No Holiday without Ghosts

In San Francisco

I park by valet now. It took a while to get used to it, but since they built the Chase Center across the street from the hospital, valet became the only option for parking during our routine UCSF appointments. That means, a drive around the hospital and clinic building to get to the correct entrance to drop off our car and, yesterday, that meant seeing the enormous Chase Center Christmas tree through the back window.

“Do you want to see it?” I asked him. Eagerly, he said, “yes.”

The air was crisp and cool.

We walked along the pavement darkened by morning rain and felt the breeze cut through our inadequate clothing. After half a block I asserted my motherly authority and made him put his coat over his thin cotton sleeves.

As we walked up to the corner, his brisk steps quickened. “There it is!” I pointed, smiling with delight as he jumped up and down.

I walked faster to keep up with him as we crossed the street. He grinned and squealed as only six -almost- seven-year-old boys can. “It’s so big!” he gushed.

After a look and a couple of photos, he was ready to escape the cold and we walked back. Waiting on the street corner to cross, my mind flashed back to the many times I stood on that corner alone, walking from Family House each morning to see my son at the hospital.

It was cold in those days, too.

Each time this year, vivid memories return of the days of December passing, counting down, wondering how long we would stay, seeing the floors empty out as staff began their holiday vacations. I bought a small Christmas tree and a set of ornaments for the hospital room; I wove finger garland to decorate his crib. My parents purchased battery-operated lights. His room was decorated, in case we stayed two days longer.

Those memories don’t leave me.

The sadness, grief and fear all associated with the past and the reality of the present do not leave me. This season of Advent, I am reading “Seeking God’s Face,” a collection of homilies from Pope Benedict XVI for the year, and “Healing Through Dark Emotions” by Miriam Greenspan, a book recommended me to by a counselor I met through palliative care, six, almost, seven years ago.

Both invite the reader to turn towards the difficulty of sadness or grief, the silence of Advent, the forced stop of illness. Both say, there is something here to be discovered. Within these weeks leading us to Christmas, lighting one candle at a time, dispelling darkness gradually as the nights themselves grow darker and colder, I recall the last line of Dana Gioia’s poem, “Tinsel, Frankincense and Myrrh.”

“No holiday is holy without ghosts.”

Dana Gioia from “Tinsel, Frankincense and Myrrh”

My counselor taught me we only can keep going in life when we make space for both the dark and light emotions, or as Greenspan says when we invite grief to pull up a chair.

When we crossed the street, the breeze whipping our cheeks to a healthy pink, I felt not only the moment before me but the depth within me of how far back that moment reaches to those lonely mornings, those mornings with a sort of agonizing hope that we would soon go home and be reunited. It reaches all the way back into my broken heart and comes out again in the immensity of that Christmas tree and utter delight at my child jumping around it, who once lay listless on a hospital bed.

This is the holiday season for those who have known sadness and come out on the other side able to share its story.

We may not frolic on own, we may grow quiet in reflection, we may step away for a moment to cry. The joy is there, it just looks different, but we feel it, deeper than we could imagine as it comes to us wrapped in the trimmings of gratitude and a prayer that the good times may continue, tied with an understanding that they may not.

Be merciful to those who suffer this holiday season.

Pull up a chair for the ghosts they carry with them. Sit with them and hear their stories. I thank you for listening to mine.

Make Space for Unscheduled Activities


Everything seems activities based. It feels as though everything exists as a class or a workshop. Free time has become a precious commodity. Physical activity is now scheduled through organized sports or gym memberships. Music classes begin for toddlers as Mommy-and-me style events. Art class workshops fill the void for those less athletically inclined. I’ve taken them myself and loved them.

We’ve gone from a generational or neighborhood way of learning these things to something wholly organized, packaged up, purchased, paid for and delivered. The home arts are now a consumer item for consumption. We attend paint nights because painting socially is fun; we’re pleased with what we produce; and we could not otherwise have produced it.

Or perhaps because we otherwise would not have tried.

