How to Be Idle and Blessed

I remember the first time I heard the line from Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day.” After contemplating the world of a grasshopper on a summer day, Oliver asks her reader if they know how to really pay attention, how to be still and quiet. The poem ends with an oft-quoted question:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

A bunch of green asparagus spears in a brown wooden bowl on a butcher block table.
Photo by Stephanie Studer on Unsplash

I’ve been thinking about this phrase a lot these days, as we emerge from winter and tax season, as leaves start to spring onto branches and we start thinking about school ending and summer beginning.

When I first heart this question, I felt an urge to think about grand goals, wild dreams, and hopes beyond my imagination. I took it seriously, this call to live into my one and only precious life. I don’t want to waste a thing. What will I do with all these unexpected opportunities, with all that I’ve learned, with all that I hope to accomplish?

Suddenly this question turned into a to-do list. First, I’ll read these books. Next, I’ll take this class. Then, I’ll reflect about those experiences as I make a plan of action to implement my newfound knowledge. Last, I’ll be an expert in this new field, finding opportunities to share and participate in new conversations.

I don’t think those hopes and goals are unrealistic or out of the realm of possibility. But I do think I’ve completely missed the point of Mary Oliver’s question if that is my takeaway.

In the middle of the poem, before this famous question, Oliver notes,

I don’t know exactly what prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

As we enter this season of spring cleaning, family recalibration, and these last weeks of the school year, I can let my list for what a One Wild and Precious Life looks like completely overwhelm the call to be idle and blessed.

I’m learning to balance this blessed observation and living in the present with the need to sit down and do the work. Sometimes the work is that playtime idleness my girls crave. Sometimes it’s the mundane chores of cleaning and cooking. And sometimes it’s the actual work of sitting and writing or crafting ideas to the page. Nothing is as set and clear as I’d like it to be.

I’m remembering this poem in this season of life, though. That my call is to deep observation. That learning takes years and often the outcomes aren’t what I was expecting.

This season of quiet and growth has lasted longer than I expected. I know that planting seeds and putting down roots can take years. I love what my friend Tina says about growing in the longterm. After she planted asparagus, which takes three years to produce, she reflected,

 It takes commitment to plant asparagus, and perseverance. More than that, it takes vision. To plant something right now that won’t bear fruit for years to come requires vision. It requires we trust that the good life is not always the immediate life. The beautiful life is not the quick life. Instead, it is the cultivated, grounded life. It is the life that believes in waiting for the fruit, in holding out hope that something good will come, and it is the belief that trusts in the work we cannot see with our eyes.

Tina Osterhouse, On What’s Saving My Life Right Now

So, to mix metaphors and ideas, I’m planting asparagus and fruit trees, I’m taking time to observe the grasshopper and small details, I’m leaning into this space of the quiet and quotidian.

I’m remembering to hold myself to a different standard, one that is more about planting and less about harvest. I’m doing the work, in hopes of a fruitful result but I won’t know for sure until late summer. And that’s the beauty of life and learning and gardening, isn’t it?

What are you planting this spring? Do you like growing quick lettuces, late season tomatoes, or longterm asparagus? How do you balance that waiting?

When The Original Plan is the Best Plan

We spent the month of June doing some house renovations. As the girls grow and play differently, our playroom also changed. Housed in the formal dining room, the playroom sat at the center of our home for over three years. I could read on the couch and watch the girls play or make dinner and peak in on them from the kitchen. It was an ideal spot for creativity and imagination.

It was also always a mess and a source of stress as I tried to find a space of peace in our home. Play, by nature, isn’t tidy or organized but it felt like an overwhelming task to keep it presentable. We knew that one day we wanted to finish a large and mostly unused storage room in the basement but that was in the future. Until a friend asked, Why not just make the unfinished space into the playroom?

