What to do with Your Stuff

We started our married life with big ideas about living minimalist. Stuff just seemed so immaterial. It was quite trendy to be disdainful of the status quo in the circles we socialized with. We weren’t going to buy a lot of furniture, which was an easy resolution, because we couldn’t afford it. A card table and some folding chairs it would be. Then a family friend gave us with a round oak dining table and chairs that she was planning to get rid of, so there we were. They were a bit rickety, but they worked.

The living room furnishings were sourced from a paper called The Traders Guide, with actual print ads, imagine that! There was no Facebook Marketplace, imagine THAT! I remember meeting a guy at a storage locker in the evening. It was dark, so we looked at his couch with flashlights and took it home with us.

My parents were raised with the tradition that you provide a bedroom suite for your daughters. Since our first house was tiny, we didn’t have space for one, but they bought us a good mattress and an antique dresser at an estate auction.

Ideally, I thought, our belongings should fit into a Conestoga wagon U-haul trailer, or less. We were not going to have a lot of stuff because that’s what everybody did and stuff weighs you down.

Welp. Here I am, twenty some years later, with a bigger house and it’s full of stuff from the attic to the basement. I’m the lady with four bedrooms furnished, admittedly mismatched, but functional. We are on the third table since the round table days, each one bigger than the last, and we have cycled through a number of couches. You do have to sit somewhere, we found, and it’s nicer if you don’t need to use a pry bar to get out of a broken sofa.

I’m the one with shelves in the basement to store the five gallon water cooler, the thirty cup coffee maker, and all the huge bowls. I have four big baking sheets, and ten bread pans, what? I have a large variety of measuring cups, and I was only going to have one set because why would you ever need more than that? I’m the lady with stacks of plates from the thrift store and enough tea cups to serve a small crowd, and how did I grow into not-a-maximalist, but pretty far from the girl who didn’t want a bridal shower?

It may have had something to do with giving birth to children. I am grateful that our minimalist goals did not extend to excluding little people, but you can’t avoid getting stuff when you have children. Also they break things and they want bikes.

A lot of our ideas were noble and good for that newlywed season. We didn’t want a load of debt and we wanted to invest in the Kingdom of God, not the American dream. We had not yet had much experience in laying down our lives for others. Surely it would be more high and holy than being one of those wage-earning, tax-paying, load-bearing citizens who own property and invite people home for Sunday lunch and loan their vehicles to people whose cars are broken and host crowds at the missions retreats.

Well.

To my minimalist self I would like to say: You’re going to need some stuff. Not ten crock pots, but maybe three. Because there may come a time when you have rice in the instant pot, and taco meat in the one with the broken handle, and cheese sauce in the little one. Because you are serving guests.

I would like to pat that idealist on the shoulder and reassure her. You know what stuff is for, right? It’s for other people. It’s for you to use to bless other people. You don’t need 10 bread pans to bless other people, but if you happen to be the kind of person who likes to make bread, then it isn’t wrong to have them. And yes, of course you can serve tea in styrofoam cups and that is better than saying, “I can’t have people at my house because I don’t have enough dishes.” But it actually is nicer to serve tea in cups if you have them.

The same goes for your house. It’s not just for you. Hospitality is a big deal for the children of God. When you welcome someone into your living space, you touch them in a way that nothing else does. You are saying that you really do want to get to know them, and that you care about them. You are sharing your best stuff, and maybe you’re letting them see your worst stuff.

That’s what your stuff is for: to use and bless. Human nature being what it is, there seem to be plenty of ways to be selfish. If you find yourself hoarding your good things in the closets so you don’t need to feel obligated to share, saving the butter for yourself and serving margarine to others, so to speak, well, then give the old heart a check.

If you can’t bear the idea of feet on your new carpet, scuffs on your baseboards, or smudges on your towels, prepare the old heart for a lonely existence.

If you find yourself mourning the things that break more than caring about how sad the person feels who accidentally broke them, then give the old heart another check. Teach it to hold things with an open hand.

If you have all the things in your kitchen that you need to cook lovely things, but you are too busy drool-scrolling through other people’s gorgeous kitchens, then just lay the old phone down and go bake some cookies to give away.

You can own lots of things. Just make sure you live generously with your things! Don’t bury them in a museum where they look nice and stay unchipped and unstained and worthless.

********

I had this in the drafts folder for a long time. Last week I took it out and dusted it, plumped it up and shined its face. That very day I had a conversation with a friend, and out of the blue she said many of the things I had just written, so I know there are at least two of us. Anybody else out there who can relate?

