I sat in my hairdresser’s chair this morning feeling too worn out for small talk. Summer days at home with four children will do that.
She asked about my trip to Tuscany: “Did you bring home ideas for your writing?”
“No,” I said.
“Well, maybe,” I added.
What did I bring home from this spiritual retreat for writers?
Two bottles of olive oil. A duty-free bottle of lemoncello. Hard candies in pretty little boxes for the kids.
Also, a retreat journal full of prayers, epiphanies, and meaningful quotations from the likes of Henri Nouwen.
Your future depends on how you choose to remember your past. – Henri J.M. Nouwen
How do I remember my time in the Tuscan countryside of Italy? How do I remember those days lived in community, in a garden, around a table, surrounded by beauty?
I remember rest.
Simple rest. A total focus on the here and the now and the people right at my elbow.
The kind of rest I believe is available to those walking the Jesus way.
The kind of rest I rarely, if ever, manage to enter on my ordinary day to day.
What is rest? What is its substance?
It feels like being held. It feels like the absence of fear. It feels like no anxiety for tomorrow and a quiet acceptance of yesterday.
It feels like stillness.
It feels like freedom.
It is a spacious place.
I am a gardener who has never yet found rest in my own garden. Who can rest when mosquitos are biting, weeds are waving, and overgrown cucumbers are beginning to rot on the vine?
Who can rest when children are growing, my cellphone is dinging, and the cucumbers I meant to make into pickles are beginning to rot in the fridge?
I found rest in a garden in Tuscany because that garden wasn’t mine. It wasn’t my responsibility. Someone else made that place, and I had only to enjoy it.
If rest is a place made for us, where is the door?
In Tuscany, rest was a stone bench beneath sheltering leaves, a kind of green grotto within an enormous shrub.
Our word grotto is related to the Greek for hidden place, the same Greek that gave us our word crypt. That should not surprise us. “Blessed are the dead,” we read in Revelation, “they will rest from their labor.” In this life we sometimes glimpse the ultimate rest, but ours is only a glimpse, a momentary vision, for “there remains … a Sabbath-rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9).
Man-made grottos, whether green and growing or stony and still, are often markers of gratitude: gratitude for some miraculous encounter or some answered prayer. Grottos shape how we remember the past. They tell us God is near. They say all shall be well. They hint at a reality we have yet to enter.
My own garden has no grotto, but, since returning from Tuscany, I have discovered it is possible to shelter within gratitude, as if leaf by leaf or stone by stone, I can be transported, not leaving my ordinary everyday but somehow sinking, a little more deeply, within it.
When fear or worry invade, I say Thank you for this and thank you for that and I find that the list goes on and on.
Until the list becomes a door.
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.
Last week, I wrote a few words in praise of The Slow Life. And you responded.
So many of you said you live in just the same way. Or try to. Or want to. And I was pleased. Maybe even a little smug in my self-satisfaction.
And then ice blew in on the wind, and I learned something: my vision of the good, slow life is highly dependent on hot coffee in the morning. And hot tea in the afternoon. And cozy heat in the radiators and running water in the tub. And, well, creature comforts of every kind.
But there are days when the carpet of your usual choices does not roll out at your feet. Days that do not begin with hot coffee and do not end on the sofa watching PBS with your husband.
What does this slow life look like when we are not comfortable? On those days, is the slow life we crave even possible?
On our first day without power, I spent many hours reading on my old pink settee by the light from my bedroom windows. It was cozy under a blanket, and the baby took a good nap. The cold hadn’t yet settled into our bones the way it would on day two.
But I wasn’t comfortable. I was on edge. Every few minutes I would hear a rending, cracking sound, and I would sit up looking left to right, left to right, trying to see which tree was losing its battle with the ice this time. When a 120-year-old maple tree loses a limb, that limb is still the size of a large tree. And those large trees fall with a grinding sound of splintered wood, and a crashing sound of falling limbs, and the shattering sound of a shower of ice.
When I lived in Chicago, I would often come across a sweep of broken windshield glass glittering on the sidewalk. Sometimes, I would find more and more of it leading from car to car and on to my own car parked on the street with a startled look where the front windshield once was.
Late in the day, I took a short walk, and I remembered all that broken glass. By then the temperature had warmed to the low 30s and a lot of the ice had dropped its hold on the trees and scattered in the wind. You could see it everywhere, great sweeps of it sprinkled on top of the frozen snow.
I stepped carefully, shielding my eyes against the glittery light, and realized that the whole sky must be made of glass, like the windshield of a car.
And someone had taken a hammer to it.
There are quiet days and there are days we are convinced someone, somewhere is wielding a hammer.
