“Never put happiness at center stage. It is the by-product of a life of service, never the chief end of life. Happiness is not a right to be grasped, but a serendipity to be enjoyed.”
Freedom of Simplicity
Richard J. Foster
“Never put happiness at center stage. It is the by-product of a life of service, never the chief end of life. Happiness is not a right to be grasped, but a serendipity to be enjoyed.”
Freedom of Simplicity
Richard J. Foster
I crept out onto deck to escape the after lunch chatter, chili dishes being scraped to the last drop, sourdough bread sighed over. We stopped to pick it up from a grocery store bakery after church today. Everyone was in rapture over it. As I sat down on the bench, the gusty, lovely wind kissed my face, running its fingers though my hair. I closed my eyes and felt the glorious warmth blanket my face. The autumn colors are wooing us all, our drives to and fro becoming private Artist showings. I feel a prick of pain, heart and soul, as I know it will be all over much too soon. But never-mind that. I’m here now, aren’t I? And that prick was actually a wasp sting! Time to duck back into the house, supervising the meal clean up. Music playing, wind in the curtains, we get things generally put to rights. Annie and Noah head out with my father-in-law, Peter, and Amos in the rumbling, rusty farm truck, the “littles” staying home with me. I order them a dose of sunshine and then taking my own advice, grab coffee, with dash of half ‘n half, stack of books, a small quilt and head out myself. The wind hasn’t forgotten me, it’s welcoming as I sink back into the swing. What a perfect Sunday afternoon.
“Yesterday is ashes; tomorrow is wood. Only today does the fire burn brightly.” ~Old Proverb
A clank, a splash, dish washing noise mingles with children’s voices, and one of our favorite bits of music, Loreena McKinnett’s “The Book of Secrets”. I wipe away the hot chocolate rings from a mug, rinsing, and dipping my hands into the hot water again. Each dish, a drink sipped, a meal shared, a person strengthened, sustained. The twinkle lights flickering in my peripheral vision. I don’t often do dishes anymore. Noah is away, my wonderful dish washer for this year, so I’m back sink-front. Momentarily wandering, I vaguely remember the long days with all little children needing me, all the chores done by my own hand, instead of the family effort it is now, and how short the years do end up being. I was listening to a podcast recently, and this jumped out at me. That idea that we have to overcome our fears, an idea we’ve heard for years, what if it’s wrong? What about just working alongside of our fear? Living and working with the fear. Not letting it overwhelm us, but humbly acknowledging it, and just keep going. For myself, my faith has an answer for fear. It’s Love. Love so great, fear cowers piteously. This idea continues to rattle around in my head, just how much, and how far I go to overcome or put off something until I’ve “mastered” my fear of failure, discomfort, change, or of whatever random unknown it may be at the moment.
However, there is something to be said for just putting one foot in front of the other, no matter if the next step is off a cliff. We just don’t know what tomorrow holds. Why let it rob today? Urgent care visits yesterday for my Ben, his airway restricted due to a cold triggering asthma-like symptoms. Family issues, broken down vehicles, and puke staining the floor can make me afraid. Afraid that I can’t do this. Afraid that my comfort is being challenged. My whiny-First-World little self can’t handle the heat.
Yet, fear can be kept at bay. I can live alongside my old enemy, all its nasty, looming shape-shifting grotesque self. I can hug the little wheezing boy, kissing him, giving him another asthma treatment, reading a dinosaur book. I can search for those lost keys, carefully choose a new t shirt for Noah that I know he is going to love for Christmas. I can just be with these people. I don’t have to be anything special, I just have to be. Fear may be sitting alongside me, but I’m choosing to notice my Phoebe’s hands cutting out little shapes, I’m choosing to notice the flicker of candle light, the raindrops suspended on the clothesline, Sam’s elaborate drawings and stories. I’m choosing to appreciate the way the light hits the stack of clean dishes on the counter. I’m choosing to live with gratitude that I’m here today, surrounded by gifts, tangible and intangible. I hold onto the infinitely small, those little candles lighting the way through the enormous cavern of life. Sure they send out only small rays, but it’s just the right amount light to see my way for today. And that’s enough.