These continuing education opportunities may also give us a chance to try something we never would have otherwise encountered.

The growth in organized and paid activities for children has many causes, but I suspect one cause probably comes from the realization that this model works for us adults to get them there. More and more we must schedule it and pay for it to make sure it happens. Otherwise, we may neglect it. Something more important or more profitable will come up to fill in the free time that belongs to the adult. We spend our leisure time shopping and enjoying the goods we purchased. These days, we have more time than ever, just like advertisers said we would if we bought this or that gadget. So we filled in the void with more running around. We rarely know how to just be, even after two years of semi-lockdown.

So then, since the culture measures worth by how much money it brings me or how much money I put into it, if I require myself to learn this skill or attend this paint session because I paid for it, I’m more likely to do it.

Ballet for children, a common activity
Photo by Kazuo ota on Unsplash

Children are so different.

They would do it on their own without us. They would kick the can, run the relay, shoot hoops without adults telling them the proper technique. They would do it for the sake of the thing if they could be left long enough to be bored.

It is a matter of intrinsic value verses extrinsic value.

When we find something intrinsically valuable, we do it for the sake of the thing. When it is extrinsically valuable, we do it for the sake of some external reward. A child naturally draws because it delights him. We push the time card for the paycheck.

We live in a society that undervalues things that are intrinsically valuable. This is because the external reward, money, becomes the center of how we decide what is worth doing. If it cost this much, I will apply myself. If I earn this much, I will apply myself. We seem to need the structure to help us do it, the commitment of some financial resources. And it helps us ensure it for our kids, too.

I know these are blanket statements and not always the case, but allow me to explore this thought a little more.

Time commitments are taxing, running from one thing to another, having to be on time, prepped with a full water bottle and the correct shoes.

I have to think there is a tax we pay to do it like this.

How strange and different for us adults to stop and simply, draw a picture because you feel like it, and, only after, go wash the dishes. Or to play a sport in the wrong kind of attire.

It’s easy for it all to become so rigid and compartmentalized that we lose some of the beauty of spontaneity.

Isn’t that what makes vacations and holidays so delicious? I read about these sudden games of basketball, going out to fish, or play cards, or pick a random restaurant to eat at. It sounds so free and creative, curious and willing to explore and try new things. How wonderful.

The people are coming back from vacation. They are coming back and returning to their potentially overscheduled days.

Is there a way to bring the good of both lives together just a little bit more?

Do we even need to?

Of course it’s case by case, family by family, season by season. But as we enter into the new season, the change of schedule is an opportunity to assess. Will we protect the down time, leisure time, unstructured time to allow for the possibility of spontaneous creativity or conversation? Will we make space in our lives and our children’s lives for the intrinsically rewarding things?

Do we think it matters?

child painting
Photo by Senjuti Kundu on Unsplash

Summer Living

Can it really only be the beginning of July?

It is remarkable when I consider an entire month remains plus two weeks for our summer vacation.

Our summer break began early in May. As a homeschooling family, we can end as soon as the syllabi are completed. Their education is not confined to set hours of the day or a set building but I utilize the experiences of life to augment what they learn at their desks. As summer begins extracurriculars fill the calendar.

Baking class

That they may all have a level of comfort in the kitchen. Teaching them a recipe at this stage will not mean they know that recipe five years from now, or a year from now, but they will know they can look at a recipe card, follow it, and see something turn out.

Sewing class

That they may all feel it is possible to sew, create, and mend. Many of these home arts are lost on my generation because we feel we lack the competence. It is the work of professionals. We will screw it up. And it hurts us when our daily duties call on us to master these arts.

Soccer class

For those not in organized sports, that they may learn how to pick up a game with friends whenever the opportunity arises. I’m thinking of adding a class, aka playdate, of old-time games: kick-the-can, red light-green light, red rover, and so on. It’s amazing what a generation can take for granted when they grow up in a neighborhood of kids and then when those kids take those games into their careers as teachers.

Horseback riding

For physical education that involves navigating the personality of an animal and teaching multiple skills in one lesson.

