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Category: lessons from the garden

calumet farm

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annals of pandemic, part xi…in which surreal spring turns to summer and we set out to build a farm…

you might begin to wonder if the dictionary at my fingertips is one in which the definitions come fast and loose. if, say, there’s hyperbole stitched in on occasion. or, is it simply the byproduct of one storybook imagination?

where, for instance, i start waxing on about a farm–so you start imagining endless loam, far as the eye can see, and perhaps a barn and silo, certainly a mooing cow with muzzle pressed against the pasture gate–and then you realize that what i mean, what i’m setting out to carve into the earth, is nothing more expansive, nor more exotic, than a plain old raised bed. a 4×8 plot of decayed leaf and loam (and for good measure a pile of old manure). a mound on which to sprout a vegetable or two. perhaps an herb, for good measure.

in other words, in the world inside my head, the one where my very own picture shows play all day long, what i see might not be exactly what’s before my eyes. (effusive and sometimes far-fetched imagination is requisite number 1 for anyone who dreams of a life of pen to page, i’d argue.)

fact is, for all my daydreaming about white picket fences and tomatoes so fresh from the vine they’re still sunshine-warmed as i unscrew them from the stem, this so-called plot for which i lift my spade and hoe, might well become little more than an exercise in rolling out a romping ground, a banquet hall, for all the critters who nightly prowl along the hardly bucolic back alley.

which brings us to calumet farm.

as is sometimes the case in a writerly family–in other words, a motley crew of folk who relish words with the enthusiasms others reserve for, say, wine or dollar bills–the tangled knot of daylily, weeds, and the occasional errant acorn-on-the-rise has already been named, though i’ve not yet hauled a single shovel to the plot. (that’s this morning’s project, putting blade to earth.)

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calumet farm, outside lexington, kentucky

calumet farm, you see, is a magnificent kentucky horse farm, one my uncle danny used to run before he was killed on iwo jima in a brutal midnight raid near the close of world war II. it’s a farm where two triple crown winners–whirlaway and, later, citation–and, in all, eight kentucky derby winners ran the fields. it’s a farm where my very own papa spent his every boyhood summer, curled up reading near the barns, so the story goes.

 

history-05and my beloved bespectacled mate, the one i hoped would not mind my latest fixation, well, he latched right on–enthusiastically!–once we gave him naming rights. he’s downright tickled to have our very own calumet farm sprouting on the back acreage (even if he is insisting i hoe along the alley, where it won’t disturb his line of sight. p.s. what he’s otherwise looking at is beyond me, all i see is grass and birds nibbling at the feeder…but such are the compromises that make a lasting marriage).

history-07i believe i’ve heard him say he’ll be posting the calumet colors–famously “devil’s red” tracing the sharp edges of the pure-white barns and stables. (calumet was founded by the baking-powder folks, and to this day, that can is trademarked devil’s red.) if naming rights and colors are all i had to trade to get me a summer’s worth of fresh-plucked herbs, and one or two tomatoes, and all these hours of imagining, well that’s a deal i’ll make.

because these distractions of mine can sometimes take up more room in my brain than necessary, because i barely know my way through the tool shed, my faraway brother david, a master gardener, master carpenter, and all-round mensch, took on the role of patron saint of my plot. he’s spelled out in precise detail just the bolts and boards i need. even weighed in late last night on the contents of the 18 bags of loam and compost i’ll be mounding for the farm. when my biggest worry was whacking down the weeds, he scratched that with a simple, “google sheet mulch.” turns out those old moving boxes flattened in the garage will now be resurrected as the “floor” beneath my mounds. all i need do is slice away as much of what’s growing there, yank out roots that might have landed there over the years, and lay down sheets of cardboard. voila. instant start of compost.

once construction is done, and ben-gay amply applied to all my achy parts, i’ll begin the daydreams of what to plant. of course i picture some quaint english herbarium, as well as a bursting-with-a-vengeance vegetable plot, to boot. but truth be told, just one fistful of fresh-born dill or mint or basil, abundant and green and smelling of the earth, that’ll be enough to do me mighty proud.

there is something edifying about going beyond the confines of what you imagine you can do. and building me a farm, even a simple one by arithmetic measure, and doing so when up against an invisible plague that’s turned us upside down, it brings a sustenance you cannot buy at any grocery store.

maybe, too, it’s the turning in, the reliance on little more than our own muscles and our know-how. it’s staking a claim in this old planet, saying i can make my way here. maybe it’s emboldening in the age of pandemic to write your own survival guide. and, once again, to lean on the blessing and benevolence of this holy earth to carry us to safe-keeping.

best of all, my humble plot will always be the farm my brother david believed i could build. and his insistence, his quiet whisper, his certainty, is the bounty upon which all this will grow.

and now i’m dashing to the lumber yard, where a kind and gentle man named mike has all my boards and bolts ready to stash into the old red wagon, the wagon i will now think of as my very own farm truck.

what plots have you devised–amid this pandemic, or otherwise–to reach beyond your comfort zone, to show yourself the self-reliance at the heart of who you are, to prove to yourself you’re more than you imagine?

