Greatness

Dorothea Brooke of “Middlemarch”, written by George Elliot, longs to make a difference. Every part of her internal working is meant for bigger things. She is a more sophisticated version of “Scuffy the Tugboat,” a Golden Books story in which a little red toy tugboat is dissatisfied with his toyshop and bathtub existence.

“I was meant for greater things,”

he sulks.

One day he finds the opportunity to do what he feels meant to do. The accommodating man with the polka dot tie who runs the toyshop takes Scuffy and his son to the babbling brook. Scuffy moves quickly and finds himself on an adventure.

He is excited and proud, then frightened and lonely. In the end, he finds that maybe the biggest adventures were not what he was meant for, and he finds contentment back in the bathtub and domesticity.

What does it actually mean to be meant to do great things?

Are great things only the big visible things that go viral on social media, make it to the news and front pages, making good stuff for a memoir? Some of these great things change the world, change the course of history, change lives. But the world makes a poor witness and as soon as her attention is turned, the spotlight shifts and the next big story hits the front page.

Perhaps greatness is the simple act of giving a child a beautiful plumb-colored snapdragon from the garden they are not usually allowed to pick from because the flowers are bound to be sold in bouquets. The child carries the flower around until the buds fall off, he cries, and you give him another, brightening his world once more. The joy is deep but lasts only as long as that little bloom.

Photo by Caroline Hernandez on Unsplash

Is it a meal ready on the table for a hardworking husband? Is it the car unexpectedly filled up with gas-saving a trip later that day? Is it picking out a book for a friend, or sending an Instagram photo with a caption you know would make them laugh?

Dorothea married Mr. Casaubon, a character repeatedly described as “dried up” in comparison to her youthful vitality and beauty. She marries him in the hope and dream of being introduced to the world of great things, where she can do a great work, effect a great difference. She quickly finds herself disappointed and disillusioned, outside whatever mechanism drives and inspires him. In a modern world, she likely would leave him behind to look for her path to greatness.

Faithful, she remains, full of trust that her path will reveal itself in her given circumstances, circumstances she chose for herself. Elliot presents a particular problem for the woman in this period. Dorothea makes one decision, to marry the man, and she must wait patiently before anything can change. She is, for the most part, powerless in her circumstances. This is contrasted with another character, Dr. Lydgate, who, as a man, is in a position to make decisions professionally and personally and, even after a disappointing marriage, can choose what step he will take next.

What do they do with their opportunities?

What does Scuffy do? The key feature is that Dorothea keeps her vision. Her desire is not entirely set on one dream, as Lydgate’s was of professional greatness. Thus her desire can adapt. It is not the great thing itself, but to make a difference. To make a difference in the world can be as entirely intimate as offering a flower to a child, or as global as building a hospital.

The greatness comes from pouring oneself out, in offering what one has at his disposal for the good of another, of looking for opportunities to give, and then giving.

I tell my children that virtue is practiced in the small things so that when the big moments arise, we have trained ourselves to either do good or avoid evil. Greatness works similarly. So whether a housewife outside a rural town or a doctor in a big city, when we take our circumstances for what they, work with them in that sphere without resentment or distraction, keeping our eyes open and our will ready to serve, the great moments come. And I venture to say, they’ll be more than we realize and effect a greater difference in those around us than we ever could have imagined.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

When the Garden is Good

Gardening came with home-owning. Growing flowers came as therapy. A flower is a piece of art. A bouquet is a collection of art pieces, arranged to showcase the beauty of the feature star.

With our new home came new possibilities. It was difficult to keep the sprinklers running without their getting clogged. Perennial, drought-tolerant plants to fill large swathes of land, replaced wild geranium and nettle were called for. I planted lavender, Russian sage, salvia, chamomile, mint and dusty miller.

The ranunculus were on sale at Costco. They went in, along with irises that have gone with me from home to home, a sign (to me) of hope in bad times and generational love.

The roses bloomed. Years-old roses I had not worked for. In spring they came as a magnificent gift, creating a three-foot tall arrangement in my footed orange-art-glass vase.

Then I met Floret Flower Farm through Erin Benzakein’s first book “Cut Flower Garden.” Gardening became accessible. From therapy to hobby and even familial bonding as my husband grew the vegetables and I grew the flowers. Now my daughters are helping me harvest the greenery.