Just like that. The cooler weather is back. The countryside slides by, emerald green tinged with orange-hues, deep and rich, my windows down. The Amish are out splitting wood, mums and pumpkins appearing all over, this day gorgeous, breezy. It was clear with a few fluffy bits of white tickling the blue. Pink cosmos gaily dancing, smell of pears baking, this autumn feeling deserves a dessert. Tetleys in our cups, poured over sugar and cream, we read “The Children’s Hour”, such a lovely bit of poetry. We can imagine ourselves in the same exact situation with Mr. Longfellow, his sweet daughters clambering all over him. A bit of that lovely breeze tickles the red gingham curtains. I finally hemmed them up a year or so after buying the fabric. Something so simple, that brings so much joy. Since I’ve hung them we’ve admired the red glow, the breeze dancing with them, a kind of stop and think about it moment. Clothesline is flapping with towels, most the books are back in the basket for today, although Annie, Noah, Sam and I want to read Plutarch together. It may have been dubbed “Puketarch” a few times here, but the richness of language, characters have us returning. We always end up with bits of gold jumping out at us, surprise-like if we press through the difficulties. That’s life in a nutshell.
I’ve been missing my reading stack a bit, but I realized that I’m really enjoying all the books the children and I are reading together. I’ve been sneaking a peek of Dreams and Wishes: Essays on Writing for Children by Susan Cooper here and there. The title is a bit misleading as it is so much more. Essays on imagination, reading, fantasy, writing, and too many interrelated ideas to count. It’s fascinating and inspiring. Poetry also has been a constant fount to draw on, soaking deep into the cracks. Abigail Carroll, Wordsworth, Mary Oliver, and most recently, new to me, pieces by Anna Akmatova. I’ve been dipping my toe into one of my favorite rereads during my current season of life, Bequest of Wings: A Family’s Pleasure with Books by Annis Duff. Inbetween the pencil sharpening, listening, cooking, and coffee sipping, her lovely words about this feast we are partaking warms me. It sets me to the grabbing of the next beloved book off the shelf, striking the match to light another candle, and ignoring the spider webs in favor of just one last chapter. Last night, my heart welled up as we sat, cozy under blankets, I just listening from my spot on the faded green couch. It was like they were coming alive. On their laps, pages open, was Rosemary Sutcliff’s Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of THE ILIAD and this led to many thoughts and ideas being slung back and forth. They touched on history, geography, morality, religion, art, helping one another, companionably arguing, thinking and hashing things out. I sat there, silent, stunned, learning and taking in so much. My heart sang as I read Mrs. Duff this morning on this very life of relationships. This relational life of the tears, the dishes, the beauty of seeing and knowing TOGETHER, of having others to share with the richness of words, nature, music, art. All of it intertwined, shining, sounding out a loving Creator Who is reaching out His hand to us all. The gift of this life is stunning and I can’t ignore it.
The sun slowly descends, I think of my chicken and vegetables waiting for their bed of rice, the hungry bellies to fill, another day coming to a close. Pajama-clad little ones, perhaps a bit of the Ralph Moody Series or Mandy by Julie Andrews, before climbing in our cozy beds for the evening.
Welcome, Autumn loveliness.
I pound down the stairs to the screams of multiple children, I enter the room dubbed “Lego Land” and find them wheeling a extra twin bed around with various appendages flying in all directions. Children on mattress joy rides. Can we call it Physical Education? Creative Expression Class? Anger Management? I calmly direct the mattress and WHOLE bed be put back, the LEGOS and other debris swept and children report the the table for lunch. Well, in my saintly dreams, anyway. I was frustrated and exasperated. It actually seemed like a perfect time for locking myself into my room with 14 bars of Hershey’s chocolate. Good thing I don’t have any. Good thing I’m self-disciplined and have good habits, Charlotte Mason, dear.
The morning started off slow, as I woke earlier than my alarm, mumbling about my traitor body that wouldn’t let me sleep another seven and half minutes. I turned it off and then went back to sleep. Disorientated about the light blinding me when it was suppose to be 5:00 am, I stumbled out of bed, horrified at the late hour of 6:53 am, stared out my window, a deep, fog not unlike that of Barrow Downs hovered, one-eye half open, I started my life-giving brew, and sat down to check-in to the all-important internet world. My brain slowly unscrambled, a slight hum beginning to drift down from upstairs. Goodness. They’re awake. Those wild, crazy, lovely, delightful children of mine. My hubby bids me adieu and good luck. I barely turn from him when I feel the First-Tug-On-My-Sleeve of the day. It’s my three year old wanting me to read him a book. An hour later, I gulp a swig of cold coffee, put down the board books, boy, and realize that my oldest hasn’t stirred out of her room for KP duty. She is my Chief Oatmeal and Taco Maker. Thank goodness gracious for her.