Happy Gardener Attempts to Manage Peas, Occasionally Failing

And they do require managing. Peas are probably the most labor intensive thing I grow, but the vegetable we look forward to the most. “Plant as many as you want, Mom,” they say. “We’ll help you pick them.” Of course, this is a bit of a joke because I don’t let the children pick peas without supervision. The plants are too finicky and it’s hard to tell when they are ready.

You have seen this photo before, of my over-achieving pea vines, over five feet high. If I had planted them 3 weeks earlier, I feel confident that the yield would have been better. Honestly… 6 quarts in the freezer and a few quarts eaten fresh is not a stellar outcome. Next year I will shoot for planting in mid-April instead of early May. They should not be this yellow while still bearing pods. My bad.

I did three different versions of plantings in my mulched section. Row 1: we raked the old hay aside and let the ground dry a bit before tilling up that strip and planting a double row. We did not re-mulch until the peas were up. Row 2: we raked the hay aside, but did not till the row. Instead we made a shallow row with a hoe and planted a double row. Row 3: we used a string stretched from one end to the other as a guide, and simply poked holes in the soft soil to drop the peas into, leaving the old hay/mulch just as it was. The last method seemed to work the best, maybe because we had an uncharacteristically dry spring. Those peas came up more quickly and climbed up the support fence we put in between the rows. The other two methods caught up, but obviously the tilling and hoeing were not necessary.

We had three double rows, 25 feet each, 150 feet of peas total. The reason for this is that the fencing we use for support comes in 25 or 50 foot lengths. Cutting them in half makes the rolls easier to manage and store. There is psychology involved as well. A 25 foot row is not nearly as daunting to pick as a 150 foot row.

Peas need support to grow, unless you want to bend over to pick until your back is screaming to buy Del Monte mushiness in a can rather than try to grow your own peas. It’s a valid option, but not one we choose.

As you can see in the photo below, we have a variety of fencing materials. The bottom, PVC coated wire, was some we had on hand from our farm days, probably to keep ducks where they ought to be. It is sturdy and would be fine except it is only 2 feet high. The peas didn’t have enough support and doubled over the top. The black plastic chicken wire seemed like a good idea, but even with the fence zip-tied to holes drilled in the wooden posts, it sagged under the weight. We will still use it, but it will require twice the amount of posts. All the way at the top is the priciest option, 3 foot high, PVC coated wire mesh. We have had that fence for years. It was a good choice and I wish we hadn’t wavered when we saw the price difference this spring when we needed more.

I pulled the vines yesterday and before I threw them onto the compost pile, I had a lightbulb moment. Aha! I can chop them up and let them compost right in the spot where they were growing. It worked too! The lawnmower coughed and choked a little, but in the end we prevailed. I had laid down a fresh layer of cardboard before I dumped the chopped peas back into the garden. That should smother any opportunistic weeds that were growing alongside the peas.

I want to plant some more fall broccoli/cabbages in that spot. The other pea row got replanted with more green beans and a hopeful seeding of sugar peas for fall consumption. I don’t know how well that will work, but I had old seeds that needed to be used, so I threw them in. I covered them with old hay, no bare spots. Low stakes, so we shall see.

Recently I read an article that stated this: “Whenever the soil is tilled, the subterranean community of lifeforms within it is hit with a hurricane. All the bacteria, protozoa, nematodes, and fungi that sustain and support plant growth are thrown into chaos, season after season. Weeds often help to bring them back to balance, like aid workers after a disaster. The way that creation keeps the soil healthy, building it generation after generation, is by always keeping it covered.”

That is why I am so fascinated with my no-till experiments. If you ever noticed how quickly nature covers up bare soil with plants, you will know what I mean. I do not like having an unsightly, weedy garden. With the traditional methods of tilling, it meant getting out the rototiller at regular intervals, and hoeing the rows as well. Keeping the soil covered with mulch or cover crops, while not truly “no-work”, is certainly less work. For me, the secret to enjoying gardening is to keep it to manageable proportions. I use anything that decomposes cleanly for layers of mulch: cardboard, newspaper, old pine straw, wood chips, chopped vegetable stalks, dead leaves, etc. Any slimy peelings or kitchen scraps get thrown onto a compost pile that I neglect shamelessly. I hope it eventually turns into useful compost, but until then I just keep adding to the top.

I get lots of good ideas from the experts, but I do whatever I jolly please in my own bit of earth.

That means planting flowers with the vegetables, filling in the cracks with last minute delights such as broom corn or black beans that bloom purple or spaghetti squash that may or may not take over the space entirely. I don’t play by the rules, and that is why I have so much fun. 🙂

I want to conclude with a funny story. Mennonites love iced mint tea. We call it meadow tea, garden tea, fuzzy mint, spearmint, etc. Awhile ago our elderly neighbor came over for a visit, I offered him a glass of chilled spearmint tea, explaining what it was as I handed it to him. He took a tentative sip and murmured, “Hmm, kind of piney.”

