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?

The Work and Cultivation of Spring

On the second or third day of spring last week, I stepped into our backyard to survey the melting snow and grass turning green from its winter dormancy. On the north side of our home, the lawn is in the shade of the house so snow from months ago is just now melting.

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

I looked at blackened Aspen leaves that weren’t raked up before the first snow of autumn last year. I walked through our dead kitchen garden that we were unable to winterize because of Frank’s visit to the ICU and subsequent recovery during the week we had planned on cleaning. I looked at seed pods and small branches that litter our yard from various wind and snowstorms. We have a lot of work to do in the next months before planting.

I’m reminded of the seasonal imagery I love so much. This past winter, I’ve been spending time reading and learning. Seeds are being planted and cultivated. I know that it takes time before I’ll see the fruits of these classes and experiences. In some ways, I love this season of quiet and growth. In other ways, I’m antsy to see what has taken root, what will grow from these experiences.

After walking around our disheveled yard, I’m also reminded that a seed isn’t planted and then suddenly grows on its own. Gardening takes work and cultivation. Dead growth needs to be cleared, the compost needs to be turned, the debris of winter raked and mulched.

I’d love to wake up on the first day of spring, look out the window, and see bulbs popping up and a ready-to-enjoy garden inviting me outside. I forget that getting our garden ready for spring takes a lot of effort. After a winter of quiet and rest, there’s a lot of work in the spring to get ready for summer.

I still have a lot of learning and unlearning to do on this journey. As much as I wish my own life’s season were as orderly and predictable as nature’s I’m learning that I can bounce from winter back to fall and skip to summer. And then there are the seasons that are specific to our own family and region – tax season and mud season and birthday season. (I love Addie Zierman’s thoughts on those other seasons: Break-Up, Freeze-Up and Other Understated Seasons.)

But I feel myself emerging from the quiet learning of winter. I’m ready to start raking and sorting and doing the work. While I’m in the garden, I’m able to imagine what I want to add or try each new season. Without spending the time doing the work, my imagination isn’t sparked in the same way it is as I’m actively pulling and cleaning.

I still have a lot of processing to do and I’m still holding my learning closely. But I love feeling the stirring of spring, the eagerness to sort out these ideas, and the energy to start cleaning up and preparing for the harvest.

What are you cultivating? What do you need to clean as you prepare for a season of harvest?

Letting Autumn Guide My Days

The nights are getting cooler and our garden’s harvest is slowing down. We ate tomato and cucumber salads, made tomato cobbler, and I baked two apple pies using the fruit from our backyard tree. It was a flurry of seasonal eating and delicious vine-ripened produce.

IMG_0705Less than a month later, things are slowing down. We’ll pick a few more tomatoes before it gets really cold but not many. Our squash plants are officially done and we’ll soon be turning our compost that’s been churning all summer into the earth as we prepare the ground for a long winter’s sleep.

It’s funny how we wait all season for a big harvest only for that harvest to be over in a matter of weeks.

Last week was a busy one for our family. Usually, I try to create space in the week with no plans or activities but through a variety of planned and unplanned visits and errands, we had a jam-packed week. One of my planned activities was to go for a walk with one of my pastors. We had talked about getting together for coffee but as we confirmed, a walk was suggested and I’m so glad it was!

I know that, especially with deeper or more intense conversations, walking helps my thought process. Sitting across from someone in a crowded space can feel a bit intimidating – not because of our relationship but because of the environment. It’s harder for me to have vulnerable conversations in the intimacy of a shared cafe space. But on a path out in the open, not looking directly at my friend? The conversation winds and meanders and we’re able to touch on big topics, comment on a puppy or flock of birds or beautiful garden, and circle back to those discussions.

As we were starting the second half of our six-mile loop, my pastor returned to a comment I had made earlier in our conversation about time and vocation and the big questions of what’s next? She reminded me that in order to produce, we must plant the seeds and then let them germinate and grow in the soil. She pointed out the books and conversations and groups I’m part of and wondered if I’m in a growing place. That I may not be producing much right now because I’m preparing for the harvest.

The way she phrased this thought fit into what I’ve been pondering and reading on my own but it all clicked as we worked up a sweat on that sunny morning. Recently, I’ve been in a production season. I’m seeing friendships grow at school and writing had come fairly easily. I was reading books that pushed my boundaries and was able to process those ideas quickly.

But the past few months have felt a bit more forced. I assumed it was our summer routine but, now that we’re over a month into school and autumny sorts of things, I’m still struggling through the work.

I just finished Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker Palmer. This is a book that needs to be read at the right moment. If I had read it earlier this year or last year, I don’t think it would have meant as much as it has at this moment. In his last chapter, all about the seasons of life, he says,

“I am rarely aware that seeds are being planted. Instead, my mind is on the fact that the green growth of summer is browning and beginning to die. My delight in the autumn colors is always tinged with melancholy, a sense of impending loss that is only heightened by the beauty all around. I am drawn down by the prospect of death more than I am lifted by the hope of new life” (pg 98).

