It’s All Unexpected

Maybe not everyone is so regularly startled as I am.

I came home from a ten day trip to find that my gardens had exploded with new blooms, clutches of green tomatoes, and dozens upon dozens of cymes of elderberries.  The grapes decided to indulge in a bit of conquest, leaping over the roses and aiming for the sidewalk. It reminded me of the children’s book character Mr. Tickle, who had extremely long arms and used them most mischievously, giggling at day’s end about his tickling pranks.  The sunflowers had thrown their orange petals back in glee and were waiting, swaying and smiling broadly.  I could almost hear them laugh; laugh at their own audacity and pomp.  A flower with a stem the size of a small tree!  The very notion!  In my mind they are the giraffes of the flower world; a small proof of God’s sense of humor.  I digress.

IMG_2155

So that was just walking in the main path.  Then I was assaulted by the sheer number of things, useful and good, that proliferated in my home.  Sturdy pots, a deep sink, machines to wash and dry, toilets to perform humble but ever-useful duties.  The prayer corner, a place that becomes more beautiful with time; this too is an astonishing sight after many days away from it.  There is where home feels most poignant.

It’s all unexpected and I looked about and in my heart the impression was, “Oh, so you’re all here still, I suppose!?  AH, you are so much!  How has this all come to pass?”

12440721_10154327140098352_249243340422564964_o

My dear bird was wary.  For a number of minutes he stared back at me as I called to him in our familiar language of clicks and purrs and words.  Then his guard dropped and he pressed his warm little body close to the bars of his cage and purr-trilled back.  It was all unexpected for him, that he’d come home again and be with us all again.  He had no idea of return, of this remembered life being his again.  What joy!  I opened his door and he snuggled under my chin, rubbing his head back and forth.  “Pretty bird!”, he said.

There has been some healing in my soul though I was not aware of any particular treatment prescribed nor followed.  I used to expect too much, want too much; to my shame I truly did have an ugly expectation troll, grumping about in my heart, hollering about what I deserved and stomping around, ruining moments I should have been grateful for, should have enjoyed more.  Somehow he was evicted, and joy moved in, and gratitude. All is in reverse now; it’s a joyful pessimism of sorts…I expect life to be quite hard; I do not expect easy times and smooth ways, and yet, I am almost ridiculously happy with each and every good I encounter.  I do not lay claim to blessings, and yet I find them dumped over my head.

God is kind.  I don’t endeavor enough, I do not struggle enough, I am ordinary.  I did not merit any of this, but God gifts as He sees fit.  It’s all unexpected._MG_5001

 

But…I’m Already Happy…

IMG_4721It happens, now and again, as I scroll through my Facebook feed, to encounter a dangling carrot.  The dangler, or angler, or lifestyle salesperson, or multi-level marketing pitch-er, croons a solution and jiggles the carrot.  This presupposes that I have the problem they’re ready to help with.

I’ve never been a fan of motivational posters; I mean does anyone actually feel more heroic or brave or encouraged from reading some cliche splayed across a rugged mountain scene, with some self-actualized hiker standing at the edge with his fists raised double and high?

So when friends, acquaintances, and high school buddies post a triumphant selfie, product in hand, and then talk about wellness, no more migraines, boundless energy, community, opportunity, financial freedom, balanced chakras, vacation money, bonuses, Lexuses, joy, bravery, DREAMS, hot tubs, and talk abysmally about J-O-B-S (yes, some actually do spell it out like it’s a dirty word) that are implicitly heinous, life-wasting occupations for the cowardly, blind, subservient miserable masses, I find I genuinely have no understanding of what sort of fish is hungry for that bait.  And why, to me, it looks like a neon, rubber worm with a barbed hook inside?

And then I know it; you don’t scratch where it doesn’t itch.  If the fish is well-fed, even the flashiest of bait isn’t tempting.  See, I’m already happy.  I’m not hungry for that oddly-luminous, sparkly bait.

No, they’re right, I can’t afford to travel the world, nor drive a Lexus, nor buy a fancy hot tub, nor receive massive bonuses, but what I can afford to do still astounds me.

