Horse Crazy and Other Passions

My daughter is horse crazy.

It came at about the right time developmentally. It is her first passion. There is something about 11-year-old girls that makes them lean towards such a state. Perhaps it is the precursor to the later romantic loves. I do not know. But I do know that it seems to usher in the period of adolescence in which one goes looking for who she will be, what she will love. It is the perfect, safe bridge between childhood and adolescence.

Photo by Mikayla Storms on Unsplash

For my daughter, it is the first thing she has been truly passionate about. We’ve had very few obsessions in this house until my two-year-old came along. We are all obsessed with her and she is all obsessed with horses.

I was horse crazy, too, at one time.

It came with weekly riding lessons in 5th grade and reading The Saddle Club books, which my daughter now reads, regularly through junior high.

By 7th  grade, my passions transitioned to friends, and of course, boys. I wrote poems and attended poetry readings.

By 8th grade, the focus was on the faith, which anchored all the other loves that were to come. I began writing stories, typing them out on a clunky old Macintosh in my room before we had the internet in our home. If I got to 100 pages, I considered it done because to my mind, a book that was 100 pages long in a Word doc. was a full-length book.

Those characters kept me company until I got my driver’s license when my gaze turned outward to the world. My next dream was to study photography. I stopped thinking of careers per se. I could focus only on the next step, not two or three steps beyond. After senior year and hauling my SLR camera and rolls of film around Europe while on pilgrimage, even the passion for photography began to fade.

I studied psychology at undergraduate and graduate levels. I loved the nonprofit I worked for after college. Throughout college, I was deeply and madly in love with the man I married at 24. Then came the babies.

But, if we continue to keep our eyes open, passions never cease.

Gardening, literature, San Francisco, championing the arts or community efforts, each passion seems to have its time. To feed my daughter’s passion, we watched National Velvet in honor of this miniature season of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. In it, Mrs. Brown says to her daughter,

“Things come suitable to the time, Velvet. Enjoy each thing, then forget it and go on to the next. There’s a time for everything. There’s a time for having a horse in the Grand National, being in love, having children; yes, even for dying. All in proper order at the proper time.”

There is a great deal is wisdom in this. In San Francisco, this week, I sat with Jane at the Infusion Center next to Benioff Children’s Hospital. Six years ago, Jane taught me how to perform a sterile dressing change and draw labs. The days of San Francisco feel far away to me when I felt scared and vulnerable and my son was very small and very vulnerable. There were people I trusted, relied on, who coached me and believed in me that I could learn to give him what he needed. People with whom a visit buoyed me up for the next round. Now some are retiring, some are moving into different roles at the hospital, and for some of those relationships, it is we who have changed or graduated or moved on.

Thus each time we go for his monthly appointment, those days move further and further into the past.

It is right for it to be so. The connection remains even if the season has changed. The treasure still holds. The goodness of all those relationships still exists even if the season for those relationships has passed.

All these passions, even if they pass, should be fed, indulged a little, not too extravagantly, but enough to allow our hearts to expand. Thus they become part of the tapestry of our personalities and the stories we’ll tell one day about how we came to be the person we are today.

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

What we can learn from motherhood

The potential of motherhood is a remarkable thing.

We can learn a great deal from it, whether we are mothers or not.

A woman carries a child inside her, slowly over time becoming more and more aware of its movements, its hiccups, its wakefulness, its tendency to kick in the middle of the night. Her days are divided between the work in front of her and the work happening inside her, but outside her control. Perhaps she worries. Perhaps she glows with joy. Perhaps she suffers from physical ailments, uncertainty, or instability.

expectant mother awaiting motherhood

Yet still, she goes on. The child grows and grows until the time comes to meet face to face.

Mothers whose children have died through miscarriage or stillbirth or who have received a prenatal diagnosis, integrate within them the understanding that there is so little they have power over in the process. They may try, but to have any peace, they must accept this unique circumstance.