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coming soon: calumet farm

in which we pull spring from out of the earth…

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file this under “desperately seeking proof.” or perhaps, “it’s so necessary this time round.”

the subject is the eruption of spring: that moment, year after year, for as many years as there’ve ever been, when the whole chorus of buds, the vocal cords of feathered flocks and the tips at the ends of the trees, all decide at once to clang the cymbals, pound the drums, and explode like nobody’s business.

it’s so necessary this time round. so necessary when the airwaves fill us with cataclysmic reports, when going to the grocery is an exercise in holding your breath, when reading the morning news just might have you heaving before your first spoon of cornflakes.

Unknownhere in my little corner of the world, about three fingers in from the east coast (if you’re looking at a palm-sized map), a whole thumbprint down from the canadian border, hard against that blue pendicle we know as lake michigan, there is the faintest rumbling of spring. not nearly enough. not enough for a vast swath of humanity staring out the kitchen window on high alert for the invisible virus, not enough for worn-down souls on the lookout for hope.

so i’ve been doing my part: i’ve put serious thought to my latest rube goldbergian plot. my plan to coax the eruption out of the earth. i’ve pictured myself out in the deep ink of the night, knees folded into a crouch, fist wrapped tight around a flashlight, pointing the beam onto stem after stem, branch after branch, seeing if a little light therapy might coax things along.

i’ve got friends in far-off-enough places who are sending me dispatches of itty-bitty finch eggs already laid. cherry trees awash in their seasonal meringue.

here in sweet chicago, here so close to the lake you can hear it lapping the shore: nada, zilch, practically zero. certainly not enough for a soul hungry for spring in the same way some of our bellies growl at the first whiff of oozy cheese in a griddle…

perhaps it would help if i scrawled paint onto a banner, spelled out the plea, “dear mama earth, PLEASE HELP!” we are in serious need of emotional rescue down here. we would do well to fall into the arms of magnolia. might cheer to a bluebird riding along on our shoulder. might fling ourselves face-first and eyes wide open into a bed of tulips and daffodil. fill our lungs with parfum de lilac instead of the fear of the red-ringed demon.

oh, there’ve been the subtlest of cues: goldfinch feathers dropping their wintry drab, taking on the sunshine-gleam of gold that gives them their name; the first lilliputian daffodils putting up their periscopes of promise (see proof above); the birdsong that cannot wait for first light of dawn, birdsong so thick you might think it a recording.

but this is no year for subtlety. this is a year for all the hope we can find. we are holding our breath down here on planet earth, where the whole globe is at a standstill. we need a  vernal exclamation like never before.

those faraway friends tell me it’s coming. a friend in cambridge says, except for corona, this would be the most perfect spring she’s seen in a very long while. except for corona…

because my days are a checkerboard of occasional plug-ins — chanting with monks on mondays and thursdays, inhaling celtic spirituality direct from galway nine days in a row, chiming in on a once-a-week book group based in seattle — i’ve plenty of time for prowling my plot. i make the rounds at least twice a day, on the lookout for any sign of eruption. all but wander the walks with measuring stick and string, all in the hopes of seeing some progress.

this is a season for turning our keenest attentions to the rumblings of earth, to this most intoxicating science and faith that never fails, that offers page after page of wisdom and truth.

this unforgettable spring we are learning the art of deep patience. “ride it out,” is the mantra. “stick close to home,” the instruction.

i, like you most likely, have hours when my knees go wobbly. i’ve wiped away the occasional tear or two (or five). i’m trying to be something of a lifeline for a kid i love who’s all alone in a faraway place, where the walls sometimes press in. trying to make life here at home as tranquil and gentle and sometimes delicious as i can possibly muster. (for reasons that don’t quite escape me, i’ve taken keen fondness for a spritz bottle of lavender mist, which i spritz till the sheets and the pillows are soggy. and i figure the more delicious aromas i can stir from the kitchen, the better the chances i can steady the kid in the room up above, the one whose spring semester has — like everyone else’s — gone up in red-ringed vapors.)

it’s a master class in surrender to which we’ve been enlisted. no one asked first if we’d choose it. it was thrust wildly upon us.

the questions are these: how quiet can we go? how calm might we settle our souls? what new and wondrous epiphanies might drop before our eyes, our hearts, our imaginations? what brings you peace? where is your joy? what pulls you out from your darkest hours? who is your lifeline?

and, where oh where, is the promise of spring?

and suddenly, the holiest of weeks is almost upon us: holy week and easter for churchgoers; passover for jews. as i sink deep into the braiding of those two ancient traditions, i leave you with this from our rabbi, a page from the prayers of passover, as we mark the exodus — safe passage — from egypt, in search and hope and belief in the promised land. it’s a theme with particular resonance this year….

