We planted a tree on Friday.
It is a red oak tree, and we planted it for Shawn.
I’d ordered it in June for fall planting. It arrived at the nursery weeks ago, but somehow I never received the message. I found out it was ready only a few days before my family, the family I so rarely see, came to stay.
We have two shovels. My husband, brother, brother-in-law, and nephew took turns digging. My brother’s wife held the baby who was born the day of Shawn’s memorial service. The baby who shares his name.
The wind was a little too blustery for a nine-month-old more accustomed to Texas heat, but instead of carrying him back inside, I tried to block the wind with my body. I thought of how the tree will grow as he grows.
We tipped the tree out of its container and watered it well. I suppose its leaves were green when it was first set aside for us at the nursery, but now they are mottled with dark red like dried blood and bright red like the berries on our winterberry shrubs.
This tree is young, but it already knows what every tree knows: there is a space between life and death, and it has its own particular beauty.
The story of our world is a story of three trees.
In the beginning there was a tree of life, but we fell from that flourishing green perfection and went on falling until it seemed that death and evil and suffering would always have the last word.
He was like us, yet he did not fall. On a cross fashioned from a broken tree, he submitted to death and suffering, and so defeated them.
Now the power that carried him from death to life is transforming us from the inside out. And it is transforming our world from the inside out. One day that transformation will be complete, the distance between the way things are and the way they were always meant to be will be erased, and we will live in the green shade of another tree of life.
The leaves of that third tree, we are told, “are for the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2).
I can think of few things I want more.
I can think of few things we need more because words wound as well as sticks and stones and bombs.
Is it only a far-off dream? A happily-ever-after story we pull like wool over our eyes during days of trouble?
The radiant leaves of Shawn’s tree say otherwise. When the wind picks up, I hear them whisper, “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life” (Proverbs 11:30).
Because of Shawn, a tree of life has spread its roots through our family and among many friends. It is as real as this red oak tree. Things that were broken in our hearts or our relationships or our ways of living in the world are being made right. Healing we did not even know we needed has begun.
Our world is caught somewhere between death and life. It is like a tree glowing with autumn color. It breaks our hearts even as it dazzles our eyes.
But the seeds for that third tree have already been sown.
Controversies may swirl and bullets may fly (both metaphorical and all too real), but we are not afraid. We are not dismayed.
We are too busy planting and tending trees.
And that will make all the difference in the world.
There are days that plod, one after the other, days of sameness and stasis.
Summer days are often like that. Sometimes it is a hard thing, and sometimes it is a gift. Our recent vacation days in the Adirondacks were a gift, but remembering them now is like remembering one long day, so slow and similar were they.
Then there are days when you can feel the planet tilting and swirling beneath you. These are days when change rushes toward you like the wind, and you are flung toward new horizons as if shot from a circus cannon.
All four of my children went to school on Monday.
It was only four years ago that we came to Maplehurst. Only four years ago that my firstborn walked all the way down our long driveway toward third grade, her first-grade brother trailing behind. My little boy stayed home for games of Candy Land, and our baby girl would be born in only a week.
Four years sounds like nothing at all, but it is nearly an eternity in the life of a child. This week, my firstborn walked all the way down our long driveway toward seventh grade, her fifth and second-grade brothers trailing behind.
And Elsa Spring started preschool.
Our little sorrows seem as nothing, especially when they are sorrows of abundance. How silly is it to cry for our lost babies when our arms are filled with growing children?
I too would laugh, I too would call this folly, except that I have seen how easy it is for me to discount every form of grief. Like so many, I privilege “closure” and “recovery.” Like a foolish accountant, I weigh the world’s sorrows on a scale. The loss of a child weighs the most. The loss of a spouse a little less, the loss of a sibling or a favorite aunt still less. The ordinary grief a mother feels watching her children grow and leave her behind counts not at all.
Why is it so hard to acknowledge that we all walk through life with grief for which there is, today, no compensation?
We grieve the baby we wanted but could never have, the baby who died too soon, the baby who lived but grew up to leave us.
We grieve, we grieve, we grieve.
In Housekeeping, her perfect poem of a novel, Marilynne Robinson writes: “The force behind the movement of time is a mourning that will not be comforted. That is why the first event is known to have been an expulsion, and the last is hoped to be a reconciliation and return.”