IMG_9066I won’t go into all the details, but that’s just what we did. We cut a hole in the basement wall, opening the space to the finished part. My dad painted a bright and welcoming mural on the concrete wall. We covered the floor in mats and moved all the toys downstairs. It’s still an overflowing mess but it’s out of sight and feels more contained. IMG_9655

We changed the playroom into a library/study. I love that the center of our home is filled with books. We kept the legos and blocks upstairs and it’s still clearly a home with kids – an entire bookshelf is devoted to their books. But it’s also much more reflective of the grownups who live here, too.

I had a vision for the paint color for this new study for more than nine months. This was a hope and vision and I kept that color swatch taped to the wall to remind me that one day, the playroom would be reclaimed.

IMG_9703We went to Lowe’s and I told the woman behind the paint counter exactly what I wanted: One gallon of light yellow and one gallon of that same yellow, mixed 50% lighter. She looked at the swatch and said, That’s too complicated. You’d better choose a darker color. What about this? She pulled a swatch from right above mine and suggested using the lightest color on that as our contrast. Quickly convinced that my vision wouldn’t work, I agreed, we went home, and painted a light orange under the chair rail and my envisioned yellow above it.

Immediately, I knew this wasn’t what I had imagined. It looked like an orange and yellow wall rather than a yellow and slightly lighter yellow wall. I thought maybe I just needed to live with this new color scheme and I’d fall in love. I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about it; I had my parents come and we held artwork against the new color. I knew I couldn’t live with it.

So, we went back, bought the paint I originally wanted. (This time, I talked with a woman who said, Yep! We can do this!) Frank spent another day painting and immediately, I loved the color. I saw my vision appear on the wall and knew I would love spending time in this room.

As I rearranged furniture, hung pictures, and finally settled into a chair to read a book in this space, I knew I had made the right choice in repainting.

Sometimes, we do need to live with something unexpected and it turns out better. This happened with the paint color in our bedroom and I love the unexpected color so much more than the one I had thought I wanted. Sometimes, in life things go unexpectedly and, in hindsight, those switches in plans are so much better and richer.

But sometimes, we need to fight for our original vision. Sometimes, when we’ve thought and planned for months, that path is confirmed and set. And it’s ok to go back and readjust to make sure we’re on that right path.

As a planner, I need to learn to hold plans loosely, to let the journey take me to unexpected places, and to remember that I am not in control of every single detail of my life.

I also need to remember to trust my own instinct and to remember that I am an intentional person. That I rarely make quick or spontaneous decisions and so, when things don’t go as planned, I need to pause to really evaluate if it is a good new direction or if I need to recalibrate.

I love our new spaces. Right now, the girls are busy in their playroom while I write. The other day, I read while Bea spent an hour building a castle in the study. Our house feels more calm and intentional. And I learned that I can trust my well-planned vision.

How do you balance holding your plans loosely and trusting your instinct? Has there been a time when you’ve needed to recalibrate back to the original path?

Appreciating Spring Snow

One of my favorite things about springtime in Colorado is that the weather changes quickly. The other day, it snowed in the morning and by the time we picked Bea up from track practice in the afternoon, we were wearing t-shirts and enjoying the sunshine and dry ground.

IMG_8673We’re up in the mountains, decompressing from tax season. We’ve found the importance of getting away after such an intense season. When we stay at home, we fall into old habits and patterns. A change of scenery is the break we need to reset.

Yesterday, we went swimming in the hot springs near our rented cabin. The girls loved climbing the rocks around the creek, finding the best natural pools to splash in, and soaking in sunshine and family time. We woke up this morning to a wintery landscape. Our mountain views were obscured with clouds, the trees had a perfect outline of snow clinging to their branches, and Frank started a fire in the wood stove as we ate breakfast, played games, and did puzzles.

I know a lot of us are itching for actual spring – for blossoms and predictable sunshine. I am, too. I can’t wait to plan our garden and put away the winter clothes. But I also appreciate this quick turn of weather. It’s a reminder of our family’s current season, as we reconnect and refocus on life as a family of four. In a lot of ways, reentry is like a Colorado spring. There are sunny beautiful memories, there are cozy wintery moments, and there are gales and winds that kick up the dust.

