I can see her there

I can see her there, stirring that pot of something bubbly, just like me, on this summer afternoon. I can see her in her old, worn apron, wrapped tightly around the front of her waist. She is chopping cabbage in the steam of cooking stew with a restless blonde toddler winding around her left calf.

I can feel her gentle hand on mine as I plop spongey bread dough into a ceramic pan. She sings with me softly as I rock my plump baby, his hair sweaty from my hot chest. I can feel her next to me as I dig my hands into the earth, unveiling potatoes as golden as sunshine, wiping dirt from their skin and my brow.

I can hear her whisper as I walk down the road in the evening with five children in tow, the small one on my hip, the oldest running ahead. The dog panting to the rhythm of our footsteps against the gravel.

She was a mother to my mother and her mother’s mother and the one before her.

She is the woman, who hundreds of years ago, still woke to the cry of her baby and put him to her breast. Fell asleep with her hand in the palm of her lover’s. Answered the whine of her young ones, “When is it time to eat?” Cleaned dirt from the floor and the cheeks of her children with her spit and her thumbs and the purpose of her heart. Giggled with her girlfriends as they cleaned up after mealtime. Begged God to protect these precious souls in her home.

I can feel her beside me, pulling me up, cheering me on.

For in all that has changed, nothing has at all.

Coffee with my honey by the sunny window

Coffee with my honey by the sunny window

It’s a standing morning date

My legs draped over him like a familiar, comfy quilt with the worn seam that you don’t want mended

His smiling eyes, they speak to me a language only we know

A language learned slowly, syllable by syllable

starting that first night in December when the air turned cool

Coffee with my honey by the sunny window

Same place, every day by the always-smudged glass

and the toy-spotted rug and

the barstools where children and crumbs like to gather

Ten years we’ve been walking this road hand in hand,

yet I am always in awe

of the way prayers are answered.

I reach over in the night

to touch his shoulder while he is sleeping

to make sure he’s still there, still real, still mine

to say thank you in the darkness for the man

who is my light

Coffee with my honey by the sunny window.

The vow of stability

Originally written in 2015, reprinted in honor of Mother’s Day

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.

The family really is a proverbial tree — where the stability of the roots affect the whole big thing. For even the love of a 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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Feed the mama

Feed the mama

red potatoes from the earth

yellow-orange butter from cows on green pastures.

Give her books to devour

with ideas she digests a syllable at a time

to see how they taste.

Feed the mama

friends in the afternoon

cups of coffee, babies nursing

girl, I’ve been there, too

Give her letters from her grandmother

love poems from her true love

hand-written in the steam of smudged shower glass.

Tell her sit down a moment —

those dishes will wait

patiently, even

if you give them a chance.

Feed her

moments of quiet where

all she can hear

is the longing, hopeful prayer in her heart.

Give her a corner to craft in;

a garden to dig

a bathtub to sink in her toes.

Feed the mama

the soul food of generations

stories of her heritage

the inheritance of her past.

Give her the hands of women

who have been there before her;

helping her up,

cheering her on.

Feed the mama

a diet of wholeness

with what nourishes her body,

and the baby at her breast;

the tired toddler at her knee;

the growing boy at her side

who looks more and more

like his Daddy each day.

Feed the mama —

plant her close by the water,

with roots that grow deep and firm in the stream.

Give her sunshine on her cheeks,

a Spring rain shower on her shoulders

as she walks barefoot to the mailbox

on a Wednesday evening.

Feed the mama,

take care of the caretaker,

for she is what she eats

and she gives what she is.

Feed the mama,

feed her well,

let her be full of love.

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What better way for God to tell me?

It’s the “family reunion feeling.”

It feels like Grandma’s house. And tastes like chocolate cake and sweet tea. It smells like fresh cut farm grass in the summer. It sounds like a house full of conversation, Yahtzee dice on a wooden kitchen table, Christmas music.

It’s the feeling of being present.

Of going two days and realizing you haven’t charged your phone. Of thinking of nothing or no-one but what is right there, right now. And it is bliss.

I think about this sometimes when my 8-year-old says, Mo-om. You’re not listening. Did you hear what I just said?

I didn’t, I reply honestly. Because I was — well, where I am too often —

Lost in a world of pre-occupation. Of to-do lists. Of what’s for dinner and did I respond to that text? And this house is a mess. And then suddenly, I miss the lizard that has captivated my first-born. It has scampered away, along with the opportunity to share a moment of magic with my boy.

So I have been trying to be more mindful. More intentional. More present.

But for me, it’s not totally a matter of the will. More-so, it is the recognition of the environment that makes being present most possible. Both the external and internal environment. The state of my home and the state of my mind.

The first case in which I find being present more possible is when I close all the windows. By that, I don’t mean the literal windows — I mean, the “screens” that feel like windows into an outside world that my mind so easily leaps to. When I am in the middle of text conversations all day, I find that my mind can be stuck there. When I am checking the internet too much — or blogs (hello!) — or news (never a great idea) — I find that a piece of me stays there. But when I shut them off, when I power off, I feel a very literal quiet come over me. An instant focus. For a piece of me that was there is now here. Scheduling time for screens of all kinds helps me be present the rest of the time.

I also find that unloading some thoughts onto a piece of paper with the scribble of an inky pen helps. It keeps me from having that “I need to do that” feeling on loop. It lets me take the thoughts of what I need to do and what I haven’t done and place them in a box for safe keeping. I can come back to that later. For now, I focus on now.

Other thoughts that can keep me from being present are needless human worries, the what if’s and what might’s of life. I love the advice of one of my favorite spiritual writers, Father Jacques Phillipe, who says:

“Things seldom happen as we expect. Most of our fears and apprehensions turn out to be completely imaginary. Difficulties we anticipated become very simple in reality; and the real difficulties are things that didn’t occur to us. It’s better to accept things as they come, one after another, trusting that we will have the grace to deal with them at the right time, than to invent a host of scenarios about what may happen — scenarios that normally turn out to be wrong. The best way to prepare for the future is to put our hearts into the present.”

And in throwing my heart into the present, I am trying to accept the interruptions of life. To see them, as perhaps, not interruptions — but interventions. Most of my plans are not urgent. Whether I wash the laundry now or later isn’t of great monumentality (though it is good to make sure everyone has clean undergarments). Whether I finish weeding all the garden beds this weekend or next, or mop the floor before company, and so on — really, who cares. What people care about is how they feel when I am with them. Fr. Phillipe continues,

“In every encounter with someone else, however long or short, we should make him feel we’re one hundred percent there for him at that moment, with nothing else to do except be with him and do whatever needs doing for him. Good manners, yes, but also real, heartfelt availability… A heart preoccupied by concerns and worries isn’t available to other people. Parents should remember this: children can get along happily without constantly demanding their parents’ attention, provided there are regular times when Dad or Mom have no concern except being with them.”

I am always asking God what his will is for me today — and then, when I am interrupted from what I am wanting to do, I am put off. Well, what better way for God to tell me what he wants me to do than to have my child ask me? Or my neighbor? Or my friend?

And so today, I take time for stillness. For observation. I give myself a moment (or many) to soak up this life like a cat does the sunshine.

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