Step One. Read books. Lots of them.
People will tell you to put down your books and join the real world, for heaven’s sake. They will remind you that you live in a university dorm or an apartment reached by only a sliver of light or a temporary rental and do not even think of wasting time or money on land you do not own, but you would do well to smile and say nothing. Go on. Read. Read your books and dream your dreams. You are storing up treasures in heaven.
Step Two. Pay attention to desire.
When winter wears on and you cannot stand it one more day, lean in to that ache. Accept that the two things you want most in life, a garden and a baby, may never be yours. But take heart. The moment you break under the weight of longing is the moment you wash out an old yogurt container and fill it with dirt and a few grass seeds. When the grass seeds sprout you will run your hand over cool greenness while icy snow tap-taps against the window. The smell of a few blades of grass snipped with kitchen scissors is the smell of hope.
Step Three. Try and fail.
When a friend invites you to share a plot in the neighborhood community garden, say yes. Say yes, even though you don’t actually know anything about growing vegetables. Commit to reading more books with titles like Practical Kitchen Gardens and fewer books with watercolor illustrations and titles like Roses I Have Loved. Say yes even though you are hugely pregnant and you cannot exactly bend over. When your firstborn, your longed-for baby girl, arrives that September, your friend will bring you pasta made with tomatoes and basil you did little to tend. For the rest of your days that combination of flavors will recall your daughter’s sleepy infant smile.
Step Four. Live without.
Trade your community garden plot in a northern city for a Florida backyard dominated by concrete pavers and chlorinated water. Watch your potted flowers shrivel and die beneath the showery splashes of three children. Look at those children and remember that God does sometimes give us the desires of our hearts. Pray for the garden of your dreams. Pray for those impractical, impossible roses.
Step Five. Dig.
When you come home to your own bit of earth at last, dig. Scatter your seeds widely and see what takes root. Do not despair when the groundhog churns holes, rabbits nibble tulips, and two chickens vanish in the night. Despite all that you do not possess (knowledge, time, energy, even, some days, vision), spring will come and seeds will grow. Desire is sometimes deep buried. Rock the baby girl, the fourth-born child you never knew you always wanted, while the snow tap-taps against the window.
Step Six. Rest.
After long days of ripping invasive vines and clearing weed trees, sit still in the shady spot you’ve made. Sit still long enough to notice the smell of memory. It is the almost-forgotten smell of your father’s roses, the roses your mother sent you out to cut just before guests arrived for dinner. Follow that smell around the curve of the just-cleared fence until you find it. A wild rambler, like but not like all the wild roses growing on the edges of this place. This one is not white but blush pink. This one does not sit like a stubborn tangle of thorns, but drapes gracefully across the ruined stones of the old barn. This one does not give out a whisper of spiciness but, rather, smells like rose-with-a-capital-R. It smells like the real deal.
Ask yourself if a garden is a thing made by human hands or a free gift of God.
Wonder, for the first time, if God’s glory can be cultivated. Perhaps it is a gift to be tended a thousand different ways in every place and every season.
For all your days.
I grew up without winter. For the most part, at least.
Winters in central Texas were brown and chilly, but you never knew when it might hit eighty degrees. In December, we never bothered to ask for a white Christmas. Instead, I would secretly pray that it wouldn’t be so warm we’d need the air conditioner. Even at eight years old, I found air conditioning very depressing.
As a young girl I read every one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books repeatedly. But I read The Long Winter more than any other. It isn’t a pretty story, far from it, but something about the extreme cold and snow fed my soul. Even then.
It’s a truism that home is where you come from. Home is where you began.
I disagree. I think home is the place we’re headed. Home is the destination.
Here in my little southern corner of Pennsylvania, winter’s grip is fierce. Not Midwestern or New England fierce, to be sure, but strong enough to leave me feeling more than a little battered. More than a little caged-in.
Replacing the chickens’ frozen water with fresh, I feel like Laura Ingalls herself, but by the fourth trip out to the henhouse the literary novelty has quite worn off.
And yet I love winter.
Recently, I dropped the baby in her father’s arms and escaped out the front door with my other daughter, my firstborn. I don’t have ice skates of my own, but I carried hers. We opened the gate in the split-rail fence and we half-slid, half-stumbled down the sledding hill until we could cross the street to the frozen pond.
I stood in the snow, my toes slowly going numb, and I watched my daughter slice one foot and then the other across the ice. I said to myself, “This is Pennsylvania. This is our home.” The word Pennsylvania felt awkward. Perhaps I should blame my frozen lips. Or perhaps not. We are still learning the contours of this place and these people.
