Gardens

When my husband and I bought a house with a large-ish backyard last year, I didn’t really know what I was getting into. I loved that the yard included hydrangeas and gardenias, favorite plants of each of my grandmothers. On my last trip to Washington I happily purchased a packet of Northwest wildflower seeds to bring back to our yard.

But I know almost nothing about caring for plants, and usually skip over the gardening portion of shelter magazines. When a drought hit our area, it took away what little interest I did have in what was happening in the ground outside.

One day about a month ago my husband surprised me by buying all kinds of vegetable seeds at Lowes and beginning his own garden plot in one corner of the yard. His joy in tending these little plants brought me back outside just to watch. Simply being out there helped me realize that the yard is not something to feel guilty about, but to enjoy and be creative in, even if I don’t know what I’m doing.

Before work one morning I went poking around the rose bushes and pulled out a clump of weedy groundcover. It came up much easier than I’d feared—instant gratification. The next Saturday we spent several hours together pulling weeds and raking up pine straw. (I listened to Watership Down on audiobook the entire time—a perfect accompaniment. More on that book in a future post.)

There’s nothing like a bit of hard work to give one pride of ownership. Yes, many of the flowering bushes still look dead, but we made a difference in just a few hours. Would it make me feel more comfortable to have some expert come in and do a yard makeover? Maybe, but then it wouldn’t feel like ours.

Waiting for Spring

Addisons-WalkFour days until Spring, or so Google tells me. Yet two nights ago my husband and I sat huddled by our wood-burning fireplace while working on taxes. I’m sitting in Starbucks in my puffy winter coat and keeping track of the warmest spots in the house to work.

This is the South, after all, and soon enough the outside temperature will make up for our older home’s lack of insulation. Spring and summer are both headed our way, and this year, the summer months hold special promise for our family: we are expecting our first child at the end of August. We laughed on our hospital tour when the nurse told us that no matter how sweltering it is outside, my husband will want to bring a coat to wear indoors. The last months of pregnancy, let alone birth, are difficult to imagine without air conditioning!

Though I’ve heard my baby’s heartbeat on two different doctor’s appointments, and even seen a little smudge on an ultrasound, it’s a little like waiting for winter to pass. There are signs that Spring is coming: a bright cardinal who knocked on my window and quickly flew away and new twinges in my body that alert me something is changing. But I can’t quite grasp that it’s new life yet, or what that life means for the rest of mine.

“Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

—Elizabeth Stone

Many of my friends know the story of how I read far too many Christian marriage books before our wedding. The problem was not so much that I read books, but that I thought I could understand marriage from the outside. I thought I could study it like an academic subject and prepare as you would for an exam.

As I prepare to become a mother (or rather, grasp that I already am one), I instinctively reach for books. I put probably a dozen parenting and baby care books on hold at the library yesterday, and toyed with the idea of setting myself an assigned course of reading for each month remaining. As if I could arrive at the hospital to give birth with my mothering degree already in hand. Absurd.

Pre-baby reading might make more sense than my pre-wedding studies. After all, keeping your spouse alive is generally not one of the first tasks of marriage. We will need some technical knowledge when we welcome our baby, and I’m grateful there are so many books to choose from. But let me not fall into the trap of thinking there is any way to “learn parenting” other than experience and prayer.

After all, the best reading for baby may come from entirely different sources.

I heard in Addison’s Walk a bird sing clear:
This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.

Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees
This year, nor want of rain destroy the peas.

This year time’s nature will no more defeat you,
Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you.

This time they will not lead you round and back
To Autumn, one year older, by the well-worn track.

This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell,
We shall escape the circle and undo the spell.

Often deceived, yet open once again your heart,
Quick, quick, quick, quick!—the gates are drawn apart.
—C. S. Lewis, “What the Bird Said Early in the Year”

This poem stands at the entrance to Addison’s Walk in Oxford (pictured above). You can read more about the poem’s background in this article, also the source of the photo. 

New Year Rhythms

Yesterday someone asked what my New Year’s resolutions are. I didn’t make any resolutions, but on the first day of the year my husband and I sat in Starbucks and decided on some weekly rhythms we want to establish or continue in 2017.

I like rhythm more than resolution when it comes to new year goals. A rhythm can be a living, flexible thing whereas a resolution seems brittle, held up only by my own willpower. If I get out of step with the rhythm, it’s still there waiting for me the next week. (The Sacred Year and The Life-Giving Home influenced my ideas about living rhythmically, especially when it comes to spiritual disciplines.)

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.” So begins one of my favorite passages, Ecclesiastes 3. Creating a rhythm for the new year involved discerning the priorities for the season we’re in, as well as the enduring habits we want to form in our family.

Both The Sacred Year and The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man inspired me to practice a form of Sabbath in our own home. It’s as simple as lighting some candles and gathering around a loaf of bread (fresh baked, preferable) and a glass of wine. That moment marks the beginning of a rest, even a brief one, from all the activities that occupied us during the week. Ideally, Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons remain free of screen time and housework. Instead of watching a movie, we may read together or go on a walk. This year, we also want to begin incorporating prayer more deeply into our Sabbath.

