I wrote a version of this post last year for the website Deeper Story. It feels even more true this year.
I am standing in the yard with a rake in my hands when I feel the circle of the year begin to tie itself up with a neatly finished knot.
Since moving to this old farmhouse on the hill, my late November chores are always the same. Chopping up the great drifts of fallen maple leaves with the mower. Cleaning out the brittle tomato vines and the slimy, still-green nasturtiums from the vegetable garden. Covering each raised bed with a winter blanket of chopped leaves.
I tear the blackened cords of morning glory and moonflower from the porch, scattering the seeds of next summer’s flowers in the process. Our compost bins overflow.
I circle the fruit trees in our tiny orchard with deer fencing. I mound the roses with wood chips.
The year is dying. The trees and shrubs prepare to sleep. And every wheelbarrow load of mulch underscores the end of our year’s work.
My friend and I meet each week in the local, big-chain coffee shop. December was still weeks away when I walked in to find that our familiar corner table now sat beneath dangling paper bells. And was it snowing in there? I am sure it was snowing glitter.
It felt so deeply wrong but also festive, and I wondered if I had become a thirty-seven-year-old curmudgeon.
I’m not the bah-humbug type. I don’t begrudge anyone their seasonal fun. But it was clear to me, sitting in a coffee shop that shone like red tin foil, that my heart, mind, and soul were tuned to some other rhythm.
It was still November, and I was not ready for Christmas feasting. The old, dying year hadn’t yet been laid to rest.
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world …”
I’ve known those words since childhood. But I think that it is only now, having watched the year circle this hilltop a few times, that I feel the rift, small but growing, that lies between me and long familiar patterns.
It turns out there is a difference between the earth and the world. One is a circle, a globe if you will, shaped by the shifting tides of work and rest. The other is also a circle, but it is more like a hamster’s wheel jangling away beneath twenty-four-hour floodlights.
I am increasingly out of sync with the world. I am longing to inherit the earth.
December blows in on a polar wind. We mark this month’s progress with a circle of candles. Sunday after Sunday there is more light by which to see.
What I see, from the top of this hill, is an earth gone to sleep. While the world spins itself out in dizzy circles of consumption, the earth recognizes that its work is done. New things, like new years, begin with sleep (which is to say, surrender), and winter is a season for rest.
I like to think that this is what it looks like to store up treasure in heaven. The trees know they need only wait. A few more months, and heaven will return every good thing we have lost. That is the meaning of spring.
The world knows little of Advent and will be, I fear, all worn out by the evening of December 25. The traditional twelve days are too many when the feast began in mid-November.
But the earth has one sermon that has never lost its power.
When spring returns, even the weary world rejoices.
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Is green edged with gold.
It is the first official day of autumn, but we have been observing its approach for weeks. The lingering heat and humidity made us doubt our eyes. Now that the air has shifted, now that we have retrieved our jackets from the back of the wardrobe, we cannot tell ourselves that the cherry trees with their yellow leaves are overeager.
The maples are shaded with color now. The pumpkins lined up outside the grocery store no longer seem presumptuous.
Last weekend, Jonathan and I buried two hundred daffodil bulbs on the slope above the driveway.
Every year when I trip over a just-delivered box of bulbs on the porch near our back door, I feel beleaguered. Who has time for bulbs when the younger two won’t stop poking one another then screeching and the older two are whining about after-school snacks and someone refuses to meet my eye when asked about his school reading log?
But every year when spring finally breaks through, I wish I had planted more. I always wish for more.
I am trying to remember that winter-weariness. Trying to remember what those bulbs will mean come April.
Two hundred daffodils are only the beginning. I’ll plant at least as many more when another box shows up some time in October. More daffodils, but also alliums for the new flower garden and tulips for the raised beds in the vegetable garden.
If I plant tulips anywhere else they’ll only be eaten by deer, so I fill a bed or two inside the picket fence. When the tulips are finished in May, I can fill those spots with tomatoes or peppers or beans.
I am reading Terry Tempest Williams’ beautiful book Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. Early on, she writes, “Peace is the perspective found in patterns.”
