Like coffee in the afternoon

I have become such a traditionalist

That is,

So in love with the rituals that thread day into day

Like coffee in the afternoon

Or the way the morning sunlight peers into my bathroom windows

The way the cat always half-sits

on my legs in the evenings

Or the way my bed-headed baby springs to the edge of her crib after naptime:

Mama, you’re here.

I love when the world feels small.

When neighbors wave while walking dogs,

and oh look, they planted roses;

When friends are so comfortable that they put up their feet,

When a heart is so comfortable it lets down its guard.

They say it takes a long time to grow an old friend,

and perhaps the same to grow an old soul,

but nevertheless;

the older I get,

the more I delight in the little things

(that are really the biggest of things)

that perhaps even my great, great, great

great

grandma loved most.

Like a husband’s worn boots by the mudroom door,

the smell of onions in a cast iron pan,

the giggle of a tickle fight,

the whisper of a 2-year-old’s secret —

and a cup of creamy coffee in the afternoon.

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The vow of stability

Over red wine and herb chicken and a gaggle of loud children, a girlfriend recently shared insights from a marriage retreat she and her husband had attended.

One anecdote from a talk she heard stuck out to me in particular: that Benedictine monks take a distinctive vow when joining the religious order. Along with obedience and conversion of life, they also take the unique vow of “stability.”

I found that so intriguing — like a vow to not be moody? Well, yes, I suppose that could be part of it — but it refers to stability in a much larger sense.

One Benedictine community describes the vow this way:

We vow to remain all our life with our local community. We live together, pray together, work together, relax together. We give up the temptation to move from place to place in search of an ideal situation. Ultimately there is no escape from oneself, and the idea that things would be better someplace else is usually an illusion. And when interpersonal conflicts arise, we have a great incentive to work things out and restore peace. This means learning the practices of love: acknowledging one’s own offensive behavior, giving up one’s preferences, and forgiving.

Now, I’m no monk nor do I live in a monastery, but I found the vow incredibly apt in the context of family life.

Yesterday was Mother’s Day — a beautiful day that threatened rain in the weather forecast, but that instead flooded our newly planted Viburnums with golden beams of warm sunshine until nightfall. Three generations of family — grandparents from both sides — sat around our heavy, homemade farmhouse table and shared stories, stabbed salads and scooped vanilla icecream drizzled with warm caramel sauce.

And as stories of mothers past and present were shared, I glanced up to the large picture frame hung by the diningroom window. It holds four generations of couples — great grandparents on down. Scanning the faces, I found myself thinking about the unique vow that the Benedictines take.

The vow to stay together. To grow together. To work things out and restore peace. The promise to be like a towering tree where branches grow out and roots grow deep and where the stability of one generation gives strength to another. The vow to endure. And though the environment may be tumultuous at times, to be steadfast. [“Stability” is derived from the Latin word stare, which means “to stand,” “to stand up” or “to be still.”]

And of all the things my mothers and my mothers’ mothers and their mothers alike passed down, it is not just the Blue Danube china hanging on my wall or the old buffet table below it that has transcended generations. Rather, it is their clear vows of love that have sustained future generations.

I suppose the family really is a proverbial tree — where the stability of the roots affect the whole big thing. For even the love of one single mother carries forward for generations.

“Everyone knows that a good mother gives her children a feeling of trust and stability. She is their earth. She is the one they can count on for the things that matter most of all. She is their food and their bed and the extra blanket when it grows cold in the night; she is their warmth and their health and their shelter; she is the one they want to be near when they cry. She is the only person in the whole world in a whole lifetime who can be these things to her children. There is no substitute for her. Somehow even her clothes feel different to her children’s hands from anybody else’s clothes. Only to touch her skirt or her sleeve makes a troubled child feel better.” – Katharine Butler Hathaway

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To nourish

“A diet based on quantity rather than quality has ushered a new creature onto the world stage: the human being who manages to be both overfed and undernourished.” — Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food

When I read this quote a few weeks ago, that last word popped out at me and stuck. Well, the root of the word anyway:

Nourish.

It’s come up lately during conversations with good friends on brisk Spring evenings and has occurred to me in moments of reflection and prayer. Nourishment is, after all, what mothers do. It’s a step beyond nurturing — it is this very life-giving thing that is absolutely essential from the moment a new human sprouts in the warmth of our bodies.