I arranged flowers for my home and posted photos on Instagram. Last summer, a woman from our parish reached out to me to order flowers. Orders trickled in. I sold potted paperwhite bulbs and sweet pea seeds at The Loreto Market in December.

Spring came again. Now there are more plants alongside the lavender and salvia than I can name.  Another flower bed of dahlias, zinnias, snapdragons and strawflowers sprung up where once there was dust and weeds.

More orders. Bonus bouquets. And then, a flower stand.

Each day, I arrange a handful of pint-size jars of flowers, careful to select for color, shape and complementing features and set it out. I photograph, post, and hope people will come by for $10 jars bouquets. I hope they will ask questions. I hope they will place a special order.

“The money goes to pay for the hobby,” I tell my friends. But truly, there is something deeper at work when I handle, contemplate and arrange the flowers. I have written over the years about how gardening is a microcosm full of life lessons. I feel that even more now.

Because now, we have bugs and powdery mildew; and I lunged with a garden tool at a gopher who had just eaten the rhizome off of one of my new irises.

And my daughter received her First Holy Communion, a big deal in the life of a young Catholic girl as she goes to the Church dressed like a bride That day my younger son was hurting.

“Does it feel like a step back since he was doing so well?” a friend asks, with compassion in her eyes, in response to my tears.

“No,” I said.

Because somehow I could feel in my heart that gophers exist alongside the flower stand. The roses look mighty pretty, even as the gardener clips off damaged leaves and hopes the next flush of buds will be protected.

The weeding still has to be done.

It is hard to remember this when the going is good and I have just set out seven little floral arrangements on a Monday morning. Yet, when faced with it, if we can accept the bad along with the good, the rocks along the otherwise smooth path, the weeds along with the vegetables, without thinking that the garden is doomed, that this year is a failure, that success will crumble, then we have got something to hold on to.

Then we have got a garden.

Then we have got a family.

And those are the times, more than any other, that we can feel how good it is.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Feel like your failing? There’s a point to that asking if you are.

One mother meltdown to start off our Monday.

Three assessments today. They scored “Advanced.” They smile with pleasure to hear their score. They have heard from their parents they are smart, but somehow they believe it more when they are assessed by an outside source.

I look out with delight at two fresh blooms in the garden. At lunch, my fingers reach continually to fuss with an arrangement of flowers celebrating those blooms.

As I organize my baskets, empty frames and decorative holders for my business my eyes spy ivory crochet squares through the lid of the yarn box as I stash away. I did not know my daughter could crochet these squares. It looks beautiful.

I think of the flower arrangement she cut for me on Mother’s Day with lavender, purple sweet peas and, for greenery, wandering jew. She chose a cut crystal bud vase and snipped to particular heights. It is enchanting.

Next to it on the table stands a Lego creation by son. He followed his father’s suggestion to build my garden but did it in such a way that includes the white bench, the tree, my husband fixing a broken sprinkler and, along with me watering the flowers, water flowing out the other side of the plant, unbeknownst to Lego me.

I asked my clever daughter why she switched beds with her brother to use the tallest bunk. “Because then Peter doesn’t bother me at night.”

I asked Peter the reason he does not do a particular thing the other kids do. “Because I’m scared to,” he answers with honesty and insight.

The day began with me staring at my limitations.

As the hours passed the opportunities to see their gifts grew.

I hope that I can communicate to them about their gifts. I hope I can recognize and make them feel that their gifts are seen and appreciated. I hope my mother-meltdowns are not the sum of our lives together.

In the Catholic Church May is a month dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mother’s Day just passed. Our time of crisis ended a while ago. What happens now? Do I measure up now that things are calm and my excuses are gone?

I see my weaknesses and wonder.

My friend tells me the fact that I ask these questions is probably a protective factor against the outcome I fear.

The risk takes place if we never ask or if we stop asking and begin to answer. We answer with the negative. Instead of asking, do I measure up? We begin to tell ourselves, I do not measure up. I am not enough. This is not good enough. This never will be enough.

Or in the opposite direction, wherein we no longer notice our weaknesses. “It’s fine.” “At least I’m not like so-and-so.” “I’ve got this down” with the sort of satisfaction that tells us we can give up and stop trying to grow.

We cannot standstill.