In our prayer book,Mishkan T’filah, we read about the crossing of the Red Sea:

        Standing on the parted shores of history

        we still believe what we were taught

        before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;

        that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt

        that there is a better place, a promised land;

        that the winding way to that promise

        passes through the wilderness.

        That there is no way to get from here to there

        except by joining hands, marching

        together.

join hands, march together; believe in the promised land….

have you stumbled into epiphanies? found yourself a lifeline? what are the saving graces in your days?

ordinary time

noddling bells of spring

deep in the recesses of my DNA, these knowings lurk. those little bits of knowledge slipped in once upon a time, those bits that order time, that frame the paradigm, the window frame, through which i watch the passing picture show called life.

somehow this week there was a whisper barely heard that told me ordinary time had come. technically, liturgically, it had come because the church i grew up in, the catholic church, ordains the monday after pentecost sunday as the opening of the long chapter of the year called “ordinary time.” and so, this week, as i slipped into this time, i couldn’t keep myself from considering the folds and undulations of just what ordinary means.

all around me, as lily of the valley sent up its flagpoles of perfume, as apple blossoms drifted down like vernal snowfall, as songbirds in feathers shocking pink and golden yellow darted in and from my feeders, i hardly thought things “ordinary.” the world’s in exultation.

and in my daily everyday, there was no relenting from the news that never stops and never slows to a trickle, nor was there quelling from the firehose of bumps and bangs that comes with loving widely, deeply. one night had me up till 2 a.m., making sure a young typist came to the end of his bibliography and junior theme (aka massive term paper) before we clicked out the lights. that same night had me dispensing nursing cures to a long-distance patient whose neck was in some spasm. all while keeping track of a train chugging to st. louis, where my sweet mate and familial co-conspirator drew more distant by the minute and the mile. by day, i somehow managed to turn in — on deadline — my own newspaper assignment, the first such one (a cookbook tale, complete with half a dozen lively interviews) in quite a while. none of this seemed “ordinary,” if by ordinary we mean “having no distinctive features,” as the oxford american dictionary tries to persuade us.

oh, around here, it’s distinctive all right.

i even plopped my bum on the old cedar slab i call my prayer bench, amid the ferns and bleeding hearts of my secret garden, intent on keeping watch on this so-called ordinary time.IMG_0172

lured by curiosity to the pages of old books, i dug around to learn a thing or three about this ordinariness. here’s a bit of what i learned: the church, in all her wisdom, divides the year into chunks of time (perhaps to fine-grain our focus, knowing full well we’d succumb to blur if not for demarcation). the church knows, according to one wise writer, “that human psychology desires the marking of moments.”

there are, apparently, two liturgical mountain peaks in the year, easter and christmas, each with preamble (lent and advent, respectively) and in between (here comes “ordinary time”) “the pasture between the mountains,” otherwise referred to as “vast verdant meadows,” of ordinary time, of tempus per annum (my church loves its latin, and, according to my resident latin translator, this literally means “time throughout the year”).

it must be the quiet season, the chunks of year when — inside the church and beyond — there is not the cacophony that comes with birth (christmas) or death and dying and its glorious resurrection (easter).

in one lovely meditation, i read that God, in infinite wisdom, invented the notion of seasons (not unlike the kaleidoscope that turns a notch and explodes in all new shapes and colored bits) as “invitation to reflection,” to jostle us awake as the all-around ever shifts. yet another meditation opined that God uses seasons to “translate wisdoms into a language of purpose for our lives.”

what that means, i think, is that it’s no accident that some of us walk around fully willing to be klonked on the head by the 2-by-4s of revelation that have us extracting lessons from earth and sky and trickling waters in between. it’s why a vine that blooms long after deadline (the week before thanksgiving, one year) might speak to me of undying courage, and the quiet of the dawn reminds me to settle my soul and breathe deep before the launch of day. it’s why the springtime stirs me full of hope, and all but insists i power up my rocket blasters.

ordinary, i read, comes from “ordinal,” or numbered, the weeks of the year simply counted off, one by one. amid the canvas of quiet, without profound distraction, our task in this stretch of time is to think hard and deep about the mysteries in the weft and warp of being alive. as this is the longest time of year, a full 33 to 34 weeks of ordinary time, depending when the feast days fall, i suppose the point is to settle in, sink deep, into the extraordinary work of living, with our attention meters cranked as high as we can muster.

all of that is literal, is what the books i sought spelled out. i tend to veer off the page. and that’s when i began to really contemplate the power of unencumbered ordinary. as if we’re given unfettered canvas on which to quietly and without bother absorb the sacred simple. the gift of being alive without all the inner chatter. the charge to scan the hours of the day for those moments that break us out in goosebumps. the blessing of deep, slow breathing. the chance, scant chance, to catch God in the act….
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of late, i’ve become intrigued by what i call the theology of the sacred ordinary. not the loud bangs and pyrotechnics, not the stuff that comes at the end of miles-long, desert-crossing pilgrimage, but rather the stark and quiet notion that we are living the Holy right now.