We can drive to the ocean, folks!  THE OCEAN!  Where I grew up in Montana, the ocean was several hundreds of dollars and hours upon hours away.  I didn’t see one until I was seventeen.  I get a thrill every time I see it, and getting tossed around in it’s rocking and rolling waves is pure joy.

And, seeing those dear faces, I get to have kids!!!  Lots of them!  I know so many folks whose bodies don’t have the ability to bear children, and that breaks my heart.  I don’t take it for granted that this unfathomable blessing has been given to me and my husband.

Every single day we eat and have clean water to drink!  There is a group I’m a part of in Facebookland called “Real Hope For Haiti“, and they regularly post pictures of incoming patients; little kids swollen from kwashiorkor (malnourishment), and ask for prayers for critical cases.  My eyes fill with tears.  How could I not be grateful, so very thankful for our daily sustenance?  It converts my hunger into hunger-to-help!  Keep your protein shakes and moon juice and algae-aloe-smoothie miracle powders; I’m astounded to have the food I have!

A lot of the pitches have three themes:  autonomy (you’re in charge, you own a business, you decide your hours), wealth (commissions, bonuses, free cars, cheaper or free products), and altruism (you’re helping other people achieve their dreams and/or improve their health) to make the first two seem like mere side benefits.  You can get the glow of a hero and the bank account of a CEO, all in one!

I almost feel bad for not having the problems they’re ready to fix; or in a lot of ways, I don’t see my particular sufferings in the same light as they do.  I don’t automatically assume that hard financial times are an altogether bad thing; they can be a crucible for one’s character, teach one frugal habits, activate humility, and make identification and empathy for the poor an immediate thing.  It’s hard to look down on someone you’re standing next to.

One seller posted accusingly, “Why be sick?  You can be free of that if you use essential oils, duh!” (my paraphrase).  I wonder how Job would have heard that, in his ash pile, covered in boils.  “Oh, so it wasn’t God allowing Satan to sift me?  I just needed tea tree oil?  Astounding!”  This sort of triumphalism in regards to health is the oddest bait of all of them.  The Bible says far more about the connection between our passions (envy, lust, resentment) and our bodily health than it does about what we put into us.  Even then, we’re cautioned from assuming a cause/effect outlook:

“His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened that the works of God would be displayed in him.”  -John 9:3

We can’t rummage through God’s toolbox and eject the tools we don’t like.  They may be just the right ones to fix something in us that is very broken.

I stood in front of a room full of sixth graders and asked if I could share my favorite inspirational platitude.  They nodded, grinning because I had already proven myself funny and odd.  “Die” I said, raising up my hands to make exaggerated quote marks for dramatic effect.  “Shouldn’t I embroider it and border it with flowers; wouldn’t that be lovely on the wall?”  They laughed and maybe they didn’t know what to think.  “Dying to myself, my desires, dying each day, even imperfectly, always, always leads to joy.”  I asked them how they could die each day; in what ways could they deny themselves in order to serve others or Christ?  They had really good ideas; they may have had some dissonance, sure, because our culture swaddles youth with soothing words of self importance and self fulfillment and such.  No one tells them to “die”.

But we do seem to tell each other how to “live”, how to be happy, how to digest our food better via pills, how to melt fat around our tums with body wraps, how to use our social networks as ladders into our bright futures, how to be successful and bright and better looking, and brave.

How come no one is telling each other to die?  To embrace unavoidable suffering with an obstinate love, patience, and trust in Christ?  To see limited finances as a gift from a wise Father?  To not buy hundreds of dollars worth of pills and wraps and creams and oils, but rather to give that money away so toddlers can not swell up and die?  Because that kind of stuff gets my attention; that scratches where I’m itching.

 

The Non-Farm of Now

The most self-torturous thing I do is to take a drive through farmland.  Especially farmland with plenty of sparkling streams and stone barns from the 1700’s and farmhouses that have hosted many a human story over hundreds of years.  If there is a summer kitchen AND a functioning pump house AND a spring house, I near choke on my longing.  If there are lambs frolicking about I am undone.