Well, with a morning that’s lagging a bit behind, one has to reevaluate. I’m outnumbered. Only one thing can be done to preserve whatever sanity one has left. You go slow, you hang laundry on the line to blow in the breeze, you turn on Rachmaninoff, you let boys build their battle fields, other kids draw, and you heat up your coffee, waving your white flag of Early-Start Surrender. I regrouped, and by regrouped I mean get dressed and brush one tooth. My oldest made delicious oatmeal, the table got cleared, and we were acting slightly more human-ish by now. A pile of apples and pears later (didn’t we just eat?), we attack copywork and maths. My daughter took one look at her towering stack of books, a slight shiver running down her back, and dug into it all. I’m the lucky one, really, I get to hear her narrations, have discussions, on all the interesting things she is reading. I get to hold the sticky, brown-sugar-y hands, get burdock out of curly hair, and clean up the little, darling toddler pants. They are urine drenched, but hey. I alternate sending children outside for fresh air (aka keep-mom-sane) and helping them each with their individual studies. I laugh with my middle son over the silly happenings in Twenty One Balloons by William Pène du Bois, talk Feudalism with another, and listen to piano being practiced. My oldest son stabbed a few taters and threw them into the crock pot for lunch, Baked Potato Bar. This sounds more romantic than it is. Basically, hot potatoes with all the unwanted frig scraps on top. It feeds a crowd. Potatoes have kept whole country’s alive, surely they will do for seven people to survive a Thursday. After wrestling teens, toddlers, and table cleaners, (and finding out we cracked the poor old crock pot insert !), we settle down into our blissful messiness and enter other worlds together.
Flying, dipping, diving, we float through different stories, narrations, sharing, singing, and talking. Cain and Abel. “The Wreck of the Hesperus”. Abe Lincoln. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”. The murderous mayhem and mattresses are forgotten, the piles of toys, crumbled bits, discarded clothing, and half-eaten, browning apple cores a distant (for the moment) memory. Our voices raised together, we sing the “Doxology”, we listen to a bit of Tanglewood Tales, we learn a little about architecture, our Constitution, and finally, we sit around planning story-inspired art that we are working on. The afternoon sun glows cheerfully, I fold some more laundry, hide for a bit in the basement near the washer, laundry is helpful like that, always waiting, always there for you. We make pancakes for dinner, little sailboats made out of plastic ice cream dishes and morning glory leaves are floated in the puddles, a few tears are shed over a sharp knife ban, and I breathe an exhausted thanks Heavenward . Thanks for these children, for a home, thanks for this life, Lord. A swirling daze are these home schooling days, but I wouldn’t trade ’em for the world.
The pungent odor, the juicy, crisp feel, onions sliced, dropped into the pot. The sizzling music plays as flavors meld together, spatula stirring and chopping ground turkey as it browns.
The pungent, slightly morbid poem “Adventures of Isabel” by Nash chuckled at over breakfast. Uncontrollable laughter over Carrie, the half talking cat in Lear’s Half Magic, dropped lightly into the mixture.
Plump, diced chunks of tomatoes. Thin, black beans, morsels of golden corn added with the onions and meat.
Dicey moments over proper way to make a basic dough. Guffaws breaking tension as full stick of butter falls on floor, face down, bits splattering. A quick clean up, stir of resolution and a pinch of lets-start-over thrown in.
Water running, water necessary for life, soup pot is filling. Spices to birth flavor, to compliment vegetables, meat, and bringing soul, depth to sustenance.
Stones and sand, water flowing over our mock little river bed, four boy eyes gazing at geology experiment. The flowing, flowing of life giving words from The Holy Bible, Charlotte Mason’s Ourselves, rushing, tumbling, swirling, compassion and interest about a boy in Malawi. Folk tales about Paul Bunyan and Babe, straighting out a road in Minnesota. Spice for the heart, soaking for the imagination.
The simmering. Hot heat on my hand as I gently stir. The patience and a light shake, bit o’ pepper and salt into it all.