it’s the hush of a whisper, the percussion of the rain, those are the sounds that call us in, call us to behold the simple pure sacred. it’s the humility of the moment that belies its grandeur, its magnificent majesty……

and perhaps that’s the invitation of ordinary time, to dwell amid the plain-jane, stripped-down quotidian of the everyday. to awaken our deeper senses, our fuller attentions, to behold the Beautiful, the Wise, the Profound amid our daily stumbles and bumbles. to live as if the Book of Wonder has been placed upon our open palms, its pages spread akimbo. to extract, inhale, deep breathe its mighty and eternal lessons. the ones that whisper, the ones we hear only when we truly, truly listen.

what does ordinary time mean to you?

this morning’s writing came in fits and starts, as it sometimes does, as somehow this morning this old house clattered like it was grand central station, locomotives and the people who aim to board them rushing in and out the station, barely and noisily keeping to the clockwork schedule.

perceptible growth

perceptible growth

i must be one of those people who needs things klonked over my head. and thus, the simple act of walking past my kitchen window yesterday took my breath away. a quick glance out the window set my eyeballs in direct gaze of what had been the straggly, misbehaving leathery-brown vines that snake along my garden fence.

only, the thing was, yesterday — just a day after the day before when i swear the straggles were mostly stripped naked, without more than a paint drop of green anywhere in sight — they had decided to erupt in a tapestry of sawtooth-edged leaves and cauliflower buds that come july or august will unfold into nodding white hydrangea heads.

that’s the thing about spring: it catches you unawares. it all but grabs you by the cheekbones, holds you in its clutches, and bellows in your face: “there is growth by the hour here, something beautiful is unfolding.”

and then the one-two punch: “pay attention. it could happen to you.”

yes, my wise old professor of a vine seemed to be telling me, even you. even after all these weeks and months of feeling about as fruitful as a stripped naked, leathery-skinned vine, even you might be growing just beneath the surface. perhaps not yet erupting into cauliflower-budded bloom, but keep the faith; there is rumbling, stretching, reaching for the depths and heights. even you, little pewter-haired flower, even you just might be unfolding by the month — if not the week or day (let us not set our growth expectations too high here…).

it’s why spring makes me dizzy.

it’s why, i think, God invented the season of promiscuous advancement and rambunctious take-your-breath-away-ness. because it comes after the long season of stillness, of winter’s deep-down stirrings, the ones that can’t be seen. and then, the very instant we’re at the end of our hope rope, the days when we’re sagging like nobody’s business, God decides to wallop us with undeniable, whirling-all-around magnificence.

the flocks of feathered things arrive as if a river, saturating sky and bough with their shots of color and their song. the trees practically poke us in the eye, with frilly, lacy shades of velvet green and white and caution yellow and lipstick pink, as if slathered with a paint brush. and then there’s the best-of-show for those who dare to bend their knees and crouch down low: there, just above the crust of earth, that’s where all the tenderest unfurlings are. that’s where fern literally unwinds from its tight-wad comma — or is it a question mark? it’s where the itty-bitty baby leaves first reach for sky. it’s where you might even spy a worm, drowsy from its long winter’s snooze, out and about for its first seasonal constitutional (if one can apply such a noun to a walk without legs), slithering in between the rising stems of daffodil and lily of the valley.

year after year, it happens: i fall deliriously in love with the opening-up hours and days and weeks of spring, the ones where the volume is dialed to blaring, so clogged-ear folk like me can’t help but catch the message, the one that beats a billboard along the side of the highway.

if it can happen to a bush, you might find yourself thinking, i suppose it could happen to plain old me. i suppose i too just might be unfurling in the tight spots deep within. i suppose i too could dare to believe that something bright and beautiful dwells deep down inside. and something gentle, too. and, like the magnolia or the hydrangea vine, if i dared to let it out, if i found the faith to strut my stuff, the stuff that God has tucked there for a certain purpose, maybe the world around me might glow a little bit more heaven-sent.

it’s the wisdom and the glory of the book of spring: the world bursts into beautiful all around, undeniably all around, so that we too might know that at the end of our seasons when no growing, no perceptible beauty is apparent, there is something breathtaking astir, something take-your-breath-away just beneath the surface, coming soon to bloom.

what lessons do you extract from the beauties — or the heartbreaks — of the spring?

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and one more little wisp from the pages of The Blessings of Motherprayer…..

wonder

once again, resilience

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the Great Book of Creation must understand that i belong in remedial class, the flock for slow learners, the ones who need the lessons over and over (and over) again. all but pounded into our thick Homo sapiens skulls.

take Resilience, the course now being offered in the great outdoors. the course that zips us through the syllabus of rise, bud, pummel, wait to see what happens.

the pressing question, the one the professor whispers in our plugged-up ears: will we surrender hope, throw in the trowel and clomp away, or will we stubbornly, insistently believe that one day the hallelujah will be ours?

