Garden Notes: Awakening

I spent all day yesterday in the flowers—weeding, raking out, mulching. I’m late this year—the ground already warm under my hand when the sun drops the diamonds of first light. My mother-in-law once told me to wait for spring; let the birds glean what they will, she said. And they did. The coneflower is dry as straw, the Black-eyed Susans blink. But color is slowly waking up in the garden. The brittle browns and forgotten rusts shush me as they rub up against new green foliage.

I rake leaf remains out from around tubers—their faded reds and golds like scattered gems. The thick bands of iris greens reach up for the sky. I smooth around their fibrous heads, let them breathe. Already the leaves have started to make rich compost–the soil underneath fragrant and dark. I breathe deep its heady scent, close my eyes and dig fingers in the cool moist.

This morning the robins are in a frenzy over my newly cleared soil. I watch from the window as they hastily march back and forth amongst the stubby remains of my garden.  It looks so clean. The mulch around the awakening clumps of green holds such promise. I wrap my arms around my sides—hug close this seed that strains against the dark soil of my heart.

Yesterday a tree swallow came calling. Hello beautiful, I said to her, as she made a lunging swoop above my head. I watched her fly into the nesting box and peek out at me suspiciously. The memory of her glistening black wings in sky-dance speaks light into the days.

When I was in the seventh grade I wrote an essay about what I want to be when I grow up. Mr. Kovalan, our English teacher, assigned us a theme every week. It was my favorite thing about school. Each week I looked forward to discovering what topic he would put before us. Mr. Kovalan never said much, but his comments on my themes always encouraged me. This is very well written, he might pen. Or: A very good story. There wasn’t much I was good at, but Mr. Kovalan helped me see that telling stories was something I could do. But this one? What did I want to be?  A girl like me didn’t have a lot of choices. A girl like me rarely left the hollow. I thought long and hard about it.

When Mr. Kovalan graded my essay, he left me with few words.

Your choice surprises me.

That was all he said. That dear, dear man.

It was the first time I thought that maybe I could be more. That maybe…maybe there was more than what I know.

When I was in seventh grade I learned to dream the dream of the waiting soil.

I am a sleeping garden. I dream of shoots of green breaking through earth with pointed fingers.  A glimpse of sky rests on my memory—white on blue with golden hues. In darkness the dream speaks hope into the night.

In the darkness the garden becomes a thing of expectation–of sleeping joy.

Garden Notes: Rough Drafts

Every spring when time comes to weed my flower beds, the good work of it nearly kills me. And every spring, in response to my complaints about the honest work of garden tending, my husband threatens to sow grass over all my lovely blooms. I believe him just enough to find the inner fortitude required to finish the job.

I have stirred ant armies, awakened the curled grub in her buried bed, inadvertently found the source of the poison ivy, and pried the roots of wild violets from beneath my butterfly bush. Yesterday, I killed a Black Widow spider I found clinging to a daylily stalk. Every year, after bug bites, skin rashes, suffering amazingly obscure aches and pains, and consuming copious amounts of ibuprofen, I survey the work of my hands and dream a better way. I imagine planting miraculous ground covers to choke out the weeds, eye-catching perennials that require little attention, or even evergreens to lend a simpler style. Trouble is, I usually only get around to implementing a small portion of these dream-plantings, and they never quite work out as I hoped.  Come the next spring, things are a little better, but—you guessed it—I’m still on my hands and knees far longer than this aging body should be.

But when the blooms unfold one-by-one and the garden becomes a thing of beauty? I know all that time and diligence and love for the soil was worth it.

I try to fertilize the garden of my writing through careful reading and recently, I read this:

 As you start out in rough drafts, writing down stories as clearly as you can, there begins to burble up onto the page what’s exclusively yours both as a writer and a human being. If you trust the truth enough to keep unveiling yourself on the page—no matter how shameful those revelations may as first seem—the book will naturally structure itself to maximize what you’re best at. You’re best at it because it sits at the core of your passions.” ~Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir

Certain things can immobilize me in an instant: a glimpse of a red-bellied woodpecker on the trunk of my Maple tree, sunlight rippling on water, a solitary cloud rolling across crystal blue, and a phrase that ambushes me with apt precision.

Mary Karr’s words seemed to breathe a deep exhale in my soul: “…there begins to burble up on the page what’s exclusively yours both as a writer and as a human being.”

Those words, stark and black against the white of the page, fell heavy over me and I realized how life mirrors this statement. With each passing year we hammer out rough drafts of this life we craft—meticulously honing in on what is best to keep and what must be cast aside, letting what is “exclusively” ours “burple up” from the moments. And just as my garden takes shape over the long stretch of years, none of these seasons we sift through are ever perfected—it’s a constantly shifting landscape. But if we are true to the draft-writing—or draft living, in this case—we keep what is best and let go of the rest. The next season may be a little better for the pruning, but chances are, it will still have its fair share of  bending and tending to  push through.

I’ve never written a memoir, though the world of blogging bestows plenty of opportunity to offer up bits of my life for the perusal of others. This kind of voyeurism can leave one feeling vulnerable and small at times. Isn’t each life worthy of memoir? When we live through each the days, don’t the moments tell a story? What if I could think of each season of life as a rough draft, trusting in the truth enough to keep unveiling myself, to keep growing and learning and reaching for more? Letting time and diligence and love shape something that becomes more beautiful with each passing year.