Prioritizing rest on the weekends means I need to be more efficient at getting “life admin” work done during the week. Establishing bi-weekly family business meetings has helped us do this. I found myself seeing our evenings together as let’s-get-work-done time, cluttering them with “honey-dos” and lists of decisions to make. Now, I try to save anything non-urgent until our next family business meeting. We use Trello to keep track of things we want to talk about and also sort through any papers that have accumulated in the last two weeks.

Other than that, our rhythms remind us of the goals we’ve made and can help each other towards. We set a goal of going to the gym together on Wednesday mornings. Thursday morning my husband reminds me to get up and blog, and Thursday evenings I encourage him to spend time on his own writing projects.

For me, rhythms are that extra push to do something that doesn’t feel good at the time (getting out of bed to blog, working out, or choosing to read rather than put on a movie). But inevitably it feels good when I do.

 

The Best Books I Read in 2016

It doesn’t feel like the new year has started until I’ve logged into Goodreads and reviewed my Reading Challenge. I set a goal of reading 52 books in 2016, and ended up with 54. A good number of those were rereads, but here are my top picks among the books I read for the first time in 2016.

The Sacred Year by Michael Yankowski

I recommend this as one of the best books on Christian spiritual practice I have ever read. It inspired me to begin new habits this year, including the Daily Examen and Sabbath prayer and rest times. I wrote a longer review too.

Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch

I read a ton of Christian marriage books before our wedding, but oddly enough the most helpful books I’ve read since then haven’t been explicitly Christian at all. Shy readers beware; heady clinical language abounds in this book. But if you can push through that, Schnarch presents a radical shift in what it means to support and be supported by your partner. I’ll do it the injustice of this summary: a bracing call to “grow up” and own yourself.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Stevenson gives a sobering look at the justice system in America, and opened my eyes to some of what is happening in my own backyard. Above all, this book showed me how truly complex questions of imprisonment and capital punishment are both in practice and long-term effects. There are no clear or easy answers here, but seeing those involved as humans is a powerful first step.

Hunting the Divine Fox by Robert Farrar Capon

Reading this was like discovering a whole new country. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so delighted with a new-to-me author, or have enjoyed a “theology” book so much. My husband and friends had to put up with me reading many passages out loud, prefaced with a “sorry, you have to hear this,” or “just one more!” Why Capon isn’t more widely known, I have no idea.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Proof that you shouldn’t neglect the classics! And I do consider this a classic in the vein of 1984 and Brave New World. One of the most stunning pieces of fiction I’ve read, and completely unforgettable. (I actually am guilty of getting the previous two books mixed up. No danger of that with Ender’s Game!)

Honorable Mentions

The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man by Abraham Joshua Heschel
The Giver by Lois Lowry
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

A Tale of Two Grandmas

fullsizerenderYesterday we hosted Thanksgiving for the first time. I’m blessed with a husband who is a talented cook, and he took expert charge of the turkey along with several other sides. Our moms both contributed to the feast too. One of my chief tasks was setting the table, using for the first time pieces I’ve inherited from both of my grandmothers.

My mom’s mom passed away in 2002. I remember the date because it was also the day The Two Towers released to theaters. Two friends and I had been looking forward to this for months. My grandma was living in California and we were in Washington. Mom and I were home together that morning when she got the phone call. I hugged my mom, but the only thing I remember saying was something like, “You don’t need to take me to the theater.” It makes me cringe a bit now, especially because we DID end up going to see the movie.

Not long afterwards we traveled to California for her service. In those pre-iPod days, I recorded snatches of The Two Towers soundtrack on a cassette to listen to on the trip. (I guess I didn’t have a portable CD player either.) At my grandmother’s service I read a passage from the end of C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle. I don’t know if my grandma liked the Narnia books or had ever read them. My memories of her are mostly second-hand, but I know she had a sharp wit and loved words. She would buy Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal for me when we came to visit from Hawaii. And she called me Renie, a nickname I thankfully managed to evade growing up.

For about fourteen years I had her gold and white china in storage at my parents’ house. This month it made the 2,500-mile journey to Alabama in time for Thanksgiving. My mom says it’s the first china she remembers.

The silverware we used came into my keeping only last year, when my dad’s mom passed away. Sometimes I think about texting her and remember she is gone. When I was growing up, Grandma Lu boarded horses at her property in Washington. That made her royalty in my book. Along with horses, she had a goat, two cats named Snowball and Teo, and what seemed like a vast amount of acreage to a kid who lived in an apartment in Hawaii. Visits to Washington felt like homecomings, and I was thrilled when my parents told me we would be moving back.

When we lived in Washington, grandma made a point of having me over about once a month. She would always have some activity planned: bowling or a local theater production or (my favorite) going to the racetrack, sometimes accompanied by her sister, my great Aunt Vi. It strikes me as hilarious now that I had a grandma and aunt who would take me to the track so I could salivate over the horses, while they stoically placed $2 bets on each race. (Sometimes we would split the winnings over dinner at Denny’s.)

