Summer days are here: fast, bright, and hot.
We wake early but find that the sun has already beat us to it. These are the longest days, and they start without us. I sip my morning coffee and make my list. How is it possible to feel so behind at 6:30 in the morning?
Summer to-do lists are like none other:
Pick the snap peas while they’re still tender. Cut the sweet peas before they wilt. Visit the u-pick berry farm. Make freezer jam. Write that magazine story due tomorrow. Carve a dent, at least, in the email inbox. Write that check and mail it. Help the boys catch fireflies.
Summer priorities are topsy-turvy. Ripening strawberries and fat peas are things of urgency, but I’ve forgotten where I left my laptop. Was it two days ago, I last used it? There’s an important professional conversation I need to have, but I’ve missed the phone call twice. The first time, I was at the creek with the kids. The second, I was picking cherries.
An afternoon storm rolls in, the kind of summer storm that is all sound, little fury, and I think Lord, I love summer.
The boys start fighting (again), and I pray, Lord, let me survive the summer.
Summer days are so long, we have more than one second chance.
Here is one, and here is another. We explode in anger. We apologize. I make them hug. One shrugs. One runs away. We laugh. And we do it all again, three or four times. I maybe cry once, and then I tell my kids how I used to fight so terribly with my sisters I made my own mother cry.
Summer is crying mothers, and fighting kids; summer is fat, sweet strawberries, and lightning crashing like a cymbal on your head.
Summer is more, and more, and more.
Summer is magic.
Summer days run fast and hard until evening. Then the summer sun slows, almost stops, and you can hardly tell it’s sinking. Summer evenings taste like forever. I could finish that to-do list if I wanted, but urgency fades in the evening. Why didn’t I realize sooner? These are the longest days, and there is time enough.
Swift, swift times flies, but still there is enough for what matters: porch rockers, bubble wands, watermelon, one last visit to the new trees with a watering can.
The kids watch a movie and stay up too late. You and I walk in the meadow we made when you decided to stop mowing the grass.
There is time enough.
Summer is here. Why don’t we sit a while?
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September began with a back-to-school, double-birthday, two-nights-in-hospital swirl.
Our only option, once we had emerged on the other side of all that, was to slow time down. Way down.
How does one do that, you ask?
By wasting it, of course.
Stop rushing. Sit still. Stare out of a nearby window.
Take a nap. Putter in the kitchen. Read a book. And then another one.
Procrastinate. Yes, even that.
I am not suggesting you ignore your deadlines and abandon your obligations. But if a task might take two days, and you have three, then wait.
Delay is risky. You may find you don’t have quite as much time for work as you’d like. But there is risk in productivity, too. You might discover you have accomplished so much in a day that the day has gone by in a blur.
I can think of few things more tragic than a lifetime of blurry days.
For the past two weeks, I have wasted time like a professional. I have even broken my unspoken rule and actually read a novel in the morning. Shocking, I know. But when the novel is by Barbara Pym I can hardly help myself.
Pym was a twentieth-century Jane Austen. There is less conventional romance in her novels of a post-war Britain, there is certainly more melancholy, but there is the same keenly observant eye and witty sense of humor. So far I have read Excellent Women (1952) and Quartet in Autumn (1977), and I highly recommend them both. The first is more humorous, the second more preoccupied with sorrow, but both are quietly subversive and fiercely intelligent.
When not reading, I have been cooking. I’m not baking bread or making party appetizers, I am only making dinner. These quieter, slower days have reminded me that family dinner is not the onerous obligation I have sometimes believed it to be. Instead, it is a delicious, daily treat.
Of course, if I wait until five pm to give it my attention, then it can be stressful. But why should I wait? Why not sip my morning coffee while asking what’s for dinner? Surely there are few questions so full with pleasurable possibility.
This is especially true if you own one of my favorite family cookbooks Dinner: A Love Story. Jenny Rosenstrach’s recipes are straightforward, wholesome, and tasty, and her celebration of the family dinner hour (written from the perspective of a busy, full-time working mother, no less) has been just the inspiration I needed to try new recipes.
And, I can’t wait to try her just-released cookbook How To Celebrate Everything.