She circled the perimeter three times before I made her come in. I might lose my toes, I shouted.
My poor toes. They really did hurt, buried in snow like that, but it was a good kind of pain. Like the sharp, stinging realization that comes at the end of a very long walk. You know you’ve gone farther than you can handle, but it will be worth it. You are so close.
Three times around may have been too much. My daughter fell to her knees only part-way through our climb back up the sledding hill.
You’ll make it, I said. We’re nearly there.
Look! I can see our home from here.
*all photos taken by yours truly (with apologies to our talented, much beloved Photographer)
When my daughter was small, she scribbled on paper like it was a paying gig. We hung her mini masterpieces on the refrigerator. We strung them on a line across the window with teeny, tiny clothespins.
We even framed a few of the accidentally stunning watercolors.
I say accidental because I am not a stage mother. Where some may have seen pint-sized talent and dreamed of art school, I assumed any child of mine would grow up to claim her share of my decidedly average artistic ability.
But it goes beyond the question of talent. I’ll be honest and admit that I am a mother of the dream-squashing kind.
I may not always voice my negativity, but when she said she would be President someday, I said “Hmmm.”
When she said she’d be famous, I said, “Well, I don’t know.”
When she said she’d have a picture hanging in a museum when she grew older, I didn’t say anything at all. Just felt a little sad. Because we all know that these sorts of dreams don’t come true. And isn’t it my job, as her mother, to teach her to dream a little more realistically?
I consider my own life. I am not the President. I am not famous. I will never have a painting in a museum.
But then I consider it some more. If I could have seen my today twenty years ago, what would it have looked like to me?
I have no doubt it would have looked too good to be true.
This husband, these children, our home. That garden, this book, my perch by the window, and even the mug of tea at my feet. I could have imagined a life with fewer shadows, but I don’t think I could have imagined a life more beautiful and more perfectly suited to me than this one I’ve been given.
Who is the wise one, and who is the fool?
The six of us join the crowd in the museum. This is Wyeth country, and the museum on the river is home to N.C.’s pirates, Andrew’s farmhouses, Jamie’s haystacks.
For the next few weeks, it is also home to an exhibit of local student art.
It is all so normal, so everyday. The reception with apple juice and cookies. The proud parents and grandparents filing past the wall of identical black frames.
I actually stand in front of that wall for a full ten minutes before I realize my daughter’s dream came true.
Here is her portrait of a pumpkin. One bright light in a constellation of black frames.
It is hanging in a museum.
It is an impossible dream. A wish upon a star.
An ordinary day.
Spring has finally come to Maplehurst, and we are living in a watercolor world. Trees are smudged with the almost-neon green of new buds. The ground is blurred by the purple and white of wild violets. Move your head too quickly, and the brilliant yellow of the dandelions might just look like a lightning strike.
For several days, I have noticed a spot of garish orangey-red near the laundry room steps. I assumed it was a child’s toy. Something awful and plastic. Today, I realized it was a patch of tulips striped orange and yellow. They have large, black polka-dots in their middles. They are the tackiest flowers I have ever seen, more like circus clowns than plants. These tulips, bursting out near the propane tank, prove spring does, in fact, have a sense of humor.
I was twenty-one before I witnessed a real spring, the kind that only comes after a long, cold winter. We were living near Washington D.C.. I had never seen redbuds and forsythia, cherry blossoms and tulips. And the dogwoods. Oh, the dogwoods.
I’d been raised by a farmer-turned-gardener, but I’d never paid much attention to plants. That first spring, something woke up in my twenty-one-year-old soul, and I’ve been paying attention to plants ever since.
On a walk to see the cherry blossoms near the Jefferson Memorial that spring, I noticed a spectacular flowering tree. It looked as if a hundred thousand delicate, pink-winged birds had come to rest on its branches. I took a closer look at the flowers, and I knew they resembled magnolia blooms.
I may not have paid much attention to Texas flora beyond the justifiably famous bluebonnets, but I, like any southern girl, knew that magnolias never lost their dark, glossy green leaves. I also knew that magnolia blooms are pure white, as big (or bigger) than a baby’s head, and they merely dot the tree, like ornaments placed just so.
In other words, this brilliant pink explosion of a tree could not be a magnolia.
But it was. That year, that first spring, I learned the difference between the south’s evergreen magnolias and the deciduous varieties grown farther north. I learned the difference, and I chased it.
After two years in Virginia, it was time to choose a graduate school. I took one look at the blooming pink magnolias lined up against the gothic grey of quadrangle walls and knew I’d be moving to Chicago.