All this awareness primes the mother’s brain to meet her child

to be deeply aware of his presence, to read the little signs in his face and behavior that he is hungry, tired, or uncomfortable. As he grows, her awareness grows as well. She quickly takes in the dangers of a room, the number of objects within reach, the hazards and the thrills that await the adventuresome little gentleman. As the child grows older, he begins to go beyond her reach and she learns to let go even more than she did during pregnancy, even more than she did when she knew now was the time for him to learn to climb that tree. But still, she keeps a steady awareness of him in her heart.

That is the natural and ideal path of motherhood, supported by a loving and attentive spouse who shares in the trials and joys of parenting. This awareness of the other person, able to take in the immediate information and the whole picture, able to see things concretely and yet take in the broad ramifications of the child’s personhood, is what Pope John Paul II referred to as the feminine genius. The feminine genius refers to this capacity in the woman. It starts as only a capacity. It must be developed to flourish. We see it naturally through the lived experience of motherhood, but many women will attest to its development in other ways. Many men may as well.

Although we see its potential, this path must be chosen and chosen all the more intentionally in today’s world where distractions abound. Internet, email, text messages, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tik Tok, and so on, continue to ping, designed to draw and keep our intention. For those with freelance work, the changing algorithm demands even more attention if we are to “get ahead” or even “stay on track.” For students, the work of education is wrapped up in the same devices designed to entertain us.

Nowadays, we have to choose to stop, look, listen and focus.

scene from a library

Consider Betty Smith’s description in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. “Each week Francie made the same request and each week the librarian asked the same question. A name on a card meant nothing to her and since she never looked up into a child’s face, she never did get to know the little girl who took a book out every day and two on Saturday. A smile would have meant a lot to Francie and a friendly comment would have made her so happy. She loved the library and was anxious to worship the lady in charge. But the librarian had other things on her mind.”

In Tales of San Francisco, Samuel Dickson tells the story of poet Ina Coolbrith, “One day, a small boy came to the librarian, Miss Coolbrith. He was twelve years old, a dirty, small boy. He had a bundle of newspapers under his arm; he was poor, shabby, uncared-for. And he said, please, Miss, could he have something to read? Something to read! That small boy was Jack London, and Ina Coolbrith gave him something to read. For months and years, she gave him something to read; she guided him, inspired him, and won his undying adoration.”

Whether the children in our house, the neighbor in need, the unvisited person at a retirement home, or the ones we encounter in our work, we can make a choice. When we choose to attend to the person, to be aware, to take into our minds and hearts the condition of the whole person before us and not merely the transactions, we have a great potential for good, for a life-giving, soul-filling good.

And that we can learn from motherhood.

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

A Humble To-Do List with a Mighty Purpose

“If you know your purpose in life, you will live in a radically different way than if you don’t know it. And this sense of purpose will certainly impact how you perform basic life tasks, including paying your bills,” Julia Marie Hogan Werner writes in A Work in Progress: Embracing the Life God Gave You, published by Our Sunday Visitor, 2022. 

Purpose in life sounds so grandiose.

We may be tempted to think, how can anyone know their purpose in life? We have too many demands each day to think about such a big, abstract concept. 

Werner explains, those demands can help us discover and keep in mind the bigger picture, our purpose in life, even as our purpose reminds us why we’re doing these mundane tasks anyway. 

Do you have a to-do list?

I have

  • scribbled on a scraps paper
  • tracked events on Excel
  • used weekly checklists
  • relied on fancy note pads labeled as such
  • entered my tasks on Google Calendar

and am now embarking on regular meetings with my husband to discuss our communal list saved electronically. 

Write things down, I say. It’s too much to keep in one’s mind. When it pops into your head, write it down or enter it into your digital list, then move on. At the beginning of the day, assess what you have time for. Ask what is urgent? What is important? What needs preparing? and so on. The list helps us focus. It frees us from the weight of holding it. It helps us fulfill our commitments by helping us not forget what we said we’d do.

All those tasks add up.

How we live determines how much or little that living helps us move towards or away from our purpose in life. We cannot know where we stand unless we have a sense of what this purpose might be. Without knowing that, it’s easy to come to a place in life when we ask, “What’s the point of all this?”