I’m grateful that I got to spend so much time with them growing up, and I regret that I didn’t know my other grandma as well—for my mom’s sake as much as anyone else’s. But there was something healing in seeing my Grandma Lu’s silver and my Grandma Irma’s china together on our first Thanksgiving table. Yesterday morning I was very lonely for the people and places that seem to be gone forever. But right as I was standing in the kitchen struggling to pull it together, Aunt Vi texted me from Washington to say “Have a great Thanksgiving with those you love.” With those simple words she reached across all those miles and lifted up my heart. It’s what a grandma would do.

Fall and Horses

fallandhorses

When I hear someone say fall is their favorite season, I feel a kinship. In my stereotype of the seasons, summer welcomes the athletic and beautiful and the outdoorsy. Fall, on the other hand, brings the bookish folk into their own. Though we now mark it with a profusion of Pumpkin Spice, to me fall is the most thoughtful season, where joy and loss come together in “the time between times.” I was born in the summer, but I feel most at home in the fall.

A few weeks ago, when the first signs of fall were just appearing here in Alabama, I was out in the country visiting a friend’s horse. It happened that I had recently read The Alchemist for my book club. While I did not love the book overall, one thing that stuck with me was the idea of following what the author calls your “Personal Legend.” You might also describe it as a calling or abiding passion. I’ve had a few passions over the years, some growing out of others, but my original obsession was with horses. In the most joyful childhood dream I can remember, I was about to train a horse of my own (no doubt influenced by multiple viewings of The Black Stallion). I took riding lessons sporadically and collected Breyers, but strangely enough I don’t remember asking for a real horse.

Horses faded into the background in my teens when I was obsessed with all things Lord of the Rings. Soon enough I went to college, and now ten years have gone by. But I look back and see a few connecting threads, among them Tolkien’s own love of horses reflected in the books and the films. England drew me largely with the Tolkien/Lewis connection, but sitting in an Oxford pub  I met a young man who said one of his dreams was to ride horseback across Ireland. (I married him.) And last year, shortly after my father died, an old friend of my husband’s asked if we could look in on her horse over the summer.

When fall began a few weeks ago, I was visiting that same horse and had just turned him loose after a short ride. As he was wandering away under falling leaves, I was struck by a feeling I’ve had perhaps only once before. Anyone who has read Surprised By Joy knows something of it. I had the same sensation once on a walking tour in Oxford, an almost audible impression of I know you. You might call it a feeling of perfect harmony with your surroundings, that it is deeply right for you to be in that place at that moment. For me, I sense the hand of God gathering all the scattered threads of my life and giving me the briefest glimpse of the tapestry He is creating.

August days (2016)

In the last two months since I’ve written, my husband and I found, bought, and moved into a new house. (Well, actually an old house; it was built in the 1930s!) So I’d like to blame my lack of writing on all that craziness. But I also spent several days back in Washington renewing old ties and saying goodbye to some places I may never see again. Here are a few other ways I have been spending my time this summer.

What I’m Reading

  • Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. I somewhat begrudgingly checked this out from the library on audiobook (excellently read by Reese Witherspoon). There was so much hype and controversy when this book came out, and I just didn’t want to get into it. To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic, but I didn’t read it until I was adult and didn’t have strong feelings about the original characters. But much to my surprise, I really enjoyed Go Set a Watchman. Maybe it connects with the outsider-looking-in sense I sometimes have living in the South. Most powerful though was the de-throning of Scout/Jean-Louise’s father, Atticus, as her God.
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Another classic I somehow missed and well-worth the read. Gives a whole new, eerie urgency to the idea of too much screen time.
  • Hunting the Divine Fox by Robert Farrar Capon. I cannot remember when I have last enjoyed reading theology this much. Several times last night I interrupted my husband to read aloud a passage that made me laugh, or think differently about a truth I’ve “understood” for so long. This was the one book of his I could find in our library system, so once I finish I’ll probably snag his other books from Amazon. I don’t understand why he is not better known; he is probably the only other theologian whose writing approaches the common-sense clarity of C. S. Lewis.

What I’m Watching

  • The Olympics, and that’s pretty much it. I remember watching the 1996 Atlanta games in our apartment in Hawaii. Ever since then, the Summer Olympics are something I’ve looked forward to every four years, despite the strange opening ceremonies. Do I follow swimming or gymnastics any other time? No, but for some reason I’m staying up till 11 almost every night to watch these athletes. I blame it on Bob Costas.

Everything Else

  • I’m unpacking, trying to organize, and all the while getting WAY too distracted with our local Homewood Facebook group for community trading. (Think of it like a constantly updating, city-wide garage sale.) I’ve purchased a couple things for our new house from there, and it’s hard to resist the temptation to check new listings multiple times a day.
  • Maybe I’ve been spending so much time on Homewood Trading because I got used to constantly checking Realtor.com when we were looking for a house. Addicting, but unnecessary now. Here’s to better habits starting today!