How about we raise a glass of iced mint tea to happy gardeners everywhere!

These are the July Days…

…When I have peas for breakfast, shelling them right beside the garden and thumbing them out of the pods into my hand. The dog stands beside me expectantly, catching and eating the pods as I chuck them to the ground. They are the very last hangers-on of the plants that have been yellowing, too hot for the last three weeks. They are still standing tall, freakishly tall, and trying to make peas. I have never picked peas at eye level before, and I have no idea why this happened, but it was fun for a change.

See. Yellow and tall. And in the foreground is our hope to feed the world, the humble zucchini. Also a border of potatoes, once known as the food of peasants. If you squint, you can see a row of kale trying to grow in front of its cabbage and broccoli cousins. My children sighed when I planted that kale, but they will enjoy it in Zuppa Toscana this winter.

These are the days to stroll casually past the red raspberries for a snack. They are just ripening with the intense flavors that are a result of very dry weather. Thankfully we have gotten enough rain in the last few days to plump out the berries. When we moved I bought 4 straggly Heritage Red plants at Walmart, which you know is not the best place to buy them, but I decided to give it a whirl. They shot up, multiplied beyond belief, strayed into the neighbor’s yard, and began to produce berries to make glad the heart of man.

These are the days we can have vine-ripened tomatoes, the peak of summer. I sneaked a cherry tomato from Rita’s prize plant this morning. I am afraid she rather neglects a lot of her other plantings, but her tomato is her pride and joy. She has been able to keep up with eating her tomatoes all by herself, no small feat if you are familiar with the prolific habits of cherry tomatoes. But she does share when we ask nicely.

These are the days of zucchini everything. I taught Addy to bake zucchini bread, even though she doesn’t like it herself. It is her current labor of love for the household, along with snapping beans while listening to audiobooks, “forever and a day” she says, referring to the beans. The older two girls are working at defrosting our chest freezer as I write. They will clear it out and remove the ice so that I can see what we have and organize it again before we fill it back up this summer. I like to use up most of the previous season’s produce before we add more, since our freezer isn’t very big and I don’t like eating old food that tastes like ice.

These are the days of thinking back-to-school. Before you get upset with me, remember that we finished the first week in May, which is nearly three months ago. Yesterday we ladies took the day to shop in Erie. I gave the girls each a twenty for the fun pens, scissors, rulers, notebooks, or whatever school supplies they wanted. My own list only had boring things like trash bags and folders. It turned out that we were disillusioned by the tie-dyed offerings and high prices at Target, but Marshalls was better, and Hobby Lobby had their entire perimeter stacked with clearanced spring and summer merchandise. Goodwill was a welcome change from Sally A, and we found plenty of treasures, such as a red polka-dot umbrella with metal ribs that seem like they might actually hold up, a big hula hoop, some books, Little House DVD’s, a few sweaters, and yet another Pashmina for the girls’ collection of scarves.

These are the hammock days, where the choice spot under the best shade gets used times three. The ladder is used only for the purpose of hanging the straps high on the tree. The top person gets in one hammock at a time, working his way upward. If it were me, I would find another tree, but young folks are not always known for their practicality. We have discovered that hammocks for camping are much more comfortable than sleeping bags on the ground. (One note of caution… you must be sure there are trees before presuming on this option.) There is some fine resting done in a hammock, with a book and a bottle of kefir. At our place we recommend mosquito spray or maybe a Thermocell, which is a completely new idea to us. Slightly pricey, but it works!..

These are the glorious summer days, when we savor the scents and flavors with a bit of panic in our hearts at how quickly it is passing. The light lingers long and strange in the garden before the thunderstorm, and we drink in the goodness with thankful hearts.

Signs of the Times

You might be almost middle-aged…

… if your new glasses prescription includes invisible bifocals so you don’t have to hold your song book at arms length in order to read it in church.

… if you buy a ginormous box of plastic wrap on Amazon, because you now have plenty of dishes that require wider than standard width plastic wrap.

… if you double most recipes so that you have leftovers or extra food for the freezer because the food is always evaporating and the people are always hungry and you have become philosophical about this situation.

…if you become excited about a few hours of lawn mowing to relax and think quiet thoughts in a loud place, and you no longer have to worry about little people spilling milk while you’re mowing.

… if you find yourself debating conundrums such as, ” Why are the Dutch blitz cards on the dryer?” And you can’t figure out why nobody seems to put their things away in the right place, while stumbling over your own shoes at the door.

