How Things Grow

The air felt brisk for a moment mid-morning as I shuffled four little ones out the back door and past two yellow dogs eager to say hello.

It is, indeed, Fall. Even in Texas.

The deciduous trees are dropping their leaves — and many others are showing hints of peach and orange and yellow, emerging from the sea of green in the forest behind our yard.

I put up a Fall wreath in that one awkward spot on the wall that’s had me stumped — and I realized that it is the very thing this wall has been waiting for. I keep looking at it with a deep satisfaction as if I’ve solved a puzzle.

Seasons, to me, are a gift from a God who knows that we humans tend to get bored easily. Just when we’re too hot and mosquito-bitten, Fall arrives. Just when we’re tired of sleet and grey, Spring blooms. This beautiful rhythm — when observed and noticed and enjoyed — brings such a needed anticipation and contentment in life. As wise (and silly) ole’ Pooh muses: “Although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.”

I have been thinking of this very idea on this month of my 34th birthday — this idea of seasons.

For as I was chatting with a dear girlfriend yesterday who has known me since I worked at an ad agency in the big city, she mentioned how different my lifestyle is now (in the country, more babies, stay at home mom, homeschooling, gardening, cooking, oh my!) It is a season, is it not?

Those very rhythms that drive our wardrobes and holidays and celebrations do the same in our souls as we blossom and change as the years go by. Like the tree outside my window, I grow deeper roots and longer branches — but every year, there is new growth — and also, habits and choices and ideas that I let fall to the ground like leaves in October.

I am new and yet I am the same.

As Fall decorations hang on my walls and adorn my dining room table, other indications of this sweet season of life fill my home. Teddy bears and blankies, Lego blocks and snack-time crumbs pepper the rug at my feet.

A sun-bleached playset sits in the grass next to the patio. A pile of toddler clothes are waiting to be folded in the dryer. These things are less ornate than that wreath of fake orange flowers, but they are still vivid reminders of a fleeting season that grandmothers in grocery stores remind me goes all too fast.

And so this year I am trying to enjoy the season I’m in.

To not wish away pumpkin pie for Christmas morning — to not long for Spring flowers until I’ve soaked up the winter’s day. For as the leaves fall outside my window at this very moment, I am reminded that this time, too, shall pass on to the next.

This very idea should not be met with sadness, but rather, with a deeper awareness of the unique beauty and joy of this very time of life — when there are golden leaves and scattered toys and beautiful children at my feet.

I stumbled upon this little book the other day on our bookshelf. The inside cover told me that my grandparents had given me this book when I was around 4 years old, which added new meaning to the title: How Things Grow.

Here’s the answer: they grow in seasons.

Some are challenging and some are a breeze, some feel long and some go all too fast — but they all bring their own joys and challenges and new growth. And they are all needed to make us who we are meant to be.



Why the Pope made me cry

I was looking for people I knew.

Scanning the crowds on the wide-screen television in front of me, I squinted my eyes looking for my sister-in-law’s blue shirt; my friend’s baby. Would I spot them in the masses waiting for the Pope to arrive for mass? Maybe I could snap a picture of them snapping a picture of him on national television?

We knew several families who had taken the pilgrimage to Washington, DC, to see El Papa Francisco, the Holy Father, the Pope of the Holy See. Our brother-in-law was part of the tuxedo-clad band playing his entrance song into the Basilica. This was exciting for us — not just as Catholics, but as humans.

The excitement was everywhere; on every news station streaming live. My 6-year-old sat eagerly beside us yesterday morning as we sipped coffee and watched the President welcome Pope Francis to the White House. He sat beside us this morning as the Pope encouraged our country and its leaders in his address to Congress.

He knew this was something special; he could feel it. And so could I.

For as I was scanning the TV yesterday for familiar faces outside the Basilica, a surge of tears worked its way up from my chest and into my throat, overflowing from my eyes without any urging when the man in white appeared.

He rode through the happy, cheering crowd of thousands in his open Popemobile — so close to the people who loved him that he could easily reach out and kiss a baby (which he did). He stopped to make the sign of the cross, blessing another child who was held high in the air by the hands of his father. He smiled with his kind, wrinkled eyes as the people ran after him.

I thought — for but a moment — why am I crying? Then I knew better. Because there — in the streets surrounding the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on the campus of The Catholic University of America — was a living symbol of faith, hope and love. It wasn’t just the Pope himself who brought me to tears, but also the spirited crowds of the people who were there to be a part of it.