Listening, answering, sowing, words, numbers, the scorching of being “on” all the time. Inner patience, cultivation of a restful heart silence even through the shaky hop, skip, and jump of relationships. Throwing in an extra measure of grace, knowing full well how truly much I’ve been given.
A smell so delicious sifts through the air. A simple table cloth, candles flickering, mismatched bowls catch the light. Hearty soup, bread, fresh stick of butter, the meal has been prepared. The mixing and simmering are in the background, the relationships are here all around.
Gather in closer, sip, lather your slice with creaminess, taste and see. A daily dance of living ingredients, slowness, humility, and astonished gratefulness.
“The Mother is qualified,” says Pestalozzi,” and qualified by the Creator Himself, to become the principal agent in the development of her child;…and what is demanded of her is – a thinking love. …God has given to thy child all the faculties of our nature, but the grand point remains undecided – how shall this heart, this head, these hands, be employed? To whose service shall they be dedicated? A question the answer to which involves a futurity of happiness or misery to a life so dear to thee. Maternal love is the first agent in education.
I was blue and disgruntled all the forenoon and looked forward to the coming of the mail as the one possible rescue from the doldrums. There is always such a fascinating expectancy and uncertainty about the mail.
There is no place like our little home of learning. Yes, we are returning to the book shelves, returning to an invitation to enter in. The rustles of paper, woodsy pencil smell mixed with burnt electrical odor drifting up from our faithful sharpener, and the back acres’ beckoning call. Embroidering little gifts for Grandparent’s Day and Christmas, enjoying a hilariously performed narration of Saint George of Merrie England, inhaling loaves of fresh bread, digging into their maths with happiness (how I have children that enjoy Mathematics is nothing short of miraculous, they are actually teaching me the fun of it), watching our Monarch caterpillar build its gorgeous chrysalis, and measuring, crisp ruler lines emerging, seeing little paper envelopes unfold. Journals cracked open, new sketches join the old. Belly laughs over Edward Lear’s Half Magic, thoughtful discussions on silkworms, and diving back into the beauty, magic, and intrigue of history. Loreena McKennitt playing softly while morning breakfast is served. Milk, walnuts, and brown sugar poured over hot oatmeal, salty popcorn for elevenses, tapers are out, for autumn is slowly approaching. Soup and chili are back on the dinner menu, thank goodness.
The ecstasy, the sheer delight of this privileged life I’m blessed with is true and it is here. I choose to see, I have to see it. I closely notice the green vine of it peeking up through the cracks. Because as the big picture flickers by, playing out a tense-feeling mother who is fumbling along, trying to help us all get back into a regular rhythm, the habits of what we ought to do versus what we would like to be doing. Or in reality, the tension of what I like to be doing versus what I ought to be doing. This is ministry at its finest. A ministry of listening, the ministry of time, a ministry of stories, a ministry of delicious meals, a ministry of love, compassion. It is the ministry of relationships, possibly the hardest thing of all. It’s the piles of overflowing laundry, the grocery shopping, the garbage, the lawn to be mowed, the appointments to make, the filthy floors, the beauty and beast of it all.
In a few weeks, the flow, and the newness will even out, the three chocolate bar afternoons will end, and the semi-sanity will return. I will get gradually use to the indoor noise level again, the four-persons-asking-me questions at once, and the proverbial split milk, but now on top of someone’s copywork. The glorious thing is that as we soak all of this messy beauty in together, it begins to seep out in our stories, our art, our conversations, it becomes part of us, it forms our relationships, it enriches us. It changes our path, informs our decisions, turns our hearts, hands Heavenward and outward. An unseen beautiful vine of love twining its way through our home. And that is worth every minute of it all.
Here home again, bittersweet world of words.
Red-stained, Isle of blue-green,
Sail waiting to be unfurled.
Glints of gold on glass, mind’s-eye scene,
path of sunlight to horizon, quiet ease.
The din of loved ones, drowning
sea’s strong murmur. But I’ve a new lease, a fervor.
Responsibilities crashing loudly, crowning,
but a secret seeps from my
lapping lips, whispering of far-flung beauty sounding.
Out comes dunes, out comes brilliant sky,
Out comes red earth, surf, and seagull cry.
The thick worlds collide, my heart’s
isle and soul’s farm become intertwined.
Fingers stroke cheeks, sand grains left behind.
My breath is salty, pungent as I kiss
their darling, dirty faces, fists. The fields of corn,
waves of the sea, something missing and found in me.