There’s something so wrong in it and I don’t see a way to fix it; when a county that is bursting at the seams with banks and shopping centers keeps paving over prime farmland in the name of more of them.  I just look at that good dirt, those wide sweeps of it, acres of it, that could keep on feeding us and supporting a family, and I think acerbic thoughts and half-sentences about the businessmen who see every bit of open ground as a financial opportunity rather than the treasure that it is, just as it is.  All for ANOTHER Chipotle or a Staples or a (shudder) Walmart?

And what of the farmers whose families through the generations have been sustained by the land, and suddenly in their retirement years they decide to parcel off their inheritance to developers, to be hacked into grids of streets, peppered with homes, and never again to be a farm?  Do they consider what they received?  And how many would love to take up their yoke and earn their bread that way, but because developers can offer so much they can’t even buy five acres?

So, no farm for us, leastwise here in Lancaster County.  And no chickens, no goats; our township having some prejudice against animals that actually produce something usable.  It is nonsensical.  But so is paving over farmland, so the course must be set.  Dogs?  That you have to haul in feed for and pick up poop for, poop which isn’t fit for composting but must be hauled out with the trash?  Sure, as many as you want!  Chickens?  That feast on bugs, mosquito larvae, weeds; who break down leaves into fine compost, who turn kitchen scraps into delicious eggs, whose manure benefits the gardens?  No, none of those.

I am aware I am ranting.

Switching course…. In my non-farm of now there’s still a lot of learning and living and production happening on our little .33 acre.  This spring will see three beehives up and running (Lord willing), three elderberry bushes, three grapevines, two apple trees, a peach tree, a nectarine tree, blueberries and strawberries, rhubarb, and a whole garden full of produce and herbs.  There will be clothes on the line, jars in the canner, and herbs in the dehydrator.  There will be kids in the mud, sticks that were swords and harpoons strewn about, and slowly rusting bikes in varying degrees of disrepair.  There will be life, cultivated right in the teeth of weeds and deferred hopes and expensive farmland and zoning ordinances.

_MG_4736IMG_2592IMG_0966IMG_1283IMG_1772work4notbusy4diapers2diapers3IMG_1895 IMG_0665 IMG_0672 IMG_1933 IMG_2139 IMG_2142 IMG_2146 IMG_2147 IMG_2155 IMG_2158 _MG_4875 _MG_4888 _MG_4890 IMG_4933 IMG_4947 IMG_2305 IMG_2309 IMG_2315 IMG_0966 _MG_5001  Yes, there will be life.

Discontent and a Dream Laid Out

I write in the early hours when the darkness is just yielding.  This whole past week I slumbered late, past the border of dark to light, and missed those writing hours as my body caught up on rest, and my gracious husband ushered our little family through the morning’s duties.  My heavily-pregnant body soaked up all that deep sleep like a sponge, and each morning I awoke mildly shocked at how much light was pouring through my windows.

I drove through my favorite stretch of farmland yesterday, drove real slow.  It gives me a bit of painful joy; joy in seeing the beautiful farms with babbling brooks and wide porches and cows and chickens and barns and sheets flapping out on the lines, pain in the out-of-reachness for us.  We were asked recently why we weren’t buying a farmette if that’s what we wanted to pursue.  That’s only a question that can be asked by someone who is used to having those kind of options.  Someone who probably doesn’t get to the end of the month and wonder how the bills are going to be paid.  It has the sting of asking a wheelchair-bound person why they don’t just walk.

I can usually let words tumble right off of me, especially if I’m high in the cycle of gratitude and contentment, but if I’m low, down there in discontent and despair, the words stick like tar.  I know they shouldn’t; I know they weren’t spoken to injure and gall me.  I know my thin skin is a perspective problem and a spiritual problem, and that the solution is never to stay in that place of sticky emotion.

So let me get a dream off my chest.  Because I carry it around with me everywhere and if you’ll oblige me, I’d like to lay it all down and show you the parts, give my arms a rest.