The urge to ask the question of how we are doing and if it is enough is an invitation. Maybe it is an invitation to reassurance, to take stock of the value, to see the good before us and graciously allow that we had something to do with that. Or it is an invitation to honestly assess where we have failed and how we need to approach the path towards improvement, however painful that may be. Sometimes we need to be reminded we are human. Sometimes we need to be reassured that human though we may be, transcendence is possible.

It all begins with the question, not the assumption.

The assumption lowers us, locks us in, and stagnates us. The question, though painful at times, opens us up.

Had I not been questioning myself this month, would I have noticed how surrounded by gifts I am? Would I have seen the creativity, willpower, problem-solving, artfulness in those around me?

I may never feel secure in my ability to be a mother, but I can see the fruit of the effort, and that is worth a great deal indeed.

Draw Back to the Garden

Motherhood is work.
And work is play
Until the demands of my duty
Fill the hours of the day

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Melville’s sea and my garden

My first flower order of the year came at the fresh and breezy beginning of May, after the first rush of rose blooms, before the dahlias, pincushions and zinnias start their takeover of my morning hours. The calendula is beginning to speak up. The snapdragons are showing promise. Here and there new flowers are whispering that they are ready for their first bloom. Some garden beds are a disappointment. Some feel more like an investment in the future.

“It will look amazing next spring!” I say, pointing to a bunch of transplant-shocked plants. I know I should transplant in the fall. I know it. But when the plants are healthy is just when I can see they are crowding each other and where its creeping roots might be severed to fill in the gaps of another bed. 

With the first flower order complete, and with ten more bouquets besides to sell bound or  The Loreto Market, an outdoor market we hosted outside our home. As the market progressed, my stand emptied out until the last bouquet sold.

After hours of clipping, cleaning, and arranging I thought how welcome a break would be. Let the bees have the blooms for a few days. Before two days passed, I was back in the garden, gushing over my third peony plant in bloom. Its scent wafted up my nostrils as I tied the arching stems to a stake.

“Motherhood is work,” a priest reminded me.

The simple words spoke volumes to my soul. Motherhood is work, and I do not need to make the other projects into work right now. I’m tempted to ambition, to dive deep into the next project, to go and go and go until I reach the boundary of what I can do, simply because I have the energy to do so. I have the energy, but no longer have the time. 

The thing that was a fun hobby then becomes a strain. Other duties call my name: a five-year-old, a toddler, an emerging 6th grader, field and flower. 

After balancing life and projects last week, I thought with satisfaction of letting the weeds go and leaving the blooms to the pollinators. But then a mystery flower was covered in frilly orange faces, the yarrow burst with sunshine, the bunny tails wiggled in the wind. I must collect them. They all move so beautifully together.

This hobby takes effort, but the effort is sweet. Its work balances my duties within the home. It draws me outside, into the wind, the sun and the dirt. I pause and contemplate. My senses spring to respond to the stimuli nearby. Pathways in my brain flicker with excitement as I draw relationships from color theory. 

I cut, I clean, I arrange. 

And my home is filled with flowers.

The woman who placed the special order listened to my gardening story, that story that begins in sadness and grief, but grew a garden. “You’ll always have this as the gift she left you, your love of gardening,” she said.

Many days of motherhood are filled with laughter and tears. To find the fruit of both, I go out to the garden.

Would that we all could find the hobby that energizes us, that balances us, that helps us find a central space around which we can pivot, flexing our muscles and growing in virtue is ways that pour over into all aspects of our life. This gift is not something only I can receive because of some privilege. It is available to everyone. And its path takes us through, not just the garden, but the good life.

When the world feels dark

The world is a dark place

but as I was reminded today in a Facebook meme, “look to the east.” The sun rises in the east. A new day begins are dawn. When our nights are filled with weeping, upon waking, hope often finds itself restored. The morning looks not so dark.

Life is hard.

Even with things “opening up” and returning to whatever normal is, life will still be hard, only now more people realize it. No legislation, no tax break, no job growth will change this fact. Even if herd immunity is achieved, even if unemployment levels return to pre-pandemic levels, even if the time machine in my neighbor’s garage manages to return us all to a different, better, purer age, life will still be hard.

Only now more people know it.

That sounds bleak.

What do we do with this information?

We can self-medicate, isolate, escape into virtual reality until it passes. But it won’t pass. It will wax and wane, but the world we live in will still exist even after a night of heavy drinking.