I recently finished Katherine Willis Pershey’s wonderful new book Very Married: Field Notes on Love and Fidelity. You can find my full review on Goodreads, but here is the condensed version: Very Married is my favorite book on marriage. The personal storytelling is funny and friendly, but it is also inspiring and wise.
This book (with a foreword by Eugene Peterson!) is also that incredibly rare thing in Christian publishing: a book for all of us. No matter how your own views line up with Christian teaching on marriage, Pershey’s book is for you. Whether you consider yourself liberal or conservative, Very Married is for you. Pershey doesn’t ignore controversial or complex topics, and she doesn’t hesitate to state her own positions, but she writes with such grace and compassion. Her book reminded me not only how beautiful fidelity can be, but how beautiful Christian unity can be.
If slowing down holds appeal for you, I have one more recommendation. My dear friend Summer Gross, an ordained minister and spiritual director, has recently inaugurated a “Slow Word Movement.”
Summer offers guided Scripture meditations, or Lectio Divina, via video through her website. You can sign up to receive each new “Slow Word” in your email inbox. Summer has made it so easy for us to hit pause in order to find that still point in our spinning world. I hope you’ll visit her website to find out more and subscribe.
Finally, here is my latest post for Grace Table. It includes a recipe for our new favorite cake.
What are you reading and cooking these days?
It is one thing to choose less for oneself. It is another thing entirely to make that same choice for your children.
We always want more for our children. More than we had. More than we are.
What kind of parent holds their child’s small hand and walks in the direction of less?
In some ways we have chosen less. We try (and fail, and try again) to choose less noise, less hurry, less stuff. We choose fewer activities, fewer commitments, fewer toys.
We limit sugar and entertainment (which, paradoxically, makes apple cider doughnuts sweeter and family movie night more fun).
But, mostly, and perhaps most significantly, less is chosen for us.
There is never enough money and there is never enough time for all that I want for my kids.
Yes, I want sewing lessons and music lessons and art lessons. Yes, I want a pool pass and movie tickets and restaurant meals. But I have four children and limited funds, and I say “no” a lot because “no” is the only thing I can say.
When I choose less for myself, I must trust in God’s provision. His protection. His presence. Yet I seem to believe that I am meant to be God for my children. As if I am the one who provides. As if I am the one who protects.
But my provision is faulty. My protection imperfect. Even when present I give myself with impatience rather than love.
Yet I would fill all those gaps with more. I would build a high wall – made of stuff and experiences and extra curricular activities – in order to launch my children into a future I cannot even begin to see.
It turns out that having less to give requires letting go.
Having let go, having placed my children in the hands of the only provider and protector, the one who has secured a future for each of them, I am freed of so much fear.
I am released to love them. Freed, even, to give good gifts without worrying that I must give every gift.
Living with less where our children are concerned might sound peaceful. It might sound idyllic. And, at times, it is.
Without the pool pass, there is the creek and the slip ‘n slide. Because of severe food allergies, there is more made-from-scratch food enjoyed together around our own table.
But often it feels as if we are jagged pebbles tossed together in one of those toy rock tumblers.
We cannot escape one another (because there are fewer camps and activities to take us in different directions).
We cannot stop hurting each other (perhaps because we are bored, or because we are not distracted by a screen, or because we are human).
This, then, is my prayer, this is my hope: that through constraints and tears and a thousand petty squabbles, we are becoming gems.
I’ve been writing about simplicity. This means, of course, that I’ve been reading about it, too.
So here is one more peak at the bookshelves in this old farmhouse. Though, to be honest, most of these books haven’t yet found their place on a shelf. Too new, too needed, they are piled on that one chair in our tiny sunroom or the little bureau I use as a bedside table. I’m fairly sure my almost-three-year-old has already taken a ballpoint pen to one or two of them.
This list is not meant to be exhaustive. Not even comprehensive. Perhaps it isn’t even a good place to begin if you are new to the topic. But these are the books I’ve been reading. These are the books I would pass on to you if you came to visit us at Maplehurst.
These are merely a few books that have found their way to me. And I am trying my best to listen.
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I’ll give you the best right up front. It’s called In Celebration of Simplicity: The Joy of Living Lightly by Penelope Wilcock. Recommended by an internet friend (she and her words are wise and beautiful; I recommend especially this recent post on dimming the lights), I think of this book as a lovely little dagger.