Art class

Like the home arts, that they may know these are skills that are within their reach. Beyond the organized craft project, we bring in an artist to walk them through. My favorite approach is to have the students bring an object or pick a flower and paint from life, learning the skills of observation. Science and art in one.

Then, there are the outings.

The Hughson Arboretum, extended visits to the library, the local historical museums, and blueberry picking.

Less locally, finally, a trip to the coast. We spent two hours on the beach, then two hours in the redwoods then two hours with family, who also live in the redwoods. To see the children’s pure joy among the waves, all bickering and squabbles left behind, nothing but excitement remained. In the redwoods, the marvel of their height, the joy at seeing a deer, approaching a squirrel, identifying birds. A half-day trail ride in the Sierra Nevada came next at Kennedy Meadows.

Next, we go to Southern California to reconnect with a family of friends, stay with a cousin and wonder how different are the worlds between southern and northern California.

I took a writer’s retreat and came back with a contract for a third book. My husband will attend a conference on sacred liturgy next week. And that’s only June.

Now comes July with more classes, more outings, and more adventures.

We’ll switch from Westerns to Adventure films like “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” “Up,” and “Jason and the Argonauts,” only more and more it seems we have little time to watch them. There’s a camp for the girls, our wedding anniversary, birthdays, and the Stanislaus County Fair.

We’re making memories with events capsulated in a season.

Summer Vacation

The school year was hard, but vacation is sweet, like life. My work punctuates all these events with set hours Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday for the newspaper but publicity and bookwork pour into the cracks of a brimming-over day-to-day. It’s wonderful. It’s joyful and free and, surprisingly, still structured with chores and the things we must do to maintain a home and little farm.

We have all we need in the beauty and joy and tiredness of summer.

Sacrifices are made to make this possible. We cannot live a high life. We cannot travel abroad. We cannot buy prepackaged snacks. We gratefully glean from neighbors’ crops with permission to supply our children with produce. But those sacrifices which make life simpler so that we are essentially a single-income household, enable us to make life fuller, according to our preferences, values, and our family’s needs.

It is a good life and I am grateful to live it.

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

The First Small Steps to Make a Difference

A young woman approached me as I fiddled with stacks of books at my vendor table before the Magnify Women’s Conference at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Oakdale. Her hair was a deep shade of pink, curled and full of personality. As she approached me there was that look of familiarity in her eyes. We knew each other, but I did not know from where or when.

She asked if I used to volunteer with the high school youth group at St. Stanislaus in Modesto. I did.

“I’m Genesis,” she said. And I knew her immediately. I remembered her when so many, many memories or names or faces from those days almost twenty years ago have begun to blur together and fade. I remembered her.

She was the type of sixteen-year-old with an old soul, a penchant for deep thoughts, the kind who sees beyond the present circumstances and wonders about the big things of life. She was a poet. Whether or not she wrote any of the words down, I recognized in her that we were kindred spirits, only one doesn’t say that in small talk.

She told me what my presence and our conversations meant to her in those days, that it made a difference.

It made a difference.

Yesterday I listened as a priest described my work as a mother as a bridge. The work of motherhood is to make our children, not the persons we want them to be, but the persons they are meant to become. We are the bridge to help them get there.

Build a bridge. Make a difference.
Photo by Andre Amaral Xavier on Unsplash

A group of mothers sat around with stacks of books beside us for an informal gathering of book club members to share what we were reading. The conversation veered, as it naturally does with women, with decades-old friendships and no formal program. We talked about age differences in friendships now that we are old, how little recognizable those differences are outside of youth and how valuable they are.