The understanding we have of our purpose is grounded in knowing what we value. She writes, “Values are things that are most important to us. Values also signify to us — and this is very important to note — what qualities we use to measure our own worth and the worth of others.” The day-to-day may be what presses on our minds most, but we can shape what our lists look like best when they are written against the backdrop of a clear articulation of our values.

Values point us to our purpose.

What we prioritize, where we spend our time, reveals what we value. “When something is a true priority, we make time for it,” Werner writes.

According to Werner, expectations also influence what we think we should do. We must consider whether our expectations are realistic or unrealistic. Werner warns, “A general rule of thumb is that unhealthy and unrealistic expectations tend to be strict, rigid, and difficult or impossible to achieve…For many of us, our guiding expectation in life is an impossible standard of perfection. This is called perfectionism.”

Your list may have too many things, more than you can possibly accomplish if you mean to also uphold less measurable values like “quality time with family” or “talking to my spouse” or “be kind to others.”

It can be disappointing to admit we cannot complete all the things on our list, that we need to delegate or, possibly let people down. Werner reminds us, “By honoring our priorities we are saying “yes” to the fulfilling and authentic life we are meant to live.”

Maybe perfectionism isn’t the issue.

Maybe the to-do list tasks make us feel the burden more than we’d like. For this, values come in again, animating our work and reminding us why they are on the list at all. Werner describes it, “Priorities are the ‘how,’ and your values are your ‘why’.” You clear the drain, tighten the sink faucet, reset the sprinkler timer or schedule the doctor’s appointment because there is an overarching reason why these are important. 

Ultimately, it most likely points back to love.

Love of one’s duty, of family, of spouse, of community, or God. We are most motivated to do these things best when we remember we do them for sake of another. Mother Teresa once wrote,

“Wash the dishes not because it is dirty nor because you are told to wash it, but because you love the person who will use it next.”

Washing the dishes becomes a moment to show love. If we focus in on the tasks on the list and at the end of the day, we have a better sense the purpose of what we are doing.

That is our purpose in life.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.
Disclosure: I received a copy of A Work in Progress: Embracing the Life God Gave You in order to provide an honest review. You can read my first take here. The content of this book is so good that rather an a one-and-done read, I find myself referencing it frequently. I cannot recommend it enough.

For the Love of Books

Valentine Davies writes in the book, Miracle on 34th Street:

‘Do you know what the imagination is, Susan?’ The child nodded sagely. ‘That’s when you see things that aren’t really there.’

“’Well, not exactly,’ said Kris with a smile. ‘No — to me the imagination is a place all by itself. A very wonderful country. You’ve heard of the British Nation and the French Nation?’ Susan nodded again. ‘Well, this is the Imagination. And once you get there you can do almost anything you want.’

In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith writes:

‘What must I do, Mother, what must I do to make a different world for her? How do I start?’

“’The secret lies in the reading and the writing. You are able to read. Every day you must read one page from some good book to your child. Every day this must be until the child learns to read. Then she must read every day, I know this is the secret.’

For the love of books, bore the brains out of your children

Rows of books
Photo by Alfons Morales on Unsplash

In our goals of giving our children the best of what we had in our past, with the guardrails of what our generation learned, my husband and I seek to create something of a boring atmosphere for our children. Our one television stands in our bedroom moved out to the living room and positioned on the 1×12 inch board we place across the school desks for family movie nights. There are audiobooks only occasionally, usually when we travel. The movie habits were limited to selected films until the Magnolia network came on the scene and our viewing admittedly expanded on Saturdays and Sundays to include more run-on, what’s next, style viewing, a habit I once avoided better than now.

We have an outdoor space where they can run, dig and explore.

We have multiple kids so the child who wants to be alone can escape and there is always someone else to play with.

And we have books. That wonderful world of books.

My father and I stood in the remodeled barn looking at the 12 foot long, doubled-sided bookcase. He showed my antique books in Greek, in German, the History of the World, my mother’s textbooks, his old comic books. Those books, he collected and loved the books he collected. They were prized possessions even if I never saw him reading them.

