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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.
He stood, leaning on a shovel, taking a break from digging out tree roots in my neighbor’s yard. He was on one side of the split-rail fence. I was on the other. He looked past my shoulder, watching the chickens scratch and peck.
He said, “I like your chickens. Your home. It is like my country. It is like my home in Mexico.”
He’d been in our home for days. He and his team. Drilling holes. Snaking pipes behind plaster walls. Jonathan told me later what he said as they stood, talking, out in the yard.
He said, “Your home is so peaceful. It reminds me of my country. It reminds me of Vietnam.”
I doubt that a red-brick farmhouse in Pennsylvania looks like Mexico. It seems unlikely to me that it looks anything like Vietnam. But there is something about this house on a hilltop. This old house with its gardens and chickens and songbirds. Something about it whispers Peace. Something about it sings Home.
Most miraculous of all, to me at least, is that the whispers are louder than the noise of my four children (or my own responses to those children). Louder than brothers fighting or toddlers tantrum-ing.
Whispers so loud, so insistent, they make grown men pause. And remember.
And dream of home.
As long as Jonathan and I have been making homes together (whether a tiny apartment, a city high rise, a suburban split-level, or a century-old farmhouse) visitors have said the same thing:
Your home is so peaceful.
I have heard those words with gratitude but also with detachment. Because surely that peace had nothing to do with me? It wasn’t something I created or controlled.
It was a gift. Always and only a gift.
Peace is not merely the absence of conflict or violence. It is a presence. It is a place.
It has a prince.
It is a gift. But like so many good gifts, it can also be cultivated. Like soil.
We can slap down some concrete and rid ourselves of all that bothersome dust. Or we can grow tomatoes. Or flowers. We can sow peace. We can water it. We can watch it flourish.
Like gardening, it is hard work. It is a daily discipline.
How do we cultivate peace? In our hearts, our homes, our communities?
I think we begin by making room for it.
So many of us, myself included, live with too much. Too much in our closets and too much in our day planners. We see an empty shelf, and we fill it. We stumble on an empty moment, and we pounce on our to-do list. We feel some hunger and we rush … to the pantry, to the television, to the computer.
And then we wonder why our lives, why our world, is saturated with conflict and worry. Loneliness and hurry.
Peace begins with simplicity. Is simplicity the soil, the water, the sun? I don’t know. My understanding is limited, my metaphor possibly faulty. I don’t yet fully grasp the relationship between the two, but they are related.
I think they may be more deeply related than I have ever known.
I used to think that simplicity was a lifestyle choice. I am beginning to think it is the only way to follow Jesus.
Simplicity is the way of the child. The way of a rich young ruler who says yes and gives everything away. Simplicity just may be the door to the kingdom of God.
I have in mind a series of posts. Not because I have learned “Ten Lessons” or “Five Secrets.” It is only that I am noticing patterns in my past. Patterns that suggest it is possible to practice simplicity and cultivate peace with more deliberateness and passion.
And I want to talk about that here. With you.
I am more than a little bit afraid. Afraid of the price I must pay to walk this way. Afraid of sounding preachy if I talk about it.
But I am also hopeful. Excited, even. Simplicity is as heavy as a cross on my shoulder. But the kingdom of Jesus, the kingdom of the prince of peace, is an upside-down kingdom. And that heavy burden?
It is the light yoke, the easy burden of freedom.
I grew up in Texas. In that place, it is possible to be surprised by spring. A river of bluebonnets might bubble up overnight. A heatwave might suddenly stake its claim on a handful of early February days.
Here, among rolling Pennsylvania hills, spring is never a surprise.
We wait so long for spring, and its coming is so slow, that no change appears without being watched from a great distance and for a long while. The view from my office window today is as brown and bleak as ever, but for days, weeks, even, I have watched the buds on the forsythia swell.
The snowdrops in the lawn do tend to pop up without warning, but no sooner have I noticed them than my two-year-old daughter has flattened the whole patch with one pink, rubber boot.
Observing a northern spring, I realize how small a great, new beginning can be. I dream of spring all winter, but the dream comes true only in fits and starts. In much waiting and a great deal of work with shovels, rakes, and pruners.
I once dreamed of becoming a mother, but the dream was realized in sleepless nights and temper tantrums (hers and mine).
I once dreamed of a farmhouse home, and the dream came true as we cleared hornet nests from behind every window shutter and poison ivy from every fence and tree.
I once dreamed of becoming a writer, and that dream came true through the slow, daily accumulation of words.
But dreams are like spring.
There will always be some moment of joyful recognition. Some moment when the dream drifts down around you. Light, like dandelion fluff, but real enough to see and touch.
Perhaps when the baby says I love you. When a friend says your home is so peaceful. Or, maybe, when you read the proposed back-cover copy for your book and burst into tears. Because, for the first time, the book with your name on it sounds, even to you, like a good book. Like the kind of book you would love.
It is like the moment when the magnolia opens its first pink blooms. It won’t matter then that I’ve been studying those gray buds all winter. It won’t matter that I noticed the first narrow edge of pink weeks ago.