… If you have bad dreams about looking into a mirror and seeing that you are growing so many chin hairs you could call it a beard.

… if you play a game of softball with the cousins at the family reunion, and every other person either has to have a pinch hitter because of shoulder issues, or a runner because their knees are rickety.

… if you take great pleasure in feeding birds and quietly watching gardens grow and looking at other people’s landscaping.

… if you can’t sleep unless you have the right pillow, not one like the right pillow, but the exact one.

… If you honestly do not get what your children are talking about, and they wonder what century you were born in, and you laugh because it certainly wasn’t this century.

But…If you have learned to squeeze the hilarity out of the weird aches and idiosyncrasies that you used to think went with being old, and you know you’re not actually old yet, that’s kind of funny.

It’s oddly fun to know that you know stuff because you’ve lived it, but you don’t really feel like everybody else has to know it the same way.

It’s liberating to accept your limitations, be comfortable in your own skin, and walk on cheerfully even when you have peasant feet that aren’t cute in flip flops.

It’s wonderful to dust off a dormant dream, and trot it out into the light now that you have a bit of time to pursue it.

It’s nice to relax a little about getting everything done, because you finally understand that you won’t get everything done and it’s more restful this way, doing the next thing and stopping when it’s time to sleep.

It is easier to be faithful with what is right in front of you when you give up the burden of taking care of the whole world.

It is good to use your gifts and no longer care if nobody notices, because you understand a little how insignificant you are in the whole scheme of things, and yet you know that you are required to endure to the end, so you keep going and commit the end results to God.

I like this season. Really.

It’s just a season, but it’s a good one. Mostly.

I could live without the chin hairs.

Tiny Gardeners

The girls were 4, 6, and 8 that year when I got out my stash of seeds and they started begging for their own garden plots. I had been giving them space to plant tiny rows of vegetables and flowers, but I had never let them plot their own gardens because they seemed too little.

Why? I asked myself. Why did I think they couldn’t garden? Because they would crowd their plants, would neglect to pull their weeds, and run out of steam to pick their harvests? Why indeed? So I agreed to give them their very own space to plant whatever they wanted with the leftover seeds just as soon as I had my garden planted. I wasn’t so righteous, after all, because this was a garden that was out of sight, down by the orchard. I wouldn’t have to see it all the time when it went to ruin, which I thought it surely would do.

They were ecstatic and immediately scrounged boards to create borders between their plots. I figured I should help them understand how to give plants room, and not to shade little plants with big ones, etc., but I was out of stamina by the time I had my own rows planted. I shut up my inner critic and handed them the box of leftover seeds. Then I went to sit in the shade, determined not to interfere unless they asked for help. It was surprising what all they had picked up in their short years of helping me plant. They already knew about making rows and planting big seeds deeper than tiny seeds.

I look back and see that they really were babies.
Oh, dear. Mushy, sentimental Mom alert…

We had a set of child-sized tools that flashed cheerful primary colors as they hoed and raked. Zinnias and beans and watermelons all got sowed with abandon. Rita had a greenhouse pepper and some broccolis set within 6 inches of each other. The pepper got transplanted so often that summer as she lovingly scoped out better growing spots for it in the hope that it would produce bigger peppers. It never did bear fruit, and she learned about letting things root.

The best crop they got was the zinnias. I showed them how to save seeds, and they got excited at the thought of trying again the next year. Did they have weeds? Yes, forests of them. Did it hurt anybody? No, it did not. Did they supplement our food income? No, aside from snacks in the wild, they did not. But in their little hearts they were gardeners, and that was what I hoped would happen.

These little girls are teens now except for Addy who is ten, going on thirteen. They have been promoted to drooling over seed catalogs and circling the stuff they want to order. In March when we all have spring fever, we go look at the seed racks in stores, and we pick whatever pleases us. It’s a small price to pay for the hope that the world will warm again. I let them try anything, like strawberry popcorn, and millet for the birds and whatever flowers strike their fancy.

This year Rita and Addy made garden plans at the same time that I did, and they assured me that they did not have nearly enough space last year. So I extended their garden and mine.

I am doing no-till experiments, and they do their own trials. Addy has been mulching with grass clippings and fertilizing with composted horse poo. Rita believes that she will get good results with lots of hoeing and miracle-gro, but next year she’ll change her ways if Addy gets better results. I smile and listen to them talk and I love all of it.

They have a resident toad that lives under a board and eats bugs. They also have flower borders just for pretty and for pollination. Rita’s cherry tomatoes are almost ready to eat, but Addy’s lettuce and carrots are doing better. It’s endless scope for imagination for them.

Addy’s 2022 garden is flourishing.

