The Seventy-Sixth Letter: Afterthought Seeds & Garden Confessions

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Dear Daughters,

Deep breath.

I went out to pick veggies in our garden this afternoon and when I saw a weedy-looking tree sapling growing by the carrots, I pulled it out vigorously and tossed it into the yard with some other weeds. (I was a little surprised a sapling had grown up without my noticing it before, but I was pleased with my effort to rip it out.)

A minute later, I noticed another one just like it on the other side of the carrots, and that’s when I realized I had just yanked one of our two baby blueberry bushes.

Sigh.

Because it has been one of those days, the whole episode feels like a metaphor somehow:

Trying so patiently to grow something beautiful and then in a moment of carelessness, long before the seasons it will take to bear fruit, yanking it out by the roots.

And then haphazardly trying to bury it back down in the ground again, digging down to the good soil with your fingernails, watering deeply and thoroughly with a gallon-jug from the recycling bin.

Praying you haven’t done too much damage.

So much metaphor.

Girls, your dad and I have a reputation for being gardeny people, and I will confess to you that much of that reputation is decidedly undeserved. Clearly.

Sure, he grew up on a farm, and sure, I remember weeding at Grandma Lehman’s house in the summers, trying to learn the difference between weeds and flowers that she seemed to just know instinctively. I never could figure it out. Clearly.

But much of what your dad and I do know about gardening comes from trial-and-error-flavored conviction, and it started in some rather not-garden-friendly soil in Waco.

Since those early days of gardening as newlyweds in the Texas heat, we have gardened on and off, more or less, depending on the year. Some years we tilled up a huge plot in the yard. One of those years the whole plot flooded during heavy rain and our seeds washed away. Some years we helped out with our church’s community garden. Some years we’ve supported local farmers rather than grow our own veggies.

But we have this reputation as foody, gardeny, earthy people. Probably because your dad taught food ethics and had the students involved with a garden on campus property. And probably because people in Kentucky all know who Wendell Berry is. Probably also because I’ve written articles about the unexpected blessings of community gardens. And probably because I can be kind of preachy about things like fresh foods and cooking from scratch and the Mennonite cookbooks and, well, you know. You know I’m preachy.

Still, I confess to you, I feel like a newbie every time I plant a garden. Why can’t we ever get zucchini and squash plants to grow? Why do we never get enough cucumbers to pickle when other people we know have prolific harvests? Why did our cabbage shoot to two feet tall and then get eaten by bugs? Why does the basil planted at our house never grow to the heights of the same basil we plant at the community garden at the church?

I will never know the answers to these questions. (Except the cabbage one. I asked a farmer at the market about that and he gave me some advice.)

And also, I feel like an amateur because no matter how much we do end up growing, no matter our successes and failures, I am completely astounded by the miracle of every single flower that appears on our plants. And when it comes to harvesting actual vegetables we can eat? I mean, girls, I am as excited about it as you are. It feels so undeserved. It feels like privilege. It is.

I mean, how the heck do these seeds work? How does good soil and some watering and some sunshine produce such undeserved bounty? It’s no wonder so many parables are about seeds and growing and provision and the Kingdom of God.

If I’m not careful, I’m going to start preaching again.

And you get so excited about the green beans in particular. You’re proud of yourselves that you can take your little red sandbucket over to the garden and find yourself a snack.

This year, we have a raised bed the length of the house. We’ve got the aforementioned blueberry bushes, which will hopefully remain plural, and I did buy some other veggie plants on sale late in the season, but much of what is growing out there right now in the muggy heat of this late-July day was from afterthought seeds dug out of our freezer, tossed into the ground without much planning.

Without much planning and without expectation that they would grow. (We didn’t know if the freezing had preserved the seeds or not. It was trial and error in that regard too. We don’t remember when the seeds were originally purchased.)

The dozens of beans you’ve picked this year all came from those afterthought seeds.

I’m astounded.

I’m serious. Every time that something grows, I am astounded at the miracle of it.

I really am.

Today, after pulling out that blueberry bush and chiding myself—half embarrassed and half angry, I’ll admit—the garden yielded a half-dozen carrots, a cucumber, a handful of beans, and four cherry tomatoes.

It’s not much but it’s still hope incarnate.

It’s the Kingdom of God, right here in our garden.

It’s God’s faithfulness exhibited in the goodness of creation, the goodness of wonder and taste and dirt and roots.

It’s poetry, girls. Poetry.

And so, I’m clinging to that goodness, that faithfulness, that hope: maybe the blueberry bush will make it.

Maybe.

Because this whole gardening business is just chock-full of metaphor. Even the mess-ups.