When I came across that line, I put down my book and went in search of a pen. Her words describe something I have been living for years now, but only dimly perceived. The poetry of her sentence, with its alliterative P, has made something invisible in my experience visible to me.
The earth is full of patterns and rhythms. Some we merely observe but others invite collaboration. Like the planting of bulbs in autumn and the picking of flowers in spring.
These back-to-school days have been anxious days for me, but feeling again the net bag of bulbs stretched tight against the palm of my hand is like feeling my head surface above deep water.
I can breathe again. The peace of a larger, more meaningful perspective fills my lungs.
Homework may go unfinished, my children may go on poking and screeching, but wasn’t it only yesterday I was digging in bulbs with a baby strapped to my back? And isn’t it only tomorrow when those bulbs will bloom again?
The earth spins so fast. There is so much to remember (not homework but the feel of a baby on my back). There is so much to anticipate.
The present moment is always what matters most. But it matters most when it is rooted in memory even as it reaches toward that which is still to come.
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Is just so full.
The peonies are heavy, and ruffled, and scented. I have a jar tumbling with pale pink beauties right at my elbow, and I keep stopping to take deep, deep breaths. Like I’m dying of thirst, and this smell is cool water.
The strawberries in the vegetable garden are ripening so quickly I find at least a few mushy fruit no matter how often I pick. I keep keep them netted against the birds, and I try to gather most of them before the kids come home from school. It’s the only way I can guarantee at least a few berries for myself.
The blueberry bushes are small but loaded with fruit, and I’m ashamed now to remember just how angry I became when I caught the two-year-old stripping green berries off the branches. Now when we walk past, she looks at those bushes, shakes her little head, and says, “Mommy so sad.”
Spring allergies are wrecking me, most of us have had pink-eye, our dishwasher finally died (after a long, not-very-valiant struggle), and we’ve already had so many warm, humid days that I’m starting to get very nervous about the summer.
I read Kate Atkinson’s beautiful, mind-bending, heart-wrenching new book called A God in Ruins: A Novel (Todd Family). I’ll have a bit more to say about that in an upcoming installment of These Farmhouse Bookshelves, but I’ll tell you now that Atkinson, already one of my favorite writers, just keeps getting better and better.
Probably, I’ll also be recommending Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest: The Buried Giant: A novel. Only a third of the way in, I’m already stunned. Ishiguro is a master, an exquisite stylist and a compelling storyteller. I’m afraid my family is in for a weekend of being ignored, because I can’t stop reading this book.
All winter I sipped tea while I read, but I’ve switched to cold-brew iced coffee. I was once a pro with a mason jar and a fine-mesh sieve, but I am loving an early birthday gift from my mom. The Toddy Cold Brew Coffee Maker With 2 Extra Filters makes the cold-brew process – already easy – even easier, and the lidded carafe keeps the concentrate fresh longer. You certainly don’t need a gadget like this for cold-brew, but, let’s be honest, sometimes a messy bit of cheesecloth or a sieve that isn’t quite fine enough are all it takes to send you to the pros at the coffee shop.
Tonight is pizza night in our house, but for the first Friday in weeks we won’t be putting asparagus on our pizzas. Our backyard harvest has ended for the year, but if you still have asparagus around I highly recommend sauteing a few spears in extra-virgin olive oil before laying them right on top of fresh mozzarella (I recently shared our quick-and-easy crust recipe at Grace Table).
On instagram, I’m sharing flowers, flowers, flowers, plus the occasional cute kid. I’m also taking time to step out into the last of the golden light even though it means changing the mud-streaked pajamas of the two little bedtime-avoiders who always follow me outside.
It really is too much. I can’t handle it all, but I suppose that isn’t the goal, is it? Not to handle it. Not to manage it. But to live it.
Which means, I think, to keep your eyes open, your heart broken, and the words thank you always on the edge of your tongue.
The weeds come back first.
Don’t be discouraged. Start weeding. Keep waiting.
And, especially, keep your eyes open.
Even your least-favorite colors are beautiful after a long winter. Neon-yellow forsythia, I’m looking at you.