So many of my successful parenting endeavors are results of ideas I stumbled upon without a clear idea where we were going. That’s how this gardening venture happened for us. They got bit by the bug, and I doubt they will ever recover. If I didn’t enjoy it so much myself, I could probably sit on the sidelines and let them grow the stuff. But I have my own delight trails to follow. I have a new little hoe and it is fantastic! I mean, really, really fantastic. (If you love someone who gardens, and you want to give them something, get this.)

I’m just going out to clear the old strawberry row.

Greg’s Graduation

People are often curious how a homeschool graduation works. First things first, they are not one size fits all, so I can only speak for how our family has been doing this. Our evaluator works with Erie County Home Schoolers Diploma Association, a group that has been giving accredited diplomas since 1993. They offer general, academic, or honors diplomas. You can see the requirements for them here. Our sons have both earned over twenty credits for academic diplomas, squeezing in an extra English credit in 11th grade so that they could graduate a year early. The evaluator prepares a transcript of their high school studies and submits it to the diploma association, where they review the transcript and send the official diploma to the parents to sign and date. The parents can then either present it to their child or choose to attend the graduation ceremony in Erie to present it.

When Alex graduated in 2020, we did not live up here close to Erie, we were in the middle of house renovations/ packing to move, and my dad was in the hospital with Covid. As with so many other things in that not so brilliant year, we had to makeshift to celebrate. We ended up with an outdoor party at a state park in July. It rained torrents so there could be no games outside the pavilion. We all felt limp because we were saying good-bye to friends and loading our household goods the next day.

With Gregory’s graduation we opted for the cap and gown ceremony, especially when we discovered that his friend Sean will also be graduating. Gregory didn’t think a ceremony was necessary, but I am pretty sure he liked it.

Of the two hundred grads that graduated with ECHSDA this year, only twenty made the trip to the ceremony. There was some music, the commencement address, and then the parents each introduced their graduate and gave a short speech of blessing as they presented them with their diploma.

I started our speech to Gregory, and Gabe finished with the last half.

“In thinking back over your school years, I decided to zone in on reading, since that was the part we liked the most. It didn’t start so well, because even though you loved books, you wanted me to do the reading.  I remember a lot of tears over those impossible reading lessons. I would let you run and play after phonics drills, and I would wonder how we would get past this hurdle.

It was in the second grade that reading clicked for you and after that you never quit- in the car, in the bathroom, behind the couch when it was time to do dishes, in bed with a flashlight…

It seemed that a crucial part of my job as your teacher was to supply you with reading material and keep track of the library books.

We went through many stages. There was the total absorption in the world of Redwall, when our backyard was littered with wooden swords and homemade capes. Then there was the Mysterious Benedict Society, when you started carrying a tin bucket of essential tools. After that you read The Hatchet and went into survival mode with your gear expanding into an enormous backpack.

****************

Through the years you amused and annoyed the family with endless streams of fun facts that you gleaned from books of trivia. The trivia became more sophisticated when you discovered Malcolm Gladwell and Randall Monroe.

It has always been our goal for you to enjoy learning new things. We considered your education to be effective when we saw you explore new interests and teach yourself skills with DIY manuals, learning ancient arts such as blacksmithing and greenwood carving.

In the past two years, you have faced bigger obstacles than we ever could have imagined. By the grace of God you adapted and rose to the challenge with dual enrollment in Laurel Technical Institute. You worked long and late, occasionally submitting assignments with only minutes to spare before the deadline, and pulling hair in frustration sometimes. But you finished the year with plenty of credits to spare for graduation!

We are proud of you and excited to see where God will use your talents in life.”

The Rose for Teacher Mom.

For various reasons, this past year was a great challenge for Gregory and me. He struggled to focus because of the anti-convulsant drugs that he is taking to control the epilepsy. I mourned the loss of his razor-sharp concentration as I watched him struggle, but we persevered and he made it, even through Chemistry!

Hallelujah!

We celebrated this past weekend with Sean’s family here at our house. We have a long history with these friends (Bob and Shirley Kauffman), and there is nothing quite like that for good times! There was Chinese food for Saturday supper, frozen custard from the stand at the end of our road, tent sleeping for the boys and sunporch sleeping for the girls. We had lots of great conversation around the fire pit, an excess of snacks and drinks, and it was just lovely!

Four Reasons

why you should grow a garden.

How about we start hot and heavy with the indisputable: God is a gardener. It’s cliche, but He did plant the Garden of Eden, and He told Adam how to take care of it. What I wouldn’t give to hear that advice on pruning! Imagine how different gardening would be without weeds and pests! I guess we will wait for the new creation for that reality. The therapy of gardening, for me, is the keeping of my garden. I spend hours just puttering, tying up vines with bits of string, clipping suckers off the tomatoes, checking on the broccoli plants to see if they have any dreaded cabbage worms, and yes, talking to my plants.

