West Virginia Morning: How to Be Washed Clean

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This morning, the fog settles in over the meadow, skimming the blanket of Queen Anne’s Lace with white until it becomes a sea of flowery ghosts. I go out in the yard in my bare feet, let the same moisture that kisses their upturned faces be my foundation. I want to walk in beauty today.

It feels like we have miles to go before we sleep. So much work to do to get ready for the next season.

In the Russian tale “Vasalisa the Wise” the sweet girl Vasalisa is sent into the woods by her jealous stepmother to retrieve a coal to reignite the fire in their hearth. In the forest, Vasalisa encounters Baba Yaga—a witch who represents the wild old mother in each of us (just as Vasalisa represents the innocent, too-nice, naïve part of our psyche). Baba Yaga makes the child perform certain tasks to earn the coal she will give her: wash her clothes, sweep her yard, prepare her food, separate mildewed corn from good corn, and see that everything is “in order.” Vasalisa performs all the tasks successfully with the help of a little doll given to her by her mother when she was on her deathbed (the doll represents the intuition handed down through the ages).

Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés says that these tasks Baba Yaga puts before Vasalisa teach her “how to take care of the psychic house of the wild feminine.” Washing the old hag’s laundry, in particular, is a beautiful symbol for “cleansing and purification of the entire bearing of the psyche.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this cleansing ritual lately. As we sort through Teddy’s things, making lists and deciding what he needs to take with him to school, it feels like a fine comb is being run over my spirit. I wash his new towels and sheets, take inventory of underwear and socks, cast aside the outgrown or unworn … and something inside of me is being scrubbed down, rubbed hard up against the washboard.

 … to wash her laundry is a metaphor through which we learn to witness and take on this combination of qualities [strength, endurance], and also to know how to sort, mend, renew these qualities by the purificatio, the washing of the fibers of being.”

It is a strange truth that saying goodbye to one part of myself means welcoming in another. Always, always, there is another skin growing over this scaffold of bones and blood, this limping heart. This is the way of God—to continue conforming me to the image of his son. These seasons I move through edge me closer and closer to the holy. Oh, how far I have to go.

Still, the moments creep up on me lately, and I am often surprised by an unexpected and sudden flow of tears.

Another kind of washing.

Garden Notes: Nurture

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When I returned from the College Summit Workshop, I was amazed at how much my garden had grown in just four days. I spent Monday afternoon stringing and canning beans, letting the slow snap of the pods soothe my mind and welcome me back into the routine of home. My tomatoes are struggling this year, due to all the rain, but I still have been able to start my mid-summer diet—tomatoes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (and some in-between). This morning, I diced one of my salad varieties into petite bites and stirred the red bits into a pan-scrambled egg. Is there a better way to start the day?

Our first night at the College Summit Workshop was spent in training. All the writing coaches gathered in one room and our coordinator took us through the same free-writing exercises we would be asking our students to do over the next three days. After writing for ten minutes, we took turns reading our scribblings to one another, while the others took notes; just as our students would do. This simple activity allowed us to share our stories, to learn about the hearts and passions of each person there. I learned—by the way a voice would change as it held certain words—about the greatest loves these strangers carried. By the end of the night it felt like we knew each other better than some life-long friends.

I learned some things about myself through words shared and the lens of writing. Some things, I guess, we never leave behind. But, perhaps, the broken ways, the hard memories, the things we try to prune away, perhaps these are the very things that become the soil bed for rich growth.

Sometimes I think I love gardening because it proves to me that I can care for something other than myself—that I do have the ability to nurture and cultivate. All those years taking care of myself when no one else would—they have a way of turning the gaze inward. Survival of the fittest, right?

When my boys were born, the desire to nourish and teach and give was so strong the pain of it would overtake me at times. Now that they are older, they try to shake free of the bumpers I’ve put in place for their lives. They want to make their own way. At least in part.

But the garden never shrugs off my hands. My eggplants are beautiful and the summer squash are late but they are coming. I will have late cucumbers too, my planting was distracted by a boy’s graduation this year. Every morning I visit the garden. In the cool of the evening I tend to her needs.

And she will give back in countless ways.

Garden Notes: Seed Changeling

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Yesterday, one of the goats slipped through the fence and when we returned from graduation practice late morning, she was standing in our back yard—perilously close to my garden. I called our neighbor, the goat-man, but he wasn’t picking up, so all I could do was stand guard with a little poker stick and prod at her every time she took a bite of my greens. Each time I did so, I felt so bad that I gently scratched her course-haired nose immediately after. My discipline had little effect. She looked up at me with those vertical pupils—something like adoration on her sweet, kale-stealing face.

We still had a lot of preparation to do for the graduation ceremony that evening. My mom was driving down and I needed to put clean sheets on her bed. Teddy’s slacks still needed ironing, and his gift wasn’t wrapped, not to mention he needed to practice his speech. Time was slipping through my fingers and here I was, goat-sitting.

I walked along the fence line to see if I could find the escape spot. Maybe I could gently urge her back through to the other side. I ran inside and plucked an apple from our fruit bowl. She followed the apple and me along the fence, softly bleating. But I could find no open door through which to coax her. It looked like she had somehow squeezed underneath the already bowed out metal fence. I tried to lift the skeletal remains up and tempt her back under with the apple, but her kindred on the other side caught wind of my fruity treat and came running in a cloud of witnesses. I was soon in danger of having a herd of goats in my yard.