It’s a stone house, with deep window-sills and I’ve got my hand-dipped candles in pewter holders in each one.  Wide, uneven plank floors underfoot that squeak.  Come into the kitchen, where the wide hearth has a warm fire going, some of the coals scraped under a spider skillet where I’m simmering sauce.  There’s a rough farmhouse table in the middle of the room, with a crock of flour and pottery mixing bowls and a mason jar full of flowers from the gardens.  I’m there, kneading a mound of whole wheat bread dough and I smile at you, waving you to a stool beside the work table.  With doughy hands I fetch you a mug from a tall old stepback cupboard, crumple some dried mint from an herb rack overhead into it, and grab the tea kettle from it’s hook over the fire.

You look around the room and it’s all eighteenth century as far as the eye can see with just a few modern touches peppered-in.  Stand-alone old furniture pieces for “cabinets”, a deep soapstone sink over there by the window, cast iron and copper pots hanging around the hearth.  The refrigerator is tucked away in the walk-in pantry, along with any other modern convenience that interrupts the simple beauty all about.shortstory3 You drink your tea and I set the bread in a large wooden trough to rise.  I strap my baby to my back and lead you to your room.  White-washed walls and linen curtains.  A rope bed with a soft mattress and a handmade quilt that is lovingly frayed.  There’s a candle on your bedside table and a stack of old books.  There’s a washstand with a pitcher and bowl and a linen towel, and of course, a chunk of my homemade goat’s milk soap.  I leave you to settle in.

You go to that deep window and see me with an apron full of chickenfeed as I head out to the animals, a bucket in my hand to milk the goats.  You see the stone summer kitchen out there, don’t you?  You remember that that’s where I make pounds and pounds of soap each week to sell.  Sparkling light catches your eye from the creek that bubbles towards the spring house, and right through it, and out the other side.  You know I keep the goat’s milk there in the stone water trough for cooling.

You see my children wading in the stream, startling our ducks into a quacking frenzy.  You see the sheets on the line, and the verdant green of the grass, and how content the sheep look down in the pasture.  You see the apiary too, a dozen or so hives humming with activity.  You see my wide smile as I come back from the barn with a bucket of fresh milk, my eyes alight at seeing the children playing and splashing and living whole.

You can walk down the stairs now, you can leave my dream by the front door with it’s old cast iron latch.  You can walk on out.  Thanks for coming by; I don’t know why I needed you to come.  Maybe I need someone to bear witness to a deep ache so it doesn’t fester in the shadows.

And I’ll go out into my windy yard and ignore the piles of construction materials that have no home because we can’t afford to pour a concrete floor in our shed.  I’ll cut the tops off of the elephant ear bulbs and store them in buckets for next season.  I’ll give thanks again for every present and tangible and now blessing that I see.  And I will fight despair with praise.

The Management of Blessings, or Monday To-do’s

Monday is looking at me.  There is laundry to do and fifteen pounds of apples on my counter wondering whether they’ll ever be made into sauce and canned, and there’s a whole basket of quilt patches that want to be a baby quilt sometime before the baby comes or before my belly is too big to allow me to reach the sewing machine.  Both bathrooms need to be thoroughly cleaned, and more tomatoes need picked and processed before they drop and rot in the garden.

I can’t help but smile.  See, most of my work involves the management of blessings.  How about that.

_MG_5079_MG_4736 IMG_1632 IMG_1915I am blessed, blessed beyond measure.  And here goes my Monday-List-Of-Praise…

God, thanks for….

-the laundry piles; evidence of Your provision of clothing.  How grateful I am that my children have shoes and socks and underwear and pants and all they need.

-the dirty dishes in the sink; clearly we are eating each day and being satisfied with good things.  So many do not have that daily joy.

-the canning and preserving workload; how You have overabundantly blessed us and the work of our hands in the gardens.

-the dirty bathrooms; that we even have two of them to take care of, that we have ready access to sanitation and cleanliness, clean water to wash with, thank You.

-the little children that need my care seven days a week; I don’t have words, but You, Lord, can read radiant, heart-bursting joy in my soul.

I say nothing new here; I repeat what I’ve said before, and what countless others have said, and said better than I, before.  But I remember hearing that we don’t so much need to be always learning new things, but instead bringing back to our minds the things that we’ve forgotten.  Like God’s daily goodness and being thankful.  Like rejoicing in all things at all times.  Like knowing that God gave work as a gift before mankind fell.