There is a term that has come up recently, called grounding. It is the description of the health benefits that are a result of being in contact with the pulses of the earth. There is some sketchy stuff out there about grounding, but I get what they are saying. In a world of virtual reality, we are not healthy in our spirits when we are involved in phone worship and removed from the realities of creation and the Creator. When warmth returns to the land there is no substitute for walking barefooted across the lawn to dig a hole to plant raspberries. It’s why my feet get tough and country. I have a hunch that hard times are coming for our food supply, and that in future the wisest people will be the ones who don’t care about flawless pedicures.

Check out the Instagram account of this photographer in Ukraine. She posts a lot of photos of bombed towns, of the elderly who choose to stay in their homes, of their gardens blooming in the foreground. Gardens are hope and resilience. Things continue to grow in some of the grimmest places. I remember many years ago when I went to Ukraine on a short term mission trip to distribute seeds. This was soon after communism fell, and the economy was shot. People were looking forward to planting their seeds. They were growing potatoes in the median strips between highway lanes. They were hanging onto hope, and that’s what they are doing now.

Gardening is a smart use of space. Doesn’t it make more sense to grow vegetables beside your house than to pay $5 a gallon on gas to mow the whole lawn? Maybe you don’t have much lawn, but that isn’t a good excuse. We have friends who have turned a tiny backyard in the city into a haven with plantings all around. They have a strawberry patch, a big variety of veggies, and sometimes they even grow sweet corn beside the privacy fence. They plant intensively and enjoy harvests from their hard work. Have you ever tasted the difference between a limp green bean from the grocery store and one picked fresh from the plant? How about a sun-warmed tomato versus the sorry shelf-stable ones we buy all winter? Or a cucumber that wasn’t wrapped in plastic? Gardens turn us into fruit and vegetable snobs, but not too snobby because we are grounded. Ha. That was a fun one.

At our recent family reunion I was talking with my aunt who has the greenest thumb of anybody I ever met. She is in her 60’s and still planting enough garden to feed a family of ten, according to my cousins. Last year she made a thousand dollars selling strawberries, and then she went out and bought a new stove for her kitchen. She was telling me that after she helps her husband with the milking, she relaxes in her garden, just pulling weeds and picking things. She is not afraid of food shortages because she knows what to do with a pack of seeds. Also, she has cows, but that’s another subject.

Granted, it can be discouraging when you have poor yields and outright crop failures, but if you chalk it up to learning, you’ll be smarter next season. I have a series of posts coming up on this subject, so if you’re not interested, prepare to be bored.

I should have posted this about a month ago, but late in the season is actually a great time to buy plants at discounts. If you bring home a spindly pepper and lovingly dig it a hole with space to expand, it will race to make up for lost time. How about you go out to the local greenhouse and find you some stuff that needs a bit of earth? Then tell me how it works out for you!

This morning.

The less grim things

…my children teach me.

I thought about that word “grim” and decided that it encapsulates how it feels to die to myself, which was mostly what my Mother’s Day post was about. How about we hit a few of the high spots?

Children are born as little hope capsules. They are the best motivation for people to make the world a better place, to work to level the rough places, and to protect what is worth protecting in our world. In Sunday school we read Jeremiah 32, about a time when Jerusalem was besieged by the Babylonian army, and Jeremiah was confined in the royal palace. He heard a word from God that instructed him to buy a field and to make sure the deed was securely sealed in a clay pot so that it wouldn’t disintegrate. “For this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.” Jeremiah was showing his people that it was worth investing in the future, no matter how hopeless their current situation may look. It’s not always going to be this way, friends.

This is the reason we plant fruit trees and build homes and write books and donate to cancer research. Our children or maybe our grandchildren will reap the benefits, even if we don’t. Hope.

Children sense what is real and what is fake. “She is a spoiled brat,” they say frankly. “You’re not listening to me, Mom,” they insist. “He is kind to everybody,” they notice. We call it “having no filter,” but in a child it is usually just honesty. There is no point in pretending that you love a child, then spend your entire life reminding them that they aren’t good enough, quiet enough, clean enough, grown-up enough, etc. They know intuitively what real feels like, whether they can express it or not. Even if they submit to the browbeating, they will know, “Mom never let us have screen time, but she watched Netflix for hours in her room.”

What’s more, they have a built-in bologna detector that gets honed to razor sharpness by the time they are teens. When the children were little, I found out very quickly that I can’t pretend I’m eating carrots when it’s actually chocolate. They can smell it. Busted. Now that they are older, it’s on to higher stakes, bigger inconsistencies. You can’t tell your children that you should love your enemies, then in the next breath mutter road-ragey threats about the idiot who pulled in front of you. They hear and they will call you on it.