Love,

Your Momma

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The Seventy-Second Letter: On Productivity & To-Do Lists

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Dear Daughters,

Sometimes I write drafts of letters to you and then don’t share them. It’s usually when I’m feeling rather blah about life on a particular day, when I’m not feeling productive or focused on the tasks at hand but instead just want to crawl into bed and read my book and let you watch a show on the iPad. (Unfortunately for me, you don’t actually want to watch shows when you could be doing fun things like building a playground out of our living room furniture or running around the yard making soup from grass and weeds and sticks and leaves.)

On those blah days, sometimes albeit rarely, at the end of the day, I catalog what the day has been, and sometimes, it helps me to cultivate gratitude. Because I know, even when I don’t feel like it, that in every day, life has been accomplished.

In every day, grace has been offered and received.

In every day, there is reason to refocus my eyes.

But most days, when I most need that, when probably all I need to do to see is blink a few extra times, I don’t manage to. My day feels blah. Nothing seems profound. What I write is bland.

Tuesday was one of those days, the first day home after our vacation. I was having one of those days with all the feels. It’s now Friday, and I’m only slightly better. But I re-read what I drafted on Tuesday night, and I can see now that it wasn’t nearly as low of a day as it felt in the living of it.

Because in the living of it, I couldn’t see the holy of it, not at first.

But now I can.

So I’m offering Tuesday’s letter after all.

Here’s what I wrote on Tuesday night, after you were in bed, while your dad practiced his upright bass in the basement, as I tried to refocus:

Today did not feel like a productive day. I started it off bright and early with a to-do list of things I might want to consider accomplishing.

I did very few of those things.

At the very least, I should have done some laundry.

No, at the very least, I should have emptied out my suitcase from our trip last week. We got back last night close to 11 pm, and I’m pretty tired today, but there are damp swimsuits in a grocery bag inside that suitcase, so yes, I should have emptied it. I didn’t. It’s still on the bed as I type this.

And lest you think I might sneak in a sense of accomplishment when I head upstairs in a few minutes to go to bed: don’t worry. I will simply move it onto the floor and add it to the to-do list for tomorrow.

Today I took the eldest to her fifth year well visit and we waited 45 minutes for the doctor. I wasted the time at home before and after the appointment by chatting with your babysitter, instead of using that expensive time to check items off my to-do list. While we chatted, I drank hot tea with milk and sugar, even though I’m pretty sure both of those things are bad for me.

After the sitter left, I had thought we would go to lunch with your dad but then he ended up too swamped with work, and honestly I didn’t really feel like eating out after the airport food we ate yesterday. So, instead, I scrounged up a lunch that didn’t require a grocery run: tuna salad and crackers (and an apple, pickle, and cheese) for you, carrots and almond butter for me.

During lunch, I texted a few friends to let them know we’re back in town and ask how they are. I was without cell service on vacation. I chatted on the phone with Ms. Ashley, both of us lamenting what we were not doing and mentioning what we should be doing.

We finished lunch and I let you color for a few minutes before quiet time began. The youngest surprised us by writing her name legibly.

I planned to mow the grass during quiet time this afternoon, and even slathered myself with SPF 50, changed my clothes, put on a visor and old sneaks, and filled the mower with gas. Then the mower engine didn’t sound right and kept banging and puffing out black smoke. It puttered out when I tried to force it to mow under those circumstances. I called your grandpa to ask for advice, and we decided I probably couldn’t fix it. I came inside, still covered in sunscreen, and drank another cup of tea and read my novel. Actually, I also registered you both for VBS, and registered myself for Lexington Poetry Month. I did not pay bills, though it’s the end of the month and they’re all waiting for my attention on the table.

After the youngest kept coming downstairs for unimportant reasons, and then began crying in bed when I told you to stay upstairs, I decided to load us in the car and accomplish at least one thing officially on my list. We went to Wilson’s Nursery to buy tomato and basil plants. It’s nearly half an hour away but I didn’t care. I packed a snack and waters for you, grabbed your sunglasses, and we left. I let my phone tell me how to get there so I didn’t have to think about it.

Then, because Wilson’s was having a Memorial Day Sale all week, I ended up buying ten vegetable plants, including peppers and cucumbers, three basil plants, and six mini succulents. I thought I would make a little succulent pot for our neighbors who just brought their preemie baby home from the hospital, and who can ever have too much basil?

We got home, and then walked over to our other neighbor-friends’ house and borrowed their mower. I was still determined to mow.

But first: garden.

You tried to help by getting garden rakes and shovels from the shed, but let’s face it: you’re just not that helpful and very likely to injure yourselves as the two of you maneuver a shovel with a handle as long as you are.