These things I remember this Monday morning and I smile and head to the laundry room.

The Beautiful and Hard Kindness of God

It was as I picked twenty-five pounds of tomatoes in my garden that I noticed, my breath catching in my throat, the huge celosia flower.  It’s also known as cockscomb, and though you can often find a small, plume-like version of it, getting it to grow as big as a brain is another matter.  I’d tried many times without success to grow it from seed.

But right there, in the side flower boxes along the raised bed garden, my seed-grown celosia had put forth a mega bloom.Photo on 9-18-14 at 2.01 PM Dry, feathery, and deepest magenta it was, a color it will keep as it dries out.  “Oh God, You are so kind”, my heart said, while my dress sagged heavy from a load of tomatoes in the skirting.  Kind to make such a beauty out of my bumbling efforts, right there in my weedy, riotous garden.  I like that God’s gifts are not anonymous…they are fully intended to make us turn our smiling faces to Him in gratitude.

Later that day as the ten quarts of pasta sauce were cooling on the counter top, after all those tomatoes had been peeled and chopped and simmered long, after the day had run right over me on it’s rush toward bedtime, I heard the jars pinging, sealing themselves tight and it came again, “God, You are so kind”.  Because He reminded me to put the citric acid in the jars, without which all my hard work would have been spoiled.  And there were no exploded jars in the canner (which is an awful, awful mess), and the musical pings kept ringing in all His mercies that day.

Of course He loves us; don’t we hear that always?  Sometimes we wear out the sentiment, the sense of it.  We can become immune to how amazing it really is.  Like seeing a whole field of celosias in gigantic bloom every day and no longer being held captive by a single flower.  Immunity to the good stuff is just as soul-numbing as immunity to the bad.

“I assure you: Whoever does not welcome the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”  Mark 10:15

 

The other day I filled the kitchen chalkboard with “Ten Things I Love About My Sophia”.  She read the words with a joyful-painful smile, the smile young ladies have on their faces when they’re a little embarrassed by their worth being recognized and praised. She bounded from the kitchen and clambered onto my lap, tucking in long limbs which had outgrown lap-dwelling years ago.  She just wanted to tuck into me in all her joy and bashfulness, and I quite wish I could do the same with my Father in Heaven, though I don’t think I’ve ever quite outgrow His lap.

But that’s the right response, see?

What if she had mocked the words?  What if she had shook her head and said that it wasn’t true, that she was a nobody and a good-for-nothing and didn’t deserve it?  What if she was too occupied and busy to notice the words at all?  What if she had called everyone over to the chalkboard and boasted about her obvious worth?  There are so many wrong responses.  And one very right one, running, bounding to the blessing-giver, in thanks and pleasure.

God is kind.  On purpose.  I think of all His mercies to me, personal ways that He’s demonstrated over and over that He cares for me and delights in delighting.  I think of the honey harvest, and Henrik’s healing diaper rash, and the soap-making adventure which is filling me with wonder that fats and lye can come together and make a wonderfully beautiful and useful thing.

IMG_2598 Photo on 9-18-14 at 2.02 PMGod is kind, and I speak that as one who has walked valleys in my faith that were dark indeed.  When prayers fell back down on my bent head and the Heavens resounded with silence.  I’ve felt the withdrawal of comfort and peace as tangibly as if someone had taken a warming blanket right up and off of me.  I have shaken my fist at Him more times than I care to remember.

What do we say to a child who wants to keep on snacking, keep on filling up before dinner?  We say not to spoil their appetite.  And God in His kindness does care about our appetite growing strong enough to relish a hearty meal, a hearty faith, a hearty love.  The valleys make us ache for the mountains, the darkness makes us ache for the light, and the small plumes of celosia make us gasp at the mega blooms.  He wants us hungry because He wants to satisfy; more than satisfy, delight.

“That is what the Scriptures mean when they say, ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.’ ”  I Corinthians 2:9

What I Can, While I Can

The afternoon was warming and the elderberries were darkening crimson and I’d gone out to collect some ahead of the birds.  If you wait too long, the ripe berries, just the size of peppercorns, cascade to the ground with a stiff breeze.  Near half of them feed the birds and I can’t begrudge that.  So you have to go out, see, when half the cyme is still green and harvest what you can, when you can.