I put the graduate in charge of the poker-stick and drove up to my neighbor’s house to see if anyone could come and retrieve this errant goat. There I learned the goat-man was on his way and when I returned upon the scene he was making the last strides through the meadow to assess the situation. Meanwhile, Miss Goat kept stealing little bites of kale as Teddy ineffectively poked and reprimanded.

The goat-man walked the fence adjacent to our yard and was as mystified as we as to how she had slipped through. He was apologetic, but wondered if I could just lift her up and over to him, then he would inspect the fence for the weak places.

Pick up a goat?

Hilarity ensued. Miss Goat somehow knew we were going to put an end to her adventure and managed to deftly elude us from all sides. At one point, I was possessed with a fit of giggles so pervasive I thought I was going to have to give it up. Finally, we had her cornered by the garden and when she took a bite of kale, I pounced.

Pygmy goats are small but compact and it felt like I was picking up a small Volkswagen. But I handed her off to the goat-man without incident. She joined her other goat friends gladly and soon I was left standing alone, surveying the remains of my kale.

She hadn’t done too much damage, and the greens are nearly past prime anyway. Already the summer squash seeds I had pressed down in between the leafy greens were poking up through the dark soil. I needed to harvest the rest of the lettuce and spinach, pull up all the greens and either use them or feed them to the goats. It is time for the garden’s second wave of crops. The tomatoes and peppers are looking good. My bean plants are nearly four inches tall and looking for more room to vine up and out. I studied the beginning of their twinings and noticed how the remnant of the seeds still clung to the sides of their stems. I gently touched the soft, yellow half moons of the broken pods in wonder.

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How do these growing things begin as one thing and change into something entirely different? Beautiful and fragile all at once?

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I knew I needed to harvest the kale very soon. But the sheets still needed changing and the slacks pressing. And my boy was waiting in the house, filled with anticipation for the evening.

I took a last look at the goat-nibbled greens and headed back inside.

Holy Wednesday: Surrender

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This week I have been watching the red buds on the Maple tree unfurl slowly, like the fingers of a fist opening up, one by one. And I think, isn’t this what Lent is? Opening the hand this way? My morning reading is about pride and theologian John Stott says, “The essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man.”

Holy week has never been so busy and full of questions and worry. We are weighing out options for the future and sometimes it feels like this one decisioneverything rides on this.

I have to keep reminding myself that there are no guarantees, that I am not God, and God will use even the grandest mistake for his glory. Sometimes this lack of control feels like being between a rock and a hard place. Sometimes it feels exhilaratingly like freedom. I am still being shaped and molded and so I am not ashamed to say that the former feels more familiar.

But I am taking my cue from the Maple. Watching the slow unfurling become a thing of utter beauty.

I wanted to share this interview with you, friends. It was done in late February but just recently released by Armstrong Cable, a regional company that conducts interviews with local authors. Speaking of pride, do you know how difficult it is to watch oneself on a screen? I made a million mistakes in the way I said things, the way I held myself. But I offer this humble before you and give thanks for the opportunity. (subscribers, if you’d like to watch the video, click on over here or watch it on YouTube.)

The Bravery of Mothers

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This morning, I watch light fall on the naked limbs of the maple outside my window. An invisible hand rustles the branches and stirs the grasses beneath. The world is full of mystery and I still fight against the need to understand, to name, to know.

Last night I dreamed that a mountain lion was loose in our house and for it’s own well-being, we tried to return it out-of-doors, free of confinement. But for some reason, I wanted to give it a bath before returning it to its natural habitat. Makes sense, right? One must be made presentable for a homecoming, no? To keep from being torn apart by the cat’s sharp claws, I put it in the washing machine. It emerged like an overgrown kitten, all fluffed out and soft. When we opened the door to let it outside, the animal was confused. It stayed close for long moments, unsure.

As I reflect on that strange vision, it occurs to me that I have been trying to tame something wild. I’ve been trying to yoke with words a thing that is not mine. To simply name this thing would be enough, but it is not mine to name. I want to know the answers, be assured of a safe and clean outcome.

But Jesus tells Nicodemus, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

All of my life I have been content to let the wind blow me where it will, to trust in God and the Spirit to guide with invisible hands. Am I brave enough to believe the Wind that cups the ones I love will carry them to happy places too? When I cannot see where we are going, will I trust? Even when the gale blusters and turns us topsy-turvy, steering away from the course I had planned? When it roars like a lion and threatens to leave its sharp marks all over us?

It was so much easier when I alone sailed these currents. I have let fear distract me, have let the despair of others sweep in and chill my bones. But I am reminded that the Hebrew word for know often used in the Old Testament is the word yada‘. It’s the word used in Genesis 4 to describe how Adam knew Eve when Cain was conceived. But it is also the word used in Psalm 139, “Oh, Lord, you have searched me, and have known me … Search me, oh, God, and know my heart: try me and know my thoughts.”

Yada‘ refers to a deeper kind of knowing that goes far beyond the factual, far beyond the physical. It’s an experiential knowing, knowing in the heart.

Even though I don’t know the answers to all the journeys my beloveds will go through in this life, I know in my heart that God holds them. So I am gently letting go of the yoke, opening the door to the wild creature and letting it step into the destiny that awaits.