let the examination begin:

perhaps your sliver of acreage, like mine, was just beginning to break the thaw. perhaps the itty-bitty wisps of green had risen all around. perhaps their flags of cobalt blue or white or even butter yellow had been hoisted. and then the april rain turned frigid cold, turned to slosh of snow. and the dang beauties, caught in the act, were flash frozen, stopped at half-mast.

and you, zipped inside your fluffy layers, you dashed outside to survey the damage. you stood there, gasping, hands over mouth to stifle cries of pain. anguish of the garden variety. all looked doomed just half a day ago. it looked like spring on ice. as if the waiters dumped the slush buckets on the way to the all-you-can-eat buffet.

but i’m just back in from my morning saunter through the beds, and i am here to tell you that while the little buds are still shivering, all but quaking on their tender stems, they have shaken off the icy bits, raised their heads again, unbent their necks, and — altogether now — they await the rising sun.

while i stand gobsmacked, in awe that they’ve not packed it up and shimmied florida way, i consider the legions of parallels in my own life plot: the heartaches i thought would never end, the friend i thought i’d never hear from again, the days and weeks and months when grief leadened my legs, my gut, my heart.

of all the lessons that unfurl in my earthy plots, the ones of rising up from heartbreak are among the most prolific. to tend a garden, to keep close watch on the rise and fall and rhythms of the earth, is to enter into the frailties and absurdities, the puzzles and conundrums for which there is no rhyme, no reason.

it is to know the sharp pang of brittle brokenness, and to slow-breathe the salve of picking up the pieces, slogging onward. finding holy breath again.

i am among the ones who need all the practice i can get. i need the muscles that a garden grows. and i don’t mean the ones that help me hoist the 20-pound sacks of mushroom compost. i mean the ones that teach me hope. and faith. over and over (and over) again.

and then, sometimes, the hallelujah comes.

i think the reason i settled in these northern parts, not far from the edge of the great lake, might have something to do with the lessons of this particular geography. the ones i clearly need over and over (and over). 

what lessons have you learned from the springtime garden, the one that endures whatever crushing blows the heavens send its way?

putting a season to bed…

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for weeks now, i’d been thinking i’d mark this one-year point with an open letter to the occupier of the oval office. i was going to politely suggest that i’d prefer a country of considerate kindness and gentleness. i’d prefer the bullying, the bragging, the bombast be put to bed. i was going to mention how i’d withered across the arc of the year, how i went to bed some nights with such a sinkingness in my belly, i ached. and then i woke up aching some more. i was going to tell him that, from the eensy-weensy spot on the map where i keep watch, i felt like i was elbow-akimbo at the edge of the fourth-grade playground, watching the schoolyard bully chase after the scrawny kids who couldn’t run fast enough, the ones who could never find a safe place to hide. i was going to ask if maybe, for the sake of our souls and our sanity, he could please swallow a humble pill, take a hard look in the mirror, and remember that children are watching, children are taking their cues, and parents all over the land are hitting the mute button every time he chimes up again. i was going to ask to stop with the tweets.

but i decided — or my wiser, gentler angels did — that i’d best invest those energies under the great pewter dome of november’s sky. i turned, as i so often do, to the balm that comes in raking my hands through cold damp earth. in tuning my ears to the sound of the blade slicing through the garden’s autumnal frost.

i spent the morning taking census of nodding heads and withered stems. i dumped out shallow pools of rainwater from the last few pots, hauled spent vessels into their winter’s resting place. the hoses i drained of last dribbles.

autumn is the season of turning in, and i partook of the liturgy with muddy hands and dirt-stained knees. there is a whole body immersion, a surrender to the dilution of light and heat, a preparing, a submission, that comes with the ticking through earthly chores. chores, perhaps, are those seasonal triggers, the ones that pull us into the lure, into the spiritual cadence of each and every turning of the calendar page.

we are on the cusp now of the darkening, a season i regard for its inner kindling — look past the inking in along the margins, dwell on the lumens arising within.

we coil now into our depths, into the nooks and crannies of our soul, and we do best to dial down the noise, to slow the beating of our hearts, to aim for a stillness shared with so many citizens of the woods and waters and sky.

consider the painted turtle, who a week ago might have been basking in a pool of sunlight atop a log, but in one invisible moment, might have heard the ancient whisper: it’s time now. and so the turtle took her last deep breath and plunged to the silty bottom of the chilling pond, pushed aside the lily pad roots and stems, burrowed deep into the mush, and settled into her wintry stillness.

just now i was reading that she goes so still she doesn’t need to breathe, “she slows herself beyond breath in a place where breath is not possible,” writes gayle boss in “all creation waits,” a breathtaking advent book i will soon share. and while the turtle is without oxygen all winter long at the murky bottom, as lactic acid builds in her heart and her bloodstream, she draws calcium from her hard shell, in order to neutralize the acid, in order to keep her muscle from burning away.* she literally dissolves through the winter, till the vernal thaw when she rises, deep-breathes again.

blessedly, we do get to breathe. and, mostly, we don’t dissolve over winter. but turtle has a lesson to share. it is this:

“…every stressed particle of her stays focused on the silver bead of utter quietude.