If we pretend that this life gives enough comfort and consolation to erase our griefs is it because we fear we can hope for nothing better?
If we assume that what is lost is lost forever, then why not take what little comfort we can, wherever we can?
But if we persist in the wild belief that the world will be made new and whole, that everything lost will be found again, then we must go on grieving.
To turn our back on sorrow is to turn our back on hope.
These are the things I tell myself, seven months after Shawn’s death. Twenty years after Michelle’s death. Twenty-four years after Sissie’s death. And four years after I birthed a baby girl who would not long remain a baby.
Time is cruel because it carries us so far from the people and places and things we have loved and lost.
Time is sweet grace because it propels us, ready or not, like it or not, toward a hoped-for day. A day when all the fragments of our lives, all the broken bits and pieces, will be gathered up.
On that day, the promise inherent in our precious memories will be fulfilled. The half-forgotten and the dimly-recalled will take on flesh, and greet us by name, and together we will go home.
I always know just how long it’s been since we moved to this old farmhouse called Maplehurst. I can judge it by the length of her curls and the stoutness of her legs.
I was eight-months pregnant when I watched the London Olympics surrounded by teetering piles of unpacked cardboard boxes. Elsa Spring was born six weeks after we moved in. This week she and I watched Olympic “gymtastics” while I held her on the sofa in the family room.
I wrote about our first year in this place in a book called Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons. I wrote about how small and slow this new beginning was for us. We had such big dreams. I wanted to see them realized immediately, but before we’d even unpacked all of the boxes, I had a baby daughter in my arms. Not long after that, winter settled in. Ice on the windowpanes. Ice in my veins.
That first year was a year for slow and small. Those first four seasons were all about be still.
And since then? The days have continued to feel slow and small and ordinary. It is only when I look back, only when I take in the full sweep of four years all at once, do I feel that explosion of new life.
Nothing has been small. Nothing has been slow. Nothing has been ordinary.
All along, God has been doing a new thing. And I am a witness.
What has happened in four years? We welcomed a daughter, we watched four children grow, I wrote a book, we built gardens, and we have almost filled our guestbook with names. I wrote about that, the guests and the flowers, in a recent piece for Art House America. You can read my quiet manifesto here.
We continue to dream new dreams for this place and for those who join us here, which means we continue to wade through the small, and the slow, and the ordinary.
The house is wrapped in scaffolding, but thanks to the care of two men, the one-hundred-and-thirty-year-old bricks haven’t looked this solid since the year they were laid. The worn, black shutters have been removed, and the day when we will reinstall them, either repaired or remade, feels impossibly far away. One by one, a local craftsman is restoring our windows, but it could be years before every window in this house is repaired. Yet once stripped and repaired, these old windows with their wavy glass will welcome cool breezes for another hundred years.
It feels, four years on, as if we are still in the messy middle. Those words I wrote in Roots and Sky have lately come floating back into my mind:
We love beginnings, and we privilege endings, but we live most of our lives in some sort of middle. Life is perpetually unfinished. That is its nature. – Roots and Sky, p 122
Unfinished it may be, but I can say with confidence that here at Maplehurst I have seen the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. And that is enough for me.
God’s goodness and the world’s grief are not as irreconcilable as I sometimes think. Four years ago, I could not have anticipated the sorrows that would visit us in this place. I wrote about the grief of that first, hard winter in Roots and Sky. I have written about other sorrows here on this blog.
Four years ago, I could not have anticipated how much would be given and just how much would be taken away. It is good that I did not know. It is good because I would have weighed it all in some balance. I would have asked if the gains compensated for the losses. Would there be more laughter than tears? More happiness than grief?
But I have learned that joy spreads its roots through laughter and tears. I have learned that sometimes we receive the most when something precious has been lost. Abundant life is mystery, not mathematics. Or perhaps, mathematics, which I’ve been told is the language of the universe, is more mysterious than I knew.
There is a wise woman in Proverbs. She is one who “can laugh at the days to come.” What will the next four years bring? I feel too sobered by the recent past to laugh. Considering time, I cannot help but tremble. It is so clearly held in hands that are not mine.
I may not be laughing, but I do feel very small and very still. Four years on, I am no longer fighting the wisdom of this place. So much has grown here in these four years: a baby girl, a book, a ring of apple trees. The soil here was always fertile, but we have watered it faithfully with our tears. I cannot say with certainty what we will harvest next, but I think the harvest will be a good one. Perhaps our best yet.