In our tabloid world, the magnetism of well-known figures can be more about celebrity and sensationalism than anything else, but the attraction of Pope Francis is very different. He is shining not for himself — but is a reflection of the light of God. He is a great man, but more importantly, he represents something much greater.

I’m wondering if perhaps John Boehner felt the same way as he worked hard to hold back his own tears during the Pope’s address to congress this morning. With a handkerchief in his hands, the Speaker of the House sat directly behind the Pontiff, his eyes were already blurry when Pope Francis said, “Dear Friends, I am most grateful for your invitation to address this Joint Session of Congress in ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave.'”

The words of Pope Francis are encouraging, but even more so is the way people are receiving them. Faith is not lost. Goodness is prevalent. It is written in the human heart to long for something greater.

How inspiring it was to see people flooding the streets not in riot, but in reverence. Gathering not in fear, but in fortitude. Joined in anticipation rather than anguish. How refreshing to see a man of great humility who has the ability to draw crowds of thousands wherever he goes (six million attended his outdoor mass in January in the Philippines) — not because of his fame, but because of his faith.

So often, I feel disheartened when tuning into the national news — but while watching this week, I’ve felt great hope.

A few days ago, I was reading a book about how to start teaching my 4-year-old daughter with Down syndrome to read. Yesterday, the lector who read the Second Reading at the nationally televised mass had Down syndrome. I was distracted by small children playing puzzles at my feet, and when I heard the familiar tone of her voice, I immediately looked up to see her.

Standing before the hushed crowds of thousands, she beautifully read the words of St. Paul. One passage specifically stood out to me:

“Finally, brothers and sisters,
whatever is true, whatever is honorable,
whatever is just, whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious,
if there is any excellence
and if there is anything worthy of praise,

think about these things.”

Think about these things.

For these are the things that give us hope.

Pope Francis’ namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, says, “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.” It is true that each of us can be that light — reflecting God’s love and illuminating what is true, honorable, pure and lovely.

Tonight while watching the news I heard an audience member from the Pope’s Congressional address say, “My eyes welled up when I saw him — simply at the sense of unity he brought to the room.”

Yes, that too, is what I have felt this week. A sense of unity. Not just in the crowds of people gathered together in one place — but in the hearts of people gathered together for a better world.

We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.

— Pope Francis, Address to Congress


A Book Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

I’ve never done a book review here before, but I’ve read one recently that I want to share.

I like it so much that I just started over and am reading it again. Which I suppose is the most telling thing about a good book: you don’t want it to end. That’s precisely how I felt about the book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver.

AVM (as I’ll call it here) is about nothing and everything all at once. It’s a book where nothing epic happens in the usual blockbuster sense. It has none of the things you would expect from a bestselling story, like adventure and conflict and romance — and yet, it has all of those things. This description may sound Whitman-esque: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself.” But that’s what I loved about the book — the premise is very simple and yet entirely multifaceted. The (real-life) story line:

A family moves from desert Arizona to a fixer-upper farmhouse in Southern Appalachia. They proceed to embark upon a year-long journey with a not-so-simple goal: to eat only local food. They make some exceptions for things they can absolutely not buy locally, like coffee and olive oil. And in doing this, they end up growing the majority of their food while also carrying on full-time jobs (and school for the kids). They beautifully narrate their experiences during this year, all the while educating readers on the state of the food system.

As Kingsolver says:

This is the story of a year in which we made every attempt to feed ourselves animals and vegetables whose provenance we really knew. We tried to wring most of the petroleum out of our food chain, even if that meant giving up some things. Our highest shopping goal was to get our food from so close to home, we’d know the person who grew it. Often that turned out to be us, as we learned to produce more of what we needed, starting with dirt, seeds, and enough knowledge to muddle through. Or starting with baby animals and enough sense to refrain from naming them.

In her family’s “locavore” journey, the reader learns the beautiful and challenging aspects of growing your own food and supporting a local food culture. And in a world where much of the food we buy at the grocery store “has traveled farther than most families go on their annual vacations,” this is no common feat.

Kingsolver is a master-storyteller. This is probably the most important detail of my praise; she could write about how to change a tire and I would most likely be charmed. So in her mellifluous wordsmithing, she turns stories about the growing of asparagus and the mating of turkeys into a page-turner.