These are good things! Death to hypocrisy!

Children have grand ideas, often impractical, but exciting! They want to sleep in a treehouse, on the trampoline, in a hammock, on the sunporch… basically anywhere but in their own comfortable beds. They want to feed hummingbirds and orioles sugar water, plant ornamental gourds, grow strawberry popcorn. They see complicated patterns for colonial costumes and have very specific ideas for appropriate fabric to make them. They need a thousand feet of paracord to make bull whips and another thousand feet of cotton rope for all the macrame things. They assemble bug-out bags and spend their money on lighters and Life-straws from Amazon. And the fishing gear. Oh, Lord, preserve us from more fishing gear.

You know as well as I do that those are good and hopeful things. I’m guessing you also know about the resulting clutter. It has been one of the longest running, most sanctifying works of my life to stop being precious about a tidy house.

“Your place looks like the sort of place where things happen,” a friend said to me. It was meant as a compliment and I accepted it. A place where things happen is not a showplace with no dead leaves on the ferns or stains on the carpets. It’s more like a barn factory where important stuff is going on. You get out the pushbroom at the end of the shift, but you deal with it in its own time.

Our children teach me to laugh, good old belly-laughs. We have inside jokes and then they have inner, inside jokes that I don’t get because I can’t remember all the random stuff they quote. Sometimes they are irreverent and I get flash-backs to my childhood when the witty remarks were flying and my mother was protesting, “Where do you learn this stuff? Is nothing sacred anymore?” My standard advice in this situation? “You can talk like that at home, but it is not appropriate outside the family.” I’m probably not doing too well with this, because I have dubious tastes in what I find funny, and they know it.

I suppose one of the biggest lessons my children continue to teach me is that it’s not about me. That is sort of a circle back to the original “dying to self” motif, but it is also extremely liberating and helpful. Getting over my own self-importance is a life work that I welcome. (Wince.) I am still, as always, learning to offer my work to Jesus and letting it be His business what He does with the investment. So many of the pitfalls of parenting (and life) involve how it makes me look. It becomes impossible to have a pure and quiet heart when appearances become the important thing.

“God gives grace to the humble,” it says in James 4:6. This is a good word for parents to stand on. We don’t know everything, but we know who does.

And there they are, those beloved pieces of my heart, running around outside my body.

Life with the Birds

Nature held back and held back until hope had been deferred sufficiently, and then she said, “NOW.” Just like that, we get a week of brilliant sunshine after about 6 months of cold and wet (my family says I exaggerate about this) and the green explodes electrically. That may not be a thing where you live, but it is here. Every day I feel more alive, and just when you thought I wasn’t going to do one of those ecstatic spring posts, you’re getting it.

There’s a Carolina wren that hangs out just outside our bedroom door that opens to a smoker’s deck, only we don’t smoke there. I suppose we could call it our coffee deck, or our tea deck in the evening. This summer I am going to flood it with my house plants and pretty stuff to make it even more pleasant. It has a roof made of clear plastic sheets that need to have the moss pressure washed off them, and there is a persistent Virginia creeper that runs along the house wall. The wren seems to like this atmosphere, because she wants to nest somewhere right close by and sing her liquid song of pure joy. I have no objections.

She’s a little behind the robins who have already raised a brood in the bush that climbs up the railing. They regretted their choice of home site as soon as our children realized there was a nest at eye level, and checked on the babies quietly but with much diligence. Yesterday the babies flew away, and the robins are having to decide whether to risk a second brood in the same spot or to rebuild in a quieter neighborhood.

Gregory installed three nesting boxes for bluebirds when we started to notice them in the yard. I keep seeing them flitting about over the garden, their personal smorgasbord. Then they flit right over the privacy fence and go to the neighbor’s bluebird boxes to feed their babies. It seems a little disloyal, but one can forgive a bluebird almost anything.

There’s a Baltimore oriole who occasionally flaunts his brilliant feathers from the tops of the high oaks down to the arbor. He is so beautiful it takes my breath away. I keep scanning the high tree tops where they like to weave their swinging nests, and since the leaves are only starting to blossom out, I can see that he hasn’t built yet. I wouldn’t choose the shagbark hickory, though it’s so high and breezy, because those branches break off so easily and I have to pick them up all the time before I mow. I’m guessing he’ll try for the tallest cherry tree or maybe the oak once his shy wife shows up to show her approval.

Whenever I hear an especially beautiful bird song, I scan until I can find the artist. Last week I located the mockingbird pair, and I’m so glad they’re sticking around to serenade us while they rejoice over their babies.