Sirens were in the distance and the sun beat down and the mulch was damp under my feet from the morning rain.  The sirens neared.  Police cars came up our street, lights flashing, officers huffing up the street counting down house numbers, looking for a particular place, across the way, a few houses down.  A man opened his door and waved them in.  More sirens pierced the air from far off.

The man paced in the front yard as the officers brought bags in from their cars, a yard brimming with flowers and bushes.  Arms waving hopelessly I heard him tell another neighbor what was going on.  I heard snatches of his words.  My sister.  Unresponsive.  Heart attack.  Gave her mouth-to-mouth.  Just nothing.

I had laid the bowl of elderberries aside and joined a knot of neighbors on the hot sidewalk.  I watched a man’s heart being broken on a sunny afternoon.

The fire truck came and after an eternity of minutes, the ambulance.  Grim-faced paramedics sped in with more bags and a plastic gurney.  When they didn’t rush her out with speed, when the pace of it all slowed way down, when the fire truck pulled away, and the officer escorted the brother to a side yard to write down details, I knew.

I didn’t know the woman; all I know is that she was in her sixties and that they didn’t know how long she’d been in the state her brother found her in.  We all walked back to our homes; death is too sacred to be a spectator event.

The grapes are ripening next to the elderberries.  They’re a small variety, sweet with an edge of bitter.  Tougher skins than grocery store grapes that are bred to uniform perfection.  I slip some into my hands and chew them in the hot sun on a day that that man won’t forget.

Life; we don’t all get a hundred years of it and it can end swift and on a sunny day no less.  We don’t get uniform lives, predictable ones.  They’re full of sweet bits and bitter ones and the whole deal looks nothing like what’s advertised, does it?  But it’s good.

So, I can’t farm, I can’t have chickens, I can’t breathe life into our dwindling accounts, and I can’t just run back to South America where life had so much life and color and purpose.  But I can make soap.  Stay with me now.

What can I do while I can do something?

I have a hundred dreams, so I pulled one out of storage.  Making soap.  I love good soap, but unless I find a screaming deal on some goat milk or triple-milled french stuff, we can’t buy it.  I knew it would cost some money to get some equipment, but not much.  So I sold a hutch I’d refinished (that I’d picked up from a curb for free) and an antique ice crusher on craigslist.  I had ninety-five dollars to make a dream come true.

Thirty-five went for a good quality digital scale, the only precision instrument needed.  I weaseled my husband into agreeing to build me some soap molds out of scrap wood.  I plundered my cooking supplies for extra pots and measuring containers that could be dedicated to soap-making.  I watched YouTube videos and checked books out of the library.  Long gloves from the dollar store.  Safety glasses left over from fireworks.  And fifty-nine dollars left over to buy fats and lye and essential oils.

It truly is something to be able to do something.

Now it’s just a matter of deciding what kind to do first…lemon-lime-coconut shampoo bar?  Honey-oatmeal body bar?  Tea Tree-Sweet Almond?  Peppermint-Goat Milk for Christmas gifts?  Should I open an Etsy shop?  Try to sell locally?  Just make for ourselves and friends?  Or maybe slow down and see how my first batch turns out, crazy self??

But, I CAN DO SOMETHING!  That’s the joy and the hope of it.  I’m not trapped by our fences, but free to create within them.

And I realize that in the past year’s time I’ve seen many dreams come true…I am now an amateur beekeeper and supplied our household with a year’s worth of honey with extra to give away.  I got to take a pottery class and feel all that slippery clay yield to my shaping hands.  I taught myself candle dipping and have now both white and deep yellow beeswax tapers aplenty to light our way through winter.  I wrote a short story that I love; the first story I’ve ever exposed to public view without cringing.  I started this small corner for writing, for spilling words and exercising my writing muscles.

All of this happened as many of my dreams came crashing down about my ears.  Oh the irony.  Oh the grace.

So I will do what I am able, as long as I am able, and I’ll count it as joy.  Because it really doesn’t matter how wide our fences are, but how we live within them.