The book’s chapters are divided mostly by months or seasons — for each one brings a new adventure in local-eating: “In April I’m happiest with mud on the knees of my jeans, sitting down to the year’s most intoxicating lunch: a plate of greens both crisp and still sun-warmed from the garden, with a handful of walnuts and some crumbly goat cheese. This is the opening act of real live food. ”

Readers may not agree with all of the points Kinsgsolver makes, but any disagreement on ideological issues is easy overlooked for the greater story: that animals and vegetables are nothing less than miracles — and that the more we know about the source of our food, the more we are aware of this grand gift.

Here are a handful of quotes I highlighted on my Kindle:

“Even the smallest backyard garden offers emotional rewards in the domain of the little miracle.”

“American culture doesn’t allow much room for slow reflection. I watch the working people who are supposed to be my role models getting pushed to go, go, go and take as little vacation time as possible. And then, often, vacations are full of endless activity too, so you might come back from your “break” feeling exhausted. Canning tomato sauce isn’t exactly a week at the spa, but it definitely forces a pause in the multitasking whirl of everyday life. It’s a “slow down and do one thing at a time” process: now chop vegetables, now stir them until the sauce thickens, now sterilize the jars, make sure each ring is tight. If you’re going to do anything else at the same time, it had better just be listening to your own thoughts. Anything else could cause you to blow the entire batch. Canning always puts me in a kind of trance. I reach a point where stirring the bubbling sauce is the world’s only task, and I could do it forever. Whether you prefer to sit on a rock in a peaceful place, or take a wooden spoon to a simmering pot, it does the body good to quiet down and tune in.”

“Cooking is 80 percent confidence, a skill best acquired starting from when the apron strings wrap around you twice.”

“Snow fell on our garden in December, leaving the dried corn stalks and withered tomato vines standing black on white like a pen-and-ink drawing titled Rest. I postponed looking at seed catalogs for awhile. Those of us who give body and soul to projects that never seem to end—child rearing, housecleaning, gardening—know the value of the occasional closed door. We need our moments of declared truce.”

“Once you start cooking, one thing leads to another. A new recipe is as exciting as a blind date. A new ingredient, heaven help me, is an intoxicating affair. I’ve grown new vegetables just to see what they taste like: Jerusalem artichokes, edamame, potimarrons. A quick recipe can turn slow in our kitchen because of the experiments we hazard. We make things from scratch just to see if we can. We’ve rolled out and cut our pasta, raised turkeys to roast or stuff into link sausage, made chutney from our garden. On high occasions we’ll make cherry pies with crisscrossed lattice tops and ravioli with crimped edges, for the satisfaction of seeing these storybook comforts become real.”

“Our holiday food splurge was a small crate of tangerines, which we found ridiculously thrilling after an eight-month abstinence from citrus. No matter where I was in the house, that vividly resinous orangey scent woke up my nose whenever anyone peeled one in the kitchen. Lily hugged each one to her chest before undressing it as gently as a doll. Watching her do that as she sat cross-legged on the floor one morning in pink pajamas, with bliss lighting her cheeks, I thought: Lucky is the world, to receive this grateful child. Value is not made of money, but a tender balance of expectation and longing.”

“Planning complex, beautiful meals and investing one’s heart and time in their preparation is the opposite of self-indulgence. Kitchen-based family gatherings are process-oriented, cooperative, and in the best of worlds, nourishing and soulful. A lot of calories get used up before anyone sits down to consume. But more importantly, a lot of talk happens first, news exchanged, secrets revealed across generations, paths cleared with a touch on the arm. I have given and received some of my life’s most important hugs with those big oven-mitt potholders on both hands.”

“In a culture that assigns nil prestige to domestic work, I usually self-deprecate when anyone comments on my gardening and cooking-from-scratch lifestyle. I explain that I have to do something brainless to unwind from my work, and I don’t like TV. But the truth is, I enjoy this so-called brainless work. I like the kind of family I can raise on this kind of food.”



On our 8-year wedding anniversary

I knew on our first date that I would marry him.

I liked the hair on his arms and how his khaki pants fit and the way his smiling blue eyes made me feel calm. Sitting across from him on a cool December night was (to coin Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle) “like coming home… only to no home I’d ever known.” And yet, it was as if I had known him forever.

Surely, this sounds melodramatic — mushy — and oh, that’s fine. We too often go about our days with young children and busy calendars and dirty clothes piled high without thinking that this thing here is nothing less than an answered prayer.

He is my greatest reminder of God’s love.

And not just because he snuck out of bed early this morning on our 8th wedding anniversary to pick some wildflowers from our yard, resting them in the lukewarm water of a mason jar to wait for me.