I’m watching our own leaves fall to the ground as the weather starts to shift. I love the changing of seasons – the active process of watching leaves turn brilliant before they fall. But the season itself can be quiet and melancholy. After the leaves fall but before the winter snows come, life is brown.

Similarly, in spring Palmer reminds us of the slush and mud that precedes the blooms. That each season has that time of transition and muck before the brilliance.

I’m learning to lean into the burrowing nature of autumn. I’m quieting my soul, reading books that may not emerge in thought or conversation for a while, and putting aside that list of hopes and goals.

Practically, this looks like making lists of thoughts and ideas for writing but not putting pressure on myself to hit “publish.” This looks like starting and abandoning books that may be incredibly interesting but not what I need right now. It looks like really limiting my time reading the news, checking social media, and instead focusing on engaging in the small work of the now.

I was talking with another friend and she reminded me to give my soul space to breathe. I’m learning to do that. To balance breathing with discipline; to let the plants grow and nestle while still tending the garden. I’m leaning into autumn and remembering that, while seasons are predictably three months, my own life’s seasons aren’t so neat and tidy. And there’s something beautiful about that, too.

Life seasons don’t always follow actual seasons. What season are you in right now? How are you finding balance through it all?

Books Referenced:

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Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site. 

A Time of Possibility and Responsibility

In her retelling of an ancient Potowatomi story about maple syrup, Robin Walls Kimmerer ends the tale with this reminder:

“Today, maple sap flows like a stream of water with only a trace of sweetness to remind the people both of possibility and of responsibility. And so it is that it takes forty gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup” (p 63). Braiding Sweetgrass

IMG_0503We are three weeks into Bea’s school year and one week into Elle’s. On Tuesday, I came home to a quiet house and got more writing done in those couple hours than I had all summer long. On Thursday, I had a meeting at 10:30, right in the middle of my morning. I read and checked social media and wasn’t very productive until midmorning. And then the meeting got canceled. I had another hour or so before pickup.

What to do? I thought about calling the morning a waste and finishing my book. (Which I think would have been a totally acceptable option!) Instead, I checked the list I had dreamed up midsummer and picked one thing to do on it. It wasn’t much – just cleaning out outgrown clothes – but it felt like a good accomplishment.

I had to put into practice my head knowledge: I knew my list would take a while and that I’m in this two-morning-to-myself routine for a while. And yet, when confronted with actual practice, I spent an hour flailing and unsure.

This season reminds me of Kimmerer’s description of maple syrup. On one small level, this is a time of possibility and responsibility for me personally. As I transition to some breathing space in my own schedule, I’m reminded that the sap only comes when it’s ready. That this is a process.

I want to keep the enthusiasm and wonder of the possibility of this time. And I want to it to transfer to the time with the girls. Because really, these five hours every week are a small portion of my days. They are still filled with all the wonders and disciplines and moments that filled our days before.

How do I hold this possibility and responsibility together? How do I remember that this time doesn’t need to be stressful but appreciated as the gift it is?

What about you? Does it take you a while to transition to a new schedule or season? What are your best practices? 

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

Books Referenced:
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Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post.  If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site. 

Mapping My Hopes With a Foundation of Flexibility

School started last week for Bea and, while we have another week to go until Elle begins her preschool adventure, I’m enjoying the rhythms that the school year has to offer. This summer was pretty unstructured. Outside of a week at zoo camp, we hung out, went swimming, got on each other’s nerves, and played outside a lot. I think that freedom and boredom are incredibly important to a summer schedule, even if I get overwhelmed with the mess and chaos.

IMG_0487Now that school has started, I’m itching to get back into a productive routine. This first weekend of the school year arrived and I found myself out of sorts and frustrated. I looked back on the week and saw all the things I wanted to do that just didn’t get done. Elle and I went to the zoo but I didn’t write as much as I was hoping; we didn’t clean the playroom; we just kind of hung out.

With Elle starting preschool two mornings a week, I’ve been imagining all of the things I’ll get done with those five extra hours each week. I have big plans! I’m going to practice French and work on a project that kept getting shelved over the summer and really go through the closets for a good purge. Frank and I want to have morning-dates and I want to try to find a workout rhythm. I want to volunteer in Bea’s classroom and go to the art museum regularly. I absolutely recognize that I have more planned than I have space for.

Before preschool begins, I’ve started making lists of my hopes for this year. Things I want to accomplish and rhythms I’d like to create. I’m hoping to map out this time so that it’s not wasted away doing things I could do with Elle around.

But I also want to be intentional about this time with Elle. I’m recognizing that these goals and hopes need to be flexible and fluid. I see how quickly the time passed before Bea started full-time school and I want to savor these moments with Elle.

In her reflections on summer routines and the beginning of a fall schedule, author Addie Zierman says,

“And so I’ve come to accept that this summer, for me, was not supposed to be about being productive, or even really functional. It’s been about being grounded.”