Your dad arrived home and got the mower running (by sheer force of will, it seems to me), and mowed half the yard while I was still transplanting and figuring out where to put ten veggie plants when we already have our raised beds pretty full of lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, beans, and baby blueberry bushes surrounded by carrots. I decided the hydrangea beds across the yard can each house a tomato plant. (The hydrangeas have turned a stunning magenta while we were away—who knew?—but wilted quite a bit in today’s heat. I hope they will recover when we water.)

I accidentally broke off a cucumber stem. I picked the green beans that have popped into existence in the week we’ve been gone. I weeded the herb bed. The oregano is now two feet tall and the thyme is circling the mint to win the award for most invasive herb we own. I pinched the smallest leaves of my new basil plants to stimulate growth. Your dad snipped off our leaf lettuce that is getting out of control, and we decided the grownups will eat salad for dinner. He sent you in with an armful of lettuce to put in the sink. I finished transplanting the succulents and tried to decide if the pot needs a bit of decoration before giving it away as a gift.

Seven o’clock was quickly approaching at this point, and we hadn’t eaten dinner. I ran inside to rinse the basil leaves I removed during transplanting, and I smushed a spider that crawled out of the sink’s lettuce.

Under the lettuce, the sink was full of the dirty dishes I did not wash today. Even the breakfast dishes were at the bottom of that pile.

While your dad watered the produce and baby trees and hydrangeas (and previous years’ Easter lilies, which seem to be blooming too), an AT&T salesman stopped by to try to sell us new internet service, even though he came to the door earlier in the day and I had told him ‘no’ once already.

I mowed the remaining half of the yard—and paused to chat with the neighbor and see how the baby is doing–and then mowed the part outside the fence while your dad prepped dinner. And fed you both dinner. I returned the mower.

Your dad was nearly finished with your bath by the time I sat down to eat my salad.

I joined in for bedtime routines of singing and praying and tucking-in, ran downstairs for the forgotten fuzzy blanket, gave permission for a final bathroom run.

And then I showered.

I started the day with a shower today, thinking I was off to a productive start. I ended the day with wet hair once again and don’t feel the least productive.

Because it’s too easy to judge productivity with the lists that didn’t get done.

We have two cucumber plants, two pepper plants, six tomato plants, three basil plants, three small pots of succulents to keep and one large to give away that we didn’t have before today. And our grass is mown. I checked in with friends and caught up a bit.

And when your dad turned on my iPad this evening—my special iPad for my hand-lettering and digital design work that seemed to go on the fritz and have severe hardware issues while we were away—well, he turned it on and miraculously it worked.

I feel like that’s something worth adding to my list of achievements for the day. Even if it had nothing to do with me.

Because I’m kind of thinking now, having typed up the day, that very few of my daily achievements have much to do with me anyway.

It’s all sacred, girls. These little moments.

It doesn’t matter what gets crossed off the list.

I haven’t looked at the list in hours. It got pushed to the back of the counter at some point earlier today and I haven’t grabbed it since.

I’m not complaining. Lists help keep me organized. I love making them. I love crossing things off of them.

But, y’all, lists aren’t life.

Love,

Your Momma

 

 

 

The Thirty-Eighth Letter: God Helps Us

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Dear Daughters,

On a warm, sunny day this week, I slathered you both with sunscreen before driving to the church’s community garden for some late-afternoon weeding. The truth is I had also discovered some sprouting onions in our cupboard that I thought I’d try burying in the ground.

You don’t have much patience for the amount of rubbing it takes to get the mineral-based sunscreen absorbed into your skin, especially around your nose and cheeks, but I’d told you that you’d be able to play on the new playground at church, which is within view of the garden plots.

You knew how the routine would go, because we’d done it before. I laid out a blanket in the shade near the playground, and set out water and snacks, so you could get out of the sun as necessary.

But the lack of shade on the playground was an issue today. Since it was late afternoon, all of the slides were too hot to slide down. And because the slides are your favorite part of the playground, your attention spans were shorter than usual.

You kept coming over to the garden, wanting to wear my gardening gloves, wanting to help pull weeds and use the small trowel, wanting to stomp all over the dirt I was trying to till by hand.

I let you. Why not?

I was sweating and pretty uncomfortable myself, but I’ve learned that getting your hands dirty in a garden, even if it means sweat is dripping off your nose, makes just about any day a good day.

I am not, in general, someone who likes being gross, and I am, in general, someone who sweats lot. I had a headband and visor on, my sunglasses, my own sunscreen, cut-off jeans, and a sweated-through T-shirt in no time.