But because of the less obvious things: tenaciously taking the night shift with crying toddlers, listening to my same complaints as though it were the first time I’d muttered them from tired lips, forgiving when I — once again — open a new jar of peanut butter when there was already one open.

I don’t suppose to claim that either of us is perfect — but is that disclaimer really needed? None of us are. But the act of loving is, in itself, perfecting. We don’t love because we are perfect, but we become more perfect by loving.

And isn’t that the goal of marriage? Two imperfect people, who, by God’s grace, hopefully grow better because of each other — for each other? Who, in sacrificing and serving and looking for the best in the other, somehow come to find it in themselves?

A friend recently called me “ceremonial.” Maybe it’s true; I love anniversaries.

They are a time to pause, reflect, and remember the months when all I could think about was the hair on his arms and his smiling eyes. Eight years later, we have much more to think about, but many more opportunities to truly love.

For it’s easy to feel in love in the early days of first dates and love letters. But 1 Corinthians says “love is patient,” and I have far more opportunities to show patience now than I ever have — with four children and a busy family life. It says “love is kind,” but until two people are together day in and out, they don’t have the chance to truly choose kindness when their instinct is to be grumpy or short. It says “love keeps no record of wrongs,” but when we first met, there was no record to keep. It says “love always perseveres,” but only time and trial can prove perseverance.

It seems funny to me that the portrayal of marriage is so often an extreme depending on where one looks — either a totally serendipitous Fairy Tale or a laborious commitment to be endured.

I think there is a place far more practical and poetic. Where nothing short of a miracle brings two souls together to become something better than they could ever be alone. And where happily ever after is found in the hard, beautiful work of true love, every day, for “as long as we both shall live.”


The Garden of Eatin’

Every morning at about a quarter to 10, we start the march to the Garden of Eatin’.

Out the back door and down the green slope of lawn to the tall garden gate we go. I am usually flustered. It is not a calming experience to find matching shoes and herd children and avoid ant hills that have risen like the dawn in the middle of walking paths. Don’t push your sister, watch out for that ant hill, help the baby down the step, no — not that way…

But as soon as the clank of the gate leads to the scent of cedar wood garden beds, I am as grounded as the roots within them.

This is not a professional or experienced garden, mind you. It is a beginner’s patch of watermelons and weeds, sweet potatoes and southern peas (already eaten by aphids) and pumpkins. But perhaps it is in my novice that I am better able to notice.

The pokey hairs on pumpkin vines and the voluptuous curves of a female flower. The way a baby watermelon still looks like a watermelon even at the size of a plum. I watch like a midwife at the growing girth — is she ready yet? Not quite.

My son watches on as he learns what happens when you plant a seed and nourish it. It’s the same general concept in all that is life-giving. A seed is planted, a suitable environment is made — and it grows.

“But why does it do that?”

That’s when the garden sprouts a deeper wisdom within the heart of my children. There is something much greater that helps these sorts of things along; a miracle-maker who works alongside us — molding every leaf of the vines and every limb of the babies that wind and bend around me.

The garden isn’t perfect, but oh, it’s becoming.

Though I envisioned well-weeded paths and tidy beds of Martha Stewart precision, these wild, wandering roots have me smitten. For as a mother complains of the squish in her belly that softly cradles her baby, the garden has no need to meet a worldly standard of impeccability. Its beauty is in its wild and intuitive sense to do exactly what it was made to do. To be itself.

“Why do the watermelon vines go all over the ground and the cowpeas just sort of grow straight up like that?”

Well, that’s how they’re made. That’s how they work best.

And I don’t know, maybe I’m just all mushy on the fact that I planted some seeds with my boy last Spring and they’ve gone and grown into something out of a pastoral poem, but I hope that I never stop being amazed.

I don’t think I will.

For I still lay with my fourth baby in the still of the night and am overcome with awe that something so great can start so small. And I still see that glimmer in the eye of grandparents and great grandparents and master gardeners, too.

We harvested our first watermelon and ate sweet, juicy, red slices of it last night around the dinner table. Tiny hands wrapped around the yellowy-green rind and bit into the slushy melon with dripping grins. We saved the hard black seeds to plant again next year.

There is great comfort in these everyday miracles, so common that they might be easily overlooked: the orange watercolor sky at dusk, the first summer melon, a newborn’s soft fist wrapped around my finger.

These are the gifts that come with a heartfelt note: you are a part of something greater.

These are the joys that never grow old, even when we do.