  • One friend brings meals whenever a new baby comes along or has an illness or a period of grief.
  • Friends of different life stages can be there for each other in ways not otherwise possible.
  • The woman whose children are grown knows how to cook for a crowd, but does not have a crowd to cook for, so she delivers a party-size lasagna to the new mom.
  • The woman with a large brood hardly notices one more child added to the mix, but for the only child, the playdates are everything.
  • The single, unmarried woman steps in, refreshed from sleeping uninterrupted, to give an extra dose of attention to the children who may not have aunties nearby.
  • Children learn to lead from the old children in the group. Younger children attach to that ten-year-old with a mysterious love for toddlers and babies.
  • Pre-teen girls learn the art of babysitting when the parents want to chat, training them for the day when they earn their bread with an hourly wage.

Mentors, teachers, and parents come in all ages, all occasions, all types of communities.

But they only come when we approach our days with that good advice I heard as a child, “try to learn at least one thing from every person you meet” and then find ways to generously and prudently share the lessons we ourselves learned.

How do we know when to share and when to keep it to ourselves?

First, by being who are you in all your authenticity.

It doesn’t mean presenting an autobiography to every person you meet, but perhaps, sharing a little more in a unique way. If someone asks about your weekend plans, include the specific hobby or the garden weeding or the trip you’re taking plus one or two details. This little bit of openness invites more questions if the other person has them.

Second, by asking others those small talk questions and really listening to the answer.

“How are you?”

“Any weekend plans?”

“What have you been up to?”

Then, and this is the trick, as a follow-up question.

“Where do you usually go fishing?”

“What type of plants do you grow?”

“Have you read any other books by that author?”

Taking the time to learn from others and open ourselves up to being asked a few questions is how we begin to build that bridge. The person with whom we are speaking may have always dreamed of that profession or that hobby but never known anyone who actually did it. You clear the way with your openness.

You make a difference.

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.

Have Yourself a Festive Little Holiday.

Festivity doesn’t come to us. Festivity is Made.

I thought we would host my family on December 10.

I thought we would get out of hosting and escape to my parents’ for an easy Christmas dinner December 25.

I thought we would host my husband’s family on December 27.

I thought my husband would be working a lot around this holiday.

Instead, we got COVID-19.

“But you’re missing Christmas!” my friend said to me.

“Oh, I don’t know.” I responded, “We’re missing mass, but that happened in 2020 anyway. I’ve been in a hospital room all the way up until December 23. I’m home, all my children are with me, we have everything we need, even an organ or two or three and an organist. Our symptoms are mild. There are worse things we could face.

“The gifts are wrapped, the house decorated and quarantine is over next Wednesday, which, because we follow that Catholic tradition of the octave of Christmas and the 12 Days of Christmas, Wednesday is still just as much Christmas.

“My son had a slight fever on Saturday but it stayed below 100 and broke Sunday morning. Because of his condition, we would be in the hospital right now if it had gone up just one degree.

“And we just found out my freelancing husband will be given full pay by one of his primary contracts as a gesture of love and care towards our family.

“So, I’m grateful for what I’ve got.”

How will we approach this strange turn of events?

We asked for help. It was hard to ask, but we needed to do it. We are too rural and haven’t enough resources to do grocery or meal delivery. Friends and family filled in the gap. We have more food than we can handle and there is a feeling of comfort in that.

This morning my husband and I planned our Christmas Eve dinner, our Christmas morning breakfast, and our Christmas day dinner, all of which were subject to change now that he will be home for all of it. Every holiday of great importance has been a dance around his work schedule, and this year we are just home.

The children anticipated parties galore. They anticipated their play space, a vacant barn used mostly for storing tables, to be transformed into an event space filled with aunts, uncles, cousins, Christmas lights and trees. My eldest child grappled with the loss of the opportunity to sing in the choir on Christmas Day.

We are Catholic and nothing can replace being in person at mass on Christmas Day. But things being what they are, we have to make alternative plans.

So what did we do?

I happen to have a few church pews in that barn. I purchased them thinking they could work for event seating (they do not). The children call it their mission church.

Wednesday morning before Christmas, we strung unused white string mini-lights around the rafters of the barn. We hung finger-woven garland along those rafters. My parents provided an artificial Christmas tree. I brought in extra decor I thought too risky in a house with a two-year-old. We moved a $4 brass chandelier to the center of the barn above a long row of tables and draped it with battery-powered colored lights and a silvery olive leaf garland.