It is a pretty thing, like a gift book. The edges of every single page are devoted to Scripture and inspirational quotations. But don’t be fooled. There is nothing sweet about Wilcock’s message.
This is a book about discipleship. About following Jesus in every part of our lives – our eating, our shopping, our words, our clothing, our hospitality, our entertainment, our work, our everything.
The Way of Christ, The Way of simplicity is narrow. Reading Wilcock I see it. I believe it. I am afraid of it. Yet somehow, reading this book, I want to run in that direction. And never come back.
The discipline of simplicity is the magnifying glass that focuses the sun, so that the concentrated force of the Holy Spirit can be trained upon the insignificant bits and pieces of the common way in which we tread, effecting amid all the dross and distractions the living fire of a kindled life. – Penelope Wilcock
Another book suggested by an internet friend (on my facebook page, are we connected there?), is The Plain Reader: Essays on Making a Simple Life edited by Scott Savage.
I am only halfway through this anthology, but I already know it’s one I want to pass on.
You’ll find at least one well known name (Wendell Berry and his essay on health is excellent) but most of these voices are not often heard outside their small circles. Most are Amish (by choice, not birth), Quaker, or members of other “Plain” communities.
The choices and viewpoints reflected in this book can only rightly be described as extreme. The temptation for many readers, myself included, is to put up defenses, to feel judged, to argue, and so to hold tightly to our usual ways of thinking and living.
But that is a waste.
If we can read this book with openness and curiosity, there is so much to gain. First, there is the benefit of seeing how radically different some live their lives all in the name of Christ. Second, though we may not adopt all, or even very many, of the practices of these writers, their radical choices can help us realize how much of our lives we actually can choose. So much of how we live, work, play, and worship seems already determined. But the essays in this book reveal how very possible it is to change everything about the ways in which we live.
And I find that incredibly inspiring.
In an odd sense, when every taboo has fallen, then the only way to be subversive is to have more fun than other people – to fill your heart and your home with more joy and warmth and pleasure than the frantic, slightly pathetic, ersatz happiness offered by Disney and the mall and the chat room. This is a book, finally, about joy. – Bill McKibben
A book I’ve mentioned before is Plain and Simple: A Woman’s Journey to the Amish by Sue Bender. Bender’s book, part-memoir, part artistic vision, asks whether it is possible for a thoroughly modern woman to live life as beautifully and simply as the handmade Amish quilts she admires.
Must our lives be the crazy quilts we often feel them to be?
The feeling went beyond everyday cleanliness and order. The air felt alive, almost vibrating. Can a room have a heartbeat? Can space be serene and exciting at the same time? I’d never been in a room that felt like that. – Sue Bender
One reason I am feeling beckoned towards this thing we call the simple life, is that I want space in my life for the things that matter.
I want space to breath (to cut flowers every morning, to sit in stillness with a child in my lap). I want space for paying attention (there is trouble and injustice in our world, but if my life is too crowded I cannot notice, and I cannot do anything). And I want space for the absolutely essential non-essentials.
I don’t want to live a life that has no room for a book like A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 by Wendell Berry.
I recommend it. Both the space-making and the poetry-reading.
“Peace is our gift to each other.”
– Elie Wiesel
We hosted a large reunion of old friends for the 4th of July weekend. As usual, the week before found us tackling a long list of neglected home repairs. At one point, while my husband hammered in a nail, I told him we’d probably live in squalor if it weren’t for our house guests.
Maybe that’s not strictly true, but we do find hospitality to be highly motivating when it comes to maintenance chores.
One day before the first guests turned down our long driveway, I decided to do something about the pantry shelves in our kitchen. A few weeks before we’d finally removed the flimsy bi-fold doors that never did stay on their tracks. Somehow I remembered an old pair of cream-colored curtains that my mother had sewed for me years ago. The tie-top panels had covered the sliding glass door in one of our first married homes, but then never quite worked for any of our windows after that. I’d been moving those curtains around, storing them at the back of various closets and drawers, for more than fifteen years.
We installed a curtain rod. We hung the curtains to hide our boxes of Cheerios, our tubs of coconut oil, and my messy collection of recycled glass containers. And they were perfect. As if they’d been made for just this space.
I texted my mom a picture and said do you remember these?
Yes, she said. Maybe it is sometimes a good idea to hold onto things.