The man took me to Borders and Barnes and Noble, but we loved Yesterday’s Books best. He drove me to poetry readings and gifted me an ancient computer before the days of the world wide web on which to type out the stories in my mind.

All my days in the house I remember shelves full of books: “Come to the Meadow,” signed by the author, Anne Grossnickle Himes and addressed to my sister; The Living Bible; The Saddle Club books. Eventually, these gave way to Austen, Bronte and Dickens.

My poor husband carted boxes and boxes of books from this side of the country to the other, and back again. Each week I go the library to pick up or drop off. Once a month I lumber out the exit with sixty books in my bag, blessing my children with the new month’s theme.

My husband reads one book, The Lord of the Rings, but he reads it over and over again, perennially, if you will. I keep a mental list of the “classics,” the books that influenced and shaped the culture, the books that more than a few people thought worth reading two hundred years later. I think there must be something to that.

We are readers. We are book bugs.

If we spend too much time in the digital world, it is noticeably harder to focus on print. So we make an effort and it pays off. Because the world of books, the world of literature, is a rich world, a bold world, a world worth visiting regularly.

During Lent, we instituted Reading Nights in place of Friday movies nights. We lit the fire, popped popcorn, pour tea, and sat quietly while we read individually, alone together. And it was beautiful.

Books were my companions in lonely childhood, they were my respite during times of crisis, they were my avenue to intellectual growth in the doldrums of motherhood, and I hope and pray, that I can pass that comfort onto my children, so that no matter where they may be, whatever they may endure, they will know there is a bit of rest, of joy, of escape in a book.

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

All Work and No Play, makes Jack

Just as I began to accept the quiet of January and the spirit of “hygge,” a sense of cozy comfort with books, candles, tea and all things that help us endure the dreary winter days, the sun came blazing out, the temperature rose above 60° and I saw a daffodil in bloom.

And just like that, it’s Spring.

How difficult it was for all of us to focus that day! In-between school tasks we sat on the front porch and watch the Stanislaus County employees jackhammer and shovel a hole into the road. A new flower arrangement of irises, three types of calendula, and feathertop ornamental grass imposed itself on my mantle, displacing whatever winter decorations were left in that sacred space. I even gave my son a few shortcuts during his math assignment. We were all so happy.

Floral arrangement

It’s just so easy to get bogged down by the day-to-day and more exceptional cares of life.

I could list issue after issue, personal concern after personal concern, but I dare not. Not only because of their private nature, but because today it felt like Spring. After letting go of one stressor through a rant and a sidecar with my husband, with the little children down for the night and the older children reading in the living room, I come to my bedroom and that writing desk. I pause, breathing in the atmosphere of the room I might love most.

It’s a repetitive exercise for me and it seems the lesson I need to learn most. Slow down, look around, breathe in, delight. Whether in my children or the decorations or the flowers nearly in bloom. Stop, take stock, enjoy.

The first daffodil of the day, distracting me from the labor of the day

There is room for work. I doubt we are tempted to underwork then overwork.

That temptation to overwork is called “workism.”

In First Things, February edition, Michael Toscano writes, “Workism is a new word, and it’s a good one. It captures the spirit of our elites, who from childhood are raised to be workers for work’s sake. Work is their priority, their imperative, their strategy, their solution, their delight, their governing ­philosophy.”

That sounds extreme. He makes his point in “Workism isn’t Working” by showing first that the fruit of our advancement as a society, particularly for women, isn’t more money, but more work hours, and those who have attained a higher social status, gain for themselves not just power and prestige, but really, really long work weeks.

But how do we non-elite folk encounter the idea?

“To our elites, leisure is not a privilege, or even desirable. There is no leisure: only wasted time.”

That’s the crux. For all the talk of self-care, we also live in a society that feels the need to find a whole lot of usefulness in taking a walk or shortening the workweek or playing a sport. There must be a reason, a justifiable reason.

I work from home, part-time, while educating my children full-time. My husband works from home, part-time, and then out of the home on the weekends. This arrangement, plus a bit of land, provides us the leisure to cultivate the land, and our children. Leisure comes to the farmer necessarily, because at certain times there is less to do than others.