This isn’t Instagram Perfect

Christmas in the storage barn

The walls are grey with aged wood. You can see the marks of water that seeped through during the storm.

The dirt turned to mud where a metal roof panel blew off in the last rain.

The cement is uneven and slopes down to the sides.

In the corner, there stands stacks and stacks of styrofoam sheeting from medical shipments and old shop lights removed when we remodeled my husband’s music studio.

It’s cold without insulation, heat or glass in the windows. There is no other lighting.

Our puppy ran away.

We hear the lambs bleating in the barn next to us. The fevers and fatigue come and go.

But we are together. We are ridiculous enough to set up a 1200 sqft place for no one at all.

Except it isn’t for no one.

It’s for us.

Festivity is made. It doesn’t come to us. It doesn’t require luxury or met expectations. It requires a bit of adventurousness. It requires a bit of silliness. It requires a childlike-enough spirit to see the world with wonder and make the choice to delight in it.

I do not know what Christmas Day will feel like. I do know that on Christmas Eve when the sun goes down, we’re going to shiver ourselves over to “the mission” with candles lit and welcome the Christ child into our hearts.

Mistakes I’ve Made Hosting

and how I learned to overcome them.

I love to host.

Freely, I admit it. These days bringing the people together to our house is easier than the alternative between planning for five children, including one of those not-very-flexible toddlers) and a slew of animals on our growing farm. But even before that, I loved to host. Whether we lived in the country, in town, in the perfect house for gathering or a smaller subdivision house with a tiny backyard, to today’s farm with its quaint farmhouse layout, generous backyard and a barn which we plan to use for a gathering for the first time this year. 

Hosting can be hard and I have likely made all the mistakes that make it hard. Read on to learn my mistakes and the lessons learned. Maybe there will be something in there to help you, should you find yourself with one hand basting a roast beast and with the other calculating the guest list totals.

I obsessed over cleaning.

Photo by pan xiaozhen on Unsplash

The ugly yelling kind of stress bubbled over as we struggled to clean up the kitchen, the floors, the toys, while still being in charge of tiny humans. 

A friend encouraged me when I shared the wish that I could clean my current house more or better. “I don’t think people really come to the country expecting it to be something other than country.” 

Now I try to keep perspective.

What is realistic cleaning?

What cleaning adds to my guests’ comfort (yes, clean the bathrooms, restock the toilet paper in a place clearly visible) and what cleaning is simply the cleaning I meant to get to in spring but feel I should do now? I do the essentials for the comfort of guests, and if we get to the rest – super, but I won’t sweat it if we don’t.

I was busy all night in the kitchen trying to get the timing just right.

Photo by Tamara Gak on Unsplash

It’s a pleasure for me to have people over. I am an extrovert. It’s true, I actually want to speak to my guests. If I planned to serve a hot meal with all the fixings, that probably meant piles of pots, pans, cooking tools, dirty floor, dirty countertops and on top of trying to get it all cooked, I wanted to tidy up as I went or after it cooked to make the house look nice because the kitchen is an irresistible spot for guests to gather.

If the event is a dinner, I make ahead whatever I can.

The day before Thanksgiving, we make mashed potatoes and store them in a casserole dish. I make cranberry sauce. My husband bakes bread. We assemble the green bean casserole. On the day of Thanksgiving, we pop the mashed potatoes and casserole into the oven to reheat or cook while the stuffing bakes and the turkey rests. The number of dishes I have to make Thanksgiving Day is cut in half.

But if the party is cocktail style, I put my money on the party platter.

Hawaiian rolls, ham, pepper jelly, and a few pickled peppers. Three kinds of cheeses (one hard like aged cheddar, one soft like brie or goat, one mild like gouda), cured Italian meats (try the Costco pack), olives (Trader Joe’s medley and crackers. I assemble my platters before guests arrive. Set up a buffet. And I’m done. I can visit with the folks who came to visit with me.