And as I have spent time in thought while kneading bread or holding a child with scraped knees or bruised feelings, I am aware that there is such a difference between assuaging — simply satisfying a desire — and nourishing.

Michael Pollan is writing about being overfed and undernourished on something as base as food, but a friend recently shared that she felt similarly about interacting online, unfulfilled by her plethora of cyber relationships. I had another recent conversation with a woman who felt the same about her romantic past — she had many lovers, yet never felt fulfilled. Overfed, undernourished.

I have felt similarly at times — busy working, pulled in a million directions, not sure which of the paths forward to take. But I have decided in recent months and days and hours that the best path is always the most nourishing.

It’s not always the most easy or convenient path (was it Roosevelt that said nothing in the world is worth doing unless it means a little effort?) but it is the path that fills the soul with peace. As illustrated in one of my favorite scriptures:

“They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.”

I was also reminded of the sentiment while reading the book French Kids Eat Everything. Author Karen Le Billon writes about a ubiquitous French word that intrigued her while she researched the psychology of French food: aliment.

Aliment, it turns out, doesn’t translate directly into English. Both aliment and nourriture are translated as “food,” but these two words do not have the same meaning in French. Nourriture is the easy one to define, as it corresponds to the English meaning for food: something you ingest. But aliment is more complicated.

Searching for an explanation, I came across a quote from one of the best-known French nutritionists of the twentieth century, Jean Trémolières. He argued that an aliment is more than just a nutritious foodstuff. It is also something that can satisfy both emotional and physical appetites; it nourishes both physically and psychologically. In fact, a better translation of “aliment” would probably be “a nourishment.”

I love that. In a world of many distractions to ingest, there is a more nourishing way — the aliment. And not just related to food, of course, but in all we fill ourselves with.

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Something mushy

Sometimes I find that the voice in my head

speaks in rhythm.

It talks in a tempo where the line

drops to the next.

Like this.

And so, in these moments, I feel so inspired to grab a cup of coffee

and a sunny spot by the window

and jot out a few words that almost always become

a love poem.

For that little feeling that stirs like cream in the sugar of my heart

spills over until I write it down.

And I used to sit

in the back row of Spanish

and string love poems together like plastic beads

thinking I knew something.

Until one winter night

at a smoky bar atop a sushi joint,

he smiled at me with those same eyes that close when he sings lullabies

to our fourth-born baby.

And a decade later, I still

want to write something mushy.

 

In the making of a home

It was once said in a famous saying of a classic movie:

There’s no place like home.

Well could anything be more accurate? It is, after all, a place that is nothing like the mall or a gas station or a Chick Fil A (unless, of course, you live at Chick Fil A — which I may as well have in 2013 when we lived across from one).

Because “home” is not really as much a dot on a map as it is a place in that small little cranny of your heart of hearts that nothing can ever move or take away.

And so I shuffle around this house: Home-making. Nesting. Building, moment by moment, the place that builds these children. I tuck them in with well-worn lovies, wash their grass-stained pants, bake their sandwich bread and sweep their crumbs. I scrub that one part of the shower that is so darn hard to clean and drink out of the coffee mug with the soft chip on the edge. I pet my Azaleas and sweet talk my Euryops and sweep my porch as though the job were given to me by God Himself.

And really, wasn’t it?

Even the most majestic of places don’t live on after you leave them. The most awe-inspiring museums are only stains in vacation photos. The most thrilling of amusement parks are but receipts stuffed in desk drawers.

But the home is where little boys grow to be men, where little girls grow to be women, where 30-something-year-old moms grow to be old. And in all this growing, we are rooting. Digging in deep. Becoming more ourselves as we’re nourished with eggs and bacon on Sunday mornings and bedtime prayers whispered in a moonlit room.

Too often we think we need to become world travelers to discover ourselves, but oh you know the old saying about looking for something and then realizing it’s right where you started from.

Home is where we start. And what, I think, we continue to look for as soon as we leave it.

And as I sit on this couch with the milk-stained arm next to a wadded up sun dress and a crinkled sleeping bag and an empty coffee mug, next to a carpet of crumbs and scattered toys — and is that sippy cup leaking? — I am tempted to ask aloud in this rare quiet moment: who made this mess?

But ah, it is all in the making of a home.

And it is all so very worth it.

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