Yet, I recognize this idea and have seen it at work.

The argument is that we cannot “be” just for the sake of being. We cannot stop and smell the roses. We cannot play with our children. There is too much to do.

I hear many a woman struggle with stopping work outside the home to work inside the home. My work outside the home seems to earn me some approval in those circles where a housewife’s life is a luxury and a folly.

Perhaps it’s different in other circles, but I rather doubt it.

  • Does leisure or mindfulness seem a waste of time.
  • Does it seem out of place?
  • Does it seem a waste of time?
  • Does it seem fine for some with the privilege or audacity to take it, while the rest toil away, rather virtuously?
  • It is good to hear these ideas spilled out and see where we stand. What do we really think?
  • Or do we dare think it?

Do we dare blow a fluff of dandelion seeds?

Or linger in the warm sunshine? Do we allow a moment for a joke?

Or must the work go on,

And on,

And on?

The ant: all work and no play
Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

A Creative Play by The Merry Beggars

The Merry Beggars began out of quarantine to support those artists whose livelihood suddenly disappeared in the face of the COVID-19 shutdown. They ran a contest in which writers could submit 10-minute radio plays. The response, they say in their introduction, was overwhelming. And so in 2020, they ran five quarantine plays.

From eerie futuristic storytelling to touching moments of too much or too little isolation, the tales run the gambit. I look forward to listening to more.

They released “The Dailies: Art and Culture to Refresh Your Soul” in Spring 2021 and “Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol,” an audio advent calendar, on December 1.

These artists are making it work, and in the process, they are making something new.

Over twenty artists, makers and entrepreneurs united by their Catholic faith came together for two outdoor markets just outside of Hughson. In towns across the region, pop-up markets became the new trend, whether on front porches or outside businesses.

When community events were canceled, I went to the garden and my therapeutic hobby grew into a spring and early summer business.

When we make it work, something creative, energetic and beautiful emerges out of the process.

Change creates tension. The tension requires energy to work through. It also requires energy to fight against. When we dive in and actively work through the tension of change, we emerge smarter, stronger, and more creative.

When we resist, dig in our heels, we use just as much energy, but come out weakened and exhausted.

If we lament the life that was, rather than trying to work with the life that is, we miss all the good things in store now. We miss the new possibilities, the new avenues waiting to be explored.

A radio play borrows from the past and fits right into with today’s internet-based podcast-centric, play-on-demand listening sphere. It keeps its social distance but uses raised funds to pay actors from the stage whose theaters were shut down.

The changes and anxieties of this world do not have to dominate us.

What do you have control over? You may be called to activism in those areas that move your heart and spur your desire to do something, but you cannot change the world on every issue. You must give yourself permission to step back and consider what is your sphere of influence. And then act.

Some professions might have been crushed by the shutdowns. They lacked the security of other fields. The steadiness of their income is based on the reputation, reliable contacts and a body of work built up over time. If they stopped working altogether, they risked losing all the ground they gained. So they pressed forward, finding a way. And the community came forward, ready to support them.

Those artists, makers and entrepreneurs were recommended left and right by those who knew them. Word of mouth gained greater ground as we sought out who needed support and what they were about. Many grew weary of the dominance of big-box stores that could remain open and we wanted a way to support the little guy.

At the end of November, my husband, reindeer-loving son and I attended the Big Bad Voodoo Daddy Christmas concert. After opening with “Rockabilly Christmas,” lead singer Scotty Morris greeted the Gallo Center audience by saying,

“Thank you for doing whatever it was you had to do to get in the door to support live music.”

Wherever the adversity comes from, this is the potential of the moment, this is the chance we have to become more who we are meant to be and discover the unexpected.

We were all a little rusty getting back into it. But it felt good to be back.

Thank you for doing what you had to do to make it happen.

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

It’s Advent! What do you have to wait for?

The season begins with its rich sounds, smells, flavors and traditions. Now comes the change, with stores and social media working overtime to sell us on the holiday spirit. Now comes the new flavor of excitement for children. Christmas excitement. Winter break excitement. The excitement of getting and hopefully, at least a little, the excitement of giving. Now comes the overloaded schedules, the to-do lists, the decades of collected recipes that make the familiar holiday meal what it is.