And, honestly, I’m still waiting for whoever’s in charge to put down the hammer because the suitcases we packed when we decamped to a hotel have disgorged their contents in every room like last night’s dinner, and I’m sick with a cold and a pounding headache, and they say another big storm is headed our way.
And yet, I still want to say this: there’s a still point in this turning world. On the quiet days it grows in us, we welcome it into our hearts with coffee cups and dinners together and hours with a book and bedtime stories read by the fireplace and candlelight at breakfast just because.
And when the hammer falls, and the sky does come falling, that still point doesn’t leave us as we duck and take cover. It’s still there in our hearts and still out there in the world. Leaning over, catching our breath, we might spot it.
To me, this day, it looks like one splintered tree fallen just to the right of my car and one splintered tree fallen just to the left. It looks like another tree lying broken just beside the kids’ playset and another huge limb right beside the henhouse.
Looking around, I would swear that no trees fell on this hill.
They were placed.
(Also, my husband says he’ll slice the old maple wood into pretty round platters for serving bread and cheese, so there’s that.)
I worry a great deal about the shape of my days.
This worry is a symptom of privilege. It means I have choices. For the most part, my days are not ruled by desperate necessity.
Instead, each one of my days unrolls like a red carpet. It is a carpet woven with hundreds of tiny choices. First, what should I feed the baby for breakfast? Next, should I spend this hour playing Candyland with the four-year-old or cleaning the kitchen? Then, should I read a book while the baby naps or try to write something? Until, should I spend the evening balancing the checkbook or watching PBS with Jonathan?
Choice after beautiful choice until my day is spent, and I lie in bed wondering where the hours fled. What did I accomplish today? Why did I never manage to send those emails? How could I have forgotten to do the grocery shopping / take that book back to the library / return that phone call / schedule that appointment?
Worry. Guilt. A resolve to do better tomorrow but never quite sure what tomorrow should look like. This is the blessing and the burden of choice.
I am an overly sensitive, introverted person. I require a great deal of space in my days: time for sitting and thinking. Time for sitting and reading. Time for taking that walk, pulling the baby behind me in her sled. Never enough time for cooking or cleaning or whatever else it is I’m supposed to be doing in my life as wife and mother.
Which means, I rarely do anything without guilt. Guilt says, shouldn’t you be doing more / working harder / accomplishing bigger?
(photo by yours truly)
I don’t think this is only a problem for mothers at home with small children. I can remember breaking out in hives from the stress of life as a college student. My life is more complicated now, but I have, at least, learned to avoid that kind of strain. I have learned, at least, to let myself live slowly, even if the price I pay is no longer hives but a constant, low-level guilt.
I want to be done with guilt. I want to believe that my most important job, the most critical task, requires space. It requires quiet. It requires rest.
The most important item on my daily list is always this: to be his witness. To open my eyes and see. To open my ears and hear. And only then, to open my mouth and sing of what I have seen.
It might happen while I sit still. It might happen while I work. But it will never happen when I rush.
I want to remember that the person with the most important job of all was never in a hurry. Jesus knew there was time enough.
(photo by yours truly)
“You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “that I am God.
Yes, and from ancient days I am he.”
In late December, the seed and nursery catalogs began arriving. I dove in. When I came up for air, I tried to remind myself I was planning a vegetable plot, not an eight-hundred square foot formal rose garden.
It is easy to get a little lost in a pile of seed catalogs.
These are the days for rest, both for you and your garden. Unless you live in Florida.
I’ve heard it said that southern gardeners should take their winter break in late summer. Which is sort-of true. No one can grow tomatoes in Florida in August. But, it is also not true at all. You may give your vegetable beds a break, but the grass, the weeds, and those horrible invasive vines covered in thorns do not take a break. Unless you want your house to disappear back into the primeval jungle, you had better not neglect the August garden entirely.
I only gardened in Florida for two years, but I am still recovering. As it turns out, I need a good long break from working my bit of ground.
I need a season for rest. I need a season for dreams.
Rest can be painful. A persistant ache. Dreaming hurts.
I love winter in the north, but I don’t find it easy. I long for sunshine. For warm air on the skin of my arms. For flowers and green grass and those little breezes that feel like a caress. It is a season for rest, but this means it is also a season for waiting, for desiring, for pressing hard against the blunt edges of everything you dream about but do not yet hold in your arms.
It is a season of emptiness.
True rest means returning to God. But this is not as easy nor as pretty as it sounds. It is often anguish that sends us back.
Back to the source of dreams, back to the source of every good and new thing.
Back to the only One who can renew our hope.