Get to Know Your Neighbors

Meet my neighbors

As I prepared to go to work, my husband announced he threw out his back. He hobbled to the couch. After learning my mother would not be available for another hour, I ran down Tully Road to ask my neighbor if she could stay with the kids during the hour. She came.

When a verbal altercation with a friend left me in tears, I sat in the garage crying my eyes out while the kids went indoors. After texting a neighbor in a different direction, I took the kids down the street and unloaded my heart while our children played together. She listened.

In the evenings, the kids played in the front yard and welcomed home our next-door neighbors with stories of the day and facts about whales. The neighbors prepared bags of Halloween treats each year. They knew my children’s names.

When we moved

I asked the librarian to talk to her church. No less than 30 Mormon missionaries and volunteers helped us unload the moving truck. They back for additional trips, and set up our bed so we would have a place to sleep that night. We neighbors that day. They showed up.

Our neighbor drove across the busy Whitmore Ave with his children to feed our sheep and chickens, collect eggs, and water gardens. All so we could have a family vacation for the first time in ages. They helped.

On our part

We hosted parties, opening our doors and fences to invite others in, making music, playing games, and bonding with other families. They weren’t from our neighborhood, but they needed people. They accepted our invitation.

The next-door neighbor of our new home calls me to say he has not seen the kids out lately and offered us a harvest of watermelon. My children dashed over to visit the man who is another grandfather to them.

Across another street lives a busy family with school activities, work commitments and family commitments. They called and apologized for not coming to see us sooner. They brought brownies. A year can pass between visits, but we know them. And they know us.

I call to say “someone is stealing your cherries.” He calls to say “they’ll be sweeping almonds” so I might not want to line-dry my laundry that day.

Good fences make good neighbors, so the saying goes.

That is to say, good boundaries help when you live near one another. It’s ever so easy to take it too far, to come and go from our homes, to base our lives on outside activities, and when we are home, to take our leisure in our more private, more secluded spots. It is easy to live in this world without knowing our neighbors. Maybe you have friends. Maybe you have a family. Maybe you have a lawn service and really do not need any additional help.

But they might.

I interviewed Noelia Martinez while she hosted a block party for National Night Out. “You have to go up and above when it comes to elders. I love my elders,” she said with a laugh, “because one day I’m going to be there and I want people to do the same for me.”

In graduate school at an evening lecture on friendship, Dr. Michael Pakaluk rambled on, “You scratch my back and I scratch your back and everybody’s back gets scratched.”

Then you know, the other saying, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

We are born with an instinct to preserve our lives, to love ourselves, so to speak. From there we can learn by asking ourselves what it would be like for us in that situation. Would we want someone to reach out? Would we rather be alone?

Martinez said, “Maybe they are shy or scared to get involved or scared to be the one the neighbor calls on.”

Maybe.

Maybe we feel like it is not our business. That to inquire into someone’s well-being or why the homicide unit was at their house in the middle of the night will feel like prying.

Your neighbors know you are there. When you reach out, you communicate with your actions that not only are you there, but you are there for them.

And that feels good all around.

Try it out. Get to know your neighbors.

Heart drawn on a neighbor's fence
Photo by Jamez Picard on Unsplash

Choosing to Trust

Learning to trust at Kennedy Meadows

After asking for directions twice, we found the pack station where horses were lined up, saddled and ready. Beyond it in the corral were many more horses, altogether 200, we learned, lived at Kennedy Meadows during the open season. After the guides paired riders with their horses, beginning with the littlest rider and the biggest horse, we started our walk. At the sign “Emigrant Wilderness” the guide, Sarah from Louisiana, greeted the group and gave minimal instruction. “Y’all, if we stay in a single file line, we’re gonna have a great time today!”

The road at first was dusty. We walked beside a pond and a meadow of all different greens and the wildflowers that have since died out at lower altitudes. The ground before us grew rockier and rockier until we began to ascend stone steps. From trees and meadows, the surroundings changed to granite builders. We neared the river rushing with snow melt rapids.

Across the bridge, we walked our horses, or rather our horses walked us, across as we gazed in amazement at the waterfall, the blue sky, the pine trees and bright pink flowers along the mountain. I gasped at the sight of it.

We continued on, marching up stone steps, with the granite face to our right and a steep drop into the river to our life.

Trust your horse

“Trust your horse,” was the message shared from rider to rider at this time. “Lean forward when your horse goes uphill, lean back when he goes downhill.” The other adult and I knew what goes up must come down and we anticipated the difficulty.

At the top, we stopped at a clearing, in sight of the lake, the dam, where Sarah took us on food after lunch to “see a real pretty sight,” of a little creek running across colorful stones. The children explored farther and found its only minimal, magical waterfall. The sort of place wood fairies are so found of.

Lake at Kennedy Meadows Resort and Pack Station

After the hour break of eating and geological musings, it was time to make our descent. The trail guides checked saddles, cinches, and such. We mounted and after some confusion over our line order, we began. The horses knew the way. They were ready to get back to their paddocks and picked up their pace.

“Trust your horse,” we said to ourselves. As we neared the stone steps, the guides reminded everyone, “loosen your rains, lean back, and let your horse decide where to step.”