(Just as an aside… Have you noticed the ecstacy and wonder of the birds rejoicing over their young, over their domestic triumph? When I see people doing the same, I know it’s right and good. There is glory in it, oh yes! Also a lot of insistent, persistent mouths to feed. But it goes with the glory. There’s your little homily for the day, if you’re an exhausted parent. )

When I was mowing with our z-turn mower that has two levers you have to keep level or you veer off course, I was taking a tight circle under a bush and instinctively reached up to free my hair from a branch. Of course, that instantly turned the circle tightly into the bush, and out fluttered an outraged mourning dove. Sorry friend, I won’t do it again. Go back quickly and give your squabs their pigeon milk.

The cardinals absolutely love all the prickly stuff around here. Because they can fly in such a tight, dipping pattern, they can nest in the most inaccessible places. We have enough multiflora roses for a colony of cardinals, and it’s one of the reasons we aren’t clearing them.

The hummingbirds are back and I really need to get some petunias planted for them. I would rather cultivate the flowers that give them their nectar then try to make sure that their feeder is clean and full all summer. But the girls are begging for a feeder, so we’ll probably do both.

Last but not least, the phoebe that has returned to her nest under the awning at the corner of the sun porch has raised another successful brood. Last year there was a lot of stuff piled in that corner, so that she had a decent sense of privacy right outside the window. I cleared all that stuff away this spring, and it was still very cold when she was sitting on her eggs. As soon as it got warm enough for us to start using the sun porch, she felt the intrusion. But she’s a diligent one and look at her! I haven’t noticed her trying to raise another brood yet, so I hope she’s having a little vacation. That was a lot of bugs being stuffed into mouths.

We have crows, and starlings, and lowly sparrows, and even occasional bald eagles floating on the thermals. There are red winged blackbirds and gold finches and so many more. All of them are just doing what they’re supposed to do day after day. To repeat my little homily, there is glory in that. Bless your heart, and go do what you’re supposed to do today.

Me? I’m supposed to clean my house today, get rid of some loose feathers and tuck in the sticks that aren’t settled quite right. I’m also supposed to make some food, and the nestlings need to learn to make some new recipes, so I’ll be doing a bit of coaching.

What about you?

The things my children teach me…

…in no particular order.

I identify as a mother, haven’t even tried to not look like one or act like one for many years. I am comfortable with this space. All the mom stereotypes… I don’t really care. They are hilarious and strange and okay by me.

From my children have come some of my greatest moments of exhilaration and also my deepest moments of anguish. It is the price of love, a fiercer love than any other I have experienced. Nothing will change that, not distance or changes or decisions they make. As my friend Tina said this morning, “They will always be your babies, no matter how old they get.”

I can expand much further and rebound better than I thought I could. My husband showed me a meme today with a series of circles, the largest being 10 cm across. It simply said, “This is what 10 cm dilation looks like. Buy your mom something nice today.” I have accepted the fact that my body had to change and stretch drastically to give birth to my babies, and I waste no time pining for my teenaged shape. Sometimes I would like to return to the wide-eyed hopefulness of my first baby shower and just tell that girl, “This is going to stretch your very soul until you think you will die, but you won’t. You will become bigger, more, and it will be a beautiful thing that you have been so mercilessly expanded.”

I am a nurturer, and though I mostly practice my skills on the ones in my house, the nurturing includes people who are not my birth-children. In the Mother’s Day message at church, it was mentioned that you do not need to give birth in order to be a fruitful woman. In my own thoughts, the heart of femininity is bearing fruit to hand it out for the feeding of others. How ridiculous to turn all my grapes into shriveled raisins for storage in case I get hungry someday. To offer freely what I have, with no strings attached- it sounds noble, but oh, it is hard!

I read about a mother who coached her little ones that if they are ever lost, like at the zoo or in the store, they should look for a woman who has children with her to ask for help. I aspire to be one of those safe persons in our society, the ones who have time for another’s drama. It is the essence of motherhood.

I have had to face my humanity and brokenness repeatedly in the last twenty years of mothering. This is the best thing that my children have taught me, and it’s not because they are so horrible. It is because they came into the world needing quite a bit more than food, and as it turns out, I do not have all the resources they need. There is an elderly lady who comes to church, probably in her late 90’s, and she is full the of the fire of God. She declared, “You won’t do everything right in your parenting. God won’t let you.” It’s true. He wants to teach me about His resources. I have learned that I can come boldly to the throne of grace behind a locked bathroom door or flat on my face beside the bed, a beggar.

I find myself in over my head. And yet I embrace this. I signed up for it.

What do your children teach you?