Addie Zierman: Field Notes from the End of Summer

As I plan my fall and our new schedule, I need to remember these words. I have hopes of productivity and I know our routine needs to be functional for our family. But above all, I need to find the ways in which we all stay grounded and rooted. How am I building a schedule that leaves me energized and fulfilled for those days I spend with Elle? How can I feel as productive as possible during my alone time so that the after-school flurry feels more energizing rather than draining?

I have a feeling this will take a good amount of trial-and-error and I need to remember that this is part of building rhythms, as well. What is working? What clearly needs to be fixed? How can I read my family and myself through this shift in seasons?

For now, I’ll keep scribbling my lists and goals as I assess what makes the most sense for us, at this moment.

How do you set goals at the beginning of a new season? How do you tweak your plans along the way?

What I’ve Learned By Walking to School

Nearly every school day since mid-August we’ve had the same routine: Get up, eat breakfast around 7:00, head upstairs at 7:30 to get dressed and brush teeth, leave the house no later than 7:50 (but 7:45 is better) to walk and arrive at school by 7:55 as the kindergarten lines up to go inside. It’s a routine that works pretty well for us. If we eat earlier and the girls have time to play a bit before getting dressed, it can throw off our entire routine.

IMG_8633Really, anything can throw off our routine. It can quickly go from a well-run schedule to me nagging and asking sarcastically if Bea has ever seen a pair of pants before and if she knows how to put them on. (Model mothering right there…)

On the mornings that unravel, I’m tempted to buckle the girls in the car and drive. Even with the parking lot chaos, it would increase our chances of arriving on time. But more often than not, we still walk. It might mean we miss the second bell and Bea has to go in through the office. But it also means we have some breathing space between the rushed chaos and the start of school. It means we get some fresh air, a short walk, and time to hold hands and talk about the day.

I have to be intentional about putting aside my frustration on those walks. If I remained upset, they would do no good for a reset. I breathe, too, and remember that starting school excited and calm is much better than starting it with a grumpy attitude. So, I leave my last lecture at the door and as soon as we step onto the sidewalk, we talk about the blossoming trees, which specials Bea will have, and who she’d like to play with at recess. We talk about books and activities and notice our neighborhood.

By the time we reach school, even if we do have to go through the front doors rather than the kindergarten entrance, we are calmer, happier, and ready to give hugs and kisses. Elle and I wave to Bea, play on the slides for a few minutes and walk back home, ready to face the day.

This practice was especially important during those cold winter walks when our five minutes to school was a chance to see the sunlight and get outside. Now that it’s spring, it makes sense and this routine has taken on new life.

It’s reminded me that, even though it may make us late, building in space for pause and recalibration is so important. I know this is nothing new – that pause and rest and breathing all help me make better choices. They give space and perspective – both physical and mental. And yet this is something I forget over and over again.

I love May for many reasons but a big one is that it feels like a walk to school. After tax season and winter and going into head-down, hibernation mode, we’re coming up for air. We have a chance to recalibrate before summer when our schedule changes again. We are still in the school year routine but with all the hope and promise of dinners eaten outdoors and playtime extended after homework is finished.

This is the last week of Eastertide, this season of celebration. We are entering into Ordinary Time soon, which I love as much as any feast day. This year, I’m giving space between these seasons. I’m remembering to celebrate, yes. But I’m also remembering to look forward to a season of rest and recentering.

What ordinary habits have taught you extraordinary lessons? How do you pause and breathe during the changing seasons?

Pausing to Enjoy the Summit

When I moved back to Colorado after college, my dad and I would spend summers hiking the 14,000-foot mountains around Colorado. We’d wake up before dawn so that we could be stepping foot on the trail at sunrise. We’d hike all morning, eat an early lunch at the 10418255_10152599208242938_297764949818653760_nsummit, and then hike down before the afternoon thunderstorms rolled in. I loved having lunch at the peak. It was a reward for hard work and it gave us time to pause and really enjoy the scenery. What’s the point of “bagging a peak” if you don’t stop to enjoy the view?

We were sitting in a circle at MOPS, talking about having one foot in the toddler world and another toe dipping into The Next Phase. Some of the women are firmly entrenched in the baby and toddler years but a group of us are starting to emerge. We’re not as sleep deprived; our kids are a bit more independent; school is on the horizon. What’s next?

It’s an interesting place to be – on the cusp. I don’t really know how long I’ll be at this summit, overlooking new ideas and opportunities. Part of me wants to just dive in and leave this last season behind. But reality means recognizing that being on the cusp is a slow journey.

I’m watching others take these next steps. They’re starting practices, taking classes, writing books, and pursuing dreams, all with kids the same age as ours. I compare myself and think that I should be ready for this next journey.

I’m remembering to stop at the peak, to eat my lunch, and to enjoy the scenery. I don’t know how long this will take – it could be a shorter pause than I’m anticipating. Or it could be a few more years until this next phase actually happens. I’m remembering to cheer for my friends, to work hard at my own goals, and am learning to savor this particular time in life.

How are you remembering to pause and enjoy the scenery? How do you balance living fully in the moment while pursuing dreams?

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