I told myself, “the horse doesn’t want to die either,” and tried to trust but I wavered more than once. My left hand gripped the pommel of the saddle like a greenhorn, trying to take in the beauty around me rather than focus on the fear inside me as the other adult chatted away.

When we landed back in the dust, with the meadow stretching out to our left and fishermen casting out across the pond, and again at the depot where we hobbled away from the horses who worked so hard to go up and down the mountain, we asked the children, “did you feel scared at all?”

Eight out of the ten said, “no,” an emphatic, definite “no.”

How can this be?

Trust your horse. Trust.

Some of us fixate on the potential outcomes and forget to try to reassure ourselves. We tell ourselves, intellectually, why the potential outcomes are unlikely. But still, we are afraid.

But not the children. They were told to trust the horse and so they trusted the horse, open-heartedly. With loose reins and loose feet, they journeyed down the mountain.

And off the trail

Back at home, on flat land and in the wide valley of Central California, a friend told me of her attempt to reconcile with an old friend. She said the thing that had been bothering her, how the thing came across and asked if the friend could explain. “Instead of trusting me,” my friend said, the other reacted, “how can you think I’d think that?” Instead of trusting—past experiences colored the perspective, the filter through which words were interpreted.

Instead of trusting that she wanted to know the truth, that she believed in the friend enough to not simply interpret words the way they seemed, but to be open to an explanation. Because of her background, my friend said, her friend could not do it.

For adults who have fallen or been hurt by others, perhaps misshapen at an early age, the step to trust is complicated and sometimes painful.

We have to allow ourselves to quiet the assessment of potential outcomes inside us, and open our hearts and trust. Experiences tell us we should not, but if we never choose to trust, we will miss out on the lifelong friendships, the mountains, the trees and the woodland fairy waterfalls waiting for us when we do.

Horse being led by trail guide during trail ride at Kennedy Meadows
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.

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.

Reflections on Marriage and Henry James’ “The Golden Bowl”

Can an outsider break this bond?

Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash

The Golden Bowl by Henry James is unlike anything I have ever read. It feels like an academic read, the kind you read in graduate school, challenging, brilliant, and long. It centers around four main characters whose lives are tangled together as they sort through their relationships to live the life meant for them. A daughter and father, beautifully close, must cope with her marriage. A wife and husband must separate from old relationships to see each other, first and foremost. A former lover reemerges in a man’s life intending to be with him regardless of his marital status. A girl and her friend reunite while the friend plays the part of the friend a little too perfectly.

Charlotte marries Maggie’s father but keeps her eyes on Maggie’s husband. Maggie keeps the familial bond with her father unchanged even as she delights in married life and motherhood. The husband, Amerigo, begins with good intentions, but his passivity steers him wrong in the face of a determined woman.

The author takes us deep inside the reflective thoughts of the characters who employ more thought than action on the pages of the book. I cannot recommend it to everyone, but I do believe it is a masterpiece.

In the end, I was surprised to realize this book is so much more about the transition to married life and the challenge of breaking old bonds than it was about the bad characters doing bad things, sinning against the innocent.

The Tasks of Marriage: Separating from the Family of Origin

“I think it will be good that you move to Virginia,” a mentor told me as I prepared for marriage and the aforementioned move for graduate school. She explained that it would be an opportunity to turn towards my new husband, and he to me, away from the family and friends we knew so well. Isolated in that way, we would learn the heart of married life, which is to travel together on this journey.

We are a people made for ties, made for connections and bonds. Whether our commitment to work, to friendship, to aging parents, to nieces and nephews, we are made for relationships.

When that one such relationship comes along with its public declaration of marriage, saying, “I will be for you and you will be first for me,” then everything must readjust. Judith Wallerstein, author of “The Good Marriage,” identifies nine tasks to a successful marriage. The first begins with separating from the family of origin as one of the foundational tasks in making a marriage successful.

Adjust then Readjust

The successful marriage readjusts again if children come along, and again and again, as the space of relationship makes more space for more children or contracts back as the children grow and leave home or when the curves of life put the entire balance of life into question. It is always adjusting, always changing, always asking the question, where do we fit? Do we fit together? How can we fit together with these new challenges?

Whether we realize it or not, an answer arises and we begin to shift our weight to adjust to the arrangement we have fallen into. This is risky, especially when the demands of life make it harder and harder to give primacy to those primary relationships.

Therefore, we must take the time to think about it, and after thinking, to talk, and after talking, to make plans on how to get it right, straighter and in better order. That is the thing I learned from 12 years of marriage, my reflection for this year’s anniversary, and it will likely be the lesson I have to learn again in six months or a year or ten years. We have to keep learning the most important lessons over and over again because each time we learn them, we lay those lessons deeper into the foundation of who we are.

And sometimes, it happens that we are in a worse place. Then, we learn them from our rock bottom, from our weakness, looking with forced humility at how fragile we are. The more painful part of growing happens. Wounds will have to be healed and bonded, restored, but each time, when we follow this path, when both parties aim to maintain that relationship, the successful marriage come back stronger and more bonded than ever, and that is how it lasts forever.

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.