With the passing of Thanksgiving, we begin a season of anticipation and preparation. The almost-here but the not-quite-yet season.

And we call it Advent.

The word “Advent” means arrival or appearance. It is a season of waiting. They told me as a child, “it’s good for you to wait. Patience is a virtue.”

On the farm, expectation comes with the territory. Our little one-acre plot has flowers at one end. I plant the seed, wait for it to sprout, transplant and nurture the little seedling into full growth. What I did not know until this year is that it can take a full 25 days from when I first spied the dahlia bud for it to bloom. We wait.

At the other end of the farm are the birds. My husband came home in spring with a chirping cardboard box nestling five little chicken chicks and two turkey chicks. The turkeys grew and grew, waddling this way and that. The children introduce the turkeys to all our friends. This one is called “Thanksgiving” and this one is called “Christmas” indicating the holiday on which we would thank the Lord for their life and our bounty. Only the female remains now. The male, in its 39.2 lb glory met its Thanksgiving fate. We waited.

Three years ago we first parked our car beside this house and fell in love with its decorative trim and many buildings. We moved in three months later and got to work. A project here, a project there, some requiring expert assistance, others in the DIY realm. There are so many dreams and ideas, but we can tackle them just one at a time with minimal overlap. So we wait.

The expectant mother.

The parent at their child’s hospital bedside.

The quarantined relative.

We wait.

How full of waiting life is. How many times do we look ahead, full of excitement or full of dread, and allow that anticipation to rob us of the moment in front of us right now? Or how caught up we can be in the moment that we forget to wait at all. We grow anxious, impatient, and want it not now. Or we forget to look ahead at all. The big moments of life come and go, but our hearts are not stirred like they might have been. We did not wait. We merely went with the flow, unaffected, caught in the current.

Life is meant to be a gentle balance of attention to the present moment of anticipation, that is, hope, in what is to come. We wait well when we grow a little when we take a deep breath and stay calm. We wait well when we look ahead and allow ourselves the excitement that children live by.

But what have we to wait for?

What is Christmas but so much sadness when the ones you love are in the grave or far away or relationships are fractured and traditions reevaluated in light of so many changes?

Even if you have lost something this year or last year or the year before that, even if you are broken in heart and spirit, there is something worth waiting for. It may be the small, quiet moment of joy. It may be kindness from a stranger or the thoughtfulness of an old friend. It may be the cheerfulness of others less worn down by the storms of life. It might be the unadulterated happiness of a child. It might be heaven. It might be resurrection, coming to life again, a time when things will be healed and made new. It might be the gift that you are to others. It might be the friend you haven’t yet met, the conversation you haven’t yet had, the reconciliation you never thought would happen, the forgiveness you are not ready to give.

There is something worth waiting for.

And so we wait.

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

The heart of hospitality

Before walking out the backdoor I grabbed the pair of toddler size, navy and white spats. I circumvented the puppy, closed the gate, and escaped. All she asked was that I text when I was on my way.

She heard me open the gate at her house and make my way through their front yard gardens, one within another, something either from a leftover British sensibility of defined garden spaces or an in-town pet owner’s necessity.

Opening the door, my friend welcomed me, thus avoiding the spine-chilling parental response to a ringing doorbell in a house with a toddler or young children who set upon a houseguest like coyotes to a roaming flock of chickens. Setting the toddler shoes on top of the player piano adjacent to the entryway I observed the wooden figurine of a player piano and complimented the mini-me moment of design. After greeting the toddler, I hugged my friend.

She welcomed me into the house. On the kitchen peninsula there lay a tea set of “made in England” antique teacups, a teapot from her grandmother and a silver platter of cookies, the kinds one only sees at Christmas time: palmiers, miniature cakes, and chocolate dipped Belgium shortbread. The presence of cookies was coincidental to my visit but fortuitous.