“it’s this radical simplicity that will save her. and deep within it, at the heart of her stillness, something she has no need to name, but something we might call trust: that one day, yes, the world will warm again, and with it, her life.”

i say we’d all do well to turn in. to tuck away our last few pots. to coil away the hose. to replenish the bins of seed for the birds. to aim for the stillness of the painted turtle. to put this season to bed. and await the deepening to come.

painted turtle from all creation waits

painted turtle, from “all creation waits,” illustrated by david g. klein

how will you put this season to bed? do you dread the darkening or do you keep your gaze on the flickering flame deep within?

* is not the divine design of creation the mind-blowingest, knee-bendingest endeavor you ever did encounter? that the pond-bottom oxygen deprivation is balanced by the turtle’s hard shell, that one yields and shields the other, that all of this was conceived….

tender is the earth

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i am submitting to the tilting of the earth. as the oozy patch of mud that is my very own fraction of acreage leans into the less-diluted rays of the great burning star that is the sun, pivot point of the universe, as adagio quickens, and feathered choristers raise their warbles by decibels upon decibels, i allow myself to be wrapped in the soft skeins of earth unfurling, earth letting loose its tight and clenched long-winter’s grip.

i am brushing up against its tendrils, its newborn threads, as i tiptoe down my bluestone walk. as i plop my bum on bluestone stoop, the one that hasn’t yet released its wintry chill. i crouch down low, and run my fingertips across the frilly tops of fronds, just beginning to poke beyond the crust of earth, just beginning to contemplate the art of opening, sun salutation of the new spring garden.

i can’t get close enough — save for rolling in the dewy grass, smearing fists of mud across my knees and elbows. or climbing up a tree, to discover how it feels to be a bird, warbling across the heavens, toes clinging to the bough.

all in all, my daily pull is to the pulse point where earth and sky entwine, where winter’s hibernation gives way to springtime’s insistent release. i drink in the lessons, the unspoken parable: it’s letting-go time, it’s time to uncoil, time to put aside the winter pose — one born of sorrow, yes, and a hollowed-out sense of quietude — time to practice the gentle nudge, bow down low to the invitation, the one that whispers, “i offer healing, if you lean in close, breathe deep the wholeness, the promise, of the season.”

i allow myself, day upon day, hour after hour, to be soothed by the blessed balm of earth at its tenderest. of earth when heaven first begins to draw forth what’s been tucked inside for all the weeks and months of darkness.

it’s dawned on me, as i make my daily rounds of close inspection, that the truth of springtime is that of revelation, long-held secrets breaking through the cloak that kept them shrouded, not seen, forgotten.

the beautiful, come springtime, is no longer under wraps. those yellow petals clinging to the branch? the tight buds of hyacinth just periscoping through the earth? it’s all creation trumpeting its truths. it’s all been there all along, sacred DNA tightly wadded, awaiting heaven’s cue.

and now it’s come, the call to rise and shine and strut the fresh-born splendor; must have tiptoed in while we were napping. so now, perhaps, it’s time for us to ponder too what’s been hiding deep inside of all of us, while we waited out the winter.

and while i wonder what the days and weeks ahead might bring, what beauties might be on the cusp, i’m savoring this tender interlude, these holy blessed hours when all the earth is gentle invitation, and balm for where the winter wore me raw.

i seem to be transfixed — you might call it “stuck” — by the slow unfolding out my door and windows. day by day, week by week, i’m keeping watch. mesmerized would be the word. drinking deep the healing offered by this holy blessed earth, the one so alive in spring. 

since my offering feels thin today, i’ll add to it with two addenda. the first is a celebration of a blessed angel among us, the cook in the night kitchen of what was once called children’s memorial hospital (and now has someone’s too-long name attached). just last night she wrapped up 50 years on the job. a half century of serving up love and prayer, with a side of oozy grilled cheese. one of my beloved nurse friends let me in on the chapter’s ending, so i dug into my archives and found this story i wrote for the chicago tribune in 2009, when she’d been on the job for a mere 43 years. 

to whet your appetite, perhaps, here are the first few paragraphs of miss bettye tucker’s story: 

One by one, night light by night light, the rooms go dim in the not-so-hushed place where sick children, broken children, dying children, finally fall into sleep.

One by one, room by room, the big people who’ve held little hands, dried tears and rocked fevered babies all day long at Children’s Memorial Hospital surrender for a moment their long night’s watch.

It is time for all the keepers of the children–the parents, the nurses, the doctors, the ones who mop the floors, the ones who keep the respirators breathing in and out–to be fed by the comfort-slinging cook in the night kitchen.