We can volunteer, advocate, and work to change the brokenness of the world. While we have a significant impact on our community and the individuals we encounter, the world will still be a complicated, messy place. It cannot be controlled. The seeds of weeds will still scatter, some intentionally, some unintentionally, but we will never have to stop weeding unless we burn it all down.

There are those who want to burn it all down. But then, nothing will be left. No humans to tend the earth, no climate to make life worth living for the humans. It is an ecosystem and one thing depends on another.

What do we do?

We find a new way, a new path, something different than suffering and not suffering, but learning to find meaning in suffering and live even amid the pain. That is a life worth living. It does not have to be perfect or physically complete. It may not even be financially stable. But it can still be good.

Would you believe an operatic telling of Aesop’s Fables inspired these thoughts?

Opera Modesto presented “The Race” on April 9 as part of its Festival @ Home.

It will be available from Opera Modesto until May 9. I wrote about it as news, but now I want to write about the spirit of it.

It is joyful.

It is light.

It is playful.

It is beautiful, both in its naturalistic settings and the unique ability of humans to sing.

The singing is impressive.

The performers are representative of the diversity of the real world, in age and color, harmonizing together.

It has a vision beyond the brokenness and pain of 2020 and the tensions of the present moment.

Because Aesop’s Fables come from an age when we were better equipped to take the world as it is. And because the world was recognized as a sometimes dark place, with wolves in sheep’s clothing or consequences to laziness (those grapes did look good) it was actually possible to learn lessons that could make life better despite hardship, pain, or injustice.

The narrative turns a little darker as the Wolf played by Roy Mendiola peers over at the seemingly helpless lamb played by Lance Mendiola. Photo by David Schroeder.

We could learn:

I have control over my actions.

I can make a decision.

I can work or not work.

I can complain or not complain.

I can boast, becoming consumed by overconfidence in my perspective, no longer allowing for even reasonableness to intrude on my thoughts (should you really take that many naps during a race?), or humbly recognize my skills for what they are. They may be very good indeed, but it is still possible to lose. Not everything is within my control. But some important things are.

One more moral of the story. Overconfidence can spoil a good sport, we learn this and more from the Hare, played by Katie Overton. Photo by David Schroeder.

I believe we need to teach these lessons to our children, and revisit them ourselves.  A lot of things come easier in this day and age than they did in the past, and that is a good thing. But it does mean we have to work a little harder to be reminded that we need to learn these lessons.

“The Race” is a great movie.

It really is what we need in this world. I heartily recommend it as one more antidote against both the doldrums and storms of this age.

Photo by Rosan Harmens on Unsplash

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

What to Do with the in-between season

As I write this, it is the first day of Spring.

From the white board in front of our makeshift homeschool classroom, I can erase the word “Winter” from the combination “Winter/Spring”. We live in a form of winter/spring for a handful of months in the Central Valley. The weather warms, but might still freeze. The temperatures reach up near 70, inching bit by bit, because a cold spell and a day of rain makes us all remark how like winter it is in March.

Purple iris

Other states sit covered in snow, waiting for the flowers to poke through the icy layers, signaling the end of a long winter will not be too far off.

Californians start their seedlings, but plant them also, seeing the first fruits in their open fields. Farmers carry in boxes of citrus, as sweet as candy, while we smell the sweetly scented air filled with almond blossoms and pollen.

Landscape with cut flower garden and seedlings

It is winter/spring here in California when the mud puddles merge together with puddles from misdirected sprinklers, their timers signaled too soon in preparation for dryer spells. Children shed their winter clothes for lighter garments, only to shiver once the sun goes down because the mornings are below 50, the coldest temperature we generally see.

It is winter/spring as our loved ones receive the vaccine alongside the safety, hope and peace it brings to know they can gather again with loved ones will still following CDC guidance; as some of our youth return to schools and sports and order special masks and bell covers to play their preferred instrument with the victorious spirit of a high schooler who has faced something no generation before ever faced.

It is winter/spring as liturgically-focused Christian religions move through the Lenten season, with just a shot time remaining before Easter, the highest of holy days, the more triumphant, grandest, important celebration to the heart of Christian belief. To enter the church that Sunday, the church they could not enter one liturgical year ago, when doors were closed and services live-streamed and Easter egg hunts canceled.

