumn Moon, and October Kiss. And yes, I did watch them all. And no, I’m not sorry.

Other Stuff I’ve Been Into:

Our first hamster: I didn’t mean to buy a rodent. I really didn’t. But then the kids caught a mole from out of our egress window, bonded with it, and named it Squeaky. And all of the sudden, there was this creepy little carnivore in our house, and I had to keep buying Nightcralwers to feed him, and he’d hiss at you through the glass of the aquarium if you looked at him wrong. (I used to be so good at teaching my boys the art of catch and releaseThese kids. They’ve worn me down.)

Anyway, at the beginning of the month, we struck up a bargain: release Squeaky-the-mole, and we’ll go pick out a hamster.

Enter Hurley, the cutest, but most antisocial hamster you’ve ever seen. When you try to pick him up he makes the most pathetic chirping sound and darts all over the cage trying to get away. He is a very disappointing hamster…but I still kind of love him.

hurley the hamster

Pumpkins! Cider! All the fall-ish things! Seriously, is there any better food than fall food?

pumpkin carving

All the field trips. Both of my kids had pumpkin patch/apple orchard/farm field trips this fall. And I somehow ended up along on both excursions. I love having the flexibility in my work to be able to do these things with the kids, but seriously — two days in a row of early childhood field trips, and I was done.

dane field trip - collage

liam field trip - collage

Halloween. I’ve always loved Halloween (I wrote a little bit about why here). This year was our best one yet — the kids are finally old enough to run to every house, excited enough to make it all around the block, and pliable enough to force into family-coordinated-costumes. YES.

Halloween 2015

Also, for all you DIY-ers thinking already about a costume for next year, I’m adding this Pinterest-ready photo of my favorite Mama-Friend Kenna, who WINS AT HALLOWEEN EVER YEAR when they come trick-or-treating with us.

This year, her daughter wanted to be Ariel from The Little Mermaid, so Kenna made herself the most stunning Ursula-the-Sea-Witch costume EVER.

Kenna has generously allowed me to put her photo on here and let you steal her look. You’re welcome.

easy diy ursula costume

You will need: a regular, floor length black dress, some sequiny purple fabric to make a tentacle-looking overlay, green, sequin-y fabric to make a wrap-around Flotsam-Jetsom shawl, a crown, a conch-shell and a string to make it into a necklace, and the chops to do really extravagant makeup. (Kenna is a former theatre girl. She’s awesome at the extravagant, Halloween makeup.)

(Also, it should be noted that she forgot the trident and long, black gloves at home, but I think she looks awesomely authentic even without it.)

(I’m the luckiest to have such crazy, Halloween-costume-committed friends. It makes me happy.)

The Blog/The Book

This month, I wrote about one super-simple thing that anyone can do in any church to promote community.

I also wrote about Hurley the Hamster for my friend Abby Norman’s Modern-Day Parable series. (It’s a bit of a stretch, I know, but I stand behind my metaphor).

And it took me nearly a month, but I finally began to process the demise of Teen Mania (the ministry that formed the backbone of my adolescent faith journey). I wrote a bit about my experiences (though if you’ve read my first book, you’ll know the more in-depth versions of these stories), about the drive to produce and perform, and the invisible beauty and necessity of roots. And about how we might move forward with our youth in healthier, more sustainable ways. It’s one of my favorite pieces that I’ve written in the past couple of months, and I hope you’ll read it, or pass it on to your favorite youth pastor.

My publisher gave me the green-light to FINALLY tell you about BOOK 2 later this month, so look for the big reveal mid-November!

Make sure to follow me on Instagram, where I put all the adorable pictures of my children (you know you want to see those), Facebook, or Twitter. If you’re new here and don’t want to miss a post, you can always enter your email address in the sidebar, and you’ll get every blog delivered right to your inbox!

I’m linking up, as always, with Leigh Kramer for her What I’m Into link-up.

What about you? What have you been into this month?

In Praise of Roots

in praise of roots

The guy who drives the hay-ride on Dane’s first-grade field trip calls himself “Ryan Appleseed” and talks about himself in third person.

He walks us down the row of semi-dwarf Haralson trees, explaining growth and pollination and how to pick an apple. “What happens if Ryan Appleseed just yanks on this apple?” He asks, tugging lightly on the red orb hanging from the tree, and the kids shout answers. “The branch will break! The apples will all fall off! The tree will get hurt!” “Yep,” says Ryan Appleseed, demonstrating the proper way to pick an apple – a gentle twist over the top branch.

After all the kids have had a chance to pick — carefully — two apples from the full trees, the lesson continues.

“It takes four or five years before Ryan Appleseed lets a brand new tree make apples,” he says, gesturing to a new tree next to him. It is small and fragile looking, dwarfed by the shaggy, full-grown Haralson trees, heavy with red fruit. “The reason for that is we have to give ‘em time so their roots can grow. Otherwise the apples will make the tree too heavy and – pop! – the roots will come straight out of the ground! Ryan Appleseed doesn’t want that, does he, kids?”

The kids scuttle along behind Ryan Appleseed toward the hay wagon, opening their bags as they come up next to me. “Look at my apples!” they keep saying to me, and I peer into each of their white paper sacks to oooh and ahhh and miss my chance to ask Ryan Appleseed more about new trees and roots. Five or six years before apple trees mature enough to produce fruit. It’s so striking to me that I take out the little notebook I brought in my jacket pocket and jot it down. Roots need to grow strong first.

The tractor pulling the hay wagon coughs to a start and then starts pulling us forward to a warehouse, where we’ll see how the apples are cleaned and sorted and stored. Dane leans against me on the hay, and I kiss the top of his head.