So, yes, mothers do know best and simplicity is complicated. Give it away or hold onto it? I don’t always know.
Maybe it comes down to motivation. Are we holding on to something out of hope or fear?
There is a world of difference between I’m afraid I’ll need this one day and won’t have it and I hope one day I find a place for this beautiful thing.
I used to encounter advice on simple living and think won’t work for me. Things like, keep only the number of dishes necessary for each family member and wash after each use.
But what happens when you suddenly have thirty-five extra mouths to feed? Paper plates? That may be simple for me and my jar of dish soap, but it is not so simple for our budget. Or for the earth.
I prefer a large stack of plain white dinner plates collected from Goodwill and IKEA.
In our culture of excess, simplicity and hospitality can seem like oil and water. But I am learning, slowly learning, that they are not. Because what I most desire to share with my guests is peace.
There is no peace in excess. In overindulgence. In decadence.
Peace needs space in which to grow. It requires surrender and trust. Strangely, too much effort, even too much paper party décor, can snuff it out.
A little emptiness, a little imperfection, a little less … of everything. This is how to carve out space for another person.
There is also, in simplicity, a great deal of not knowing. Do I keep the curtains or not? Do I bake three desserts or will one suffice? To overwhelm someone with the stuff of our hospitality is to assume we know, in advance, what she needs.
But we do not know. So we give a little emptiness instead.
And we watch as emptiness becomes a place where every guest can be seen and heard.
And made welcome.
Ready or not, I will write about simplicity.
But are you ready to read words on simplicity by a woman who lives in a 7-bedroom farmhouse on four-and-a-half acres?
Because even if I explain that three of those bedrooms are on the third floor. That they don’t all have closets. That the ceilings slope against the eaves of the roof so that it is hard even to stand up in places; even then, I am describing abundance and not simplicity, aren’t I?
Here is where you might expect me to say that simplicity is a matter of the heart. It’s what’s on the inside that counts!
I am not going to say that.
True simplicity does reach all the way into our hearts, but it is also very much about our stuff. Our houses. Our land. Our clothes and cars and gadgets and machines. Our credit cards and bank accounts and pantries. The number of bedrooms, the size of our kitchens, the bins stuffed with toys.
All of it.
Why did Jesus tell so many, so often to get rid of their belongings? To store up a very different kind of treasure?
He wanted us to live like flowers. Like birds. Free of everything that would weigh us down.
It isn’t only my freedom at stake.
I recently found an old shirt in my closet. The label said Made in Bangladesh. I remembered the garment factory fire. I remembered how only a few months later, another garment factory collapsed. I wondered if the hands that had made this shirt were still alive, still sewing clothing for western consumers hungry for bargains. How had those hands suffered?
My desire for stuff, and the choices I make when I spend money have far-reaching implications.
You know this. I know this. But who has the time, the energy, the knowledge to make only perfect choices?
It’s all so complicated. So hopelessly complicated. When what I want is peace. What I want is simplicity.
Of course, there is one easy answer. One simple way to begin: live with less.
Don’t buy it (even though it’s cheap). Give it away (even though I might need it some other day). Let it go (though I wonder who I am without this possession).
I think about letting go, and I suddenly remember something important. How could I have forgotten? It was letting go that led me here. Here, to this abundance of bedrooms and growing gardens.
I let go of a career. I gave away the dream that had fueled my living for so long. I cast my bread upon the waters and what came back was the bread I longed to eat. The bread I could break over and over and give away: seven bedrooms (every one of which will be full this weekend) and ground to cultivate (food to eat, food to share) and words of life (my book coming to you next February).
So much wisdom on living in simplicity begins with giving stuff away. Clean out your closet, purge the toy bin, carry it all to the thrift store. Feel yourself breathe.
But I never understood. I am not a born minimalist. I like stacks of books (the more the better), I like pretty bits and bobs with sentimental value. I like knowing I can throw a party for a crowd with the contents of those three drawers.
Giving things away also felt like cheating. Isn’t it much harder to stop accumulating things than to give them away once I have?
But giving things away is like a muscle in need of exercise.
Give away the clothes, the toys, some books.
Give away the car, the job, the dream. Break the bread. Spill the oil. Keep giving until you wake up one morning and realize you have given away your life.
Because that is the morning you begin to live.