After trying, fruitlessly, to dig a hole bigger than one of the onions, the 4 year old told me once again how hard it was to work outside and how hot she was. She’d probably mentioned it a dozen times at that point. (The toddler, if she happened to be nearby, echoed the sentiment monosyllabically: “hot.” Or, sometimes, “sweat.”)

“Momma’s hot, too,” I said, “but sometimes we have to do things, even when we’re hot and uncomfortable. Gardening is one of those things. We get hot and dirty, but it’s worth it.”

Then, patting myself silently on the back and thinking I would get a mother-of-the-year award for this, I added, “And you know what? Gardening can teach us about God. Did you know that? What do you think it can teach us?

Without even a pause, you squeal, because you’re sure you have the right answer: “That God helps us!!”

And you are right, of course.

I didn’t know what answer I was expecting, but it wasn’t that. I had thought more along the lines of patience and provision and lack of control. More gardening-like metaphors of sowing and reaping, and needing both rain and sunshine.

But, as usual, you cut right to the chase.

God does help us.

It’s not a “God’s on our side” kind of help, not a “God won’t let anything bad happen to me” kind of help, not a me-and-God-we’re-buddies kind of help, and certainly not a “put in the work, and you’ll be blessed” kind of help.

No, what I’m thinking is the fact that seeds sprout at all, girls, is a miracle.

A miracle.

That the thyme my mom transplanted five years ago from her garden in Pennsylvania, put in her trunk, and then drove to Kentucky is still taking over my herb garden is a miracle.

That we save all that compost–tea bags, egg shells, banana peels–and it breaks down into something that can nourish the soil is a miracle.

That God has actually given us an opportunity to participate in the act of creation is a miracle.

It’s all kind of crazy.

But, and this is the annoying part, we have to get dirty and sweaty first. And we have to keep those weeds under control or they choke out the good stuff.

There are so many gardening, farming, seed-laden, dirt-encrusted metaphors in Scripture, girls. It’s a powerful thing to kneel down in the dirt and feel that moist soil underneath the cracking, dried-out dirt on the surface.

You know, there’s probably a metaphor in that act of kneeling, too, because if you try to weed just bending at the waist, you’ll run out of back strength long before you run out of weeds.

God helps us.

And, here’s a side note: If you just can’t keep up with the garden, if you let those tomatoes rot on the vine or fall on the ground and get so gross you don’t want to even pick them up to throw them into the compost, you know what happens?

You get volunteers next year.

Love,

Your Momma

The Eighteenth Letter: St. Francis Didn’t Have Toddlers

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Dear Daughters,

I recently heard an apocryphal story about St. Francis of Assisi:

One day, while working in his garden, Francis was approached by someone and asked what he would do if he found out that he would die before sunset. Francis replied, “I would finish hoeing my garden.”

I love this story.

I really do.

There’s beauty in understanding that the task at hand, however small or trivial, is what you are called to be doing in that moment.

There is beauty in attention to good work, complete work.

There is beauty in feeling the dirt under your fingernails, piling up a basket of peppers and tomatoes, seeing the freshly turned-over ground when you’ve pulled out a row of weeds, smelling the basil you’ve pinched off, the cilantro that’s gone to seed. This is God’s creation.

But let’s be real.

I would totally not finish hoeing my garden.

I would not clean a toilet, not wash dishes, not run the vacuum, not if I knew I were dying. I would not pick up toys or fold laundry. And I certainly wouldn’t go out and weed my garden.

I wouldn’t take time to cook food. And I probably wouldn’t exercise. Because then I would need to get a shower and that would be using up valuable time.

I wouldn’t sit around on my rear and watch TV either; don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I would be a lazy bum, but I wouldn’t do menial and mindless things.

It’s hard for me to see those day-to-day practical and necessary things of life as important enough to do if I knew my time was limited. Because right now, in this season, I have a hard time not seeing those things as ultimately life-sucking.

So, what would I do? Snuggle. Laugh. Take lots of pictures. Definitely order Thai food for dinner. Go outside and not put on sunscreen. Maybe eat cookie dough right out of the frig.

Just kidding.

Sort of.

What I’ve been thinking about recently is how to balance being a good steward of my time, that is, keeping the Most Important Things at the top of my priority list, with remaining attentive to the everyday, boring things I need to get done.

Because, to me at least, those aren’t the same things.

But I have this hunch, this sort of feeling deep in my chest, that there’s more connecting the Most Important Things to the Everyday Boring Things than I’m usually willing to recognize.

Because that’s what this story of Francis suggests, girls. That dirty, annoying, frustrating, or just plain old boring tasks can actually give our lives meaning. We can find God there. We can find purpose and vocation there.

I believe that. I do.

Or think I do.

But I’m not really in that place right now.

Love,

Your Momma