Perhaps our next harvest will be laughter.
My children have spent the past week with their grandparents. Untethered from their needs, I spent the week living in my head.
Daydreams, interior monologues, thoughts, prayers, and wishes: the inner world is my favorite landscape.
It is quiet there, and I am all alone.
I set several overly-ambitious writing goals for the week. I also determined to catch up on every gardening chore and organize the house from top to bottom. In 90-degree heat.
It was a plan guaranteed to ensure that by the time my children returned, I would feel like a miserable failure who had squandered the most precious days that ever were.
The gardening chores have at least forced me to temporarily abandon my inner world. Daydreams evaporate very quickly when one is sweating, swatting mosquitoes, and cursing one’s inability to properly stake a sprawling cherry tomato plant.
Also, there are flowers. I am finding this summer that I do not think very much in the flower garden. There is something about the overpowering scent of oriental lilies that empties my head of everything else. Only a few days in to my full immersion in the life of the mind, I decided that it is a good thing to take a break from oneself. My inner world, as much as I love it, can be exhausting.
I do not think I would like to live there full-time.
Something else happened while the children were away: I turned on the car radio. I am not sure why I so rarely do that. Perhaps it is the demands from my little companions in travel for this music but not that. Perhaps it is my own need to control the tunes that tickle their ears.
I hopped in the car for the first time in days only because a few library books were due and our first bag of peaches was ready at the orchard where we participate in a fruit-share CSA. I do not think that anything less than library books and peaches could have convinced me to leave the quiet oasis of my child-free house.
Left to my own devices like that, I found myself punching the AM/FM knob. I had to take my eyes off the road for quite a dangerous stretch before my fingers found a tiny button labeled “seek.”
I don’t know what I was seeking, but a familiar voice filled the car. It was a childlike voice and instantly recognizable to me. I was a little girl in the early 80s, and the voice of Cyndi Lauper will always recall that one memorable sleepover when my best friend Michelle and I decided to find out how many times in a row it was possible to view that classic 80s film Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. I think we watched it two-and-a-half times through before Michelle fell asleep.
In April, in Texas, the very first person who greeted me when we arrived at the cemetery for Shawn’s burial was Michelle’s mom.
I was holding two children by the hands and feeling a bit dazed by the heat and the crowd and the terrible finality of a flag-draped coffin. I was searching for a path through the people who had gathered around a small tent and a few rows of folding chairs, when she suddenly appeared beside me and put her hand on my arm. I had not seen her in years, but I had no trouble recognizing the woman who placed our after-school snacks with such care on those tv trays, the same woman who never complained when Michelle and I brought home sticky gumballs we had spit out and saved from the gumball ice-cream cones we purchased at the mall.
I sort of love Cyndi Lauper’s strange voice. She always sounds a bit like a little girl, and my best friend Michelle will always be, for me, the little girl I loved best. I wish I could call her up and tell her that, but Michelle died in a car accident not long after I graduated from high school.
There’s a kind of epiphany that only comes when the music is turned up loud and you are all alone in the car. It’s a strange mix of sadness, joy, and gratitude.
Half my mind was singing Time After Time and the other half was recognizing what a privilege it is to sweat in my garden and run dirty, weed-stained fingers through hair that is beginning to gray. What a privilege it is to feel overwhelmed by four children, to bicker and then make up with the same man for twenty years. How glad I am for this life of interruption and inconvenience and heartache.
It’s a good thing to stop on a too-hot summer day and remember and cry for those who left us too soon.
We are following fast on their heels, but meanwhile, there are flowers to grow and meals to prepare and stories to tell. And there are songs to sing.
Loudly and with the windows rolled down.
Life right now is the first day of summer and the longest day of the year.
This is the day that brings us nearest to that time and place when “there will be no more night” (Rev. 22:5).
But even the night is brighter than most. As the ripe moon rises, it scatters the last few tattered clouds until it shines like silver in our faces.
“Look!” I tell my two-year-old nephew. “A strawberry moon!”
“Yes, Auntie Christie,” he says. “A watermelon moon!”
We wander down the avenue while fireflies come out to play. They buzz and snap. It is a fireworks extravaganza for the fairies.
My sister catches one in her hand, and we crouch, there, on the edge of the driveway, with firefly light in our eyes.