After a long winter spent with books, it takes time to reacquaint yourself with the world outside your door. Like the two-year-old, you may at first mistake a bumble bee for a “porcupine.”
Don’t put off till tomorrow the cleanup you can do today. Especially because, tomorrow, all those brush piles will be edged with poison ivy.
The garden asks you to do and be. It is important to cut back all the hydrangeas that bloom on new wood, but it is just as important to sit in a green patch memorizing the stripes on a purple crocus.
What’s growing in your bit of earth?
(P.S. These springtime photos were taken by my sister, Kelli Campbell, last year. If you’d like to keep up with the spring just beginning at Maplehurst, you can find my own images on Instagram.)
No doubt most of you are not sitting under a foot of snow as we are here at Maplehurst, but early March days are still ideal reading days.
I’m reading mostly gardening books, which, I suppose, must mean that I am a very hopeful person. Or else that I am practiced in denial.
I have a stack of gardening books currently checked out from my library, including the coffee-table treasury Visions of Paradise by photographer Marina Schinz. It begins with these words:
To create a garden is to search for a better world. In our effort to improve on nature, we are guided by a vision of paradise. … This hope for the future is at the heart of all gardening.
I think this is true of gardening, but my late-winter prayer is that these words would be true in every area of my life. That my reading, my loving, my working – everything – be motivated by hope for the future.
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My favorite book in that stack of gardening books is The Essential Earthman: Henry Mitchell on Gardening.
Henry Mitchell was a columnist for the Washington Post. This posthumous collection has been called “one of the great American gardening books,” and I absolutely agree. This is wonderful reading: informative, practical, hilarious, witty. In its own subtle way, it is brilliant.
Its appeal for gardeners is obvious, but as I read I decided the book was worthy of an even broader audience. Almost all of the pieces are wonderful examples of what newspaper opinion writing can be.
We can all learn something from Henry Mitchell. We might learn about planting peonies or which varieties of daffodil are the most glorious. Or, we might learn the subtle art of communicating one’s own strong opinions in the most disarming and entertaining way.
Dept. of Speculation (Vintage Contemporaries) by Jenny Offill is not like any other novel you have read. I am sure of that. It is more like one of those works of art that looks, from a distance, like a hyper-realist portrait but is, upon closer examination, found to be made up entirely of buttons or bottle caps.
From a distance, this is the story of a marriage that is falling apart. Now, I know that sounds entirely too depressing for late-winter, but the full arc of the story is hopeful and beautiful.
But close up? This is a strange collection of thoughts and facts and memories. I tend not to like experiments in fiction, James Joyce excepted, of course. But when an experiment works, it really, really works. And this one works.
There is nothing self-indulgent about Offill’s writing. Instead, she has found a new way to tell a familiar story, and the result is astonishing.
I sometimes postpone writing these book recommendation posts because I worry that I haven’t read enough new, great books. I forget that the premise, when I began, was simply to tell you about the books on my shelves. Or, more accurately, the books taken off the shelves and left lying near beds and armchairs.
We’ve loved Mary Ann Hoberman’s picture book The Seven Silly Eaters for years, but this book has recently come off the shelf for round after round of reading. Elsa loves it, but my nearly-six and nearly-nine-year-old boys come like moths to a flame when they hear me reading it.
We are big fans of other Hoberman books, especially A House Is a House for Me and The Llama Who Had No Pajama: 100 Favorite Poems, but The Seven Silly Eaters is special. It’s the rhyming story of a tired mother with seven picky-eaters for children, but, like all great picture books, it offers so much more. Every illustration tells a story of its own, and, I think, every family will find something of themselves in its pages.
Do you think your child is too old for picture books? Do you think you are too old for picture books? Then I recommend The Seven Silly Eaters as a very necessary corrective.
Happy reading, friends.
It’s the coldest weekend of the season for us here at Maplehurst.
The week did not begin well. The same night Jonathan left town for a business trip, the tank of heating oil that supplies our furnace ran dry.
Elsa and I spent the next morning wearing coats by the parlor fireplace waiting for an oil refill and a technician to restart our heating system.