It is winter/spring as we gather with others in small numbers or shop for plastic eggs at Target while still wearing masks, keeping our distance and trying not to make physical contact with someone we do not know, when once a handshake might have been the best approach.

It is winter/spring as my daughter bends the top line of the growth chart, yet never sleeps. As my son outgrows another size of clothes, but has surgery next month. As my oldest learns Latin but will go into 6th grade, signaling to me the beginning of the end of her children and her emergence in a new phase of life, one I have never experienced before as a mother.

The weeds grow with the new flowers. The dahlias emerge even where the cats scratched. The rain waters the fields even as it inspires the weeds to give it one last go before the vegetable garden is planted.

Detail of cut flower garden with white garden bench

All of our lives we live in this winter/spring, with the bare ground filled to the brim with seeds and life waiting for just the right amount of daylight, warmth and water to break forth. In this season all the potential is there. We have only to wait a little longer, tend the ground a little more gently, and continue to feed the heart and soul of the project with the very best we have, the practice of virtues, including kindness, understanding and justice determined by reason and not emotion.

Understand and embrace the duality in which we must live, the tension to which we must adjust. Even as today is the first day of spring, a chill is in the air. Nothing ever fully ends or disappears, and the beauty that lies in wait for us lies within this tension.

Discover it. Embrace it. See what is has for you today.

Pink and purple early spring bouquet

Choose Festivity

The Covid-shutdown shuffled around our income. In the transition, we find my husband now working most holiday mornings. It was not a change I would have lobbied for.

You see, I am an extrovert, and as an extrovert, I crave conversation, discussion, a rational witness to the work I am undergoing, a companion on the journey. When I am excited, I am elated. Along with being an extrovert, I have a choleric temperament, meaning, in familiar words, I am dramatic. When disappointment comes, I am crestfallen.

We have our traditions for Thanksgiving, the day after Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day. Shoot, even Saturdays in winter now have traditions attached to them. Each tradition accentuates the rhythm in the lives of my children, giving them something to look forward to and a memory to hold onto.

“Remember how daddy always built a fire on cold Saturday mornings?”

“Remember how we always watched Miracle on 34th Street on Thanksgiving?”

I want to make sure they have plenty of “remember when’s.”

Things are fun. They are festive.

What happens to the extrovert whose festival day now includes a morning of normalcy, not festivity, when the husband is at work and the wife is home with the children who have not yet learned to gratify the needs of the extrovert, being themselves so demanding?

Choose festivity.

A spirit of festivity is a choice.

It does not require perfection.

It does not require a crowd.

The festival exists whether or not we participate in it. Why not choose to participate?

We can choose to allow each day to be just one more day, another day of diapers, dishwashing, laundry folding, earning the bread, taking out the garbage. Or we can access an internal locus of control, believing in our efficacy in a situation, and choose to make this day something special, something that aligns with what it actually is.

So stop working, start celebrating.

Even if my husband is gone for a few hours, bringing home the bacon, I need to stop cleaning and start being.

Rather than taking advantage of the extra time, as if the festival had not started yet, I need to access the traditions and do them in a new way, reapplying the trial and error that cemented them as our traditions and find a new and adjusted routine.

We should plan ahead to free up the busiest hands on that day. It is not festive if the mother is slugging away at the dishes while everyone else relaxes.

Limit television and screen time, stay off social media. In fact, eliminate any technology that is not communal – so if you like a Wii game – do it as a group with spectators (not everyone has to play but be present), if you watch TV, do it as a group, the exception the rule being the posting of a few Instagram pictures because those communal pajamas look sharp.

When the heads of the house choose to be festive, the rest will fall under the spell.

Our kids usually need a pep talk the day before to remind them not to lose it in the afternoon when their excitement has exhausted them. Knowing I will not be able to fully unleash the power of my extroversion until later in the morning, I probably need a pep talk too.

Take photos in the morning when the kids (and everyone) is more excited.

Clean the day before, or let it go entirely. Festivity is not about perfection.

Drinking might feel like keeping spirits bright, but if you get so sloppy that you can’t dance at the end of the night.

2020 is a drag.

Choose festivity.

What Feels More Real?

Now that that’s over

The election is finally nearing an end (as of this writing) and I can hear the celebrations and sighs of relief on one side and the cries of injustice, stolen elections, fear and trembling for the future on the other. I could write that same sentence had it gone the other way.