One more night, and I sit with my four children at a memorial service for a child.
The room is decorated with twinkle lights. We are indoors, but here is the night sky. Here are the summer fireflies.
After the songs, and the words, and the prayers, we step outside and into the setting sun. Everyone holds golden balloons on golden strings until – a whistle and a cry – we let them fly.
“These balloons are for you, Adam!”
“Balloons! For you!”
The kitchen is filled with balloons.
“Happy birthday!” they say. “Happy birthday,” everyone sings.
It is my birthday. It is my son’s birthday.
“This is the day, more than any other, when I confront the ties of love that bind me to the living and the dead. The old world and the new” (Roots and Sky, p. 174).
Death, where is your sting? What victory do you have?
You are so small I cannot even see you. You are blotted out by this bright summer light.
But, Life, oh, Life. You are so full. You are as weighty as the dropping sun. You are as sharp as the silver moon. You dazzle my eyes, and you break my heart.
Like the Israelites of old, when I see the fire and the glory belonging to the Lord of Life, what can I do?
What can I do but kneel with my face to the ground, saying, “He is good; his love endures forever” (2 Chron 7:3).
Three posts for you on my birthday:
In A Land of Small Wonders (written for Emily P. Freeman)
Why I Grieve On My Birthday
Why I Give Thanks On My Birthday
Four brothers: one Day family son, and the men who married three Day daughters.
Generally, time moves consistently and at a measured pace. Each day arrives and passes like the blank squares on the print-your-own calendars I persist in using rather than the app I once downloaded onto my phone.
But there are days.
There are days when all those neat squares swim like the tears in your eyes until the past and the present sit right on top of one another. Then, you are caught. Time passes, but you are snagged on the past. You are like a winter coat dangling all summer long from that hook on the closet door.
I am caught on a winter day almost twenty years ago. I wore a white dress, and my sisters, my bridesmaids, wore green. We gathered in the fellowship room of the church of our childhood. We ate little sandwiches and cake and held white china cups of steaming coffee.
I am caught on a summer day fifteen years ago. The same fellowship room in the same church. My sister Kelli in white this time, our sister Lisa and I in pale gray.
I am caught on another summer day ten years ago. The same room. Lisa in white. Kelli and I in deep red. This time, there was a chocolate fountain.
I had not seen that room until a week ago, Saturday. We buried Shawn that day under an already hot Texas sun. Then, the fellowship room, and one more reception, but this one unimagined, unanticipated. We stood in the same room, our dresses a trio of somber colors. We held steaming cups of coffee, plates full of tiny sandwiches and cake.
Small children tugged on our arms, made it impossible to talk.
Every day, my children ask for ice cream and every day I give them some green vegetable. Last night, I served arugula sautéed with garlic and olive oil. Eager for a second helping of sliced strawberries, my older boy announced that he had finished all of his “kale stuff.”
I love my children, and I long to give them good gifts. Some days I hand out the lollipops. As Elsa’s Uncle Shawn was laid to rest, I unwrapped three lollipops in a row because she would not stop complaining, loudly, about the heat.
They weren’t gifts, they were bribes.
“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” (Matthew 7:9) Yet though my children ask for candy, I give them gifts of bittersweet broccoli, caramelized in the heat of the oven. It is my best gift for them.
I give it because they are precious to me.
The problem with being snagged on the past in this way, is that the events of life do not stay in their proper places. Clearly, the weddings were good gifts, and the funeral is a terrible thing, and yet all of it has seemed to merge in my mind.
Ten years ago, I stood in that fellowship room, coffee cup in hand, trying so hard not to cry. I had found out only that morning that the latest round of fertility drugs had not worked. My grief was the same color as the deep red of my bridesmaid dress.
Because I am snagged, I am no longer confident of what has been good and what has been bad. It seems to me now that the empty womb was as much a good gift as the son who will turn ten this summer.
Once, I was confident that our good God never causes the bad thing that is pain. But I have lost that easy answer and gained a much more mysterious question: how sure can I be calling one thing good, another thing bad?
I will let the mystery be. I will follow the pattern set in the first chapter of James. For after fifteen verses on hardship, we find these words: “Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:16-17).
God does not change. He is good through and through. Yet we are easily deceived. Time plays its tricks. We feel ourselves to be standing at an end.
Forgetting that we will open our mouths wide.
For this is not the end.