I’m remembering this takes some time and after years of practice, our expectations for these post-season getaways are much more realistic. We shut down, limit our screen time, and focus on the four of us. But real life doesn’t actually stop. The girls still bicker; I still long for alone time; Frank still has some business to wrap up. Those moments seem much more bearable and pass much more quickly when we’re intentional about this time of reconnecting, and I’m glad for these pattern breaks as we enter this next season of spring and a more normal family life.

What is spring like in your part of the world? Do you like unpredictable weather? How does that translate to your daily life and expectations? 

Linked with Five Minute Friday, a time to write without editing. Today’s prompt is “turn.”

Planning for Spontaneity

I like to think of myself as a fun! and spontaneous! person, ready for adventure or new plans at a moment’s notice. That hope is pretty much opposite of my personality. I’m a planner and organizer and when things don’t go the way I’d hope, I feel at the very least low-level stress.

IMG_4924We took a staycation the week after tax season and I had a lot of hopes for that week. We were going to create amazing family memories and totally reset our quality time after three months of a crazy schedule. Instead of hoping that Frank understood these expectations, I made a list.  It’s not exactly the definition of fun! and spontaneous! but it did help Frank know what I was expecting on our week together.

It made me think about the times with Frank or with my friends when my own expectations have gotten in the way of an experience. When I had hoped for a certain outcome that didn’t happen. Usually it’s because no one else knew I had that expectation.

Now that we’re a couple weeks into summer, I’m wondering if we need to make a list of expectations. Not a to-do list or even a summer bucket list but just a list of things we expect from our days. Do we expect to go swimming every day? Do we expect some sort of playdate or excursion or pajama day? I’m wondering if I include Bea in this list-making if our days would feel different? More summery and adventurous, rather than rushed and frustrating?

I still love the idea of fun and spontaneous days, but maybe those need to make it onto our list of expectations. Maybe a little planning allows for a lot more spontaneity.

How do you communicate your expectations about a vacation or a gathering? Are you a list-maker or more spontaneous?

Linked with Five Minute Friday, a time to write without editing. Today’s prompt is “expect.”

Playing the Should Game

Mom!! I want to be the boss! I wish you weren’t the boss!

IMG_4259It feels like I hear this exclamation at least once a day, but I’m sure it’s less frequent. Our strong, independent daughter is figuring out ways to be autonomous and doesn’t like hearing redirection.

I wish it were that easy – I am the boss of this house! and everyone just did what I asked. That never happens. The thing with about raising humans is that ultimately, my girls are their own bosses. I can suggest and give consequences; I can guide and give expectations but their choices are their own.

Sometimes I play the should game. I should have clearer boundaries; I should be stricter; I should say yes more; I should be on the floor playing rather than writing.

Here’s the thing with should. It’s a no-win game. Sometimes should prompts me to reprioritize but it’s usually rooted in guilt rather than best practices. Sometimes should helps a situation or reframes a power struggle but it’s usually as a last resort.

So, I’m trying to take a step back and recognize our family’s own best practices. What are systems I can put into place that dispel the struggle before it starts? I know that if we start the day with a quick snuggle (no matter how tired or grumpy I am) and then quickly move into some sort of protein-rich breakfast, the rest of the morning goes smoothly. Instead of saying, We should eat breakfast first! I’m saying, I know my family is happier when we follow this pattern.

It’s a small shift in phraseology but it’s a big shift in mindset. Maybe I should practice this more often.

How do you reframe expectations? Is there a time you found a shift in phrasing a situation has changed your perspective?

Linked with Kate Motaung’s Five Minute Friday, a time to write without editing. Today’s prompt is “should.”