This much-loved healer with a soup pot and a prayer is known to all as, simply, Miss Bettye.

bettye tucker

miss bettye tucker

the other offering is the latest of my roundups of books for the soul, with works that blew my mind from rabbi jonathan sacks, and a patron poet-saint of the chair, dear mary oliver.

what lessons do you learn from keeping watch on early spring?

grape hyacinth

holy ground

IMG_7249

from Pope Francis’ encyclical, June 2015, quoting Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew:
“It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet.”

in these hours when my heart feels hollowed, i find myself staring out windows, through panes of glass, into the garden, sweeping my eyes across the mostly fallow faded landscape. mostly, all i feel is empty. the thrum of a heart’s ache drowning out the usual song. but then, i fine-tune my attention, i look more closely. i am drawn out the door and into the rinse of springtime’s particular shade of sunlight.

it hurt, at first, to imagine this year’s garden absent its cheeriest animator, the old striped cat curled into his napping coil, occasionally opening an eye, giving chase to a robin, lumbering back to the spot where he crushes whatever nubs tried to grow beneath him.

but then i started to tiptoe down the bluestone walk. i plopped onto the stoop just beyond the kitchen door, beside the mailbox that holds all my garden tools. i looked for signs of life, of earth’s wintry crust breaking open, giving way, cleaving apart so the season’s first stirrings had room to trickle back to the surface, bursting forth.

more than any year in a long long time, this month of march has my fingers — and my heart — yearning to dig in the dirt. to brush away dried and shriveled grasses. to cut back stems and sticks that reach to nowhere. to nip and tuck and prune. to break apart the winter’s hard-pounded soil, to comb through clumps, sprinkle seeds, tuck in roots. to make way for the earth to bloom in the ways it so insistently blooms, hope-filled spring after long hard winter, again and again, year after year. no matter the pounding our hearts have taken.

it’s holy ground, the acres and acres that invite us in, to begin a close and careful examination. to witness the astonishments the earth offers up, offers forth.

IMG_7252and so, this Good Friday, this holy friday, i walk in silence, and i whisper the prayer of the earth once again unfurling in beauty. earth knows just how parched our soul might be in this the season of starting over again.

it’s the garden, the woodland, the gurgling of the winter’s thaw in the creek, these are the places that animate the coming back to life — of the earth, and the curled-up spirit within me. the one that just might find the courage to reach once again for the softness of springtime’s return.

i take to heart the words of dear pope francis, above quoting the patriarch bartholomew. i subscribe to the belief that God wrote the Book of Nature, and that each and every unfurling tendril, each and every bulb that shoots down roots and shoots up that periscope of green, each and every quivering of feather or leaf, it’s all here to whisper the presence of the Divine and Holy Wisdom. all we need do is plunk ourselves amid its quiet narrative, all we need do is pay attention, and the lessons and learnings will tumble upon us. breathe healing into our brokenness. breathe hope into our hollows. breathe, again and again, the story of resurrection, of life tiptoeing in to all the moments and places where we thought only death was left in the wake.

may this Good and holy Friday fill you with prayer. and with hope to wash away your deepest sorrow. should you prefer a more solemn meditation for this day of crucifixion, i offer this post from the past, the eloquence of silence.

how do you find hope in the shadow of your sorrow?

snowdrops

the cry of the october garden

october garden

the garden’s been hushed for months now. or maybe i’ve been too distracted to notice.

this week though, with honey-dappled light oozing across its fading, bent, and desiccating boughs and stems, with fronds of fern collapsed, splayed every which way, and nodding heads of hydrangea weighing down the branch, with my own soul ragged, in need of long slow immersion, i heard october’s garden call my name.

i’d been typing — or trying to anyway — when suddenly some drop of golden light, nectar from the heavens, caught my eye. i looked up, pushed out my chair, threw on my muck-about boots and grabbed the clippers on the way.

for a good long soak of an afternoon, i snipped and yanked and piled high the proof. my growing things, most of them at least, were forgiving; i apologized anyway. i’d left them all abandoned through summer’s height and frenzied weeks. they’d waited, as all good gardens do. they knew that, someday, i’d return. i always do.

and, apothecary on slender sturdy stem, the whole plot applied its balm. gentian blue dots, a sure cure for any faded heart, still winked at me. mopheads of hydrangea kept on their color show, turning lime to rose to tinged in plum, all but begging me to snip them at the neck and bring them in for winter. the black-eyed susan, once a perky swath of whimsy, now lay dark, nothing but the black-eyed button, landing pad for hungry songbirds, who peck and fill their bellies.

to be amid a garden in october is to catch up to the end of the story, to pay notice to what happens when the glory fades away, and yet another topography of beautiful is bared.

this is, after all, the wabi-sabi season, so defined by a farmer friend of mine as the season that pulses with the beauty of sadness and the sadness of beauty, the season that pulses with the poetry of imperfection and impermanence. nothing beautiful lasts forever, my garden whispers, so savor all of it, every drop of it, while you have the chance to reach out and rub your nose, your hands, your heart, in the whole of it.

essential wisdom, far beyond the garden.

i’m fairly certain it was the earthy, tactile element, the dirt under my nails, the pin scratches up and down my arms (october’s thorny roses are no less forgiving than the sturdy stems of june), that soothed me. the being out in golden afternoon, feeling the faintest ray of sun bathe across my sweatered back. there was healing in the garden stain splotting my knees, and surely in the armloads of autumnal offerings i hauled in the house, tucked in old vases.