I have lived enough springs to know that I will always greet that moment with astonishment.
I am incredibly grateful for the community of writers I’ve come to know through the internet.
But there is nothing like sitting face to face. Nothing like talking over cups of coffee while children run through our legs (or beg for another push on the swing). Campbell has been that friend to me, and I am grateful beyond words.
Campbell is also a smart and talented writer, and she’s written the Advent reflection I desperately needed as Christmas Day approaches.
Every year, I am surprised when the world doesn’t seem to grow brighter, lighter as Christmas nears. Every year, at about this point, I wonder what is the point? The news goes from bad to horrific, and, like Campbell, I fear Christmas joy will never be found. Peace is impossible.
But here is hope. Here is the light that shines in darkness. That has not, nor ever will be, overcome.
Looking for Christmas
I’m looking hard for Christmas this year. I feel my broken edges, sharp and pointy, and I’m tired and weary from the world. I’m needing something holy. I’m trying to find Jesus, trying hard to see the babe in swaddling clothes, the one who brings light and love and makes things right again.
Maybe Christmas looks like twinkly lights, strung along roof lines and spun around bushes. Is this holiness – these tiny dots of light, twisted and tied into a brighter picture? One small LED bulb isn’t much on its own, but step back a bit and I can see the shape of a reindeer, or the letters that spell out “peace.”
My small light isn’t much on its own, either. Sometimes, even, a bulb or two are missing or out. Maybe if I string my little light offerings with your little sparks we can step back and see His burst of glory, the grand story spelled out in twinkles. Peace for each other, one small light at a time.
Maybe Christmas is like this: – maybe it’s the late night rock concert, where I’m sitting with folks who I know and folks I don’t and it smells like sweat and beer. It seems about as holy as donkey poop and hay. The darkness inside the theater is not unlike the winter dark.
The show has built with percussive intensity and it’s nearing the end. I’ve scooted my way to the edge of my seat. My body is prickly with emotional electricity, as if I could start a forest fire, standing too close to tinder and kindling. She stands at the edge of the stage, surrounded by her bandmates, lit up like a Christmas tree, and after one big breath in she lets it all out: “Rivers and roads” she belts out with emotional intensity, “Rivers and roads, rivers till I reach you.” Boom. The strength of her voice is punctuated by a sharp drumbeat and with it the lights die out. The theater is absolutely dark, utterly quiet. Maybe like Bethlehem?
She breathes deep, maybe we all do, and she sings it again “Rivers and roads, rivers till I reach you.” Boom. We are in darkness again.
This year has been nothing but tinder and kindling, and I’m in flames.
I think Christmas is like this: the pitch darkness, the creeping loneliness, the cold intensity of a world too big, too hard, too closed in. And when the light bursts back, it’s with this same message: till I reach you. To reach me. Rivers, roads, fields, trees, stars, stables, donkeys. It is all the message, and all the means, and it is Jesus here, in this darkness, in this theater, in my heart, reaching. Reaching. Boom. The show lights are back on.
We buried our grandfather, generous patriarch of this wide family, this week. He lived a glorious life, but there is heartache and sadness as we think of a tomorrow with no Grandpop in it. Can the babe in swaddling clothes be here, too, graveside with our grieving family, listening to Taps on the bugle behind us?
It’s through this veil of tears that somehow I see that He is here. He’s reaching us, rivers and roads, to hold hands and wrap His arms of love around me, around you. Not like my imaginary friend Jenny, who I used to see in the mirrors in the produce section at the grocery store, a fancy image of what I wanted to see. But instead Jesus is God himself, with me. He became human, cried human tears, laughed human laughs. Maybe He had heart burn and runny noses. He got tired and hungry and angry and hurt. And He loved. He gave love, He showed love, He is love.
It doesn’t seem to matter that I don’t know where to look for Jesus, or how to find Christmas this year. What I’m finding is that it can all be holy, because in God becoming human He sanctified it all. His holiness is everywhere. And through sadness and weariness, He’s reaching me with twinkle lights and rock concerts.
Campbell C. Hoffman can be found with her carpenter-husband on a trail in Southeast Pennsylvania, encouraging (read: begging) her three kids to keep hiking. When she is not hiking, she is on another adventure not altogether different: motherhood. She writes about it on her blog and can be found on Twitter @tumbledweeds. Campbell’s work has also appeared at Brain, Child Magazine, Hippocampus Magazine, and Mamalode.
My friend looks up toward the trees and says I had forgotten how graceful dying can sometimes be.
I follow her glance and know that she is right. I, too, have forgotten. I remember autumn through snapshots. Which means, I remember the brilliance of that one sugar maple down the road. Or, I remember the startling red of a Burning Bush shrub against a deep blue sky.
The snapshots help me to remember true moments, fiery moments, but they do not give an accurate picture of the whole.
Autumn, taken as a whole, does not look like clear, bright brilliance. Here in my corner of Pennsylvania, it is gentle. Faded. It is burnished gold and copper. It is gray clouds and wet pavement.