Learning the Language of Life

Anyone who knows Bea knows that she is an incredibly verbal kid. She’s articulate and inquisitive and has an impressive vocabulary. But, she’s also 4 and so is still figuring out language. She’ll use words that are mostly correct, though a different word would probably have been a better fit. Her grammar is almost perfect, except when it’s not. It reminds me of when I try to speak French – almost but not quite.

IMG_4047One of Bea’s favorite words is expect. She uses it correctly: I was expecting eggs for breakfast! And slightly off: I am expecting to have a great day at school! Right now, it’s sweet and endearing and reminds me that she is still four.

Sometimes I feel like my own definition of words and of life can be like that. Mostly correct but slightly off. Whether it’s how we want a weekend to look like or bigger life decisions, I feel like I’m still learning the language of adulthood, trying out new ideas and values without being completely fluent.

I know that as season change and we start kindergarten next year… and then middle school… and then college… that I’ll always be learning the new language of life. That I’ll never be quite fluent. But, I suppose that’s the fun of it all, right?

I wish I was as confident to try out new words and ideas without overthinking, knowing that I’ll eventually get it right.

How do you approach new phases in life? With enthusiastic abandon or with thoughtful caution?

Linked with Kate Motaung’s Five Minute Friday, a time to write without editing. This week’s prompt is “define.”

Recalibrating Expectations

One of Bea’s favorite books is Good Night, Philadelphia. It’s part of that series of board books that focuses on a city and greets the famous landmarks: Good morning, Museum of Art. Good afternoon, Betsy Ross House and Old Glory. Hello, Reading Terminal Market and cheesesteaks. For a solid year, we read it multiple times per day. Even now that the love has ebbed a bit, I still have it memorized. One of the benefits of knowing it so well is that when we visit Philly, Bea has an idea of what she wants to do on the day we go into the city.

IMG_8964A couple years ago, she really wanted to see The Liberty Bell. We took the train from the suburbs into Reading Terminal Market and walked toward Independence Hall. We walked through modern glass doorways of Independence National Park and through the crowds of middle school students toward the Liberty Bell.

When Bea saw it, she started to cry. It could be that she saw an older boy put in “time out” by one of the park rangers for messing around. Or that she had expectations of ringing it herself. Whatever the reason, we walked around this large, old bell, roped off from small hands and then we were done. Besides the museum and history videos, there wasn’t much else to do with a 3-year-old.

We quickly remedied the problem with a carriage ride around Independence Square and back to Reading Terminal Market for cheesesteaks and ice cream.

I had seen Bea’s type of reaction before, most notably by da Vinci’s Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris. Tourists would flock to this portrait expecting a gigantic painting, only to be disappointed by its small scale. I often remind people that few of us have larger-than-life-sized paintings of ourselves in our homes. Why would this be any different?

I think about times when I’ve built up an experience or event to the point that any reality will be disappointing. Whenever I envision the perfect date night or an incredible dinner or even a clean house for more than a minute, I am quickly reminded that I live with other humans and our reality is sweet but far from perfect.

This week’s Lenten theme is expectation and I have been thinking about this tendency in relation to these weeks leading up to Easter. What am I hoping from this Lenten practice? Are my expectations realistic?

And, more importantly, are my expectations within this practice drawing me closer to the redemption of Easter? Because, Lent isn’t about giving something up for the sake of fasting for 40 days. It’s about remembering the celebration; about being mindful that we actually don’t have to earn this grace.

I’ve been learning a lot these past two weeks and yet, I’ve been trying to keep my expectations tempered. I’m remembering that this practice isn’t to change my mind or anyone else’s about politics and those elected. It’s about loving my neighbor and remembering to pray for our government. It can be easy to get bogged down in the details of the exercise, forgetting the ultimate purpose.

So, with another month to go and 30 more politicians to pray for, I’m remembering my own expectations and realigning them with a much larger purpose than any 40 day practice will produce.

How do you keep your expectations realistic? Have you ever been disappointed by something famous?