West Virginia Morning: Early Bloomer

yellow crocus

This morning, as I walked Bonnie around the house, I saw a little piece of the sun had fallen down to earth. It’s late February, and my crocuses are blooming—bright yellow petals winking in the morning dew. We’ve had an unusually warm patch of weather these past few weeks, but I’ve lived here long enough not to be fooled. The birds, however, appear to be falling for nature’s trickery. Everywhere I turn the sky is full of robin-song and sparrow-music. Yesterday I peeked in my bluebird box and, sure enough, the beginnings of a nest were tucked inside. When Jeff and I walked down Sleepy Hollow road, we saw an American Kestrel falcon perched on the powerlines. As we drew near, that beauty took flight, circling slowly over the meadow that hugged the roadway. She was so free in her flight, she took my breath.

On my days off, I’ve been working on some upcoming projects, writing curriculum for a couple classes I hope to teach and researching resources. Today, I re-read most of Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge’s poemcrazy: freeing your life with words. At the end of chapter 2, under the practice section, the author encourages the reader to buy a journal and keep it with them. “It’s never too late to start,” she says. “Don’t try to catch up by going back in your life. Start with now.”

Something about those last three words made my throat catch a little. “Start with now.” It sounds so simple, I mean, where else can I start except now? But so many days I feel like I’m trying and trying and trying … struggling to make up for all that I’ve missed—all the regret that comes with the late blooming. And then I see an early-blooming crocus and the round-headed silhouette of a falcon and I know deep inside of me: now is the only moment we really have.

Instead of feeling regret, tonight I let that thought comfort me. Tonight, I let myself be fully present in this moment and as I do, I can feel the wings of my heart stretch wide.

Wide for the soaring flight.

West Virginia Morning: Light Comes Earlier

The light comes earlier each morning. We wait for it—lift our faces to the sun like prayer. When I take Bonnie out this morning, the blue light of night still lingers. The stars still haven’t shut their eyes and I wave at Orion as we wind around the house. At the edge of the dome, light striations are only just beginning. To me, they look like layers of phyllo, layers of light, and the goodness of the earth’s rotation rouses a slight lift in my spirit.

The days grow longer and I still I miss my slow mornings: reading poetry out loud to God and Bonnie, sipping my coffee and underlining words. Yesterday, the sun warmed the winterstruck and Jeff and I sat out on the deck long into the night. The robins were singing their sweet-sad song and I could smell new grass, the earth melting from the outside in. I felt a holy whisper in my ear, grow, it seemed to purr.

Time. I’m always telling my patients that some things just take time. I don’t know why I’m so slow to adjust. Things linger inside my heart, resisting motion. But the way the light spills slowly into the days these mornings—this is teaching me. I’m learning how to pay attention in the midst of the busy—how to notice the kairos in the chronos.

I think it will be a life-long lesson. And I’m ok with that.

The Hallowed Corners of Life

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(a reprint from deep in the archives today. Because I needed a reminder.)

There are temples all over this place.

The dining room table, the kitchen sink, underneath the pear tree, the halls I walk at the hospital where I work…no tall arches or stained glass, no austere organ music or deep mahogany. Just these hands, this body, these people I weave in and out of every day.

I remind myself of this each day—each ordinary day: the ground I walk on is holy.

On this ordinary day, my two boys are home from school on a long weekend. I’ve taken the day off of work for their well-visits with the pediatrician. Here I learn we are behind on vaccines. And my eldest still has those big holes in the top of each eardrum. And today we find out his vision is impaired too.

The doctor shakes his head. And then he starts talking about surgery for the boy’s ears. Six shots and two flu mists later, we leave, armed with an order for blood work and a referral to a local optometrist.

We get home in the late afternoon and I do laundry, try to write a little, someone has stopped up the toilet, and I’ve promised a friend to stop by with dinner for a chance to hold her beautiful new baby.

These are ordinary things. Nothing particularly compelling in the going through them. They barely warrant a mention, let alone an essay. They are the stuff of life. Ordinary. And if I am not careful, that word ordinary can trip me up—give me excuse to assign little value to these passing moments.

But here the church gives me a good model of how to view time. The liturgical year is divided into the seasons of Lent/Easter, Advent/Christmas, and Ordinary Time. In this case the term “ordinary” does not mean “usual or average.” We get the term from the Latin word ordinalis, which means to be numbered in series. Therefore, Ordinary Time is called “ordinary” simply because the weeks are numbered.

But here’s the thing: in Ordinary Time, we are not focused on a specific aspect of Christ (such as the Nativity or the Passion). Instead, we celebrate the mystery of Christ as a whole—his life, ministry, miracles, and teachings. These days are no less holy, no less important for this lack—rather, they remind us to view all of life through the lens of holy. When God took on flesh and became one of us, didn’t he elevate the dignity of human nature for us all?

We are still in Ordinary Time now, but soon, Advent will be here. I turn a sock right-side-out on this dreary afternoon and think of this: that even in the high holy seasons, the moments of my life resonate ordinary. Doesn’t Jesus touch these ordinary moments too?

… Listen to your life,” Frederick Buechner tells me. “See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” (Buechner, Now and Then)

Life itself is grace. How else could we handle the news of the pediatrician? How else are we to handle the sick parents, the loss of that job, the dream left unrealized, or the plodding through of the same?

There is holy in the everyday moments; there is worship in the hallowed corners of my life. And there is nothing ordinary about that.

A variation of this article originally appeared at The High Calling.