This autumn world does not rage against the dying of the light. It smolders, quietly. Gracefully.
This time of year, it seems Christians like to talk about Halloween on the internet. I tend to abstain from those “conversations.” So much depends upon context. Like the context of our own memories. Like the context of our own communities. Often, the internet is a conversation without a context.
Here is a bit of mine.
In the church of my childhood, Halloween was ever-so-slightly taboo. We wore costumes, but we wore them to collect candy at our church’s “Harvest Fair.”
As new parents, we discovered the great adventure of escorting a tempermental two-year-old ladybug down city streets. We stole her candy when she wasn’t watching, and we hugged our neighbors. We tried to catch the eye of their over-tired Dorothy or Scarecrow. To tell each one we had no idea it was them.
Still, decorating my home for Halloween always seemed like a step too far. Until we came here. Now we live in the farmhouse on the hill and how else can we entice our neighbors and their children to climb our hill, to receive our gift of love and candy, but with a few smiling ghosts and candle-lit pumpkins?
Context. It changes things.
We live in a culture that largely ignores death. Our children no longer walk to church through churchyards dotted with graves.
Our own church is that rare thing with its own cemetery, but it is all the way around by the back door. My children often ask to walk that way, but I am in a hurry. Another time, I say, as I rush them through the front door.
I am sorry for this. And so, this year, I am grateful for Halloween. I am grateful for the space it opens up. I am less grateful for the gory zombie poster set at a child’s eye level at the local Wal Mart, but mostly I am grateful for the opportunity to talk about death. About dying. About our baptism and what it might mean that we have already died with Christ.
Which is, to say, we will have a conversation about living.
Soon, we will bring out the plywood grave markers my husband made last year. Our kids painted them gray with black crosses and the letters R I P. We will tuck them near the crumbling stone foundations of the old farm buildings, and we will drape them with twinkly lights.
As we outline a path for candy-seeking neighbors, my daughter will ask me again about those letters R I P. And as darkness settles, and the lights begin to flicker and gain strength, she will tell me It’s beautiful, Mom. So beautiful.
At first, the wilderness appears wide open. It is unexplored. Who knows what wonders wait to be found.
When we first moved to Florida, we were eager to explore new roads. We caught glimpses of water – river or ocean – and we pressed on. But the river always remained hidden behind endless waves of Spanish moss. The ocean was a mirage, a blue spot on the GPS we could never quite reach.
The real ocean hid behind grassy bluffs or gated mansions. Park your car and pay your fee, and you’d find it. But it was not open to the wanderer. To those with a car full of kids who only wanted to drive and believe they were free.
Wilderness roads are straight roads. To meander without a plan across a network of straight lines will only lead to disappointment. There can be no circling back in some surprising way. There is only that moment of disenchantment, that moment when you agree it is probably best to turn around.
The wilderness looks like a spacious place. You cannot see the edges, no matter which direction you look. But there is no real spaciousness here.
In the wilderness, you wander but you are also hemmed in.
I grew up with the siren song let’s go for a drive. When my parents couldn’t take our squabbling for one more minute, they piled all four of us in the station wagon.
Where are we going? we always asked.
Crazy, my mother always answered.
Years later, heading out for a long drive became our favorite date. Especially in the spring. In the spring, you never knew when you might round a bend and find yourself slowing, slowing, and finally stopping to watch the wind dance in a field of bluebonnets. We’d park your pickup truck by the barbed-wire fence and roll down our windows.
All the better for watching flowers dance in a field we happily admitted we would probably never find again.
The roads are my favorite thing about my new home. This promised land.
They are narrow and curvy. They force a slower pace. You must stop at every bridge to let the car opposite cross first. You often find yourself caught behind horse-drawn buggies or herds of Sunday cyclists.
In this place, there is no scenic route. There are only the familiar roads, with their familiar beauty, and the turns you haven’t yet taken. The eighteenth-century farm you’ve never seen. The historic blacksmith shop you never noticed. The “ancient burial ground” half-hidden behind a brilliant maple tree. I lose miles wondering who might be buried in this “ancient burial ground.”
The daily chore of Kindergarten carpool is a thirty-five-miles-per-hour roller coaster. Gypsy Lane carves a path through the forest. Schoolhouse Road curves along the edge of a steep hill. I can see sheep and a fast-running creek down below.
Old stone barns and shabby farmhouses and that one crazy place with the alpacas. Every single day I forget where I’m headed.
Every drive, every errand, feels like a Sunday afternoon drive in God’s country.
On the hard days, and in the hard places, I sometimes resist gratitude. To “give thanks in all circumstances,” can feel like shutting my eyes. Like pretending.
But giving thanks has nothing to do with renaming a prison a spacious place. It is only the grateful acknowledgement that God never leaves us behind. He always comes back for the lost sheep. He always makes a way.
These days, I am looking back. I am remembering and giving thanks.
Thank you, Lord, for the hard, straight roads that led me here. Thank you for the wilderness.
Thank you, Lord, for the Promised Land. This spacious place where every road leads somewhere new.