My youngest, not yet two years old, has begun to say her own name. She has been speaking of other things for quite some time. Important words like “shoe” and “mine” and “chicken.” But apparently one can live perfectly well for many, many months without feeling a pressing need to pronounce your own name.
But if I ask … if I say, “Elsa, where is Elsa?” then she will tap her own chest and say “Elsuh-suh.”
She is my fourth child. This means I am under no illusions. I know that even if I write the memory down in her baby book, even if I manage to capture phonetically the doubled sounds of her pronunciation, I will forget. A day will come, sooner than I imagine, when I will find myself unable to recall the particular cadence of my daughter, naming herself at not-quite-two.
This season, this brief summer at home with my children, seems built entirely of such small things. In five years, I doubt I will be able to recall anything of these weeks.
Scripture speaks repeatedly of a “fountain of life.” I am a mother, and I tend a garden. Raising babies and flowers, I have learned to seek that living, renewing water in things that would seem to be the most fleeting. The most temporary. I have learned that the most important things in life are only rarely weighty enough to settle permanently in our memories.
For instance, just when I had entirely forgotten them, the morning glories have returned. Green leaves and deep purple flowers are twining themselves around the spindles of the front porch. Each fall, the vines die. They die utterly, to the tips of their roots, but before the arrival of the first killing freeze, they scatter their seeds.
In early summer, those seeds sprout and stretch and reach for the same spindles of the same front porch. They are the most ephemeral of flowers. Yet, somehow, they are the most enduring. They are, in their way, eternal.
For years I sought eternity by keeping my arms wrapped tightly around solid things. Permanent things. Things known and understood. Things that were sure to last. These were the things I believed had eternal significance.
But years of mothering and years of gardening have taught me to look elsewhere. These years have taught me that I touch the far horizon of forever when I step forward into emptiness, seeking, like a twirling vine, for things unseen. Unknown. Imperfectly understood.
God our maker has “set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). We reach for the far horizon of forever like those vines reaching for the home, the source, they have never actually touched.
It may be that eternity is the home of so many things I have forgotten or misplaced or failed even to notice.
Certainly, eternity is God’s home. The throne room of the One who counts hairs. Bottles tears. Holds sparrows as they fall.
Today, I glimpsed the first haze of pink on the old magnolia tree that towers over one corner of our yard. It is a magnolia tree worthy of a fairy-tale palace, but it presides over a chicken coop and a child’s yellow plastic swing. In summer it becomes the world’s largest shade umbrella, but in April it is a miracle. Too impossibly beautiful to be true.
I have witnessed this tree in bloom only once. I have waited eleven months to bear witness for a second time, but I am scheduled to leave town tomorrow for five days.
I can hardly bear it. Five days of good books and good talk and good friends, but I would trade all of it to be there the very moment the first pink flower opens. I imagine that if I am there I will finally solve a great mystery. If I stand still, and I do not blink, perhaps I can determine once and for all whether the flowers open or whether they alight on the branches like a flock of pink birds.
Last year, I blinked and became sure a great crowd of delicate rose-tinted wings had settled in the branches overnight.
Set your mind on things above. Those were the words I remember printed on the postcards and posters, magnets and bookmarks in the Christian bookstore I used to visit as a child. I do not remember any books in that store. But I remember Precious Moments figurines, and I remember those words.
Even as a child, I mistrusted them. And not only because they showed up on magnets meant to secure grocery lists to refrigerator doors.
They are good and true words. They are Scripture words, but they seemed at odds with my own way of seeing. As long as I can remember, I have been taken with the miniature flowers blooming in the crack of a sidewalk. With acorn caps like fairy hats. With the hollow spot in the trunk of the mulberry tree, just the right size for my small china dog.
In other words, I have always seen worlds at my feet. I have always seen infinity under a magnifying glass.
And if this great “above” is the blankness of the sky, if it is only a screen onto which I project my preconceived ideas about the Christ who is holding everything together, then I will stick with the things below. Not money or plans. Not ambition or to-dos. But the things we pass by in our rush toward all that does not matter.
Dead, brown grass beginning to creep with green.
Daffodil leaves like bunny ears reaching just a bit higher every day.
And even the heartbreak of tulip leaves chewed to the quick by hungry deer.
If I must set my mind on some thing above, I will not let it float too high. I will set it just there, no higher than the highest branch of the world’s most beautiful magnolia tree.
I will set it there, and remember what the stories say. That we began to walk with God in a garden. That Jesus the Christ gave the thief on the cross a great promise: Today you will walk with me in a walled garden, a paradise.
And I will turn my eye toward eternity in the very spot where eternity begins.
Which is the ground, the ever-flowing, ever-renewing, ground beneath my feet.