My friend invited me to sit and choose a teacup and tea. I smiled, my insides skipping a little bit at the thoughtfulness and decadence of being treated to tea unexpectedly. We discussed flavors and I chose the Bengal blend. I lifted the tea pot. The water was piping hot.

She wanted me to text when I was on my way so the water could be hot and ready.

This is hospitality.

I made myself at home and recalled silently the way with another friend, who has since moved. There were always home-baked cookies, or at least dough in the ready, and a specialty milk. We did not fuss over the house, the children, but stayed in the moment of two friends together, one escaping briefly the responsibilities of home, the other escaping briefly the solitude of being the only adult in a house with children.

At an earlier date, this new friend and I discussed this idea of hospitality, a concept apart from entertaining. Entertaining seeks to impress, to dazzle, to serve an Instagram-worthy moment with a flourish. It serves the hostess more than the guests by showing her domestic prowess.

Hospitality on the other hand, in its humility, seeks to make space. To carve out a moment from the day, the house, the routine, to welcome the stranger and friend. It sets aside the cares that grow up around us and tells the other, “please, come inside.”

One week prior my aunt marveled at our home improvements, new puppy, growing children and, and after asking what I do for myself, made the oft-repeated comment, “not that you don’t have enough on your plate.”

Two days later I read a Facebook message from a local farmer offering us a bottle-fed baby lamb. We moved the old dog house into one of our barns, set up a heat lamp, and piled in some straw. My husband purchased a new bulb for the lamp, milk replacement formula for the babies and we joyfully accepted not one, but two baby lambs. It was our plan for over a year to move in this direction, we simply had not done it yet.

Hospitality sees these moments not just as one more thing to do, but the thing that matters right now. Making space, building a boundary around the moment, protecting it from the stress of the world and our lives.

We do not neglect the other very important things. The doctor appointments, the existing pets, the children who expect to eat after feeding their lambs, grading the math assignments all must still happen.

But rather than allowing all these things to the pile, one on top of another interiorly taking up space in our minds and hearts, we learn to mentally and emotionally step away, take a breath, and say,

“Hello! Come on in.”

Photo by Jan Tinneberg on Unsplash

Hope after the Storm

I made a to-do list for my husband only to discover he dealt with the flooding of an outbuilding all night. Part-way through the school day, the children shouted, “it’s raining again!” and I threw on my boots and jacket and moved sandbags with my husband. We avoided worse damage.

On one end I saw his exhaustion. At the other end, I heard my daughters’ delight that God granted their wish for rain with lots and lots of rain. I stood in the middle offering support and wonder at the magnitude of water falling from the sky.

No fences fell this time. The animals found shelter near the house. My garden was thoroughly watered allowing strewn seeds to send out their autumn shoots, promising early and bigger flowers in spring.

When it was done, the sky grew brighter and slowly blue emerged from that gray dome, the pure blue we see only after a rainfall.

The leaves refaced the surface of the porch and sidewalks. My children ran to me excitedly to announce they saw a tree fall in the neighbor’s orchard. We walked out when the rain subsided and the sun brightened the yard. My daughter counted five trees downed, roots and all.

Then we saw the sunset.

Photo by McKenna Estes on Unsplash

“It’s like heaven,” I said recalling a story St. Therese of Lisieux told of her visit to the sea with her sister in her autobiography, “The Story of a Soul.”

She wrote,

“That evening at the hour when the sun seems to sink into the vast ocean, leaving behind it a trail of glory, I sat with Pauline on a bare rock, and gazed for long on this golden furrow which she told me was an image of grace illumining the way of faithful souls here below.”

Whenever I saw such a path or such a sunset, I thought of this idea: it showing the way to heaven when grace lights up the way.

We are all in our own way attempting to find that way, the path that leads to peace, rest, fulfillment, where hearts are not broken, neighbors are trusted, bodies are whole, emergencies no longer derail plans, our bodies regain their elasticity. The place where grief is healed, homes are clean, foundations secure. Where fences do not fall over, leaves do not create slipping hazards and children complete their schoolwork in record time.

We are looking for something and see the promise of it in glimpses every day.

The clouds looked like mountains, my daughters said. The younger marveled at the color and the overall beauty of it.