The reality is a lot of people staked much in this election. I used to feel that way about politics until I was old enough to pay attention. There was the governor and then there was a president about whom I regarded the future in dread. The term passed. The world survived. The country survived. The state survived.

Whether your savior or your mortal enemy became president, this too shall pass.

I guess that is the good thing about the four-year term limit.

I do not have the emotional resources to wring my hands about this election, the week-long during or after. It is in Washington D.C. And I am here, on our little corner of rural America.

Will we be affected by the politics and baby-is bickering taking place on this hill? Yes. Is there anything I can do about it?

What do I have control over?

I can do my civic duty, vote, follow casually what’s happening, but know that ultimately, I will likely live and die without being majorly affected by what is happening over there. What matters here is the actual happening here and around me, the noise in my garage by children who made a playroom with my stored-for-winter outdoor furniture, the field mouse that ran out from under a pile of plants I gathered up while putting my garden to sleep for our short winter, the cat that went missing, the sounds of coyotes around the chicken coop, seeing my name in print in a weekly newspaper, and nursing my infant to sleep.

This is within my control and if I allow myself the time to focus on it, it is actually quite good, moves fast, and is a lot more pleasant than thinking about a bunch of politicians who have forgotten their mothers’ lessons on how to compromise.

This life around us, the things we can see, hear, touch, and smell are the things that should matter most to us, the things that give us the greatest elation, the deepest dread, the biggest relief, the things on which our lives are really staked.

Today is the first day for a new medication.

Tonight is an outdoor gathering for a friend’s birthday.

Tomorrow we finalize plans for the outdoor market we plan to host on December 5.

Thanksgiving is coming. Christmas is coming.

There are traditions to be lived.

Memories to be made.

And in the midst of that, in my home at least, there are a lot of little people whose reality is shaped by the environment we give them, whose perception of that reality is affected by the way we preset it, whose response is guided by how they see us respond to the current events that affect us.

I want to give them the best. I want them to know a world that is secure in the things that matter, where things change but only big things require tears and only unjust things require anger. I want them to know they are loved; that unconditional love is possible to give and to receive; that we can all rise above the temptation to be petty, to gloat, to be envious of what others have; and that even in a world where no matter who you are, there is something in the news and social media to be angry about; that we all can slow down, refocus, be grateful for the life in which we live, and make a difference, right here and now.

Now, for the perspective

I want these lessons and events to be more real, deeper and closer to my heart than what happens over there. What happens over there matters. But what happens here matters more.

Photo by Leo Rivas on Unsplash
Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Lessons from Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving and Native American Heritage Day

There is something about raising children that broadens and sharpens my focus on celebration and tradition. It may be their exuberance. It may be their curiosity. Whatever it is, I can safely say my understanding and appreciation of Thanksgiving has grown.

For most of my life, I carried with me the shards of a public school educational approach to Thanksgiving. In grade school, there were Pilgrims and Indians and the feast they shared following a rough year. College squashed any reverence for the ideas associated with those pilgrims. But as my children have moved through the early elementary school grades, to explain the meaning of the day  I have both learned more about the story and why it really is a history worth celebrating.

I observe on Google Calendar “Native American Heritage Day” on the day following Thanksgiving. Last year, I believe the day following Thanksgiving was marked by Google as “Black Friday.” Times change. With November standing as Native American Heritage Month, it is a valuable time to consider what we really know about that Thanksgiving feast, three hundred and ninety-nine years ago.

Photo by Meritt Thomas on Unsplash

The Story of Thanksgiving

The pilgrims were religious refugees and adventurers, seeking a new life where they could practice their faith apart from government intervention or restriction. The journey was perilous. I learned this from “This Is America Charlie Brown” an excellent educational resource. It is amazing to learn what they suffered, even from so simple a telling, and how all the children survived, even as many adults died before building and living in a new American settlement.

It was through the intervention of Squanto, who spoke English, that the pilgrims were able to successfully grow the crops whose yield would warrant the celebration of that first Thanksgiving. Cordial relations for one generation made it possible.

Those relationships deteriorated, but a generation is not a significant length of time. Relationships are made first between individuals. That they were not maintained does not deny the goodness of the original relationship between these parties. That a child grows up and divorces does not negate the good of the seemingly happy marriage in which that child was raised.