once my shoulders ached, and my clipper hand throbbed, i kicked off my garden boots, and clambered back inside, content to watch the sunlight fade as i assumed my steady post just beside my chopping board and cookstove. in yet another iteration of surrendering to hands in lieu of cerebration, i turned this week to slicing, stirring, cracking eggs, and cranking up the oven. there was, there is, in the alchemy of the kitchen a sure cure for ails of the deepest-down ilk. stew and soup and pumpkin bars, i made them all this week.

i was drawn by battered heart, and sodden soul, to find my solace where the growing things live and breathe and surrender to the season’s close, and when the air grew chill, i warmed the rest of me — and those i love — by tending to the cookstove.

not a bad prescription, after all. welcome mat

where and how do you practice healing acts or arts?

tender are the hours

tender are the hours. spring.

even if you don’t yank your sit-upon from the shelf and plop yourself amid the morning’s deeply sodden garden, you can’t help but notice: the air is soft, is velvet-rippled, faint breath against the skin you’ve dared to bare (we’re talking ankles, maybe toes, nothing racier here, folks).

the boughs froth in springtime meringue, the crabapple’s creamy blossom, the redbud’s tight-stitched knots of tonsillar pink. the lilac waiting in the wings. any branch that’s not in bloom is one that’s a filigree of lace-cut leaf, from afar a mist of just-born green.

and birdsong comes in deep striations, the piercing notes atop a bank of blurred and whirling insistence. they seem to never pause to catch their breath, those choristers of each and every dawn.

but the main attraction of the spring, the one that begs the quietest attention, is what unfurls down low, just inches from the warming earth, where loamy mounds (and giddy earthworms) soak up the benevolence of sunbeams, now lavishing the northern hemisphere with increments of extra minutes, day by passing day.

that’s where the bleeding heart (above) dangles from the stem, so many pantaloons pinned to the clothesline. that’s where the lily-of-the-valley unknots its lilliputian bells. and where cerulean clouds of forget-me-not waft above their heart-scissored leaves.

and after a long night’s rinse, whole brigades of water droplets hold their pose, crystal balls suspended, shot through with morning rainbows in miniature. not far away, more animated drops offer pitter-patter, a metronome of plops. the hollow of a hosta’s broad-leaf tongue makes for a shallow drinking pond for ladybug or spider, or my cat who’s never quenched.

and if you keep closest watch on the whole tableau, if you tune into any sign of fluttering — a branch that leaps, a blossom that seems to shiver — chances are, you’ll catch a feathered glimpse of migration’s many gifts. just this morning what i might have mistaken for a hovering cicada turned out to be a hummingbird, one partaking of viburnum’s spicy cocktail.

tender are the hours of the spring.

and tender is the invitation: bring on your thin-skinned self, your delicate spirit. bathe your soft spots, your raw edges, in this pool of life releasing. not long ago, all was clasped in hard-shell incubation, the protective armament of the season of harsh winds and late freezes. but now’s the hour when the letting down begins. when our fragile selves needn’t shudder.

it’s as if all the world, all that blurs the soft edge between heaven and earth, it’s as if all of it is drawing us tenderly out of ourselves, signaling that it’s safe, offering even our unfurling selves a margin of deep-breathing room.

because i’ll always be a believer that the book of nature was one inscribed with lessons to be learned, with wisdom in which to be steeped, i can’t help but notice how this is the season that begs us to come as we are.

to not worry if we’re feeling a bit exposed, because everything about the spring is tender, too. and while we’re finding our way from winter’s harshest hours, and while we’re not yet inclined toward summer’s bold declarations, this in-between time it’s when we too can find safe harbor in the frilly arbors of the begin-again interlude.

and, right in here, i’m feeling on the verge (a word, i find, with roots in the latin virga, which, curiously, and serendipitously, refers to “a slender green branch,” aka the new growth of spring). in just one week, a boy i love will leave behind his college on the hill, and begin whatever’s next. and any hour now, he’ll be climbing into a back seat and driving hours and hours on the highway, because that’s how college kids these days mark passages, they mark them on sandy beaches far from civilization. and their parents — yes, miles and miles away, but never far in heart and soul — they hold their breath all the while. and other friends i dearly love, they are weathering all sorts of crossroads. and, in sum, i am feeling the fragility of all of life. and the world around me only serves to amplify — and yet, blessedly, benevolently, to cushion — that reality.

from the mewling of the baby birds who’ve made their nest above my doorway, to the tissue-paper petals scattered across my stepping-stone path, i am walking through the living-breathing fragility of newborn spring. the in-between season that understands the truth that sometimes we need soft hours, tender hours, to uncoil from what’s been harsh before we spread our wings, our arms, our souls, and bask in all-enveloping radiant golden light.

do you find springtime a tender time? is this a season for you that begs the soft embrace of all that surrounds us?