However, the week ended with the installation of our much dreamed-about, much anticipated woodstove. It sits in our once freezing kitchen, but, as I type this from the kitchen table, the room is throbbing with warmth.
If you’re looking for any of us this weekend, you’ll find us here. In the kitchen. Feeding logs into the mouth of a cast-iron stove on four, pretty little legs, reading picture books and gardening books and the woodstove manual.
You’ll find us here, drinking coffee and cocoa, reading about mice who drink “acorn coffee” and deciding the very important question of whether or not acorn coffee might be something we’d like to try.
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The acorn coffee appears in Winter Story (Brambly Hedge) by Jill Barklem, but we love every beautiful book in the Brambly Hedge series. You might begin with the four seasonal books (I am very fond of the June wedding of the miller mouse and the dairy-maid mouse that takes place on a bark raft floating at the edge of the stream), but don’t miss the other stories. My boys, especially, love to follow the winding staircase in one of the images from The Secret Staircase (Brambly Hedge).
These books are thirty years old, but they were old-fashioned when they appeared. They celebrate English seasonal folk customs as depicted in a community of hedge-dwelling mice. The mice wear straw hats and drink delicate, floral wines. There is a lord and lady and a palace, but they store their food communally in a stump. They enjoy picnics and outings to pick blackberries. Do I need to say more?
I will say more but only this: it is the highly detailed illustrations that make these books so magical. Every intricate twist in a mouse cottage burrow is depicted in delicious detail. A patch of trees lights up with tiny mouse windows. A cottage kitchen drips with stored crabapples, homemade jam, and embroidered tea towels.
I pretty much want to move in to Brambly Hedge.
One of the most surprising and inspiring books I’ve read this winter is Keeping House: The Litany of Everyday Life by Margaret Kim Peterson. Recommended by a friend who studied with Peterson at Eastern University, this is a book about the spiritual value of housekeeping. It is for men and women, married and single, university students, empty-nesters … what I’m trying to say is that this book offers something important and encouraging to anyone who has ever found themselves with a dirty dish in their hand or a bed in need of making.
As someone who values the home but loathes just about every task associated with keeping one (I tolerate laundry, I despise cleaning, I rarely make my bed), this book completely reoriented the way I see my home and the work involved in caring for it. I’ve always said that washing dishes can be holy work, but I don’t think I ever really believed it, until I read this.
Keeping House is rich in theology, but it is clearly written, thoroughly accessible, and seasoned with personal stories. I loved it. I can’t recommend it enough.
One book I’ll keep close to the woodstove this weekend is Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs. This is an enormous, treasure of a book, and it is not inexpensive. Even though I was cashing in a gift card, I still debated quite a bit before I hit purchase.
But, wow! I am so glad I did. This book is the work of a lifetime, particularly of famed botanist Michael Dirr’s lifetime, and you will not find a more exhaustive, thoroughly researched, delightfully written, well-photographed book of trees, shrubs, and vines.
I love the personal, witty writing style (if a tree is rubbish for gardens, Dirr will let us know), I love reading the histories of familiar trees, I love the lists of particularly worthwhile varieties. I’ll be planting three crabapples this spring, and I’ve already chosen the named varieties based on Dirr’s descriptions.
If you aren’t quite ready for the financial commitment (not to mention the commitment of coffee-table space), you might prefer to read Dirr’s earlier volume Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. This is a smaller book (though not small), and the information is slightly less up-to-date, but it remains an excellent resource. Also, you should be able to find it at your library.
Today, I have one bonus recommendation. Dawn Camp’s just-released collection The Beauty of Grace: Stories of God’s Love from Today’s Most Popular Writers is lovely. It is brimming over with brief reflections from some of my favorite Christian bloggers. I love that this book gathers some of the best of ephemeral internet writing and gives it permanence.
I think this book would make an especially fine gift. I love giving books as gifts, but sometimes it is difficult to find just the right book match. This book solves that problem entirely. Everyone will find something to love in this book. But my highest praise? It has earned a place by my bedside table.