Beyond Charlie Brown, at home we read about Squanto. We read books about the pilgrims. We read books about the Mayflower. We discuss parts of the world that right now experience religious persecution.

I created coloring pages to illustrate these points: the story of Thanksgiving, the tradition of eating and pardoning Turkey, the Jewish roots of a festival to give thanks.

Photo by Cayla1 on Unsplash

What difference does it make now?

By these practices, history becomes more than just a vague memory of puffy figurines for the 1980s dining table. We connect to our heritage. We connect to the heritages that heritage draws from to begin with. More than sentiment, we can learn something from this holiday that we need very badly today.

  • Help one another.
  • Reach out to those in need, even when they are very different, even if you might have a good reason to hold no trust based on previous encounters with others like them.
  • Know that sharing a meal is a human tradition, going beyond Hallmark and Betty Crocker and mass-market commercialism. There is a reason we break bead together.
  • Some hard things are worth the effort to do them. There was something worth fighting for, and not with violence, not with complaining, but by finding a way to make it possible.

The pilgrims traveled with hope. Others traveled with greed. Others traveled intent in acquiring whatever they could, whatever the cost. But this group, this set of real people who actually lived, were in need, strangers helped them, and they survived.

We need this example and these lessons. Even the imperfect are capable of virtue. Even the imperfect can be set before us as examples of a life well-lived.

So whether you are following Public Health orders to the letter of the law, whether your Thanksgiving meal will be take-out through the Hughson Community Thanksgiving Dinner, or whether you are going all out with a traditional menu at home, let it be deep and broad in its meaning, and let it take these lessons to heart.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

One Weird Thing about Suffering

There are things we will miss

One day I will miss the shoes on the floor, the tiny pair, a miniature version of his father’s shoes. There are piles of clothes around the house as I attempt the annual sorting of four outgrown children’s clothes, discerning what to donate, what to save, and what to quickly pass on to the next child.

One day we will miss this. The baby pulls herself to her feet and takes the first sideway steps. The almost-five year old reads his numbers, letters and colors. He reads a book, having memorized the words, thrilled that he knows exactly what I am pointing to, though he cannot actually read at all.

The eldest learns to wash her face with a bar of Dove soap because I want to save her from the expensive indulgences I have become accustomed to at the Macy’s Clinique counter. We tease the first-born son about an arranged marriage.

One day we will miss this.

Photo by Dick Saunders on Unsplash

I sat up with a baby from two to four last night. In the afternoon, as I grew just sleepy enough to fall asleep, while the two youngest napped, I heard a cry from across the house. I had to get up again.

But when we read a picture book together, the rest melts away. When we watch a Youtube video of a song titled “Christopher Columbo” from a Bing Crosby black-and-white flick, the rest fades away. When we gather around the table and hear what mispronunciations the eldest has to share from her science textbook and we catch the verbal errors of all those around the table, we laugh and forget the chores of today.

How many secret moments have the shutdown offered us that we otherwise might have missed? My focus turned inward as my husband sought to maximize the work he could to at home, having been told to work from home. So we cope, we watch movies, and we find new ways to laugh, not in an extraordinary way, but in a way that magnifies the actual life we are living, the life we are meant to find.

That is the key to suffering.

It is not about the hardness of suffering, but the way suffering strips away all the unnecessities, as this crisis did both by the illness itself and the results of the shutdown. It stripped away all the superfluous brass and buckles and brought back sensible dresses with loose waste lines. We were no longer performing, showing off for the public. We were living.

The shoes were left on the floor, neatly arranged, left and right. I hear him and his dad laugh to jazz Christmas music by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. The other children help clean the home while I rest, the end of the day wearing on my reserves.

This is the invitation.

We will miss this when it’s gone. Because suffering, in editing, actually brings into full color the best of things. I saw the streets of San Francisco on walks while my son lay lethargic in the hospital bed. I saw the sweet pea shoots as my daughter lay in the cemetery. I saw the promise of a growing education while our financial future lay uncertain. But bigger than all that, I saw my family.

There is no end to opportunity once the superfluous is wiped away. Will we see it or will we fight against the grain, the deprivation of whatever we are missing, or the hardship it presents? The adventure is only in the thing we embrace. The adventure is only in the life well-lived.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.