Beacons, buoys, blueness, quintessential coastal horns,
sea in my lungs, earth in my throat,
compost of being, soul sea-soaked.
Farm’s beauty full width and breadth, feasting on, seeing
It’s flesh alive because of Island wind,
that died a death sown deep in me.
This old dirt-made woman, new from sweet saltiness of sea.
My early memories of my grandmother loom large in my mind. She was the only grandparent that I really remember, my grandfather outside the frame, and my maternal grandparents gone before my time. Frieda was her name, Fritz to her friends, Grandma to me. Snowball hydrangea’s the size of soccer balls bouncing in front of a greenish house have haunted my memory for years. The little walk up the cracked concrete, storm door creaking, the mini-golf like carpet, and such a distinctive smell greeting me on the enclosed porch. The smell was plastic-y, perhaps coming from our tread upon that fake lawn, mingled with the coming onslaught of cigarette smoke, and age of the house. Straight ahead was the door to the unknown upstairs renters. Mormons usually, Grandma liked them, didn’t want us to bother them, I noticed their bicycles sometimes parked side-by-side inside the porch. Next to their door, were windows peering in on the dining room, my excitement mounting. Turning to the right, we knock. Grandma is here, her small frame, her polyester pants, her sweater, and dainty hands, with blue star-sapphire ring, glinting. Her hair a bowling ball shape, coiffed perfectly, and her round glasses perched on her face. She greets us warmly, ushering us into the living area. I remember it, vaguely thinking there was a greenish hue in here also, couch against the far wall and to my left another, her coffee table with its mustard color chimney ashtray. Someone must have been home, as smoke was drifting lazily out, curling and rising. The lamps, the chair by the tall windows, the perpetually playing television in the corner to the immediate right, loneliness kept at bay. Her door closes, the three decorative windows, staggered at the top always fascinating me. Greetings all around, my parents, and sister, Christy, were there I’m sure. Grandma shows us to her extra bedroom, a dim, cave-like room with a big, deep bed, small pullout, a dresser, and closet. We dump our luggage in there and in anticipation run to the kitchen. Light dances through the smoke from another ashtray on the small kitchen table, centered directly under the window. A glance at the little yard, and back of the garage, turning to Grandma standing by her raccoon cookie jar, smiling. She reaches into the cupboard, a collection of glass jelly jars, cartoon characters congregated. She pours us milk, stealing a few cookies from the bandit for our eager hands. We eat the stale cookies, probably the same ones from the last visit, Grandma hustling to her little archaic set with rabbit ears that rests in the hall, making sure “Days of Our Lives” wasn’t starting yet. Her t.v. flanks the portal to her magical bedroom. I sneak a peek inside, a shadowy, mysterious place of old linens, a jewelry box, and history. She gives her room up for us when we visit, or maybe that was later, when my brother Joel came along. The few times I got to sleep in there with my mom, I felt like a princess in a secret room of an old castle. Across the hall, the bathroom with its giant porcelain tub, the drain plug on a chain, fascinatingly exotic. No shower here, a sinking into a huge vat of bubbles, the big pink bottle of bubble bath, it’s curvy shape hovering on the edge. Morning dawns with the smell of bacon, always bacon. Sizzles and snaps coming from her cast iron pan that she always stored in the oven. We forgot about that once and preheated the oven, scorching them. Her dining room, with the long side board, wide, rectangular dining table, but most of all the curio cabinet, filled with miniature figures, china, and wonder for a little girl’s eyes to devour. Little glass cats, vases, and trinket-y treasures. Treasure, just like the gems with my Grandma, endless Smurfs, soap operas, chain-smoking her way through our visits, we laughed and ate well. Bowls passed around the big table, my Uncle Darrell, Aunt Janet, and cousins there, Christmas time, tree missing under mounds of silvery tinsel, Santa-clad packages ho-hoing from beneath. Grandma’s battle with the twisted mass of death in her lungs, snowballs swaying softly in the breeze. Then blotchy memories of blackness, jelly jars packed, china cradled in boxes in that green backyard, glass cat gripped in my 12 year-old hand, and a blue-sapphire ring. The raccoon cookie jar we bought later just wasn’t the same. The smoke-soaked clothing, endless soap operas can be forgotten, but Grandma Fritz is alive, truly never can be buried.
The most precious thing a human being has to give is time.