I moved nonstop before the party, I moved nonstop during the party, I moved nonstop after the party.

No matter how successful or unsuccessful the party felt in the end, I was exhausted and didn’t really have fun.

So now, the thirty minutes before guests are expected, I stop what I’m doing, accept the status of the house as it is, I get a snack or small meal, and I sit down.

I rest. I relax. This way, when guests arrive, I am, both in my home and in my heart, ready to receive them.

The rest is all incidental. It doesn’t even matter if we wash all the dishes that night.

Be realistic, plan ahead to save yourself tasks later, and remember that guests come to see you and yours.

That’s the stuff that matters. The dust bunnies in the corners can wait for spring.

Photo by Waranya Mooldee on Unsplash

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.

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.

The most important advice I could give to a stay-at-home-parent

You know, there is no such thing as a full-time stay-at-home mom. It just sounds like a tidier answer to those who work outside the home full-time. For the woman or man who makes that choice to leave full-time employment, the answer changes, the act now is one of a full-time gift.

With little children, the days begin earlier. For spasms of time, it will feel more hectic, then calmer, then hectic. Not preparing little ones for daycare or school or yourself for work or your husband for his day slows things down considerably. We are busy, but the pace is different.

My husband imagined the perfect wife and perfect life with many children and that wife doting on him as she wears heels and a tea-length skirt with a lacey apron. We tried keeping me at home until finances dictated otherwise. The off to work I went.

To and from the workplace I went after child, after child, after child. The financial need rekindled in me how I loved to work. The back and forth allowed me time to find how much work worked for our growing family.

When I began to expand with our fourth child, it was time for the tables to turn. My husband’s side gig was now the main hustle, so without the heels, without the tea-length skirt, without the apron, I headed to the kitchen.

The full-time stay-at-home life was not for me. I started my own business.

Then came a diagnosis. A hospital visit. 15 more hospital visits. Another diagnosis.

I closed the business.

I stayed-at-home.

I wept.

In my grief, I saw the world up before me. “The world will be saved by beauty” and beauty saved me.

I took a watercolor workshop, a calligraphy workshop, a macramé workshop.

Poetry became my favorite subject with my daughter.

I wrote like I was running out of time.

Even now, when things are calm, I know what I need to do, and this is what I encourage you to do.

Write or read or create…do something.

Do it for your home.

Learn to sew a straight line and make curtains. Finagle thrift store rejects into Halloween costumes. You have time for this type of work now. Create artwork for your home, whether photographs, paintings, repurposed fabric or farm tools, put the energy you have saved from commuting into making your home an enriching environment, not in the preschool way, but in a human way.

Photo of living room

Do it for yourself.

Self-care is actually self-preservation when matched against a gaggle of children under the age of reason. Look hard for the routine you need, whether morning or night, to make yourself as put together as necessary so you do not feel like garbage. You may not leave the house, but you are still a person, and whatever level of investment that means in your looks, I encourage you to make it.

Photo of at home bathroom countertop

Do it for your spouse.

This might be my weakest area. I hope you like cooking. I hope you like cleaning. I do not mind cleaning, but I still do not succeed in serving my husband from the kitchen. It is a nice surprise when it does happen.

Photo of toddler girl at home reaching for a stack of miniature pancakes.

Do it for your soul.

Read. Read books. Spiritual books, art books, great literature. Read at naptime or before bed. It opens you to the whole wide world and imagination and helps your thoughts to continue processing long after the noise of beautiful children have numbed it into submission. Read real print books. Go to the library.

Rely on routine. Rely on a schedule of chores. Set goals. Adjust goals. Every day is a work in progress. As soon as you get the hang of things, it will change. The name of the game is flexibility, everything in your life is flexible now, except your income, which may be tighter than ever.

Above all, stay inspired. Whether your home or side job or crafts motivate your activity, always be working on something, hopefully, your soul, but if not for a time, then greeting cards are a good, albeit temporary substitute.

And when the kids are older, volunteer. Your community needs you.