I can’t stop thinking about that tiny tree, it’s small, invisible roots deepening imperceptibly into the ground.

apple orchard

At the beginning of the month World Magazine and Christianity Today broke stories about Teen Mania – the 90s-mega-machine of a youth ministry that put on thousands of Acquire the Fire weekend conferences, lured teens like me onto intense summer missions trip teams, and offered a post-high school experience called the Honor Academy.

If you’ve read my first book, you know that Teen Mania, along with its leader Ron Luce, was the megaphone through which the most intense parts of the evangelical culture blared at me through the formative years of my adolescence. You know that I have baggage.

But apparently, the whole enterprise has been crumbling for a while.

It’s been named one of the five most insolvent charities by Charity Navigator, $5.2 million dollars in the hole and canceling Acquire the Fire Events all over the place. That sprawling property in Garden Valley, Texas, where they used to have summer interns sleep in a metal bunker – that’s gone, lost to a foreclosure (which Ron Luce still does not admit to) in February 2014. The Honor Academy intern program, where my sort-of-boyfriend learned that dating was a liability to one’s relationship with God…that’s closed down too.

There are pending lawsuits and arrest warrants, and…I’ll just say it…Ron Luce is on the lam.


The righteous absurdity of it all has me thinking a lot about my Teen Maniac days lately: the long days we spent at that now defunct Garden Valley campus, rehearsing a Gospel drama again and again and again…until our skin and clothes and hair and eyelashes were coated in red dust and we were so tired we could barely move.

I don’t remember many of the exact words that they used that summer, but I remember the tone, the wartime language, Team Leaders more like drill sergeants than spiritual mentors, pushing, pushing, pushing you back out on that hot sprawl of desert to perform. Again. Do it right. Do it perfect. Someone’s salvation is on the line.

Once, after a long day of performing dramas in the Dominican Republic, we pulled up to a small outdoor swimming pool. “You have two choices tonight,” Our Team Leaders said as we eyed the water. “We can pray together for tomorrow…or you can swim,” and at 15, 16, 17, we knew the choice we were supposed to want to make.

I remember the yellow cards that we were meant to collect after we performed our dramas in the slums of the Dominican Republic so that every night during our worship-and-message-time, we could tally the number of souls saved. I remember the feel of my soap-stiff mime costume as I put it on every morning, the hurried drumbeat of our getting ready: produce, produce, produce. Perform, perform, perform. You were there for a reason, and God help you if you failed up to live up to it.

This is what I remember: not being changed…being exhausted. I remember waking up in the morning, filled with dread, already tired before I even jumped down from that top bunk. Before I even pulled on my black mime scrubs.

Teen Mania’s mission statement, according to their website, is “To provoke a young generation to passionately pursue Jesus Christ and to take His life-giving message to the ends of the earth!” And I keep thinking about that word: provoke. According to Merriam-Webster, to cause the occurrence of (a feeling or action) : to make something happen, to cause (a person or animal) to become angry, violent, etc.

I think about the barracks and the shouting and the intensity of those two weeks on that mission trip. I think about all the emotion conjured and contrived at those Acquire the Fire conferences, and I wonder: What was the rush? Why this hit of spiritual growth hormones straight to the heart?

Did it really do any good — in the long-run? Was it really helpful at all?

apple orchard 2

Ever since the apple orchard field trip, I have been reading about roots. How they grow. How the root system is the principal organ of the plant for absorbing water and nutrients, for anchoring the body in the soil and keeping it steady.

“Although the sun provides plants with energy through their leaves,” one website put it, “that energy is useless without nutrients from the soil [which it obtains] through its root systems.”

Roots, roots, roots.

But when I think about those years, little attention was giving to the root systems of our fragile, newly transplanted faith…and a lot of attention was given to being in the Light, to the energy piping down to us from vibrant worship services and passionate conference, pushing us toward the fronts of auditorium to commit to doing something great for God.

And we did.

We stood in the Light, and we went out, went wild, did great things for Jesus.

And then – for many of us – it all got too heavy, too much.

We were pulled over – pop! – our roots coming straight out of the ground from the weight of all that doing.


Look, I’m not suggesting here that a tree of faith – even a new one – shouldn’t flower, or that fruit will not bud and begin to grow. After all, an apple tree is made to produce fruit. It’s in its DNA; it’s what it’s meant to do, and it will do it simply, automatically, if it is healthy and mature and alive.

What I’m suggesting is that there is a period of time right at the beginning of things where this is not the point.

The point — especially at the very start of the life of faith — is the roots, growing deeper and deeper into the dark soil beneath.

What I’m suggesting is that after Saul had that blinding moment of God-is-Here conversion on the Road to Damascus, he disappeared to Arabia for something like three year before his “ministry” truly began. Roots.

That Jesus Christ himself didn’t begin his own ministry until he was thirty years old – double the age I was at when I was handing out Spanish-language Gospel tracts in the slums of the Dominican Republic. Roots. Roots. Roots.

What I’m saying is that sometimes when it looks like nothing is happening, the most important things are actually happening.

The roots are going deep, burrowing through the darkness, over and around hidden obstacles. The roots themselves are equipped with a protein called RHD2, which knows how to search for calcium. It knows how to grow around rocks and obstacles and blockages toward that which will sustain it. Isn’t that amazing?

What I’m saying is that the roots are holding up the tree, keeping it into the soil that will sustain it, filling it with the things that it needs, keep it centered and fed and alive.

What I’m saying is, Look at that red apple in your bag, Dane! It is a perfect one! It is made up of so many quiet, invisible miracles.