After Chicago, I lived for two years in a Florida house with an evergreen magnolia centered proudly in the front yard. It was lovely, yes, but it reminded me that I was living in an eddy. My life had turned backwards and sideways. For two years, I had no spring.
Nine months ago, we moved to Pennsylvania, to this Victorian farmhouse called Maplehurst. I knew the old tree planted north of our front porch (a tree that must be as old as the house itself) was a magnolia. A deciduous magnolia. The largest I have ever seen.
And I’ve been waiting.
Waiting for God to keep his promises, waiting for life to get a little easier, waiting for spring – spring like we haven’t seen for three years – to come.
This was waiting as it is meant to be. Waiting with hope. Waiting with full expectation. This, not because I’ve finally mastered the spiritual discipline of waiting, but only because I have lived through a few winters, and I have seen them all end.
I have been waiting with eyes wide open because I could see the tree always outside my window. I knew what it had in store for me because I’ve seen it before.
But never this big.
Never this beautiful.
Never this good.
“Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come.”
Song of Songs 2: 12
I want my children to know that God’s love is as real as the cupcakes and green tea we shared on Monday afternoon. It’s as real as this house that shelters us from cold and frames our daily view of the sunset.
But this is actually a hard thing to believe, and my daughter goes straight for the crack in my story: what about the kids who have no cupcakes? What about the student my health teacher just told us about? The one with no money for a visit to the dentist? The one who is about to lose his house because his parents ran out of money to pay the owner?
And I can hear the real question whispering beneath our conversation: isn’t it a terrible thing to suppose God loves one child with a gift of cupcakes while another one is left to starve?
I’ve been listening to this firstborn of mine for years, and one word that always comes to mind is wisdom.
She reminds me that wisdom doesn’t necessarily know the answer, but she does ask good questions.
That is a good question, I tell her. I don’t know the answer.
All I really know are the stories that make up my own life. While I don’t believe in the God of Parking Spaces (in other words, a God who makes my life easier and more comfortable with special little favors), I do know that God loves in big ways and small.
Maybe God is loving you right now with cupcakes, I tell her. Maybe he is loving that other child with a bowl of rice from an aid worker.
One time, I tell her, God loved me with a sofa.
It was just over a year ago, and I had this farmhouse dream in mind. It was a dream about caring for an old house and a bit of land and welcoming lots of people around our table. In my mind, it looked like an antique sofa. The kind with a carved wood frame and pretty little legs. I don’t know why the dream looked that way to me, but it did.
But I was very sick that last winter in Florida. I spent every day in bed trying to breathe, trying to avoid the wicked, golden tree pollen wafting through the air.
Until the day, dear firstborn, when I couldn’t take your cabin-fever complaints, your boredom made manifest in bickering. I grabbed you and my inhaler and took off for some thrift-store therapy. I don’t think I ever felt so far away from my dream as I did then – struggling to breathe and desperate for escape. From pollen, from warm winters, from bickering children, from all of it.
We walked into the thrift store – headed for the twenty-five cent children’s books – and I saw it. My sofa. My farmhouse sofa.
But, we don’t have room for another couch, you said. You’re right, I said. We don’t have room in our Florida house, but I don’t think we’ll always be here. Dear God, tell me I won’t always be here. Desperate for breath. Dying to escape.
I bought that sofa. It sat in our Florida garage for a few weeks until I had enough faith to write the check. That’s when I googled upholsterers.
I chose the one with the coupon and the free in-person estimate. He loaded my sofa into his white van, and I went back to my sickbed. Not even a sofa in the garage to remind me of my dream.
Months went by, and there was no reason to think we’d be leaving Florida anytime soon. The sofa wasn’t ready when he said. Weeks went by, and I emailed. Soon! he wrote back. More weeks went by, and I emailed again. Very soon! he wrote.
I tried not to think about my farmhouse (but all I could think was where is it? And when will we go there?). I tried not to think about my sofa (but all I could think was where is it? And did I pick the right fabric?).
June 23. My birthday. 5 pm and there was a phone call. Your sofa is ready, and I’m in your neighborhood. Can I bring it by?
You and I, we don’t believe in the God of Parking Spaces. You and I, we can’t ever forget that starving child (which is as it should be).
But I know my own story, and I know God gave me a sofa for my thirty-fifth birthday.
Today, I am sitting at my desk in an old, old farmhouse. I can see my sofa from where I sit.
It was made for this house.
Which is as inconsequential as a parking space. And as miraculous as anything I know.