As we walked away from the trees to an open field, we saw the sky turn from azure to ice blue nearer the horizon before it met purple clouds. Bubblegum pink lined the perimeter of those clouds with blush rays extending out and up.

The elder expressed, “It’s like the light is heaven and the rays are shining out from behind the mountain because nothing can contain the light of heaven.”

There is a secret here. We see that promise of what we hope for in the beautiful moments: the blue sky, the sunset, the feel of the warmth of the sun on a fall day on our skin, the crackling fire, the artwork that stops us in our tracks, or the sleeping toddler on the living room rug.

Yet, even in the storm, if we look, we will see it, too, peeking through, pushing through, in the enduring effort of a tired husband, in the foresight of a loving wife, in the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches made by a child for her siblings because her parents asked her to.

Emily Dickenson wrote,

“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul / And sings the tune without the words / And never stops – at all”.

During the storm, after the storm, if we are willing to be students of it we shall see that hope can be seen and felt even in the darkest of times.

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

Break the Routine

The wind blows fiercely outside my window. I hear the shouts of children as they raise their voices above the gusts to communicate how each should play with their new puppy. Times are changing. There is hope in the air.

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

Impressed with their progress and hard work this semester, I elected to give my children a full week of Fall break, culminating in a cabin visit. For eight weeks, I have raved about the beauty of routine, how it helped us all to fall in line with what must be done and do it well.

“Routine is beauty,” the founder of a missionary organization, the National Evangelization Team, explained to a new crop of missionaries. He spoke about prayer, and I agreed wholeheartedly. Now in a way that is totally different I feel the impact of those words.

There were challenges to homeschooling last year. Personality clashes, frustrations, the sense that I, the educator, gave up my freedom to command, “keep working” every two minutes to a particularly stubborn student. A solid routine changed that.

Routine creates boundaries like fences around the blocks of time in our day. As human beings, we do not so much itemize information in our minds. Rather we chunk it together in bits that our short-term memory can deal with. I learned this in college, “seven items, plus-or-minus two,” is all our short-term memory can hold. Five to nine items, that’s all. If I look at my day, I can easily conceive of seven blocks of time, plus-or-minus two, and organize my day accordingly.

Then there are the studies that show children playing in a fenced playground will venture farther, closer to the edges of the playground, than those who played in an unfenced area. When we know our boundaries, we know how far we can go safely. Boundaries can actually make us feel freer.

And so in routine, I know what I need to do in this block of time. I do not need to worry about what happens outside this block of time. The present is what matters and I can relax knowing that all those other things on my mind, the six, plus-or-minus two, will be got to. I do not need to worry about them.

So it goes with my children. They know chores begin at 7 a.m. They know school begins at 8 a.m. The aforementioned stubborn student knows math will end after 45 minutes and whatever he does not do, he will do it when all other subjects have been completed. If he works rather than sits (daydreaming, drawing imaginary battle scenes) he will have time to play. If he does work, if he sits daydreaming and drawing those scenes, he knows the school day will go on indefinitely until he changes his mind. He has more freedom within the routine than he had outside of it. He is in control of his choices and that is what he needed to be successful.

It takes discipline to stick to a routine and the effort to get the other players on board can be stressful. This is why breaks become all the more important. Scheduled recess, an hour for lunch, and vacations from school when all the routine goes by the wayside, when breakfast is late, movies are watched and a sense of freedom and festivity reign. These times balance the work and discipline needed to keep a routine in place for a large group of people with a wide range of personalities and preferences. These breaks make the energy required to do all that possible.

The breaks and holidays punctuate the routine of life. I am the type to be tempted to skip these breaks, power through and get the work done sooner. That method works fine temporarily, but burnout ensues and that mode of nonstop work becomes untenable. We burn out. We give up. The work we did begins to fall apart.

A routine, not just a schedule, but a sustainable, intentional plan that accounts for the needs of those involved, makes the difference. It might require some brainstorming, conversations, sitting and musing, imagining the different scenarios, but when it all comes together, breaks included, it is beautiful.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

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